REVIEW BY MIRIAM JONES
Edited by Susan Mendus and Jane Rendall.
There has recently been a marked emphasis among many academics on the desirability of an interdisciplinary approach to research in the arts and humanities. Certainly literary studies have vastly benefited from the integration of historical, linguistic, and cultural-studies approaches. The best work does not merely include other disciplines, however: it is irreducibly informed by them. The old disciplinary boundaries will soon have none other than a historic meaning; they are rapidly becoming irrelevant to a sophisticated understanding of literary texts as aesthetic moments embedded in an informing cultural context.
Both feminist theory and critical practice have been at the forefront of innovation. The present volume is an excellent example of the best of current feminist approaches. It is a strong collection of articles developed by the women who taught an interdisciplinary course in Victorianism for the new Women's Studies Master's program at the University of York (UK) in 1984. The contributors later met in workshop sessions to discuss the structure of the volume. Sexuality and Subordination is not, then, simply a collection of loosely-related articles, but rather part of an ongoing theoretical and pedagogical project to which all the participants were committed. As a result, it is a much tighter text than is often the case with anthologies.
Victorianism is the new hot topic. At once both at an exotic remove and yet still I close enough to be pertinent today, the nineteenth century, much of which had been hitherto banished from serious intellectual consideration by literary critics because it was considered so moribund and overblown, has come into its own. This shift is largely a result of new theoretical emphases on ideological and discourse analyses. Freed from the evaluative straitjackets worn by critics earlier in the century, we now no longer make mere aesthetic judgments about the "redeeming value" of literature; instead, texts are constructed as historical moments, as vehicles of ideology, and as part of the multiplicity of conflicting discourses existing in a given time and place. Some of these discourses are oppositional, and others are integrative; nearly all are fraught with contradictions.
Mendus and Rendall explicitly cite Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality in their introduction, as having provided the "outstanding theoretical discussion" they used in both the course and the articles. They indicate their intention to get beyond received wisdom about the Victorian double sexual standard (men as duplicitous and women as prudish) and examine the rich diversity of discourses on sexuality that existed. They maintain that there were significant instances of women attempting to transform the languages of sexuality for a variety of purposes. Josephine Butler, for example, worked with prostitutes and so had to claim "the right to a knowledge of that impurity, the right to enter public debate on such issues" (p.11).