Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 12, No 1 (2007)

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“A Study in Starvation”: The New Girl and the Gendered Socialisation of Appetite in Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book

Abigail Dennis

Abstract


British feminist author Sarah Grand was regarded at the fin-de-siècle as one of one of the boldest revolutionaries of the New Woman movement. Modern feminist scholars have generally endorsed and emphasised this perceived radicalness. However, Grand’s subversiveness is negated by the conservative discourse that is given focus in her second novel, The Beth Book: Being a Study of the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure, A Woman of Genius (1897). Utilising the form of the Künstlerroman (or “artist’s novel”), this semi-autobiographical work follows of the development of its heroine, Beth Caldwell, from a rebellious child to a “woman of genius”—Grand’s idealised New Woman.

Using the interpretive lens of food and eating in the novel, this essay illuminates the ways in which the author censures the “childish” appetites—physical, spiritual and intellectual—of her embryonic New Woman. The awakening of Beth’s feminine subjectivity is tied to inherited, particularly Victorian notions of womanliness and admirable sacrifice, and the heroine’s ultimate abnegation of self and appetite concludes a starvation narrative throughout which Grand is driven to subjugate and purify the evolving female subject. The author’s complex attitude towards the consumption of food, as well as to those who consume it, I believe reflects a latent ambivalence towards the goals of fin-de-siècle feminism. While her work does display elements of the subversiveness for which she has been celebrated, The Beth Book ultimately and clearly displays an innate distrust of womanly appetite and agency. This analysis casts a new light on the persistent and vigorous debate around claims made by feminist scholars pertaining to the extent of Sarah Grand’s radicalism.

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