walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Not a Review: _Desire and Domestic Fiction_, Nancy Armstrong

Subtitled: A Political History of the Novel

I bought it used in 2007, because I kept running across references to it. I found it unreadable, and now I know why.

First, she spends a lot of time talking about Foucault, and mostly misconstruing him. So, Foucault is largely a waste of time -- but Foucault twisted around to talk about gender difference just seems pointless in addition to being a waste of time.

Second, she says odd things like this:

"There is a strong possibility that early educational theorists recommended Crusoe over Defoe's other works because they thought women were likely to learn to desire what Crusoe accomplished, a totally self-enclosed and functional domain where money did not really matter. It was no doubt because Crusoe was more female, according to the nineteenth century understanding of gender, than either Roxana or Moll that educators found his story more suitable reading for girls than for boys of an impressionable age."

So, the _real_ reason you do _not_ want girls or really anyone impressionable of any age reading Moll Flanders is because Defoe makes having children with a series of lovers/husbands/half-brother and then abandoning them seem like the kind of thing an appealing, intelligent, charming woman would do and justifiably so. I defy you to find a reproductive population that thinks this is how to raise the kiddies, reading stuff like that. Which, I might add, I adore, while recognizing that Moll's morals are Pretty Bad and I say all this with a goofy smile on my face.

Here is another example, after she argues that Sunday schools provided enjoyable leisure time activity, not moral indoctrination of self-sacrifice and so forth. Fine, I guess you could argue that, but then she says this:

"Laqueur reasons that Sunday schools became an effective means of socialization not because they taught the necessity of self-sacrifice and respect for authority, but because they offered recreational programs that occupied many of the idle hours when people gathered in their customary fashion and when political plans might otherwise have been hatch."

Arguably, the Sunday schools were competing much more heavily with drinking as a pastime than political plotting. And yet liquor is nowhere mentioned.

For that matter, Armstrong, in her efforts to understand why novels by, for and about women arose at the point in history when they arose, fails to take into consideration things like, oh, I don't know, was there a market for mass fiction? If so, who had the money to purchase the books (or subscribe to the library or the magazine/newspaper)? Writing was going to be produced for people who had the money to buy access to the books AND time to consume the books (and marketable writing is always produced by those who love to consume that which they produce). Gentry and above women, basically, at the time of Austen, sliding down the class scale through the era of the Brontes, and Dickens. And it was going to have to be mostly family-friendly, given that it was all going to be shared 'round (in the case of the three volume Victorian novel especially). Obviously, non-family-friendly stuff existed, but the men hid their stash (just like ever), and boys tried to do likewise and when they got caught they got a lecture (a lecture reproduced over and over in the novels of the era in question!).

Here's how Armstrong describes "The Bury New Loom":

"The verses obviously celebrate an artisan household that by the early 1800s had come to be viewed as essentially hostile to the middle-class household and to the woman at its center. It was this form of sexuality that Shuttleworth made the figure and cause of the impoverishment and demoralization of the artisan class. It was also this form of sexuality that the factory sought to change by fixing workers within a totally individuated and functional space."

Er. What? On one level, the Bury New Loom is a really clever description of casual sex between a man and a woman in which the woman initiates and, when the man cooperates, she hopes for more, only he takes off and says hey, maybe someday if I come back this way again. On the one hand, probably fairly true to life then as now. On the other hand, a warning to men that if you entangle yourself with a woman she'll expect more AND a warning to women that if you hope to entangle a man, he may just take off on you (while recognizing, hey, fun!). This really isn't that far off from what middle class novels were pushing -- they just had worse or no meter, and a very dour outlook on life, which is what you would expect from the reformist minded Christian of the day.

However, to be fair, what really made Armstrong impossible for me to read was her analysis of _Pamela_. _Pamela_, as near as I have ever been able to tell, is one-handed reading with just enough veneer of piety to Get Away With It. Sort of like selling kits labeled Don't Do This, Whatever You Do, where if you do what you aren't supposed to do, you wind up with beer or gin or whatever, during Prohibition. You really have to be some kind of idiot not to understand what's going on here, but there are plenty of idiots around, apparently.

Anyway. Now that I am older, I recognize _a lot more_ of _Pamela_ as total power exchange, and I'm increasingly suspicious about whether Pamela is actually cisgendered. Armstrong's reading just feels surreal. And that's over and above the objections raised contemporaneously by Fielding, which Armstrong seems to think Miss the Point.


I'm going to Release Nancy Armstrong's heavily cited but rarely discussed in detail _Desire and Domestic Fiction_. It's great to talk about the intersection of middle class morality and novels, because, hey, _that's how middle class morality is developed_, you know, along with celebrity gossip in tabloids, type of thing. It's a pity that Armstrong found such an obscure approach, and that she remains so relentlessly ahistorical, but, literary criticism. This is what happens.

This is Not a Review because I didn't read the book start to finish.
Tags: non-fiction, not-a-book-review

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