Hybridising the military discourse of imperialism: women's rights in Henry James's The Bostonians and The Tragic Muse
Palmer, University of Windsor
assumption of equivalence no doubt assists in producing the effect of
collapsing these imposed structures of difference, in the process of challenging
the reduction of interpretation as serving the needs of a bourgeois hegemony,
the method of argumentation that leads to this effect, that relies upon
conflating separate categories to produce a unity, can be regarded as
equally reductive, endorsing the politics of another system that is equally
exclusive of others and that is equally hegemonic. Frederic Jameson, for
example, in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic
Act, strives to offer a complex, comprehensive, inclusive method of
interpretation providing a voice for 'isolated social groups,' but uses
the provocative and repressive phrasing of assigning such groups a 'proper
place in the dialogical system of social classes' (Jameson, 1981: 86).
While it would be unfair to attribute to Torsney and Rowe the radical
political agenda associated with Jameson's work, the effect of using military
metaphors and military references as a signifying system marking the policies
of an imperialist state, or those attesting to an imperialistic ideology,
is reductive from the standpoint of overlooking the alternative political
histories that comprise the unstable political context of which imperialism
was certainly a pre-eminent part that, in turn, reveals this discourse
as unstable and politically heterogeneous.
For Howe, women's
agencies assume the morally superior military posture of 'defending' society.
Lucy Stone goes further to elucidate unabashedly Howe's rewriting of Parkman's
dichotomy, contrasting the destructive male impulse for war, political
corruption, and irresponsibility with the civilising feminine qualities
of peace so as to extend women's role in society, to secure for women
their natural right to determine the political direction of the nation:
Stone appropriates the military discourse used by Parkman to question the political authority that men are given, according to Parkman, because of their physiology and the inextricable connection from his perspective between men's fighting ability and their entitlement to political power: 'But the reigns of dissolute, cruel, tyrannical, and incompetent kings, who greatly outnumber any similar class of queens are not admitted to subtract from or militate in the least against the masculine right of fitness to rule' (Stone, 1879: 429). Stone criticises Parkman's use of 'militate,' a verb with an obvious military valence, that Parkman would clearly detest, given her gender.
Yet, despite this demonstration of feminine solidarity, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reappropriates this political dichotomy of militarism for the purpose of endorsing feminine pride without political action. Surprisingly, Stanton uses this dichotomy to present a more moderate, perhaps self-defeating message of reconciliation between the sexes:
Women as non-combatants are regarded as equals of men but within different spheres. Stanton seems to buttress Parkman's position of separate spheres while simultaneously denouncing his aphorism that combative ability serves as the pre-eminent selection criteria for extending political rights. For Stanton, women, though they are excluded from combat, perform equally important philanthropic duties for the state during war. Indeed, Stanton appears to retreat from using military discourse even in a morally justifiable capacity as in defending the nation.
When reading The Bostonians against the use of military discourse in this political context, we discover that James's character system lends itself to establish political readings from this discourse that are as politically dialogical as the context itself; in short correlations between the political strategies in conflict of this context and James's character system can be constructed via locating in the novel the use of the gendered dichotomy of war and imperialism and the military language that accompanies it. In the early stages of the novel, when we become acquainted with Verena's talent for public speaking, the military references in which her speech is couched and the gendered dichotomy of war and imperialism that she presents, establish the correlation between political context and literary text. Yet because the political context against which this equivalence can be fully explored is politically contradictory, so too are the readings that we produce from establishing this correlation. Verena initially provides us with a speech that is consistent with a women's rights political platform:
Here, the correlation between Stone's and Howe's political strategies and James's novel is evoked by the dichotomy of war and imperialism that is emphasised in Verena's speech. Verena's politicised moral superiority is apparent in her stated subject position as a member of a group of women, as a movement, that as women, 'we might stop it, we might invent something better.' The 'better' to which she refers is her refutation earlier in the excerpt of a society created by men that endorses 'blood,' 'wars,' 'to kill each other.' The use of military discourse here then seems consistent with that deployed for the purposes of constructing a political reading endorsing women's rights. Indeed, it even provokes our consideration of the inconsistencies in Parkman's strategy, neutralising the dialogical political effect that Parkman's opposition to women's rights had sustained in the political context against which the novel can be read. Verena's association with such military language also challenges its ability to represent a unified imperial State.
Yet James's narrator prefaces the preservation of a contradictory political reading sustained by Verena's use of military discourse based on Stanton's or Parkman's political strategy respectively. Concerning her construction of the dichotomy of war and imperialism in which she stresses the constituents of Howe's and Stone's political strategies in women's moral superiority, the narrator subtly suggests that Verena's speech comes far too easily to her:
The narrator here is concerned to point out the curious disparity between Verena's rather effortless performance and the powerful and serious impact it has on her audience. The use of the term 'harangue' seems to denigrate the significance of Verena's speech, that is an emotional outburst rather than a profound message for political change, perhaps suggesting the narrator's echoing of an anti-suffrage agenda. Indeed, by pointing out the impression from witnessing the speech, that she is perhaps incapable of understanding the true significance of her political platform, the narrator prompts us to question her ability to sustain a political reading associated with Howe and Stone as the question of her judgement concerning language evocative of a military context, a constituent of Parkman's strategy, is advanced here. So too can the narrator's commentary be deployed to establish a correlation between a reading of Verena's character and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's political disclaimer endorsing separate spheres.
The narrator's questioning of Verena's judgement, of her ability to understand the political significance of her use of military language as part of a strategy to achieve political rights for women, is accompanied by similar interventions on the narrator's part concerning Miss Birdseye's and Olive Chancellor's use of military language. The narrator's commentary as a political disclaimer of women's rights is complemented by the strategies of women's rights activists during the mid 1880's, prior to the publication of The Bostonians, which fleshed out a nascent contradictory political effect of deploying military discourse against Parkman that could be perceived as collapsing the dichotomy that provided women with the discursive space that ensured their moral superiority over men, their justification for extending women's rights. Stone's use of 'militate' and Howe's use of 'defending' anticipated women's appropriation of military discourse to fashion themselves as militants, as members of an army in conflict with men, a construction of women via military discourse that was fully realised in the political strategy of Emily Pfeiffer. Like Parkman who endorsed a contradictory political strategy that argued that women were physiologically unsuitable for combat while pointing out simultaneously their indefatigable courage and ferocious fighting ability in a military context, so too did Emily Pfeiffer's strategy in constructing women as part of a military force, collapse the dichotomy of war and imperialism, neutralising the political efficacy of the earlier strategies of Stone and Howe which relied on advancing women's moral superiority as a consequence of their exclusion from military contexts.
Emily Pfeiffer's article, 'The Suffrage for Women,' from the Contemporary Review (1885) referred to this struggle as 'the battle of her sex' (Pfeiffer, 1885: 429). Describing the effectiveness of women's use of guerrilla war tactics, she suggested that women's victory over her male oppressors was inevitable:
The military discourse is evident here in her use of 'units' and 'army.' Pfeiffer is concerned to announce her prediction of the success of the armies of women's rights activists:
She seems to endorse here women's role in world affairs as well, their implied entitlement, in imperialistic terms, 'to the best of everything that is going in the world.'
The character dialogue of Miss Birdseye and Olive Chancellor provokes the political reader to deploy them in a reading equally evocative of both Pfeiffer's and Parkman's political strategies. Characters use military references and analogies to fashion themselves and others as soldiers. The contradictory use of this discourse that serves as the basis of both Pfeiffer's and Parkman's political strategies respectively are sustained, however, by character dialogue and the narrator's commentary. Miss Birdseye, for example, at a political meeting conveys directly to the reader through a metaphor her construction of herself as a military general. She envisions herself as Napoleon Bonaparte attempting to organise an army:
Miss Birdseye is, of course, regarded as one of the founders of the women's rights movement in the novel, one who is revered by Olive Chancellor. Her use of a military metaphor here aligns her with Pfeiffer's approach to achieving the extension of the suffrage, but in our construction of a political reading advancing women's rights we cannot ignore the way in which James's narrator mitigates her political significance, that her ability to fight in the struggle is now hampered by her age:
In this excerpt the correlation between Mrs Birdseye's character and Parkman's political strategy can be constructed from the narrator's anti-suffrage voice marked by qualifiers like 'seemed' which establish significant emotional and political distance between character and narrator. The narrator explains that Miss Birdseye's political career has come to an end, that her 'old-fashioned weapons were broken and dull.' The narrator conveys the impression that Olive's commitment to Miss Birdseye is pathetic, futile. As an outside observer, the narrator's metaphors which are associated with both Pfeiffer's and Parkman's political strategies are used for the purpose of announcing the decline of feminine military power. Yet this political reading remains dialogical by virtue of the contradictions that lie within both Pfeiffer's and Parkman's strategies, contradictions that unite them in terms of political effect.
Olive Chancellor, who respects Miss Birdseye and draws inspiration for her concern to succeed in achieving the extension of women's rights from her battle stories, may also initially sustain a political interpretation suggestive of Pfeiffer's political strategy. Early on in the text James's narrator promotes Olive Chancellor's envious response to her discovery that Ransom had fought in the Civil War: 'The most secret, the most sacred hope of her nature was that she might some day have such a chance, that she might be a martyr and die for something' (James, 1886: 10). She longs to become a soldier and regards her struggle against men, as Pfeiffer, in terms of the battle of her sex. When Olive discusses marriage with Verena, she declares herself at war with men: 'Any man that one would look at with him, as a matter of course, it is war upon us to the knife' (James, 1886: 130). When Matthias Pardon attempts to persuade Olive to run Verena together with him, she, of course, refuses and reflects on her response as a military victory, which is conveyed by the narrator: 'And after he had left her she seemed to see the glow of dawning success; the battle had begun, and something of the ecstasy of the martyr' (James, 1886: 138). Yet, while Olive collapses the gendered dichotomy of war and imperialism to assume a militaristic political persona, she is also unable to conquer her own personal fears, to overcome in a military context what soldiers would confirm as her cowardice. She is, as in Parkman's political strategy, an unsuitable combative non-combatant.
Verena's most effective weapon in the war against men, from Olive's perspective, is without question Verena's talent for public speaking. Olive concerns herself with keeping Verena supplied with arms, ideas. As the narrator expresses from her focalisation: 'When Verena should appear it would be armed at all points... she should have facts and figures; she should meet men on their own ground' (James, 1886: 137). Olive is quite prepared to send Verena to the front-line of fighting while she issues orders from the reserve trenches. These very acts of military support, conveyed by the narrator, provoke the political reader to regard Olive as a disingenuous representative of feminine military power. Her support for Verena seems to emphasise the fact that she is prepared to sacrifice her friend militarily for political causes, that she, herself, is unable or unwilling to take up arms. When Olive is acquainted with Mrs Farrinder and is asked to contribute to the discussion, to arm herself metaphorically, she evades the opportunity, marking her retreat with words of self-deprecation: 'Oh, dear, no, I can't speak; I have none of that sort of talent. I have no self-possession, no eloquence; I can't put three words together' (James, 1886: 32). Olive Chancellor therefore only seemingly collapses the gendered dichotomy of war and imperialism, leaving the reader to construct the fictional equivalent of a radical political strategy to achieve women's rights upon a tenuous foundation, a female soldier unprepared to do battle, a constituent of Parkman's political strategy.
In turning to the second stage of our diachronic mapping, we discover that military references and the military discourse that has been suggested as marking an imperialistic context, also demarcates and violates, or more appropriately, transgresses boundaries of the specific political programs of women's rights advocates: those of promoting the extension of the suffrage and those discussing marriage reform. These military references were deployed for contradictory political purposes, facilitating the construction of political readings in conflict. Ouida, in an article from The North American Review (1886), 'Female Suffrage', comments on the confusion manifesting itself within political parties concerned to define their respective positions on the extension of the suffrage to women: 'It is an odd contradiction, and displays perhaps more than anything else the utter confusion and the entire recklessness and abandonment of principle characteristic of all political parties in the latter half of the nineteenth century' (Ouida, 1886: 303). As in the late 1870s, military analogies, references, and terms were deployed to extend or oppose women's suffrage. Ouida as an opponent of extending the suffrage to women, as Francis Parkman before her, stressed women's poor judgement in a military context:
Similarly, Elizabeth Chapman conflates military, imperial, and gendered spaces of discursive signification via her concern to advance the exclusion of women from the discussion of military and imperial matters, in her attempt to reject extending the suffrage to women. For Chapman, even in exceptional circumstances, when intelligent and informed women speak to their husbands about the foreign affairs of the country 'surely the more careful they are thinking and speaking, the more they will recognise that questions of peace and war, trade and commerce, belong as appropriately to masculine minds as questions of household management, the care of children, and the care of sick belong to feminine' (Chapman, 1886: 566). M A A Galloway, in support of Chapman, warns society against extending the suffrage to those who represent special interests, couching this admonition in military language: 'If, as Mrs Chapman says, the majority of women do not wish for the suffrage, and a large proportion are satisfied to vote as it were by proxy, it must be taken into consideration that once in possession of what might seem to be a weapon, an energetic minority would use it in the direction of what they consider to be emancipation' (Galloway, 1886: 898).
As Howe and Stone before her, and in direct response to Chapman, Millicent Garrett Fawcett advances the moral necessity of extending women's participation in politics in military terms. Listing women in a variety of occupations, she points out that they comprised 'a great army of women who have done work for the world in various ways, and who have joined their forces with those of the men and women who are endeavouring to remove the electoral disabilities of women' (Fawcett, 1886: 740). The philanthropist Octavia Hill was celebrated by Fawcett as a member of that 'noble army of martyrs who, in ever increasing numbers and with ever increasing wisdom and self-devotion, give their lives to rescuing from unspeakeable misery the most wretched and unhappy of their sex' (Fawcett, 1886: 744). Fawcett goes on to imply that Chapman is a kind of cowardly warrior, a traitor to the cause of women's rights as 'it is only where the immediate issue of the battle is still doubtful that she joins the forces of reaction' (Fawcett, 1886: 744). Like Chapman, Fawcett also conflates an imperialistic context with a women's rights political discursive space, suggesting that 'those questions of national interest which deeply stir the heart and mind of the country excite the most intense interest on the part of both men and women' (Fawcett, 1886: 745).
Yet, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her repudiation of Parkman's article and as Parkman himself, she appears to subvert her expressed political intention here, by implying that women are unsuited to politics in the patriotic effect it may have on them, should they be granted the opportunity to take part directly in political affairs: 'But there is room to hope that to extend the blessings of liberty and self-government to women may help them to a more generous patriotism, to higher ideals and a keener appreciation of duty' (Fawcett, 1886: 745). Moreover, the political action that Fawcett appears to celebrate in the early stages of the article, that which is expressed using a military discourse, that which is described as the actions of an army, for example, is conveyed as part of a silent revolution, 'that has been quietly taking place for at least two generations' (Fawcett, 1886: 745). A combative and therefore politically efficacious force is reconfigured and assigned a moderate political valence that suggests retreat or complacency in the face of hegemonic power structures that accommodate change at their own pace.
The appropriation of military discourse by women's rights advocates and their opponents in the 1880s not only demonstrated the fragmentation and subversion of unities of political intention concerning the specific issues of extending the suffrage on the level of the individual, but also within the so-called movement itself. Military metaphors associated with geographical political expansion, constituents of an imperial policy, were deployed for other specific purposes that were not directly associated with political power, namely that of reforming marriage.
Mona Caird's article 'The Morality of Marriage,' constitutes a radical critique of the power imbalance favouring the husband between men and women within the relationship of marriage as it was sanctioned by law. Her challenge to the unethical conduct of men within this social institution is couched in terms of military references, which appear to be designed to galvanise women to repudiate, at a social level, the repressive treatment they invariably received as wives:
Here Caird compares the conflict between husband and wife to a military conflict in her use of the terms 'commander' and 'peace.' She alerts us to the cause of the conflict using a nomenclature which reveals her knowledge of foreign policy strategies, of military policy, comparing the husband's treatment of his wife to a more powerful nation disabling militarily a weaker one. Like Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Caird fashions women as part of a military force used to triumph over their oppressor, man:
Of particular interest here is Caird's use of the terms 'conquer' and 'enemy' and, of course, the assumption that women are capable of behaving as though they are the leaders of nations with the ability to suppress through military means aggression of this kind.
Yet, as in the case of Millicent Garret Fawcett, the political intention associated with Caird's deployment of a discourse of war and imperialism, which appears to operate in a way that is consistent with Torsney and Rowe's analyses of discourse in their respective studies of James's novels of the 1880s, is challenged by competing intentions as evidenced by competing reappropriations of this discourse by women supporting and opposing Caird's conception of the power imbalance in marriage. Elizabeth Chapman, who had opposed Millicent Garrett Fawcett's efforts to extend women's suffrage, also deploys military discourse for the purpose of challenging Caird's conception of marriage. Chapman seems to acknowledge the existence of a so-called political movement, but observes its transformation, from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century. Initially, it was radical and destructive, 'bent, like the Revolution in general upon upsetting, pulling down' (Chapman, 1888: 369). By contrast, 'the nineteenth century revolt against marriage of which this light bearer, this Lucifer, is a fair type, has some of the elements of a religious crusade' (Chapman, 1888: 369). The language of military struggle, 'revolt,' 'crusade,' suggests, as Caird's use of it, and Fawcett's before her, that women comprise an army, a military organisation fighting in a just cause. Yet, as Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Chapman strives to enervate the positivist political valence of this army; it is deprived of its political efficacy by the law having to be 'gradually amended and that legal decisions which are notoriously one-sided and oppressive will have to be adjusted to the requirements of the public conscience' (Chapman, 1888: 369). Indeed, Chapman's lacklustre army is ridiculed by Jane Hume Clapperton who suggests that Chapman was 'in favour of lofty ideals to which she airily points without revealing their tangible basis or distinctly showing the various paths of action that may gradually lead up to their realisation' (Clapperton, 1888: 717).
Still, Clementina Black's reappropriation of a military discourse again attests to its political polyvocality, shattering the notion of a stable and coherent women's movement and imperial context. With respect to notions of a monolothic imperialistic context, Black seems to employ a language of difference that is evocative of it, within the context of reforming marriage but without military references: 'And it can hardly be denied that in a good many circles a difference like that of a class or nationality does exist between the two sexes' (Black, 1890: 593). Her use of military language in the context of a discussion of marriage reform has the political effect of neutralising the positive political valence associated with a liberating army when she points out that 'even freedom is a dangerous weapon in the hands of those who have no sufficing inward law to guide them' (Black, 1890: 593).
In turning to The Tragic Muse, the use of military discourse is, of course, provocative of our consideration of the influence of an imperial context on James's treatment of character, but the intense gender-based conflict which defines the courtship ritual involving Miriam Rooth and Peter Sherringham as well as Miriam's nascent power as the narrative unfolds are provocative of our consideration of a broader politically heterogeneous context involving the diverse and contradictory political strategies of women's rights advocates. True to a monolithic and stable notion of the British imperial state, we see in the novel, that Sherringham as a member of the foreign service, is consumed by his association with this political entity to the extent that his fears about being emotionally damaged by his affection for an emotionally unstable, careerist in Miriam Rooth are couched in military terms:
Sherringham's extensive emotional preparations for his conflict with Miriam expressed in military language, however, can be seen as homologous with Caird's radical strategy for social reform, which is to characterise marital relations in terms of military conflict, so as to mobilise women to rebel against the socially sanctioned repression they experience at the hands of their husbands. And we can see here that Miriam's formidableness, effectiveness as a military force is emphasised not only by his 'refurbishing of arms' and rubbing up of 'his strategy,' but in Sherringham's consideration of actually fleeing. Such an implied construction of Miriam is also evocative of the strategies of women's rights activists engaged in challenging the political system itself. Fawcett had defended the history of the women's movement as an effective army.
Still, this narration of Sherringham's mindset as anticipating his conflict with Miriam also carries the political charge of her tyranny in a military context; his fear may be the consequence of her poor judgement and preponderance as indicated in her abuse of power over him, her inability to recognise that he is an ally who will attempt to help her to realise her ambitions, if she will only love him and adjust her career objectives to the political stage. Such effects are, of course, constituents of Ouida's and Galloway's political strategies to prevent the extension of the suffrage to women. Moreover, with respect to the specific social agenda of marriage reform the implied construction of Miriam as a ruthless military force is also evocative of Black's strategy which characterised women's freedom as it is achieved via the implied form of an army as a 'dangerous weapon.' From Sherringham's focalisation, it is this very freedom from him, from his control of her that he fears and for which he is preparing his defenses.
Yet the military discourse with which Sherringham attempts to construct Miriam is initially foreign to her and thus testifies to her signifying potential within both the context of marriage reform and the pursuit of the suffrage of Elizabeth Chapman's political strategies. Sherringham presses a military and imperial identity upon Miriam in his attempt to seduce her via a strategy of flattery and confidence-building: 'Oh, the need to take its ease, to take up space, to make itself at home in the world, to square its elbows and knock others about. That's large and free; it's good nature you speak of. You must forage and ravage and leave a track behind you; you must live upon the country you occupy' (James, 1890: 279). Miriam's response affirms her ability to signify Chapman's concern to emphasise women's isolation from radical political action, from a militaristic identity that was associated with anything other than slow and gradual reform measures concerning both achieving the suffrage and equal treatment for women within marriage: 'I don't know what you mean. I only care for the idea' (James, 1890: 80). Still, a gradualist approach to reform had also constituted a central contradiction of Fawcett's strategy, a strategy which had undermined the construction of women as efficacious combatants of an army that was to achieve gradual reform.
Constituents of Fawcett's and Chapman's strategies, opposing strategies with antagonistic political tactics, are also suggested in the climax of the courtship plot when Sherringham is rejected by Miriam via her use of a language of morality which accompanies Sherringham's refusal to construct her as anyone but a soldier attempting to destroy him. Fawcett had characterised philanthropists as a noble army of martyrs included in the cause to achieve the suffrage, while Chapman had described the nineteenth-century women's rights movement as a religious crusade. So too in Miriam's rejection of Sherringham does Miriam emphasise feminine independence in language that testifies to her belief in the superior morality of her cause, language that elicits from Sherrigham a response which in turn attaches a militaristic political valence to the language of Miriam's defence:
The effect of Miriam's moral justification for her career choice is to solicit from Sherringham her identity as a soldier whose very combative effectiveness is validated by his denial of it:
Sherringham attempts to celebrate the glory associated with his profession in an effort to convince Miriam to give up her commitment to the theatre to marry him. Miriam's response only seems to celebrate her unsullied, moral commitment to her profession: 'It isn't to my glories that I cling; it's simply to my idea, even if it's destined to sink me into obscurity' (James, 1890: 549). Yet Miriam's credibility as morally superior is quashed in her rather vulgar expression of power within her marriage to Basil Dashwood; Dashwood is for the most part an enthusiastic supporter of her career, a factotum, an errand boy who shops for groceries. The correlations between Fawcett's and Chapman's political strategies and James's novel are sustained and undermined by the very contradictions that mark Miriam's character.
In conclusion, the correlation between political context and literary text is always complex and strives to interrogate rather than to consolidate and to totalise. It is only when we, as in earlier applications of Marxist literary theory, regard context as stemming from a monocausal model of reflection theory privileging economics as the pre-eminent determinant of narrative method, that such reductive readings are produced. Nor should we regard ideology as all-encompassing to the extent that demarcating political discourse is always associated exclusively with institutions that comprise the superstructure, for we abandon the specificity of analysis that can be achieved via a conception of the individual's role in constructing discourse; that is not to say that the human subject is capable of defying ideology but certainly acts within it and thus contributes to shaping it. The complexity of this process is captured in a political analysis which recognises the contradictoriness of political entities, like groups and classes, a contradictoriness, a dialogism that shapes the political valences of discourse. The political strategies of women's rights advocates in the nineteenth century testify to the political polyvocality of military discourse, a polyvocality that facilitates the construction of readings of James's fiction that are politically dialogical. The diachronic mapping of the evolution of military discourse, of course, extends into the 1890s and beyond, through his late phase, as the debate usually entitled 'The Revolt of the Daughters,' appearing in The Nineteenth Century, contributes to the instability and hybridisation of this discourse and the contradictory political readings that are produced from it.
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