‘Being a man,’ Norman Mailer once wrote, ‘is the continuing battle of
one ’s life … [One] can hardly ever assume [one] has become a man’.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was the unbecoming (collapse)
of (English) manhood which was foremost in the minds of many male
writers. The growing sense of a masculine collective self in crisis can be
placed in direct correlation with the advances of the British women’s
movement and its destabilization of patriarchal hegemonies. This
article examines the way in which, in their endeavour to exorcize the
threat of female cultural and sociopolitical agency, anti-feminist male
writers pressed New Woman fiction into service as a medium for
conservative propaganda. I shall be considering two textual configurations
of the turn-of-the-century masculinity complex and its
articulations of dread and desire, dystopia and the male free-love plot.
Sexual fantasies of women’s reconfinement within the boundaries of
male desire, these texts served to defuse, depoliticize and (hetero)sexualize
the political and moral/social purist agendas of feminist activists
and writers by transforming the New Woman – the agent of feminist
rebellion in women’s fiction – into a Sexy Angel in the House.