A Rationale for Fiction

Gallagher's Cultural History of the Novel Through Women in 18th Century Letters

by Fernando Quintero

Much of English professor Catherine Gallagher's research has shown what novels reflect about a culture.

In her latest book, "Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace," Gallagher shows how literature can also help bring about cultural changes.

The book explores the careers of five influential women writers of the Restoration and 18th century, revealing the connections between the increasing prestige of female authorship, the economy of credit and debt, and the rise of the novel as a literary form.

"My book is mainly an attempt to show how new the idea of fiction was in 18th century England. Until early modern Europe, there was no notion of fictionality. Stories were either true, false or something in between," said Gallagher, a 16-year Berkeley faculty member.

In December, "Nobody's Story" won the prestigious James Russell Lowell Prize, awarded annually for an outstanding book written by a member of the association.

"Working within the domains of imputed female lack, artificial personae and commodity exchange, Gallagher subtly unfolds the multiple meanings of 'nothing' and of the 'nobody' of her title," read the prize selection committee's citation.

"The resulting cultural history of the novel has an interest that carries far beyond the five representative authors on whom she focuses," it says.

The first idea of "nobody" Gallagher explores involves the appearance of fictional characters in 18th century English literature who were not of social importance.

"They were very common folk, people without social stature or allegorical meaning. That was new," said Gallagher. "I try to figure out from novels and other sources why people read fiction--why people would read nobody's story."

One explanation Gallagher offers was the need at the time for "emotional practice."

"The way a novel will allow you to invest yourself emotionally, then extricate yourself emotionally, goes along with 18th-century social change," said Gallagher.

"People were beginning to choose their own marital partners, and spouses were expected not just to be true to each other, but also to love each other. There were a lot of emotional demands. Overt fictionality provided some needed emotional practice."

Gallagher traces the role writers Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth played in the development of the novel.

Her analysis of the careers of Lennox and Burney links "new concepts of literary property, a new attribution of innocence to authors (especially female authors), and the circulation of fictional entities throughout the culture."

"But the novel soon came under attack as an unruly medium; readers, it was increasingly noted as the century wore on, could not be counted on to disengage themselves from Nobody.

"Consequently, each generation of writers felt called upon to reform the genre by encouraging an affective pulsation...between emotional investment and divestment," Gallagher wrote.

"The constant need, created by fiction itself, to revise the genre into an ever more efficient exercise in self-control further stimulated the market and inspired numerous women

writers to come to the novel's rescue."

Gallagher, who received her BA and PhD from Berkeley, has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation.

In addition to her prize-winning book, she published "The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form" in 1985.

"I was interested in how people started thinking of themselves differently in a society that was very class divided," she said about the book. "I wondered whether life stories changed dramatically as they took up the subject matter of the industrial revolution."

Most of Gallagher's work has been on British literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1987, she co-edited with Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur "The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century."

Gallagher is currently working on several essays that deal with the presence of labor and economics in 19th-century literature.

"The question for me is always whether we can get at changes in human subjectivity by looking at changes in the novel," Gallagher said. "The components of our inner lives shift around, historically. I'm looking for the literary equivalents of those shifts."


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