Petticoat government: female rule in British fiction, 1870-1890




Quiring, Gretchen Lynn

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This thesis analyzes constructions of women holding political power in British fiction from 1870–1890. It focuses in particular on four speculative fictions that depict women ruling: Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), Walter Besant's The Revolt of Man (1882), H. Rider Haggard's She (1887), and Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett's New Amazonia (1889). These texts not only manifest their authors' particular sociopolitical contexts, but also reveal a pervasive construction of female rule as sexual, unnatural, and destabilizing—a construction that is particularly significant in a period when women were making persistent and successful assaults on male power monopolies, and a woman also happened to be on the British throne. As speculative fictions, these texts also reveal Victorian emotional reactions to changing power dynamics. The four texts here studied intersect with late-Victorian feminism and the reactions against it—the highly complex variety of disparate and intersecting political, legal, occupational, intellectual, religious, and scientific movements for and against women's empowerment. Bulwer-Lytton's wish-fulfillment vision of the subjection of dominant women presents a fantasy of female rule as an impossibility, since the biological clocks of his large and intelligent amazons drive them to ‘naturally’ submit to men. Besant's speculative fiction essentially serves as a cathartic nightmare fantasy—a safe medium through which to face, ridicule, and dispel Victorian fears of women's increasing political power. Female biology on one hand and male divine authority on the other hand dispel the nightmare of female rule. In Haggard's fantasy, female rule is characterized as illegitimate, tyrannical, and amoral, but also strong and competent. His depiction indicates a cultural shift towards growing acceptance of women's political power. Finally, Corbett (the sole feminist author studied here) presents an image of a progessive state ruled by women in order to contest male supremacy and validate women's inclusion in politics. Although few of these texts are extensively studied today, they all have considerable value as speculative fictions that reveal Victorian emotional and political reactions to the concept of women in government.



English fiction, 19th century, History and criticism, Feminist fiction, Women, Political activity, England