By Muireann O’Cinneide (auth.)
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The curiously interpolated story of Julia’s mother, who dresses as a man to join her lover and fights alongside him in war, adds the element of gendered disguising to the novel’s absorption with forms of spectacle. The Duchess’s reference to cross-dressing anticipates her niece Caroline Lamb’s own use of such disguises during her love affair with Lord Byron. Acts of cross-dressing are often a staple of the scandalous memoir. Lamb’s Glenarvon (1816), the best-known of these three novels, is in some ways the archetypal roman á clef, with seemingly clear identifications to be made for the main characters, and a readership all too able and willing to spot the connections.
Likewise, women tended to experience autobiography in more marginal, fragmentary ways than did men, set apart from narrating the Great Life even as they were set aside from the (official) governing of the nation. If, as Marcus contends, ‘literacy, interiority, and the self as property are closely allied formations’,2 then Victorian accounts of female interiority must to some extent experience ownership of selfhood at a remove. 3 We can see aristocratic women writers as necessarily involved in this relinquishment, yet in other ways, to be an ‘aristocrat’ as well as a ‘woman’ opens up other forms of authority, over spheres not necessarily either limited or stationary.
32 Their primary responsibility to their husbands centred upon the production of a legitimate male heir to lands and titles, while as daughters they represented either the failure of inheritance, or an indirect means through which to preserve an inheritance for future sons, as for example, when a legacy was dependent on the husband changing his name. Middle-class Victorian women also encountered prevailing ideals of female identities as essentially relational, but their prescribed responsibilities were more closely associated with husbands and hearths, ‘the family’ as a unit in an individual home, whereas the responsibilities of an aristocratic woman were directed towards ‘the family’ as a long-standing socio-political entity.