I read Hester by Margaret Oliphant this week in my push for more fiction. I really enjoyed its take on generational change (and repetition) as well as the intensity of family within the book. In this novel, family quite literally is an institution, for the Vernons are almost entirely defined by their relationship to Vernon’s bank. Catherine Vernon, the woman who saved the bank back in the day and thus becomes the family matriarch, buys a great old house where she installs her poorer relations. As the novel suggests: “It was some sort of a convent which she was going to institute, a community of an apostolical kind, a sisterhood, a hospital, a set of almshouses” (27). I love this description because it adds another layer of institutionality to the already hyper-institutional family structure. Of course, the center cannot hold. Family as institution slowly destroys the members of the family until institutions–the bank, and the Vernonry community–are all that’s left. The family homes are sold off, and Catherine dies (alas).
The novel has some brilliant moments: the Morgans refusing (or claiming to refuse) the claims of their grandchildren because they think they should be able to enjoy old age unfettered, Hester declaring that she is not a “Cinder wench” to Edward, and Edward’s merger of sex and speculation in a rather daring way (that ends in a far less daring conclusion, a hasty marriage on a train with Emma Ashton who just wanted her chance).
Gay is the new Black; women are the new slaves; wouldn’t we be more angry if the Redskins were called [fill in the blank] . . . Why is it so difficult to talk about the discrimination or subjection of particular groups of people without resorting to analogies that bring other groups into it in ways that flatten experience and homogenize minority difference? Valerie Rohy thinks so well on this very topic in Anachronism and its Others, and I was reminded of it again when re-reading Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” which depends upon a sustained analogy that women are like slaves (although he differentiates the two in various places). He’s much better on race in this essay than he is in On Liberty, and yet, like many white men before and after him, he implies that slaves didn’t have it so bad–after all, slaves in Christian countries could refuse the sexual advances of their masters, and wives have no choice–they have to give it up.
Analogies can productively defamiliarize naturalized practices and disrupt the regular rhythms of institutional life, but analogies can also be a way of re-circulating power/knowledge in ways that reassert the authority of white heteronormativity. Mostly, in such analogies I see a desire to move on and move past what isn’t past (racism against black people is a thing of the past, it’s the gays we need to focus on; we’ve solved slavery, let’s solve the women question; we have team names that are anti-indian racial slurs, but we are outraged at other racial slurs). Analogies are a way of refusing intersectional thinking; of simplifying the complexity of collective identities and experience.
And yet, precisely because analogies are portable, collapsing historical distance, they also can help us engage with pasts that are not yet pasts. They can show us that the very things we seem to have overcome continue to shape our lives, institutions, everyday assumptions.
Which is all to say, I bristle against the portability of Mil”s description of “slavery”–the ease through which it becomes a structure through which to see Victorian women’s experience (thereby becoming invisible on its own terms and in its various historical locations) but I recognize the impulse.