Timothy L. Carens, “Idolatrous Reading: Subversive Fantasy and Domestic Ideology” (pp. 238–266)

In nineteenth-century Britain, patriarchal culture revealed its anxieties about female subjectivity and anxiety through an extensive debate about what young women should read. As critics have already shown, many writers in the period disparaged romantic novels by comparing them to unhealthy food, addictive drugs, or even illicit sexual encounters. The figure of idolatry played a significant role in this debate as well, suggesting that young female readers might betray the true god of the middle-class patriarchal order by worshiping more gratifying alternatives. If the language of idolatry generally connoted heretical transgression, emergent feminist writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon found that they could also use it to articulate a woman’s longing for the power to shape her own dreams. In Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864), a figure used to disparage women who neglect their role within the domestic order thus acquires a new and intensely ironic life as a way to imagine an escape from it.

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