Date of Award

1-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

College/School

College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Department/Program

English

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Lee Behlman

Committee Member

Jonathan Greenberg

Committee Member

Adam Rzepka

Subject(s)

Augusta Webster (1837-1894)--Criticism and interpretation, Wives in literature, Marriage in literature, English literature--19th century

Abstract

That nineteenth-century female poets appropriated genre conventions for their own purposes is not a new idea; how and why they did so, though, are ongoing points of conjecture for feminist scholars. The following is an exploration of how the Victorian poet Julia Augusta Webster appropriated genre—more specifically the dramatic monologue and the closet drama—to advance her own feminist agenda and provoke social change, particularly with regard to the Victorian marriage institution.

Part I consists of a paired analysis of two lesser-known dramatic monologues by Webster, “Sister Annunciata” and “The Happiest Girl in the World.” Both works offer compelling critiques of Victorian wifehood and marriage and reveal Webster’s empathy for the plight of the Victorian bride. Close analysis demonstrates: (1) that each speaker possesses desires, especially those of a sexual nature, that defy the societal expectations of her marital status, (2) that each speaker feels compelled to suppress and overcompensate for such desires, mainly through expressions and performances of false contentment; and (3) that Webster advocates for social change by portraying these performative acts as detrimental to a woman’s sense of self and, in the case of Annunciata, her very survival.

Part II, which focuses on the closet drama A Woman Sold, establishes once again how Webster’s choice and appropriation of form helps to shape an overt, trenchant critique of Victorian wifehood and marriage. Much attention is given to how Webster’s portrayal of Eleanor is meant to evoke sympathy, not judgment or contempt—that her mercenary marriage is not the result of her own weakness or selfishness, but rather the coercion of the Victorian gender system itself. Also highlighted are complementary aspects of A Woman Sold and the two dramatic monologues in Part I, the goal being to argue that Eleanor’s performativity—her suppression of desires and acts of feigned contentment as Lady Boycott—is detrimental to not only her sense of self, but also her very survival.

Part III gives closer examination to the potentially dissatisfying conclusion of A Woman Sold. While Eleanor is the heroine of the drama, it is Mary, her friend, who arouses (or should arouse) readers’ attention and contemplation; it is Mary’s account of her relationship/dynamic with her fiancé that hijacks Act II. A Woman Sold is powerful and distinctive in that Webster does not merely expose/critique Victorian wifehood for what it was and should not be. More significantly, A Woman Sold serves as a fictional antecedent and complement to the bold, progressive sociopolitical essays Webster penned for the Examiner (and later compiled and published as A Housewife’s Opinions) in that it offers readers a vision—Webster’s vision—of what marriage should be. Parallels are drawn between the closet drama and essays in A Housewife’s Opinions to illustrate the progression and intensification of Webster’s social and political agenda.

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