Fixing Patriarchy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In FIXING PATRIARCHY: FEMINISM AND MID-VICTORIAN MALE NOVELISTS, Donald E. Hall examines texts written by British male writers in the 1840’s, 1850’s, and 1860’s, critical decades for the expansion of the nineteenth century women’s movement. In a period of intensifying debate about gender arrangements, the male writers who are Hall’s subjects reveal, in his analysis, both an anxiously conservative reaction to feminist assertion and a gradual accomodation to and sometimes even support of it. The term “fixing” in Hall’s title works doubly, naming both the masculine efforts to shore up traditional gender ideology and the moves made by some of them to mend what has become broken by negotiating their way to new understandings and acknowledgement of the need for change.

Hall uses his organization by decades to make a richly developed and theoretically informed case for genuine, if very gradual, social change, and for the significant role played in this change by the interactions among many voices and events, both literary and non-literary. Highlights of his argument are chapters on Charles Dickens’s MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT (1843-1844), LITTLE DORRIT (1855-1857), and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1860-1861), which trace changes over the three decades in Dickens’s responses to social fluidity, and a treatment of parallel changes over Anthony Trollope’s career. Other chapters set up a dramatic contrast between the silencing of women’s voices enacted by Lord Tennyson’s THE PRINCESS (1847) and an empowering of women’s voices and actions in Wilkie Collins’s novels. With Tennyson’s work firmly on the side of patriarchal reaction is Thomas Hughes’s TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS (1857), in which Hall finds a fascinating move to absorb feared female power by incorporating mothering into schoolboy relationships. Texts by Charles Kingsley and William M. Thackeray are examples of anxious negotiation.

FIXING PATRIARCHY is a substantial contribution to women’s studies and nineteenth century cultural history.