Liberating images: A feminist analysis of the girls' school-story

Humphrey, Judith Ann (2000). Liberating images: A feminist analysis of the girls' school-story. PhD thesis The Open University.



The thesis uses a synthesis of feminist and literary theory to analyse the way in which girls' school-stories challenge and subvert traditional societal constructs and provide images of liberation for girls and women.

The literary implications of a woman-centred universe are addressed in a study of plot and character. The texts provide a challenge to traditional literary representations of passive femininity, replacing them with images of active girls and women. There is tension between the domestic discourse and the discourse of adventure, but this is overcome by stress on character. The use of an interrogative subject position and of multiple and morally complex focalisers ensures that the identifying reader can maintain a position as subject within the text without being subjected to its ideology.

The liberating images of the books are seen in education, games, religion and friendship. Girls were educated either to serve or to please men; the intellectual woman was an affront to the natural order as decreed by medicine and theology. School-stories challenge this by presenting for identification girls who find study exciting and fulfilling and professional women who have chosen a life connected with learning. Games for girls fundamentally questioned the construct of frail femininity shored up by medical theories of finite energy, by Darwinism and by the eugenics movement. Religion was an significant part of life, and the texts provide a rigorous analysis of faith. The role of the Headmistress, simultaneously omnipotent and strongly maternal, subverts the traditional image of woman and of God. Women have been defined socially by their relations to men and have been seen as incomplete without them. Close friendship for women was defined as diseased and problematic by the sexologists working at the beginning of the century. These relationships are reclaimed in school-stories in terms of deep, abiding love.

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