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|American virgins : images of virginal and celibate women in nineteenth-century literature and art|
|Author||Vogel, Charity Ann|
|Summary||This dissertation examines representations of virginal or celibate American women in novels, stories, paintings, and ideal sculpture created during the nineteenth century by American artists working in the United States and abroad. With some exceptions, literary works ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels of the 1850s to Henry James's early twentieth-century works are examined; art works analyzed here cover the period from John Vanderlyn's 1804 canvas The Death of Jane McCrea to the works of painter Mary Cassatt in the late 1800s and early 1900s.|
The quality of liminality, particularly sexual liminality, enters this study as an important attribute of these images of virginal American maidens, many of whom are depicted as threatened or endangered women facing threats from Indians, pirates, or soldiers. Key reasons underlying these representations, and the reactions these images garnered from American audiences of the period, are explored indetail. A unique stream of fictional works created by American women writers during the mid- to late-nineteenth century---works which take place in convent or convent-related settings or explore convent life as a theme---are collected, identified, and analyzed as a distinct genre of works, called here American "convent fiction." These works are laid alongside the context of the historical background of Roman Catholic convents in the United States in the 1800s, and the real-life women who lived in them---providing a means for understanding these fictional works and enabling this study to engage with the cultural work these stories performed for their authors and audiences.
This dissertation concludes with an analysis of the "modern virgins" found in the novels and stories of Henry James, using as a lens onto his works the celibate life and potent death of his sister, Alice James. These distant, cold, unsettling virgins are here compared with the women portrayed in striking mother-and-child canvases created by the painter Mary Cassatt, whose female subjects present complex, even disturbing views of motherhood---and one of which, the painting Girl Arranging Her Hair, offers an intriguing view of the sexual liminality of the American girl-woman at the turn of the century.
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