Ruined bodies and ruined narratives: The fallen woman and the history of the novel
In real life, virtuous women have no stories. Or, at least, their brief stories always end in marriage. But in the novel, heroines must have stories for the novel to even exist. This helps explain the omnipresence of the fallen woman as a secondary character in the novel from roughly 1740 to 1850. The threat of “ruin” to the heroine, which the fallen woman represents, compels narrative, and the fallen woman's story “breaks” into the virtuous woman's narrative. Thus, although the history of the fallen woman in the novel could easily be extended backwards to include the sexually transgressive women in Behn's or Defoe's fiction, the association of the ruined body with ruined narrative, which is central to my argument, only finds its first expression during a literary shift towards respectability for the novel, occurring roughly around the mid-eighteenth century. As it became more important for central heroines in novels to be pure (unlike those earlier heroines), the fallen woman becomes a necessary secondary character.
My study links the formal and the cultural by using narrative theory, close reading, feminist approaches, and cultural history in order to explain a phenomenon that, despite its cultural roots, must grow out of formal necessity, as well, in order to last over one hundred years. The narrative “breaks” I discuss can be categorized into three major types: embedded texts framed by and breaking into the larger text of the novel, gaps in narrative time, or the momentary freezing of narrative into a sort of tableau, a highly visual representation that seems to exit narrative mode and imitate a painting rather than a story. I trace these breaks through the narratives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors including Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Burney, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell.