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Catherine Delafield, Women’s Diaries as Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Marianne Camus
p. 254-256
Référence(s) :

Catherine Delafield, Women’s Diaries as Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2009. 250 p. ISBN : 978-0-7546-6517-5.

Texte intégral

1Catherine Delafield proposes to examine the interaction between fictional and non-fictional female diaries and the consequences in fiction of the discrepancy between a woman’s private life and the public life of this diary once published. She bases her demonstration on Fanny Burney’s diary, which underwent the editing process three times by three different persons before being published, and on the diaries in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, A Life for a Life by Dinah Craik, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Armadale and The Legacy of Caïn and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

2She presents the diary as a successor of the epistolary form, arguing that both tell of the immediacy of a woman writer’s situation. There is, however, a difference, in so far as a letter always has at least one addressee, whereas the diary officially has none, being, to quote Delafield, “an understanding friend”.

3She starts by defining four types of diary : the account of household business, the spiritual diary, the family record and the travel diary. She then describes the diary as a feminine form of writing adapted to the private sphere and the discontinuity of female occupations and sees it as a site of resistance within power relations as well as a subgenre of the first person novel. The dailyness, lack of hierarchy and secret character all go, in her opinion, towards gendering it as feminine. This is interesting but raises some questions. The first one, concerning the feminine gendering of this form of writing, is how, to cite only one example, the most famous of diaries in English, Pepys’s, fits in with this theory. The second concerns the link with first person fiction which is anything but secret and which does play on hierarchy, in its choice of recounted events for example. But although this may seem a sweeping statement, it leads to a number of interesting remarks as to the function of the female first person narrative embedded in a novel.

4Delafield points out that diary writing by women guards them against the dangers of authorship in so far as espousing the discontinuity of female life, it, so to speak, writes itself, but that at the same time it gives women, within the frame of the novel, a space in which to rebel against the patriarchal ideology of the home. That tension lying in the discrepancy between woman’s private life and the public life of the diary is also visible in the editing of the diary for moral reasons. It is a way of negotiating privacy into public view, and the case of Fanny Burney’s diary opened, in her opinion, the possibility of the fictional diary and its role as a vehicle for narrative. The question one would like to ask here is how much of the genuine diary form remains once it has been edited to fit in with the overall narrative of a novel.

5Delafield also examines the tension from the author’s/editor’s point of view, the diary included in a novel being at the same time a means of telling a story that otherwise could not be spoken and a protection for the author against the accusation of triviality (in spending too much time and space on women’s lives). The link between diary and serial narrative confirms this point as both occupy a low place in the hierarchy of narratives. One could add that the use of the diary in serial narrative lifts the latter in the said hierarchy, as any form of narrative gendered feminine will be by definition considered the lowest form. She also makes the further points that serial narrative, like diary writing, implies the notion of the leisured woman whose time is fragmented and that the non-closure aspect of this type of publishing mirrors women’s way of life. She seems to miss, though, the notion of recurrence characteristic of the serial novel and of female tasks as well as the fact that the recurrence of the serial is also a way of breaking the monotony of the recurrent occupations of a woman at home.

6Delafield’s demonstration is at its most convincing when she shows the way in which the potentially subversive quality of the woman’s diary is systematically counteracted by the “male” editing that takes place in all the novels she works from. The analysis of Mina’s diary in Dracula is excellent, and what is particularly striking is that this is the case in women’s novels as well as in men’s, Helen’s diary in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall offering a perfect example. The heroine, as Delafield puts it, writes within the silences of nineteenth-century womanhood, talking about abuse and betrayal. But she rightly points out first that the diary is inserted in Gilbert’s long letter, and then that Gilbert, entrusted with it, assumes the right to edit it before he transmits it to Halworth. In other words “women could narrate at the level of the story but their narration had to be controlled”.

7But this edited diary still offers—to continue with the idea of tension—a comment, even if indirect, on domesticity, especially when it comes to the sensation novel and its revelation of the possibility of criminal activities within everyday life and writing. This aspect is strengthened by the documentary power of the diary in its assumed veracity, a characteristic that is strengthened by the fact that it is used by both Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker as one document among others. Although once again hierarchy reappears, as most of the time it is held to be the least reliable document, the document that has to be supported by others, more masculine.

8Delafield concludes with a remark on the concealment and theft of diaries in novels, a suppression that parallels the suppression of the woman as writing subject. Could we go as far as to suggest that this might be an expression of the main male narrator’s or author’s wish to suppress women as subjects? This would certainly tally with Delafield’s very pertinent remark that the diary in a novel reveals as much about the narrator as about the diarist.

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Référence papier

Marianne Camus, « Catherine Delafield, Women’s Diaries as Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century Novel », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 254-256.

Référence électronique

Marianne Camus, « Catherine Delafield, Women’s Diaries as Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century Novel », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2791

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Marianne Camus

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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