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The Flirt's Tragedy

Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction
Richard A. Kaye

BUY Cloth · 246 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813921006 · $45.00 · May 2002
BUY Ebook · 246 pp. · ISBN 9780813922003 · $45.00 · May 2002

In the flirtation plots of novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and W. M. Thackeray, heroines learn sociability through competition with naughty coquette-doubles. In the writing of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, flirting harbors potentially tragic consequences, a perilous game then adapted by male flirts in the novels of Oscar Wilde and Henry James. In revising Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education in The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton critiques the nineteenth-century European novel as morbidly obsessed with deferred desires. Finally, in works by D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, flirtation comes to reshape the modernist representation of homoerotic relations.

In The Flirt’s Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction, Richard Kaye makes a case for flirtation as a unique, neglected species of eros that finds its deepest, most elaborately sustained fulfillment in the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novel. The author examines flirtation in major British, French, and American texts to demonstrate how the changing aesthetic of such fiction fastened on flirtatious desire as a paramount subject for distinctly novelistic inquiry. The novel, he argues, accentuated questions of ambiguity and ambivalence on which an erotics of deliberate imprecision thrived. But the impact of flirtation was not only formal. Kaye views coquetry as an arena of freedom built on a dialectic of simultaneous consent and refusal, as well as an expression of "managed desire," a risky display of female power, and a cagey avenue for the expression of dissident sexualities. Through coquetry, novelists offered their response to important scientific and social changes and to the rise of the metropolis as a realm of increasingly transient amorous relations.

Challenging current trends in gender, post-gender, and queer-theory criticism, and considering texts as diverse as Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Kaye insists that critical appraisals of Victorian and Edwardian fiction must move beyond existing paradigms defining considerations of flirtation in the novel. The Flirt’s Tragedy offers a lively, revisionary, often startling assessment of nineteenth-century fiction that will alter our understanding of the history of the novel.


Amusing and absorbing. Richard Kaye’s The Flirt’s Tragedy brilliantly intuits new ways of reading the importance of flirtation in the history of the English novel. From Jane Austen to E. M. Forster, Kaye proposes, flirtation is not to be understood as a merely stock narrative element nor as a merely dated social convention. It is instead a significant marker of formal transformation in the development of novelistic form.

Robert L. CaserioTemple University, author of The Novel in England, 1900-1950: History and Theory

About the Author(s): 

Richard A. Kaye is Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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