Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction


139 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8138-X
DDC C813.009352042





Elisabeth Anne MacDonald-Murray is an assistant professor of English at
the University of Western Ontario.


Drawing on current issues in feminist, postcolonial, and new historicist
criticism, Practising Femininity re-examines the construction of the
feminine subject in the domestic realism of early Canadian fiction.
Noting that most critical studies of 19th- and early 20th-century prose
works by and for women locate these works within a “progressive
narrative of liberation from oppressive gender norms,” Misao Dean
argues that such an approach ignores not only the historical context in
which these authors wrote but also the role that ideology plays in the
construction of gender. Instead, she examines the means by which early
Canadian authors employed contemporary gender ideology within the
dominant discourse of literary realism to construct a domestic feminine
ideal that justified their apparent departure from “authorized
feminine practice.”

Dean draws on Judith Butler’s definition of gender as performance as
well as Nancy Armstrong’s work on early “feminine genres” to
develop her thesis on the relationship between gender, ideology, and
domestic fiction in works ranging from the pioneer writings of Catharine
Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie to Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My
House. Pointing to the “intellectual poverty of critical approaches
which identify literary realism with the material reality of women’s
lives,” Dean shows that the hierarchy of gender is not so easily
escaped as many Canadian feminist critics have implied with their
assumption of historical progress in the representation of women. The
female writers of pioneer prose, early historical romances, New Woman
novels, and suffragette fiction, she argues, did not seek to free
themselves from contemporary gender ideology but rather embraced and
redefined it to create a fictional “feminine inner self” that
employed traditional feminine ideals to justify colonial women’s
roles. Within the apparent confines of woman’s subjection, however,
these authors discovered a limited power and authority that enabled them
to give voice to their lives and experiences. Thus, the feminine ideal
of domestic fiction was not the overwhelmingly oppressive construct that
feminist critics generally assume; rather, it created a means by which
women were enabled to enter the public discourse.

Dean’s conclusions, which she characterizes as “both deeply
conservative and deeply radical,” present a welcome and insightful new
perspective on a well-worn subject.


Dean, Misao., “Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,