Reading Daughters' Fictions begins with an entertaining prefatory sketch of Charlotte Charke, daughter of Colley Cibber, playwright, and famous cross-dresser, situating her as ever in quest of her father's approval; for Charke, the moment she dressed in her father's clothes at the age of 4 signified her daughterly need to identify with her father. In her book, Gonda herself ostensibly pursues this topic: as the blurb professes, she 'shows that heroine-centred novels, aimed at a predominantly female readership, had an important part to play in female socialization and constructions of heterosexuality, in which the father-daughter relationship had a central role'. This in itself is an intriguing topic—the family romance facilitating the daughter's entry into the world of heterosexual romance—and Gonda's choice of authors (Manley, Barker, Haywood, Scott, Burney, Inchbald, Radcliffe, Brunton, Edgeworth, and, rather oddly, Richardson and Walpole) reasonable. Why, then, does Reading Daughters' Fictions prove such a problematic book? Why, after reading it, was I left with less a sense of fictive fathers, than of critical mothers?
Part of the problem lies in the list of authors above. For the most part, Gonda concentrates on female writers writing novels featuring fathers whose personalities veer from the weakly indulgent, to the incestuously desiring, to the violently destructive. It is certainly an interesting, even vital point to make: female-authored fictions frequently portray the father as faulty, as contributing to his daughter's traumas, as, at the best, inculcating her with debilitating love for himself (as, for instance, St. Aubert in Mysteries of Udolpho). But by devoting a chapter to Richardson, and by concentrating heavily on Walpole in her chapter on the Gothic, Gonda dilutes her approach: the 'daughters' switch, unremarked, from actual writing authors, to characters written by men. Surely it makes a difference that the daughter is now real, now fictional? Surely it affects the plot that the author is now a 'father', now a 'daughter'? Gonda lumps together reality and fiction when she notes she has been 'exploring the process by which daughters internalize patriarchal authority' (140), but does not make clear which world (ours, or a novel's) the daughters inhabit. This kind of sweeping approach unhinges the reliability of Gonda's own plot.
In her critiques of specific novels, Gonda often makes valuable and interesting points: she provides an informative and thorough Introduction, usefully divided into sections covering the main points she will return to in the body of the book. This structure does produce some obliquity, however, as she refers to characters, authors, people and plotlines that have not yet been established or described as if the reader already knows all about them. More seriously, however, the Introduction seems unsure of its own central point: on page 18, Gonda notes that 'in the eighteenth-century scheme of relative and social duties, the daughter's apprenticeship in relation to her father was not solely one of formation for "her man", but for her place in society', a useful and original point that reads daughterhood as preparation for a kind of citizenship, franchisement in society. And yet, by page 33, Gonda has retreated from this stance: 'Paternal education at its best makes the daughters fit objects for the love of a good man, as they strive to be worthy of their father's affection'. And this is emphasised on page 37, the Introduction's last page: 'What the novels helped to reinforce was the sense that [marriage] was the most important decision, really the only decision of any significance, that a daughter would ever have the chance to take; and that the success or failure of that decision was intimately bound up with the relationship which she had with her father'. The book thus rests on a very wobbly base.
Gonda's style of argument is likewise wobbly. For the most part, chapters are grouped around a rather random assortment of novels the plots of which exemplify a certain kind of father/daughter relationship, but the points raised are dictated by plot summary rather than by a clearly-argued topic. This results in a chapter like that on the Gothic, where by its end fathers have been described as both bad and unreal, and bad and real; good and weak, and bad and weak; the imprisoner and the imprisoned; and mothers have been introduced without warning both the illustrate bad fatherly behaviour and to act as the father's foil. Too much is offered and too much left undone. By relying so heavily on plot summary and large chunks of quotation, Gonda also allows her argument to proceed by suggestion rather than analysis: she is primarily descriptive. When she makes a good point, she does not follow it through; her authorly energies are devoted to summing up the words of others rather than proving her own thesis. And herein lies the biggest problem, for while Gonda's book is about fathers and daughters, her methodology recreates a mother/daughter relationship, between Gonda and those female critics who have broached this topic before. Gonda tells us in her Acknowledgements that the book began as term paper for Margaret Doody, who figures prominently in this finished book as well: she appears repeatedly as the critic to whom Gonda owes her greatest debt, since too many of Gonda's conclusions are derived directly from Doody (made clear in the many notes citing Doody and the many references to her in the body of the text). Patricia Spacks also features heavily, while the book concludes with an extended, and negative, review of Beth Kowaleski-Wallace's Their Fathers' Daughters. For Gonda, Doody seems to function as the good mother, Spacks the indifferent mother, and Kowaleski-Wallace the bad mother, and she simply spends too much time engaging with their points, to the detriment of her own. Little in Reading Daughters' Fictions is original to Gonda; the one chapter that stands out, on Sarah Scott, is only 6 pages long and styled as an 'Interlude'.
This weakness, combined with book's surprising number of typos and stylistic inconsistencies (critics are cited in the notes and in the text, with no explanation of approach; page numbers are missing in the notes; words are missing in the text), makes Reading Daughters' Fictions an unexpectedly disappointing experience. Its topic is a good one, and its author capable of better. But this book, a compendium of already-argued points, extended plot summary, overstated cases and understated argument, does neither any favours.