Thursday, February 21, 2008

Disciplines of Virtue

Title: Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Author: Lynn Vallone, professor of English at Texas A&M. Her most recent book is Becoming Victoria (2001), about Queen Victoria's childhood in cultural context. Vallone was also an editor for the Norton Anthology of Children's Literature (2005).

My review: This collection of previously published essays moves from England to America and roughly chronologically, delineating how books, both novels and "conduct books," instructed female children in the arts of self-discipline and virtue. Vallone visits discourses around reclaimed prostitutes, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), dowries, humor, and dirt. Her ultimate idea: the concept of "virtue" is used to signal to girls and young women that they can add value to themselves through their efforts to be good. If they self-negate enough, eventually they might be seen as virtuous enough that they could marry "up" in class, as Pamela does. Side casualties of this ideology are tomboys (liminal figures) and humor: "the ultimate lesson is that girlhood is not funny" (132).

(Ironically, Vallone writes, one of the ways of self-negating or being "good" in eighteenth-century England is by helping reform penitent prostitutes. Thus, through the act of helping, the "good" female accrues sexual value, while the prostitute is scrubbed of her one-time value and left in position of being suitable only for domestic service.)

Finally, Vallone points out, usefully, that in girls' fiction, as opposed to boys', the danger comes from within, not from the world.

The reviews of others: In American Literature, Barbara Ryan wrote that the choice of texts reads oddly to Americanists (yes) and wishes that Vallone had juxtaposed her textual readings with understandings of how girls read the books (as opposed to aligning them with general cultural practices). In the American Historical Review, Lori D. Ginzburg agreed that Vallone's work would have done well to pay better attention to the books' audiences, and added that she wished Vallone had paid more attention to the lives of the women, not dealt with in the book, who remain tomboys or never marry (and some of whom become authors of children's books).

Words: "abecedarian" ("a person who is learning the words of the alphabet, or a beginning learner of any kind"); "eudemonism" ("the doctrine that the basis of moral obligations is to be found in the tendency of right actions to produce happiness"); "soteriological" ("the theological doctrine of salvation as effected by Jesus").

Leads: Secondary: Anne Scott MacLeod, A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture (1975); Elliot West and Paula Petrik, Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950 (1992)

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