Folklore-naming and folklore-narrating in British women's fiction, 1750-1880

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2002

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Wakefield, Sarah Rebecca

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Abstract

When an individual, usually a man, is attracted to another, usually a woman, from another country or lower social class, he deals with potentially dangerous desires by declaring her a supernatural creature, a strategy that I term “folklore-naming,” distinct from “folklore-narrating,” or telling stories about the fantastic. Many in nineteenth-century England feared that the Irish, Jews, working-class girls, governesses, spinsters and the insane were corrupting national purity. In response to such anxieties about the security of sexual, racial, class, and/or national status, a character employs folktale, fairy tale, or myth to alleviate discomfort. Yet terms like “fairy” are peculiar nicknames since these beings can be helpful and/or harmful. Using supernatural vocabulary to control females who occupy cultural boundaries, when the words themselves connote ambiguity and secret power, undermines the effort to put women in their place. This study draws attention to how instances of folklore, hitherto considered in structural and psychological manners, tie to uneasiness around race, class, sex, nation, and desire in selected genres of British women’s fiction from 1750 to 1880. I start with investigation of the place of fairy lore in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, texts that introduce the concept of folklore-narrating to comment on the female condition. The English narrator of Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl folklore-names the “degenerate” Irishwoman he loves because she is unsuited to his nationality and class status. Next, the fiction of Charlotte Brontë offers a variety of folklore dynamics, from Rochester’s nicknames for governess Jane Eyre to Shirley’s folklore-narration on mermaids to Lucy Snowe’s folklore-naming of Paulina in Villette. By contrast, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, anxieties shift from colonial and working women to simply the Englishwoman, who can still seem strange and threatening at home. Finally, in mid-Victorian fairy tales by Jean Ingelow (Mopsa the Fairy) and Anne Thackeray, we see how middle-class Englishness becomes magical, both in domestic realms and in Fairyland.

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