The proper Victorian heroine neither acts nor plots. Heroines as disparate as Fanny Price of Mansfield Park and Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda prove their virtue by failing as actresses. When Fanny protests, “Indeed, I cannot act,” we know that it is because she cannot be other than what she is: virtuous. Gwendolen Harleth’s aborted attempt to make a career as an actress seems, in Daniel Deronda, to signal her essential difference from the Princess Halm-Eberstein, the mother who has abandoned Daniel in order to pursue her acting career. Gwendolen is flawed, but at least she is not an actress. In the dominant literary form for women writers, the courtship novel, the heroine is a modest woman, usually passive, unconscious of her sexuality, in transition from the father’s house—or a substitute thereof—to the husband’s house. We follow her gradual awakening as others plot and act around her—for her marriage, for its frustration, for money or power of influence—until their plots finally converge with her (heretofore unarticulated) desires, and she is married. Or, perhaps, their plots prevail, she transgresses, and she dies. In either case, her story usually ends when she must cast off one role—usually that of daughter or eligible young thing—for another—usually that of wife, although sometimes (in the case of the transgressive heroine) mother or mistress. Heroines of the Victorian novel must, it seems, be one thing only; they must not act roles, but embody them. Motherhood is particularly problematic, then, for as Marianne Hirsch notes, “the multiplicity of ‘women’ is nowhere more obvious than for the figure of the mother, who is always both mother and daughter”—and often wife and/or lover as well.

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Copyright © 1997 University of Tulsa. This article first appeared in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 16:2 (1997), 303-325.

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