“She did not find it in her heart to die out of complaisance to these rulers of nature”:
Restaging the Seduction Plot in Ira and Isabella
St. Michael’s College
I taught Ira and Isabella in two sections of the first half of an American literature survey, just after finishing The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster. As I’ll explain in the following paragraphs, the two texts paired productively with one another on a number of levels, but I found Ira and Isabella most useful in the ways in which it raised questions about narrative expectations and structure, especially in the representation of female desire and sexuality at the end of the 18th century. My students had a lot of fun discussing Ira and Isabella (potential incest! lecherous father figures! fabulous names for prostitutes! In all honestly, dare we ask anything more of a text that gifts us names like Fidelia Froth, Prudence Slammerkin, Desire Goodale, Love Midnight, Patience Couzens, Tabitha Sly, and Silence Tickle?) and it helped them become better readers of The Coquette.
Like The Coquette, Ira and Isabella is interested in questions of sympathy, of the boundaries between self and other and the paths by which an individual might use language to cross those boundaries and influence feeling and cognition. In both, same-sex friendship offers a safe space to confess, act out, push back, and repent: the charitable sympathy of a loving friend, in other words, contrasts with the conniving sympathy of a rakish chameleon. Textbook Enlightenment novels that they are, both oscillate between critiquing/reinforcing gendered double standards in society and troubling/confirming distinctions between fancy and reason. In both, the mind is pregnable to assault, and the body follows the mind. Hidden danger lurks, appearance is oftentimes more powerful than reality, and morals and mothers offer protection from a cruel world. And yet, despite all this and more, both texts argue for an expanded consideration of women’s lives by chafing narratively against the very labels they are simultaneously complicit in placing on female characters.
Stylistically, however, the texts are very different. Foster’s novel is epistolary, an exchange of private confidences between friends, family, and lovers that the reader “looks in on” from the outside. Wharton guides her audience in their reception of these documents by reminding them of their sympathetic responsibilities and moral obligations (they must not replicate the actions of a coquette by relishing gossip for gossip’s sake, but instead should seek to follow Eliza’s female friends by looking at her story with pity and learning from it). The novel asserts its fundamental role as teacher by illustrating the dangers of openly rebelling against authority, even as it critiques from within. Regardless of the text’s sympathy with Eliza’s private grievances with her society’s unrealistic expectations for women, it ultimately damns Eliza for following her muse. Only when she is dead can readers take her up in unalloyed sympathy; she was too troublesome alive, especially in retrospect, once her “advanced age” has been revealed.
Almost from the outset, Ira and Isabella takes issue with this plot and exposes it as contrived and manipulative. Ironically, the despite cardboard flimsiness of Brown’s plot and setting (worth talking about in its own right: it reminded me so much of Stephen Crane!), the characters seem a bit more human than those in Foster’s novel, less representations of an idea and more complex, confused, thoughtful people walking around in the world. Students were especially surprised by the way in which Isabella was idealized as naturally graceful and radiant with inner beauty even as she was also so clearly a frank, confident independent spirit. So too was Ira a breath of fresh air after The Coquette: here was a meek, amiable, steady, honest man who was not a minister! They found his seeming disinterest in passion/romance fascinating, and we had an interesting discussion about whether the novella’s portrayal of Isabella’s desire as “awakening” Ira sexually might be seen as contributing to or countermanding stereotypes about women. At one point, Isabella suggests to Ira that lust is natural, that it is tied to her womanhood! Regardless of the politics of this claim, it is clear that Brown’s story is not one of “seduction” as commonly represented. The slapdash style and dizzying pace of revelations are designed to mock the seduction novel as a ridiculous sham masquerading as a moral digestif. We returned to the title page and preface as we discussed this possibility and talked about how it offers guidance to the reader and comments on the expectation to look for guidance in a preface at the same time. Here too, Brown’s coyness appeared ripe to read as commentary on narrative convention.
There is, of course, the overt marriage plot, complicated after the ceremony but before consummation by the revelation that Ira and Isabella may be siblings. Strangely, though, the possibility of incest doesn’t seem to matter all that much to anyone in terms of how they live their lives. The narrative moves forward through a series of conversations in which rotating players debate a question or term (plot is revealed in this way, so that “the state of things” changes based on who gains the opportunity to speak). The nature of “love” is central to a number of these conversations, and in true Gothic form, characters repeatedly suggest that human efforts to delineate different types of love for different relations is frustrated by love’s refusal to abide by artificial channels and definitional boundaries. Knowing this, individuals playfully don various relational titles (“father,” “sister,” “friend,” “nurse”) only to transgress them. This is a comic rather than tragic treatment of star-crossed lovers, and yet Brown doesn’t abandon a moral purpose for literature. If anything, he suggests that the lie previous writers have been telling about what happens to women and men who “transgress” does more harm than good. By refusing to picture individuals continuing on in the world (as they do) after affairs and pregnancies, bankruptcies and lies, Brown argues, novelists fetishize unrealistic expectations and invariably set Americans up for “failure” the second they open their mouths or enter a room.
While The Coquette is the easier sell for an American literature syllabus, I had to do a bit of dancing during discussion to bring it to life for students. With Ira and Isabella, both of my sections entered the room buzzing about the craziness of the story. They wanted to unpack it, to laugh about its ridiculous, to discuss whether anyone else thought the Doctor had the hots for Isabella. As I asked them questions about the shape and style of the story, especially in comparison to Foster’s, they began to ask pretty complex questions about narrative structure and purpose of their own accord. I’m really glad I added the text to the syllabus.