Spheres of Sex: An Examination of Gender Performance in Northanger Abbey and Herculine Barbin

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“It was most often a fortuitous circumstance that provided the physiological demonstration of the true sex.” (Goujon, 137) The concept of true sex was one which preoccupied thinkers of early nineteenth century Europe. Scientists, scholars, religious figures, doctors, and civilians all grappled with the concepts of gender and sex in a struggle to ensure each individual was sorted into their correct position and conducting themselves with propriety within the socially acceptable sphere of their gender. At the time sex was a defining element that influenced all other components of life. Romantic relationships, familial responsibilities, friendships, education, vocations, media consumption, and pastimes were all dictated in some way by the constraints of appropriate gender performance. From the contrasting position when an individual’s true sex was indeterminable all of these aspects of life could be used as clues in determining the proper sexing of an intersex individual. In reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and the memoir of Herculine Barbin, along with its accompanying documents, one may ascertain that an individual’s reproductive capabilities and educational knowledge acquisition were two of the most critical components of gender performance that contributed to a person embodying their true sex. The stories of courtship, learning, and living reveal the societal struggle with the concept of gender that early nineteenth century Europeans dealt with.
At the most biological level gender is often considered as a semantically focused discussion of reproductive anatomy. Reproductive capability was tied to medical discussions of gender but also social conversation because procreation was so central to adult identity and marital po...

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...e may become a gender by accomplishment certain achievements, deemed critical to defining sex, by religious, medical, media, or societal “experts.” In early nineteenth century Europe reproductive capability and the gendered acquisition of knowledge were two of the most critical of these achievements. Austen’s Northanger Abbey serves as an anthropologic observation and satirical critique of these true sex experiences while Herculine Barbin’s memoir allows unique insight into the qualifiers of true sex and the transcendence of individuals outside of the expected true sex binary. These works illuminate how much of a person’s gender performance success was tied to procreative ability, and proper gender education and vocational pursuits. These aspects helped create gender identities and were deciding elements in the sometimes challenging quest to determine true sex.
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