Autumn 2001

ISSN 1473-219X





Hybridising the military discourse of imperialism: women's rights in Henry James's The Bostonians and The Tragic Muse

Sean Palmer, University of Windsor

In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams provides a rationale for establishing Cultural Materialist readings of literary texts on the basis of imploding disciplinary boundaries (via the notion of equivalence) by locating textual evidence of a particular sort and of a particular discourse simultaneously in two or more supposedly separate categories or contexts. Constructing the more general category of writing, he suggests that the categories that sustain one another via their difference, or more importantly, those that sustain that of fiction, are intimately connected by shared forms and structures: The characteristically difficult forms of history, memoir, and biography use a significant part of each series, and given the use of real characters and events in much major epic, romance, drama and narrative, the substantial overlap – indeed in many areas the substantial community – is undeniable (Williams, 1977: 147).

An assumption of equivalence appears to have been employed by historicist or cultural critics interested in exploring the impact of British imperialism upon Henry James's novels of the 1880s. In an article entitled 'The Political Context of The Portrait of a Lady,' Cheryl Torsney explores the relationship between the political context of British imperialism and James's treatment of character in this novel by bridging the textual gap of context and literary text with a discourse that can be regarded as contextually or categorically hybridised as it travels freely among the categories that Williams argued were falsely imposed to simplify for political purposes what he believed was an otherwise complex culture, those of the social, the political and the literary.

For Torsney, the constituents of this discourse of imperialism included signs of military conflict – 'surrender,' 'expansion,' 'appropriation,' ' battle,' 'weapons,' – which among others are deployed throughout James's narrative not for producing the interpretive effect of political allegory, but rather for providing insight into James's plotting of character: 'In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer and Lord Warburton on one side, and Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle on the other, act out the conflict James senses between the idealistic expansionism that won Britain her empire and the crass imperialism that allowed her to keep it' (Torsney, 1986: 91). The influence of the context of British imperialism on James's narrative method is then demonstrated by character dialogue which is evocative of a sign system of military language that reveals the conduct of possession and appropriation which is, in turn, analogous to that which historians argue characterised the British State's imperialistic policies in the nineteenth century. This monolithic conception of the British State is echoed by John Carlos Rowe, in his analysis of The Tragic Muse, when he contends that 'the entire plot of Peter Sherringham's courtship of, and ultimate proposal to Miriam is couched in the rhetoric of the territorial conquests of British Imperialism' (Rowe, 1998: 85). Rowe's contention is that Miriam, as foreign and cosmopolitan, serves, within the context of her involvement in the courtship plot with Peter Sherringham, who is representative of British imperialism, as a symbolic challenge to such an ideology.

Henry James

While Williams's 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.

While Jameson's method of political interpretation relies on a history of the complexity and contradictoriness of classes in conflict, he is, in accordance with Louis Althusser's notion of structural causality as a central component of ideological domination or repression, unwilling to acknowledge the role of a conscious human agent independent of these class structures in designating the political valences of language within a political context. As a consequence the value of a diachronic conception of history as absent cause, as a constantly evolving untotalisable entity that accommodates post-structuralist critiques, remains exclusive of histories that allow for contradictions on the level of individuals that may lead to alternative political readings which are equally untotalisable. This exclusion can be addressed via discourse theory, particularly through Louis Montrose's conception of equivocal subjectification which acknowledges the extent to which individuals as agents contribute to shaping their environment and their history through 'social networks and cultural codes that ultimately exceed their comprehension' (Montrose, 1989: 21). The relationship between human agency and discourse formation is, of course, a focus of criticism in Michel Foucault's work. Foucault's admission in his later work that the subject is constitutive of the self would seem consistent with the proposition that a political discourse is both a product of an agent, of declared intention in a continuous process of negotiation with unstable signs – a negotiation that does not allow for totalisation, for the desired effect intended by the agent.

By establishing an analytical approach that acknowledges the importance of Jameson's emphasis on diachrony and Montrose's conception of subjectivity in constructing a political history and a political context, we can delineate the evolution of the heterogeneous political valences of a military discourse that challenges the primacy of readings based upon a conception or assumption of an imperial political context and ideology. This ideology may note the existence of diverse political spaces, forces and signs, but nonetheless subsumes and neutralises their political polyvocality under a rubric marked by policies of possession and appropriation, a univocal category in terms of political effect. Such an alternative history can be constructed from articles written by women's rights advocates and their opponents in the 1880s and 1890s, articles that are comprised of conflicting deployments of military discourse that mark a context signifying heterogeneous political intentions in conflict. This discourse can no longer assume the stable political valence associated with imperial policies of possession and appropriation but rather must serve as a linguistic focus of political contention, challenging the reductive political unities of monolithic movements and states respectively.

Torsney has compiled an enormous amount of biographical information linking James to a context where he used and was privy to the use of military language associated with imperial policies. What I wish to stress is that while this may be persuasive in terms of readings based on imperialism, the political valences of military language cannot be stabilised for the purpose of constructing a totalising reading of James's 1880s fiction, no matter how familiar James was with the connection between imperial policies and military language. This language was being continuously reappropriated by members of the women's rights movement for specific political strategies that only attest to the diversity and contradiction of political forces within both the State and this movement. In respect of The Bostonians (1886) and The Tragic Muse (1890), it can be seen that James's character dialogue, comprised of military references, may lend itself to an initial consideration of constructing a structuralist political reading endorsing a correlation with an imperial context. However, by expanding the interpretive horizon of political context to include the use of a military discourse in alternative political contexts, we see not only a fracturing of this totality, but political readings of James's texts that may indicate a more complex, uncertain, Democratic correlation between political context and literary text.

In The Bostonians, the military language, metaphors deployed by the leading women's rights advocates of the novel, Verena Tarrant, Olive Chancellor, and Mrs Birdseye, are homologous to the deployment of such language in the political strategies of women's rights advocates and their opponents in the late 1870s. James's narrator and character dialogue facilitate the construction of political readings that are as contradictory and subversive of expressed political intention as the political strategies of women's rights advocates Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their opponent Francis Parkman.

In turning to the second stage of the diachronic mapping of the evolution of the hybridisation of military discourse, by examining the political strategies of women's rights advocates concerning the extension of the suffrage and those promoting marriage reform in the late 1880s, we see, again, similar appropriations of military discourse, but for specific political purposes that prevent military language from being deployed for representing the movement or the British imperial state as an absolute coherence. Indeed, the diversity within the movement that is exposed by the appearance of similar forms of military discourse with contradictory political effects, enables us to produce (from an examination of the courtship plot involving Miriam Rooth and Peter Sherringham which includes their use of military language) readings that are as politically unstable as the context that the discourse demarcates as the novel's cultural equivalent.

In the first stage of the diachronic mapping of the deployment of military discourse, a political context can be constructed from the articles written by women's rights advocates and their opponents in the 1870s. Articles written by two of James's acquaintances, Julia Ward Howe and Francis Parkman, and those of other more recognisable members of the women's rights movement, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, put forward a gendered dichotomy associating men with war and women with peace and morality but with contradictory political effects on the level of individual political strategy and by extension within political movements for and against extending the suffrage to women. Parkman's article in The North American Review – 'The Woman Question' – argued against extending the suffrage to women. Based on the assumptions of a biological determinism his article points out that man is 'well appointed for his work, whether to confront his enemy and deadly strife, or to battle in the interest of a purpose or an idea against cold, hunger, fatigue, want, obloquy, or hope deferred. Add to these qualities of achievement he joins, at least relatively, a mind governed rather by reason than emotion, and a deliberate and logical adaptation of means to ends' (Parkman, 1879: 304). Women, by contrast, are destined via their physical limitations as unfit 'for rude conflict' and 'joined to high and priceless qualities, without which life would be a curse' (Parkman, 1879: 305). Yet in accordance with equivocal subjectification, Parkman collapses the very dichotomy he constructs with the apparent intention of promoting separate spheres between men and women, excluding women from political participation via his use of military discourse, as part of his platform which he articulates succinctly in his aphorism: 'the right of voting and the duty of fighting should never be divorced' (Parkman, 1879: 321). Implying that women are physically unsuited for combat and thus for the political sphere, he denigrates the women of the South during the Civil War for expressing a courage of resistance equal to that of men in the context of battle: 'when the men knew that the cause was lost, their weaker partners refused to yield. Fighting was useless; but fair lips still cried, ìfight on!' (Parkman, 1879: 319). Although Parkman attempts to emphasise women's mental feebleness and lack of judgement in a military context here, his claim seems to carry the valence of an opposing political position, testifying to a propensity for courage that defies the biological limitations of women to which he referred earlier in his argument. Parkman's contradictory position is exaggerated by his comments concerning women's role in the French Revolution where 'female mobs were fiercer and more destructive than those of men' (Parkman, 1879: 319). He provides a more concise version of his contradictory political position towards the end of his article when he claims that 'women, though non-combatant, are abundantly combative when excited' (Parkman, 1879: 321). Parkman's use of military terms, such as 'combatant,' 'fight,' 'battle on' are deployed with equal fervour to describe the actions of both men and women, though his declared political aim was to restrict women's access to the suffrage by emphasising their unsuitability for the combative role, a role that Parkman appears unintentionally to suggest that women are equally very capable of and justified in assuming.

Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton responded specifically to Parkman's claims in the same year in a collection of articles appearing in The North American Review entitled 'The Other Side of the Woman Question.' Appropriating this dichotomy and re-equipping it with a political valence supporting the extension of women's suffrage, of women's participation in politics at the level of state, Howe and Stone may have been surprised to discover that their very deployment of a military discourse for this purpose was challenged, perhaps inadvertently, by an assertion of its signifying potential as a political disclaimer in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's reordering of it; hence, the efficacy of this symbolic challenge of the women's movement within the discursive space of a Victorian periodical, a political unity constructed from this deployment of military discourse, is challenged and fragmented as a consequence. Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone appropriated Parkman's dichotomy and military language for the purpose of emphasising women's necessity in participating in government by stressing, as Parkman had initially attempted to argue, that women were non-combative. As non-combatants and purveyors of morality, women were indispensable for preserving the stability and moral integrity of the State. Howe promoted women as 'the guardians of public peace,' an important contrast to the 'bloodshed' that she associated with a society organised in accordance with the principles of a male military order:

Shall we say that the military are the guardians of the public peace? That office, in our day, seems to belong more clearly to the mother and the school teacher. Justice claims the right to govern. Education enforces the recognition of law, the respect of right, the claim of duty. The agencies which moralise society are its true defence, its real bulwark. The merciful and patient work of women can spare more bloodshed to any generation than can the whole military order (Howe, 1879: 416).

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:

What has been the result of this total separation of feminine qualities and power from the sphere of government? The nations of the earth have been engaged in almost ceaseless warfare. Bloodshed and murder, waste of life and treasure, have covered the whole field of masculine administration and sovereignty. National debts everywhere exist. Whole states are bankrupt and repudiate their debts. Men speak of the politics they have made as a 'dirty pool'; 'an ignoble scramble for place and power'; 'a scene of bribery and corruption' (Stone, 1879: 429).

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:

The old idea of different spheres should now give place to the higher idea of different responsibilities in the same sphere. Wherever duty summons man, woman has a corresponding duty in the same place. If to war, man fights the battles, woman does good service in the hospitals. If to the home, the mother guides the household, the father supplements his home duties with some profitable occupation outside (Stanton, 1879: 433).

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:

When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do for themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. We couldn't possibly make it worse, could we? If we had done only this, we shouldn't boast of it. Poverty, and ignorance, and crime; disease, and wickedness, and wars! Wars, always more wars, and always more and more. Blood, blood – the world is drenched with blood! To kill each other, with all sorts of expensive and perfected instruments, that is the most brilliant thing they have been able to invent. It seems to me that we might stop it, we might invent something better. The cruelty – the cruelty; there is so much, so much! Why shouldn't tenderness come in? Why should our women's hearts be so full of it, and all so wasted and withered, while armies and prisons and helpless miseries grow greater all the while? I am only a girl, a simple American girl, and of course I haven't seen much, and there is a great deal of life that I don't know anything about (James, 1886: 58).

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:

It was with this that the young lady finished her harangue, which was not followed by her sinking exhausted in her chair or by any of the traces of a laboured climax. The performance had evidently been very easy to her, and there might have been a kind of impertinence in her air of not having suffered from an exertion which had wrought so powerfully on everyone else (James, 1886: 58).

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:

This may seem a slight matter in the case of beings who have waited so long, but it must not be forgotten that the ever-augmenting army of struggling and suffering women is composed of units, and that no foregone experience of a class has ever been known to deaden individual pain (Pfeiffer, 1885: 432).

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:

It would indeed be a miracle if that small though gallant company should hold its own and ours against the army of disputants whose needs become daily more pressing, and who have been educated to consider that they as men have a prescriptive right to the first and the best of everything that is going in the world (Pfeiffer, 1885: 434).

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:

I don't require sympathy... I am only myself, I only rise to the occasion, when I see prejudice, when I see bigotry, when I see injustice, when I feel conservatism, massed before me like an army. Then I feel – I feel as I imagine Napoleon Bonaparte to have felt on the eve of one of his great victories. I must have unfriendly elements – I like to win them over (James, 1886: 41).

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:

It had become apparent that her long and beautiful career was drawing to a close, her earnest, unremitting work was over, her old-fashioned weapons were broken and dull. Olive would have liked to hang them up as venerable relics of a patient fight, and this was what she seemed to do when she made the poor lady relate her battles – never glorious and brilliant, but obscure and wastefully heroic –call back the figures of her companions in arms, exhibit her medals and scars (James, 1886: 171).

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:

And all which constitutes the charm of women, mutability, caprice and impressionability, power of headlong self-abandonment, mingled with intense subjectiveness and self-engrossement, would all make of women an inferior but a most dangerous political force. When Mr. Gladstone has sent out troops and recalled them a dozen times, she, with similar but still greater oscillations of purpose, would send them out and recall them five hundred times (Ouida, 1886: 303).

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:

There is, perhaps, no more difficult relation in the world than that of husband and wife. Peace is not so very hard to achieve, nor an apparent smoothness which passes for harmony. The really rare thing is a unity which is not purchased at the expense of one or other of the partners. The old notion that the man ought to be the commander, because one must have a head in every commonwealth, is an amusingly crude solution of the difficulty, to say nothing of its calm and complete injustice. Between two nations, it is easy to keep peace by disabling one of the combatants (Caird, 1890: 319).

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:

We destroy a thousand possible joys, crib, cabin, and confine the lives of harmless people, set apart a great body of women for a purpose which we account disgraceful... but what do we do to conquer this tyrant who destroys so much happiness, usurps so large a proportion of energy, runs amuck through all society? Our one idea is restraint, punishment, strict laws, suspicious, petty watchful social usages? ... All this emphasises the idea it pretends to repudiate, and creates lip-service, while it gives sheltered hiding-places to the enemy (Caird, 1890: 322).

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:

It next appeared to him that it might help him (not with his superiors, but with himself) to apply for an extension of leave; but on further reflection he remained convinced that though there are some dangers before which it is perfectly consistent with honour to flee, it was better for every one concerned that he should fight this especial battle on the spot. During this holiday his plan of campaign gave him plenty of occupation. He refurbished his arms, rubbed up his strategy, laid out his lines of defense (James, 1890: 244).

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.

Joshua Reynolds, The Tragic Muse

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:

It's you who make trouble, who are sore and suspicious and supersubtle, not taking things as they come and for what they are, but twisting them into misery and falsity. Oh, I've watched you enough, my dear friend, and I've been sorry for you – and sorry for myself; for I'm not so taken up with myself as you think. I'm not such a low creature. I'm capable of gratitude, I'm capable of affection. One may live in paint and tinsel, but one isn't absolutely without a soul (James, 1890: 477).

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:

He can't hurt me, my dear, and neither can you; for I have a nice little heart of stone and a smart new breast-plate of iron. The interest I take in you is something quite extraordinary; but the most extraordinary thing in it is that it's perfectly prepared to tolerate the interest of others (James, 1890: 479)

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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Caird, Mona (1890) 'The Morality of Marriage,' Fortnightly Review, 47, 310-330.
Chapman, Elizabeth Rachel (1886) 'Women's Suffrage,' Nineteenth Century, 19, 561-569.
Chapman, Elizabeth Rachel (1888) 'Marriage Rejection and Marriage Reform,' Westminster Review, 130, 358-377.
Clapperton, Jane Hume (1888) 'Miss Chapman's Marriage Reform: A Criticism,' Westminster Review, 130, 709-717.
Fawcett, Millicent Garrett (1886) 'Women's Suffrage: A Reply,' Nineteenth Century, 19, 740-748.
Galloway, M A A(1886) 'Women and Politics,' Nineteenth Century, 19, 896-901.
Howe, Julia Ward (1879) 'The Other Side of the Woman Question,' North American Review, 129, 413-420.
James, Henry (1886: reprinted 1884) The Bostonians, (ed. R D Gooder), London: Macmillan; repr. London: Oxford University Press.
James, Henry (1890: reprinted 1960) The Tragic Muse, ed. Leon Edel, London: Macmillan; repr. London: Harper.
Jameson, Frederic (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Durham: Duke University Press.
Montrose, Louis (1989) 'The Poetics and Politics of Culture,' The New Historicism, New York: Routledge.
Ouida (1886) 'Female Suffrage,' North American Review, 143, 290-306.
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Pfeiffer, Emily (1885) 'The Suffrage for Women,' Contemporary Review, 47, 418-435.
Rowe, John Carlos (1998) The Other Henry James, Durham: Duke University Press.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1879) 'The Other Side of the Woman Question,' North American Review, 129, 432-439.
Stone, Lucy (1879) 'The Other Side of the Woman Question,' North American Review, 129, 425-432.
Torsney, Cheryl (1986) 'The Political Context of The Portrait of a Lady,' The Henry James Review, 7, 86-103.
Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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