Books · Gender · Whiteness & racism

angry white women: feminist lit crit on classic women writers

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary ImaginationThe Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The imagination of the title is the boundary of Gilbert and Gubar’s reflections, and some qualifications might be added to define the limits and orientation of that imagination, such as whiteness and the English language. All of the women writers they discuss as foremothers and proponents of a specifically female literary culture are white and either English or USian (correct me if I err). Of course it is necessary to have a focus, to delineate a subject for enquiry, but it is important to note that we are not only examining white material but examining it through whiteness, thus Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist readings make seemingly uncritical use of the ‘dark’ Other against whom white women are defined:

Bertha is Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress… ‘The novelist who exploits psychological Doubles juxtaposes two characters, the one representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the other externalising the free, uninhibited, often criminal self’

Apart from a parenthetical remark about Betha’s origin/colour, discussion of the issue of race does not enter this section at all. The very title of the book thus finally serves to erase race as a feminist concern, since the figure of the madwoman in the attic, a direct reference to the character (in Jane Eyre) of Bertha Mason, who is black, is made to stand for a group of white British and USian writers, who in turn represent women in general as maddened by the circumstances of the period.

Another trope discussed at length is the aesthetic, often fetishised illness and feebleness of the nineteenth century young woman both in life and literature, but the authors miss the fact that this effectively disabled body is a white body specifically defined against the able, fertile, working body of the black woman, a distinction that enables the denial of femininity/womanhood/humanity to black women.

In their excited introduction to this edition, the authors acknowledge rather than answer the critique of their work from this kind of angle by Gayatri Spivak. My intention is not to castigate them or to warn folks off this impressive and enjoyable book! But I do want to suggest that there is a lot of decolonisation left undone for the reader to be aware of…

Because really, you wouldn’t want to miss out on reading this, if you’ve ever read Austen, Eliot, Emily Dickinson or the Brontes. Especially if you’ve ever watched an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and thought oh no, no, no! It really isn’t all about the desirability of a rich and handsome young man! There’s so much more to it. Because Gilbert and Gubar have carefully excavated and investigated the so-much-more of the great women writers of the so-called golden age, revealing explicit and latent themes that speak to feminist consciousness.

Their approach is to ‘trust the tale not the teller’ in reading feminist meanings into characters and interactions, but their discoveries never feel arbitrary and in general I found them convincing, even where they evidently disagreed with other critics. Their method is close reading, generally working text by text, but also interlinking to flesh out an image of each author’s (often changing and evolving) sensibilities and concerns. The personal is hugely important to them, and the preliminary discussion of women’s anxiety merely about merely assuming the heavily male-defined mantle of author is crucial for all of the writers they discuss. There is much biographical content, and an air of empathy that only strengthens the overall impression of rigour. Comparative comments seem rare to me, and I appreciated them as treats:

Every negative stereotype protested by Charlotte Bronte is transformed into a virtue by George Eliot. While Bronte curses the fact than women are denied intellectual development, Eliot admits the terrible effects of this malnourishment but also implies that emotional life is thereby enriched for women. While Bronte shows how difficult it is for women to be assertive, Eliot dramatises the virtues of a uniquely female culture based on supportive camaraderie instead of masculine competition. While Bronte dramatises the suffocating sense of imprisonment born of female confinement, Eliot celebrates the ingenuity of women whose love can make “one little room, an everywhere. And while Bronte envies men the freedom of their authority, Eliot argues that such authority actually keeps men from experiencing their own physical and psychic authenticity.

I also enjoyed the highly imaginative and poetic discussion of weaving, sewing and embroidery, presented in the concluding chapters on Emily Dickinson, but relevant to other authors too. I came back to this exploration when reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers describes men knitting and sewing in different contexts, and I saw this as part of her disruptive re/unwriting of gender. The men in question have characteristics that might be seen as wifely or feminine (cooking daily for another man, design skill, attention to detail, pleasure in homemaking and beauty, desire to care for children) and their weaving-work draws attention to these attributes.

References to classical mythology abound, but the authors constantly look beyond simplistic parallels and look for half-submerged layers of meaning that often seem to have been deliberately veiled (veiling is another theme afforded scrutiny) by the authors under discussion. The tradition Gilbert and Gubar claim to have defined and traced seems to have this rather coy mode of concealment as a key tenet.

Perhaps the most affecting passage, for me, is their comparison of Emily Dickinson with her contemporary, Walt Whitman, foregrounding again female anxiety of authorship, about taking up space

As most readers know, the cornerstone of Whitman’s epic meditation is a powerful assertion of identity now entitled ‘Song of Myself’ and in tat first edition [of Leaves of Grass, published 1855] called ‘Walt Whitman’. Because the 1he edition appeared without its author’s name on the title page, some critics have spoken of the work’s near ‘anonymity’, and perhaps, by comparison with those later editions… which were decorated not only with the poet’s name and photograph but with facsimilies of his signature, this early version was unusually reticent. But of course what was modesty for Whitman would have been mad self-assertion for Dickinson […] He didn’t need to put his name on the title page because he and his poem were coextensive…

Whitman’s expansive lines, moreover, continually and swaggeringly declared the enormity of his cosmic/prophetic powers. ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself’ his poem begins magisterially, ‘and what I assume, you shall assume’ promising in bardic self-confidence that if you ‘stop this day and night with me… you shall possess the origin of all poems.’ While Dickinson, the ‘slightest in the House,’ reconciles herself to being Nobody, Whitman genially enquires ‘Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).’ While Dickinson trembles in her room, with the door just ajar, Whitman cries ‘Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’

Next time I find myself folded up on the tube between men seated legs so far akimbo they block my path I shall remember Emily and Walt, and push back.

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