Writing the Self into Existence: Neurasthenic Women and the Rendering of Literary Form during the Victorian Age
This paper examines Victorian constructs of gender and literary creativity to determine how the women writers Virginia Woolf, Alice James, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ellen Glasgow crafted unique autobiographical and fictional narratives that revealed and magnified their own developing sense of self. Further, the paper explores the nineteenth century association between women writers and mental ailments such as neurasthenia, hysteria and other nervous complaints to discuss how Victorian based schemas of mental illness depicted the narrative perceptions and experiences of women as deviant and deficient rather than as beneficial. Moreover, the paper assesses the impact these schemas had on the formulation of identity and the creative maturation of these writers as they sought literary empowerment and authenticity.
In so doing, the paper integrates autobiographical content as well as narrative form as viable modes of inquiry to elicit an understanding and appreciation for the power of words to shape the lives of both writer and reader within a dialectic of shared knowledge through language. To achieve these ends, the paper first defines autobiography or the story of one's life from a western literary concept of self-representation, as well as the importance of rendering a woman's sense of self as relational. Second, the paper reviews research on narrative as a transactional force that necessitates a symbolic and active encounter between self, other and world as well as a dynamic of self-actualization and efficacy. Third, the paper evaluates and rejects the nineteenth century notion of women writers as pathological to suggest that those women writing in relation to the historical contexts in which their works emerged, affirmed rather than denounced the full potential of human creativity and expression as a sign of resiliency and generativity. Resultantly, these writers wrote themselves as well as their legitimate legacies into existence.
Keywords: Nineteenth Century Women Writers, Neurasthenia and Literary Creativity, Gender and the Formulation of Identity, Narrative as a Mode of Inquiry, Autobiography as Self-Representation, Shared Knowledge through Language
Dr. Jana Rivers-Norton
Assistant Professor, College of Letters and Sciences, National University