Avoiding Gender

I’m sure most of us will have been guilty of it at some point during our studies.

I research nineteenth-century literature, and as such it is nearly impossible to avoid engaging with gender debates. It isn’t feasible to discuss Jane Eyre without considering the mad woman in the attic, and how the Brontë sisters used male pseudonyms to ensure publication; or Dorian Gray and its use as evidence of gross indecency during Wilde’s trials. A fun part of researching Victorian gender is having the opportunity to shed even more light on something which we think is already thoroughly known. Much like with the medieval period, (so my medievalist PhD friends tell me) people harbour assumptions about the gender relations during the era. These common stereotypes often have an element of truth in them, but the gender relations in Victorian literature are still rather complex.

My bugbear for researching gender and childhood in the nineteenth century stems from work on an MA module, ‘Literary Masculinity at the Fin de Siècle.’ After delighting in the lolloping imperial adventure stories by writers like G. A. Henty and Rudyard Kipling, I expressed in one seminar that I enjoyed being part of their adventurer’s club. My Professor (in the nicest way possible) said ‘I’m afraid you wouldn’t have been part of the gang!’

Being thus snubbed spurred me to put together a PhD proposal on Victorian childhood and gender expectations. But instead of focusing on books for boys, I turned my attention to girl readers and representations. I noticed that girlhood continues to represent a significant portion of Victorian literary culture – the mythology surrounding Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell still abounds, Henry James’ ‘knowing’ Maisie and The Turn of the Screw have been viewed through the lens of queer theory, and Dickens’ girls are revised in adaptations over and over again. Girls were certainly represented – but their voices, and more specifically, their writings, were more obscured.

Of course there are occasions when studying gender in Victorian literature leaves you feeling enormously frustrated and disappointed. At various points during my literature degrees I actively tried to avoid gender in my assignments, never mind ‘undo’ it. Yet, during the first year of my PhD study, I abandoned any plans to sidestep gender. I discovered that girls’ diaries abound in archives – yet were a greatly overlooked source in literary studies. They are catalogued amongst ‘women’s diaries’ or ‘family papers’ in collections – so it is little wonder that they have been so understudied when they aren’t easily searchable – but these manuscript documents prove that girls did engage with literary culture in their life writing. Their diaries can tell us what they read, why they read it, and even which characters they identified with. Tonally, the entries can be apathetic, bashful, or passionate!

Researching the diaries certainly restored some of the hope that had been lost through so many close readings of engrained patriarchal structures in fiction. Giving girls’ writings a platform, and discussing them alongside canonical fiction has been a rewarding experience. I hope I will continue to confront gender in my research, even when avoidance beckons.

-Lois Burke

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