SEX and ROMANCE in LITERATURE by Gregory Purvis

PART 1: The Sexuality of Ideas / Gender and Intellectual Emancipation in 19th Century Romanticism

By Gregory Purvis

     As the 21st Century unfolds, human expression has reached a point wherein nearly everyone has a voice in social consciousness. The hustle and flow of thoughts and ideas as a communications currency has promoted ideas to a state of universal solvency. But in giving everyone their own place amidst world-wide webspace, there arises a certain freedom where ideas can be examined without regard to dollars. In free, democratic societies it is expected—if not encouraged—that every minority and belief system will be represented in art and literature. Women, who have so often been swallowed silently in the shallows of masculine domination over these past pale centuries, have added their voices to the cacophany of human consciousness as writers, artists, poets and politicians.

      The concerns of the “fairer sex” are, in a very real way, the consternation of our Society-At-Large. After all, women are not exactly a fringe-element by-way of subcultural shadows. When the numbers shake out, they are 3 billion-some odd strong. In the world of the written word, the feminine voice can speak from an idealized setting of virtues and vices, a portrayal of the intimate congress of repression and realization. But just as strongly worded, the feminine voice can represent history from disenfranchisement to the dominatrix. That is, female writers can leave politics and sexuality (overtly or symbolically) out of their work, altogether.

     Derided as “genre fiction” regardless of the chromosonal clothing, the pulp pap of science fiction, horror and fantasy has seen tremendous growth by female authors. Genre fiction can be as effective a mirror for the malaise of our society as the critically celebrated Great American Novel. But true freedom of the printing press hides in a  celebration of writing for the pleasure of the Craft—as in the “pornography of idle entertainment” in which reading and writing has been made more than an intellectual pursuit of idealists and demigogues. Or less, depending on your points-of-view.

            In our examination of women’s literature there has been a defining process dependent on styles, voices and the visions of particular epochs. Nineteenth-century Romanticism, on its surface, appears idyllic and undermatured. But hiding in flowery 19th century language, the style masks the development of feminine consciousness in a worldview almost totally envisaged by Imperialistic white male authority. The Great White Hunter that tamed the Dark and Savage Continent of Africa and brought the civilizing influences of tea and cricket to India read best-sellers by Byron, Melville and Hawthorne. Just as potent was Mary Shelley—though even modern criticism and university studies find it nearly impossible to mention Ms. Shelley without her popular mister, Percy Bysshe. And though Emily Dickinson’s poetry is much-touted now, in her lifetime Dickinson’s work went largely unread.

     Romanticism promoted female equality by questioning the rules and preconceptions of a closeted society. Margaret Fuller’s Women In The Nineteenth Century uses classical mythforms to portray the creative power and the changes it wrought in Victorian lifestyles. Though women were often thought to be the inspiration of art rather than the source of it, Romanticism emphasized emotion—as such, a feminine force in both classical mythology and the then-modern literary movement which embraced it. As in the Renaissance, the new literary style ushered in a rediscovery of classical civilization; emotion-laden language became something to be celebrated instead of repressed.

     The feminine mystique and the ardor it supposedly contained (or constrained, again depending on your point-of-view) was evident in the feminine Muse, a representative of the creative force blossoming from “mere inspiration”. Even as male-dominated Western Imperialism controlled the world politically and economically, the flowering of a more organized feminist movement started to take form.

     As feminine principles began to have effect, women were generally disregarded as serious writers and artists. Virginia Woolf noted that a woman’s place in society limited the shape of her talents. Romanticism was often criticisized for many of the same reasons that it’s celebrated. The classical societies that encouraged the flavor of 19th century Romanticism were, after-all, male-dominated societies that had been charcterized by a mythological emphasis on primal sexual forces. Women were seen as naturally weak, enslaved by emotion, and in need of protection as much as veneration. The shackles of slavery may have been gold lined with soft velvet, but they were shackles all the same.

            To overcome the male-dominated world, women were often forced to take on male pen-names and utilize aliases to disguise the “weakness characterized by their sex”. Writing by women often took on the problems and struggles of being female in a world where struggle was more-often a euphemism for war and class conflict. This game of hide-and-seek spurred a similar reaction and interrelationship amongst homosexual writers of the same era.

     In fact, numerical minority or no, the early feminist writers spoke to a multigenerational audience of the disaffected. The subject matter of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example, has lent a strong voice to  suffrage politics as well as finding common cause with other minority groups. In this way, it is often difficult to tell sexuality by style. Women’s writing is as diverse and exclamatory as male writing.

     Fiction is often a better example of the differences and similarities between male and female authors, as political writing takes on the flavor of passionate oration despite (or because of) sexual overtones. In a modern sense, the politically correct language of gender politics is often lacking the more subtle clues to the writer’s sexual consciousness that fiction can provide.

     As higher education was offered to more and more women in the 19th century, art and literature became saturated by symbolism, tone and characterization that spoke a new language of female consciousness. Phenomerology—the philosophical study which suggests that reality is perceived solely through human senses—began to take on subtle sexual enlightenment.

     In Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” we are introduced to the contrast in character sensations through her fictional characters. The voice of a female writer is proven to be as deep and as complex and fully-realized as a male voice. In “The Awakening” the reader is “awakened” to the contrasts between Mademoiselle Reisz—who embraces a nonconformist’s principles even though, in so doing, it creates suffering—and Madame Ratignole, her foil. The depth of emotion often mirrors the writer’s life experiences and represents the power of illusion and “make-believe”.

     Just as slavery and emancipation influenced black writers of the period, charging their work with an intimate vitality and expression, female writers share a desire to imbue their characters with social consciousness that reflect a rapidly—and radically—changing time.

     Art is often a reflection of our world and the people in it. Women continue to provide their own voices to the communication of characterization, drawing from the feminine voice within. A writer—as any artist—is compelled to represent a certain emotional truth even when the medium may be fictional in nature. Women reflect the phenomena of self as well as society with their artistic voice; sex is but a small if obviously self-defining part of the human condition.