Women Writers, Kinship Structures, and the Early French Novel
Social historians have taught us that what we think of the family, a private and affectionate nuclear unit, is in fact a phenomenon of quite recent invention. It is only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that is developed in tandem with a new public sphere of commercial and intellectual exchange. As the eighteenth century progressed, women were increasingly expected to occupy the domestic role of loving wife and mother, leaving the public sphere of debate to men. Within this new order, the emerging bourgeois novel, with its very public stories of private lives, offered women writers an especially apt vehicle for social engagement. While its representations of the new private family positioned the novel from within the purview of the feminine domestic sphere, the genre's mass appeal simultaneously afforded women a public voice that could shape the sensibilities of many readers.
Drawing on Habermas and Freud as well as historians of the family, Daniels takes up the case of three women novelists each writing at a key moment in the parallel development of the novel genre and the modern family. She demonstrats that these writers-confronted with ever more reified exclusion from public life, and relegated to narrowly defined domestic roles - intervened in and subverted the process in their novels. Through detailed and sensitive close readings of Françoise de Graffigny's Lettres d'une Péruvienne (1747), Isabelle de Charriè's Lettres écrites de Lausanne (1785, 1787), and George Sand's Indiana (1832), Daniels shows that women writers used the novel first to imagine different social rules that might define alternative kinship systems (Graffigny), and later to find - and create - loopholes within a firmly entrenched system of official and official law (Charrière and Sand).
Spanning a crucial period in the emergence of modernity, this interdisciplinary study addresses problems in French literary and social history, gender studies, and the history of mentalités.
About the author:
Charlotte Daniels is Assistant Professor of French at Bowdoin College.
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