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The Doctor-Coquette Nexus in Middlemarch, Villette, and The Woodlanders

Emma Rayner (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

Abstract


Although there remains a critical tendency to denounce literary coquettes like Rosamond Vincy as inauthentic, recent developments in gender and cultural theory have led critics to recuperate such anti-heroines. Still yet to be fully realized, however, is the complementary importance of a character type that recurs just as often as the coquette in the nineteenth-century novel: the provincially exiled young doctor. Numerous novels of the mid-Victorian period romantically pair an ambitious coquette – who stage-manages, but does not inhabit her own femininity – with a doctor figure whose ‘scientific’ outlook jars notably with the determinedly superficial self-presentation of the female object in his view.  Surveying the coquette-doctor relationships forged within George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2), Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), and Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1886–7), this essay promotes an understanding of the coquette as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of Victorian culture. Despite (or perhaps because of) the stereotype’s origin in the conservative English psyche, the coquette proves a character highly attuned to the performative strategies she must maintain in order to navigate the strict gender standards of the era. The Victorian doctor stands on the other side of the coupling as a representative of the period’s pseudoscientific attitudes toward the female body in particular, his diagnostic tool-box of positivist inquiry and empiricist objectivism proving a dubious match for the coquette’s careful curation of her own sexual and social signs.

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