American scholar Donald E. Hall’s work of literary criticism Fixing Patriarchy: Feminism and Mid-Victorian Male Novelists
(1996) examines the work of major British Victorian novelists including Dickens, Tennyson, Kingsley, Thackeray, Hughes, Collins, and Trollope in light of the gains made by the women’s movement during the era. Hall’s punning title summarizes his argument: the novels he examines betray an anxious need to “fix” patriarchy in place, and simultaneously to “fix” a broken-down patriarchal order. Scholars received Fixing Patriarchy
as a “generous account of Victorian feminism and the traces it leaves in texts written by Victorian men” (South Atlantic Review
Hall introduces his argument by defining patriarchy as he finds it in the work of Victorian male novelists. He sees it as a system of “male hegemony” in which women are simultaneously viewed as men’s binary opposite and as a subordinate order. Hall points out that this system is a “fluidly horizontal construct” that “implies perimeters of identity that are easily breached or transgressed.” The result is anxiety about the boundaries and the fundamental solidity of the patriarchal order. Hall notes that for a long time, he intended to call his book A Literature of Threat
, because he finds in the novelists he studies an assiduous and labor-intensive response to the threat posed by the women’s movement to Victorian patriarchy.
The remainder of the book is divided into three sections, each covering a different chronological period. The first section covers the 1840s, discussing novels by Charles Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit
), Alfred Tennyson (The Princess
), and Charles Kingsley (Yeast
and Alton Locke
). These novels are placed in the context of the contemporary women’s movement through an examination of American Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century
, as well as texts relating to the British women’s movement, then in its infancy.
Hall presents Martin Chuzzlewit
as Dickens’s attempt to address criticisms of patriarchy, in part by defending against them, and in part by proposing corrections to them. Hall finds Dickens’s presentation of “anti-patriarchal” women at this early stage of his career to be harshly unsympathetic. Kingsley’s novels Hall finds more sophisticated: "His relationship to oppressive mid-Victorian gender ideologies is neither fully oppositional nor simply collusive.” Hall presents Kingsley’s fiction as an attempt to find common ground between the different factions in the debate over women’s status.
Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century
is placed alongside Tennyson’s novel The Princess
in order to explore the issue of “vocalization,” that is, the question of whether women should be allowed to speak for themselves, or whether it was men’s right and duty to speak for them. Hall argues that Tennyson’s novel defends patriarchy through “subsumption,” or appropriating women’s words in order to reissue them—somewhat modified—as their own.
In Part 2, covering the 1850s, Hall places the Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1851 alongside another Dickens novel Little Dorrit
, Thackeray’s The Newcomes
, and Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays
. He notes a distinct advance in Dickens’s thinking, arguing that Little Dorrit
reveals a “laudable concern with male corruption,” although he also concludes that the novel ultimately works to reinforce patriarchy in principle. Thackeray is similarly ambivalent: on the one hand, his female characters are skillful, competitive, and reconcile aggression with femininity. On the other hand, these characters serve a satirical purpose, underscoring the evils of Victorian capitalism.
Meanwhile, Tom Brown’s Schooldays
is straightforwardly misogynistic, serving in Hall’s account as a “marker of retrenchment” as the Victorian patriarchy redoubles its defenses. Nevertheless, Hall argues, even Hughes’s novel is haunted by the psychological strain of its impermeable, violent masculinity. Tom Brown ends the novel crying, and Hall comments, "Wanting everything, hating others and Otherness in [himself], how could [he] not end up crying?" Hall argues that Tom Brown stands for all Victorian patriarchs in their psychological fragility.
Part 3 moves into the 1860s, which Hall characterizes as a period of steady incremental progress for the women’s movement. A number of feminist writings from the period are introduced to provide context to the novels of Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope, as well as Dickens’s Great Expectations
Harriett Martineau’s essay “Female Industry,” is discussed alongside the novels of Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White
, Man and Wife
, and Armdale
). Hall argues that these novels reflect a positive change in women’s cultural position. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers
is paired with Anne Isabella Robertson’s 1872 lecture to the Irish National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Robertson argues that women should be entitled to involve themselves in politics, and Hall argues that Trollope’s novels reformulate this argument through female characters who show themselves to be politically sharp and sensitive.
Dickens, Hall finds, has once more progressed, but again only incrementally. Hall applauds Great Expectations
’ complex “transgressive” women but observes that the novel reveals a resistance to the idea of women acting collaboratively. Hall places this observation alongside the Contagious Diseases Act, which forced women suspected of being prostitutes to submit to inspection for venereal disease: Hall argues that this legislation similarly emerged from anxiety about women living and working together. He even suggests that Dickens’s novel helped to foment the anxiety which brought the Act into being.