Sex and the marriage plot: Stories of defloration in the British novel
Anderson, Antje Schaum
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation traces the changing story of female sexuality--a distinctly heterosexual story--through three pairs of British novels written between the 1740s and the 1860s. The central trope of the dissertation is defloration, since the story of female sexuality as told in the novels invariably revolves around literal or figurative representations of a woman's first heterosexual intercourse. Chapter 1 first explores the theoretical and historical implications of the concept of defloration against the backdrop of the social history of sexuality and of marriage, and then situates the story of defloration within a double context of narrative theory and the history of the novel. The moment of defloration, seemingly the most triumphant moment of the heterosexual narrative, crucially disrupts this narrative's hegemony by working against narrative linearity either by way of repeating this moment excessively or by omitting it altogether from the narrative. As two strategies of narrative disruption that increasingly interact with each other, the excessive repetition and narrative omission of the moment of defloration are central to the three pairs of novels read in the subsequent chapters. In Chapter 2, I show how John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1747) and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748) feature literal moments of defloration that disrupt narrative linearity respectively through narrative excess and narrative absence. In Chapter 3, I discuss the transition from the literally sexual narratives of the mid-eighteenth century to a domesticated marriage plot by contrasting Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) and Jane Austen's Emma (1814). This reading is based on the argument that both novels' assault and proposal scenes are transformed and desexualized versions of the moment of defloration. In Chapter 4, I argue that Mrs. Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks (1866) and Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn (1869) are re-sexualized variants of the defloration narrative. In both novels, excessive repetitions of disrupted and unsuccessful marriage proposals, together with a figurative reduplication of the heterosexual plot in a political narrative, signal the radical destabilization of the marriage plot's conventions, in particular of its prescribed gender constellations, in the mid-Victorian era.