The other end of history : three women writers and the romance

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The genre of the romance has a long and complex history, encompassing a diversity of literary forms. In this dissertation, I focus on the sub-genre of the domestic romance and on the ways in which this form has represented the problematics of gender as they are constructed within the home and family under patriarchy. I examine the notion of the dichotomy between public and private worlds and the demarcation of these zones as gendered, as domains of masculine and feminine activity respectively. This opposition is a consequence of the development of the middle-class family unit in England attendant on the emergence of capitalism from the late sixteenth century onwards, which resulted in a gendered division of labour. The domestic romance bears the traces of these historical processes as it negotiates the position of women as wives and mothers in domestic worlds ordered by patriarchy. I trace these mediations through three texts. Wuthering Heights, I argue, enacts a bold disruption of the organisation of the unregulated libidinal energy of its protagonists Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. The restoration of domestic harmony at the text's closure is an uneasy one. The Thorn Birds is situated within the mass literary culture peculiar to the twentieth century. Working from within the limitations and formulae of the contemporary romantic 'bestseller', the text offers multiple examples of female discontent and of acts of rebellion by women against the structures and practices constraining their lives, but these rebellions are circumscribed and contained by the text's endorsement of the figure of the 'proper woman - the dutiful wife and mother - as the realisation of femininity. Possession relocates the romance within the framework of academic theoretical discourse, addressing questions of the patriarchal construction of the feminine informed by the new conceptual and narrative categories of postmodernism. The novel ultimately affirms the romantic recoding of history in its own closure, positing its endless narrative possibilities. In the final analysis, I situate the romance as offering manifold narrative possibilities to women in very different historical dispensations. Bibliography: pages 91-94.