‘You’re not the Stuff of a Chapter’: Queer Life and Women’s Activism in Biofictions by Emma Donoghue
The ethics and ambitions behind appropriating the lives of historical figures in biographical fiction has become a subject of debate amongst neo-Victorian critics in recent years. Cora Kaplan (2007) identifies “Feminism’s ambitious and ongoing project of recovery and restitution and its interest in life writing and writing lives” as a crucial factor behind the resurgence of interest in biofictional accounts (38). But if neo-Victorian fictions “self-consciously engage with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (Heilmann and Llewellyn 4) then neo-Victorian biofiction will ultimately provide “the novelist’s vision of life and the world” (Lackey 7). My presentation will examine two biofictions by Emma Donoghue, “The Fox on the Line” (2002) and The Sealed Letter (2008). Each biofiction engages with real historical figures in the latter half of the nineteenth century by focusing on Frances Power Cobbe and The Codrington Divorce trial, respectively. In the dual act of “recovery and restitution” that Kaplan outlines, Donoghue’s fictions also elaborate on the queer lives of her characters. They frame lesbian lives within early suffragette activist movements, integrating the female/lesbian body within an advocate culture of marginalized identities. My study will draw on Kym Brindle’s (2014) theories on neo-Victorianism and Victorian documents to discuss Donoghue’s use of documentation, particularly in the form of letters, as a legitimizing force. Donoghue’s construction of documents in both texts provide a queer ‘evidence’ that the literal archive lacks in-full. However, my study will also explore the limits of biofiction. In reading lesbianism in the silences of Victorian women’s lives, Donoghue narrates various forms of unfulfillment, whether it be thwarted desire, activism, or personal honesty—all of which are often bound together in Donoghue’s biofictions. In articulating the lesbian’s links with early-feminist movements, Donoghue both celebrates the adaptive potential of her subjects and implicitly indicates the limits of the neo-Victorian biofictional form.
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her dissertation centers on neo-Victorian lesbian literature and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing and the gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan (2020), in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies (2020) and is forthcoming from Crime Studies Journal (2022). Find her on Twitter @RachelMFriars.