Northern Illinois University Press

Vessels of Meaning

Women's Bodies, Gender Norms, and Class Bias from Richardson to Lawrence

Laura Fasick

"The insightful and elegant reading of the female body in its relationship to nurture and need make Vessels of Meaning a valuable addition to the literature on women and the novel."—South Atlantic Review

"A thought-provoking and sophisticated study.... Fasick is a wonderfully clear and engaging writer, and her insights are striking."—Donald E. Hall

"A subtle and detailed argument about the representation of women's bodies. This book makes a powerful statement about the dangers of generalization and essentialism in discussions of gender and the body."
—Kristina Straub

Physcial differences between men and women have long served as the basis for assuming differences in psychological, intellectual, and emotional processes. As an appreciation for individual sensibilities began to develop in the eighteenth century, a new image of women appeared in literature. Tracing the progression of images of women's bodies through nearly two centuries of literature, Fasick analyzes selected novels from Samuel Richardson to D. H. Lawrence to construct a historical overview of class and gender relations as reflected and refracted in the pages of the English novel.

Though recent discussion of women's roles in literature and culture has centered on women's sexuality as the defining factor in the female character, Fasick focuses instead on ways that writers have depicted women as possessing nurturing qualities that distinguish them from men. Rigid adherence to this idealization of femininity constructs a standard difficult for women to achieve. Held to the ideal, Fasick asserts, women appear grossly culpable rather than simply human.

Fasick begins with an analysis of Samuel Richardson's novels that examines three linked themes: sensibility, maternity, and anorexia. She continues with a discussion of Frances Burney's treatment of the expressive female body. She then analyzes novels by Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë in light of Victorian attitudes toward women and food and toward female invalidism. In conclusion, she returns to Richardson, pairing his novel Pamela with Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover for an examination of cross-class romance and the resulting implications for class and gender. Throughout, references to conduct books and periodical literature of the time provide contexts that illuminate the primary texts.

(1997) 241 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-221-3
cloth $35.50

Table of Contents

1. Sentimental Authority: The Female Body in the Novels of Samuel Richardson
2. Frances Burney and the Embodiment of Delicacy
3. "The Feeders of Men": Food and the Nurturing Woman in Dickens and Thackeray
4. Spinsters and Food in Cranford and Villette
5. Women's Work and Working Women
6. The Servant's Body in Pamela and Lady Chatterley's Lover
Conclusion: Virtue's Reward or the Mother's Recompense
Selected Bibliography

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-221-3
cloth $35.50