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ERIC Number: EJ1097632
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2007
Mary Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne" in Context(s): Victorian Medicine, Literary Gothicism, and 21st Century Feminist Pedagogy
Wooden, Shannon R.
CEA Forum, v36 n2 Sum-Fall 2007
Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels and stories exemplify some of the main issues surrounding women's texts and their place in literature: aesthetic value, intellectual challenge, universality, and contemporary popularity. Her work, it may be argued, betrays occasional aesthetic imperfections; however, she produced a tremendous amount of published work, and it was enthusiastically received by female and middle-brow readers. As critics have noted, her work and her life did indeed give insight into women's lives in the nineteenth century, so, with the advent of academic feminism, many of her works have re-appeared in print and have received critical attention by feminist scholars. At the same time, her work in sensation fiction marks the development of a subgenre, employs themes that have fascinated readers and writers for centuries, and reveals terrific anxieties in the cultural imagination then and now. "Good Lady Ducayne" is a darkly comic tale about Bella Rolleston, a poor girl seeking work to support herself and her mother. She is as unlikely a heroine as she is an employable woman: dull, unskilled, unimaginative. She is young however, and healthy, in the bloom of youth, and she is soon situated with a very wealthy, impossibly old woman, the titular Ducayne, who takes her to Italy as a companion. Easily, one can imagine "Good Lady Ducayne" as contributing to a conversation about Victorian class and gender struggles. Bella Rolleston leaves the text as ignorant as she began it, not even knowing the source of her own illness or how close she came to dying. The story is ripe for feminist analysis and class discussion of gender issues, however the number of texts to which "Good Lady Ducayne" can be tied, and the number of potential analytical conversations which can then result, is impressive when one disregards gender as a theme. Here Shannon Wooden proposes a syllabus that selects texts according to their interest in mystery, suspense, crime, or detection, and organizes them more or less chronologically from the Gothic to detection to sensation to horror. The progression is imperfect because we don't see nineteenth-century fiction moving seamlessly from one category to the next; furthermore, many texts that we don't see fitting into any of these categories at all are listed on the syllabus. If one examines these apparently ill-fitting texts closely, one sees dramatic similarities and differences that can give rise to surprising and provocative classroom discussions of fiction, history, and of power. In some of these discussions, gender roles still arise, but even they can get delightfully complex with gender indiscriminate juxtapositions. Most of the titles listed feature a heroine in distress, usually a woman who lacks money, family or domestic power, often deliberately victimized, and in need of the protection of law, friends, or a protective male who is often an amateur or professional detective: Ellena Rosalba ("The Italian"); Catherine Moreland ("Northanger Abbey"); Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein ("Frankenstein"); Beatrice Cenci ("The Cenci"); Jane Eyre ("Jane Eyre") ; Bella Rolleston ("Good Lady Ducayne"); Laura Fairlie ("The Woman in White") ; and Tess Derbyfield ("Tess of the D'Urbervilles"), to name a few. Many of the male characters have authority and power, and, in the Gothic tradition, some will use this power to protect the distressed damsel, while others will use it to manipulate or otherwise damage her: Cenci ("The Cenci"), Edward Fairfax Rochester ("Jane Eyre"), Heathcliff ("Wuthering Heights"), Count Fosco ("The Woman in White"), Alec D'Urberville ("Tess of the D'Urbervilles"). From a gendered framework, we are inclined to see the powerless woman replicated to investigate only how individual women are oppressed, victimized, or subversive. It is fascinating to note, however, how the concept of "power" fluctuates to represent various social and historical features of Victorian ideology. A second syllabus including "Good Lady Ducayne" is also presented that focuses on the medical theme through the notion of aging and the lengths to which people will go to prolong life and prevent death. The idea sequence presented in the second syllabus encourages discussions of medical ethics, playing God, end of life issues, and the naturalness of supposedly natural things such as antibiotics. This syllabus could take a creative teacher in a number of directions. The author closes this article by saying that "Good Lady Ducayne" is but one example of the scores of newly recovered texts by women that deserve to be presented to students who deserve a more gender-integrated point of view.
Descriptors: Victorian Literature, English Literature, Nineteenth Century Literature, Feminism, Fiction, Medicine, Course Descriptions, Literary Genres, College Instruction
College English Association. Web site: http://www.cea-web.org
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Evaluative
Education Level: Higher Education; Postsecondary Education
Authoring Institution: N/A
Grant or Contract Numbers: N/A