Conventions Were Outraged: Country, House, Fiction
Ames, Kristen Kelly
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The dissertation traces intersections among subjectivity, gender, desire, and nation in English country house novels from 1921 to 1949. Inter-war and wartime fiction by Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Mitford, P. G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth Bowen, and Evelyn Waugh performs and critiques conventional domestic ideals and, by extension, interrupts the discourses of power that underpin militaristic political certainties. I consider country house novels to be campy endorsements of the English home, in which characters can reimagine, but not escape, their roles within mythologized domestic and national spaces. The Introduction correlates theoretical critiques of nationalism, class, and gender to illuminate continuities among the naïve patriotism of the country house novel and its ironic figurations of rigid class and gender categories. Chapter 1 provides generic and critical contexts through a study of du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which the narrator’s subversion of social hierarchies relies upon the persistence, however ironic, of patriarchal nationalism. That queer desire is the necessary center around which oppressive norms operate only partially mitigates their force. Chapter 2 examines figures of absence in “A Haunted House,” To the Lighthouse, and Orlando. Woolf’s queering of the country house novel relies upon her Gothic figuration of Englishness, in which characters are only included within nationalist spaces by virtue of their exclusion. In Chapter 3, continuities between Orlando and Between the Acts test Woolf’s call to “indifference” to war in Three Guineas. The country house reifies the nostalgic crisis of Woolf’s feminist pacifism: political agency must occupy the borderland between nostalgic idealism and cynical self-abnegation. Chapter 4 examines popular country house novels by Wodehouse, Mitford, Bowen, and Waugh that explicitly engage, with various degrees of seriousness, with political conflicts of the 1930s and ’40s. Exposing disavowed affinities among the country house ethos, English patriotism, and fascist nostalgia provides opportunities to negotiate, if not resolve, ethical quandaries of wartime neutrality, irony, and indifference. By forcing readers to confront their own circumscription by nationalist and gendered expectations, these country house novels ultimately foreclose the possibility of escaping them – but they also demand readers’ renewed commitment to figures of difference and narratives of failure.