• Email
  • Print

Men, Women, and Lit.

In response to:

Re-creating Eve from the December 20, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Rosemary Dinnage’s review of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (NYR, December 20, 1979) claims that this feminist study of nineteenth-century women writers “belittle[s] [its] women subjects by ignoring their generosity and detachment.” Dinnage would substitute for the book’s central perception of the woman writer’s rage to break free of male formulations an ideal of female “fairmindedness.” Perhaps because Dinnage is a psychologist rather than a literary critic, her reductive reading of The Madwoman in the Attic belittles its material far more than Gilbert and Gubar do theirs; replacing analysis with moralistic formulae, Dinnage shows little trace of the fairmindedness she extolls.

Dinnage’s hazy sense of literary history leads her to make some crucial factual errors in her review. She disapproves of “the bias produced by ignoring male writers and most male critics,” forgetting that, as the preface acknowledges, the book’s scheme is based on that of a male critic (Harold Bloom’s in The Anxiety of Influence) and its central image of an archetypal woman who “fell” into fragments is quoted from a male poet (William Blake). A book about women need not affirm its validity by mentioning men, but this particular book does acknowledge male influence generously. Dinnage also takes Gilbert and Gubar to task for anachronism in finding feminist themes and images in nineteenth-century novels, apparently unaware that the feminist movement was not invented in our own decade but generated stormy debates, which no major writer ignored, throughout the nineteenth century. The thinness of Dinnage’s literary and historical knowledge leads to a biased presentation of a learned and scrupulous work of scholarship.

Dinnage also dislikes Gilbert and Gubar’s perception of woman’s “horror of being…reduced to a tool of the life process,” which she deems “a recently invented horror.” But birth control was as heated an issue in Victorian England as it has been in modern America, as we see in John Stuart Mill’s early encounter with the authorities when he attempted to distribute literature on contraception. Moreover, one need only read Jane Austen’s letters, with their indictment of woman reduced by numerous confinements to a “poor animal,” prematurely aged and often killed by the hazards of childbearing, to find documentation of the “horror” felt by an early nineteenth-century woman. Dinnage seems to want to cling to an image of the nineteenth-century female as a model of one-dimensional compliance, but actual nineteenth-century texts make it impossible to preserve that image; Gilbert and Gubar have not invented their madwoman, but have explained her ubiquity. Dinnage reveals her shaky knowledge of the period by such odd associations as that of Charlotte Brontë’s “cruel and slatternly” image of Human Justice with “the mother who deserted Brontë so early.” By all accounts, Mrs. Brontë was kind and tidy, though ill and worn down by family responsibilities in the years before her early death. The bizarre innuendos of this passage lack even tenuous basis in biographical fact.

Dinnage fares no better when she takes Gilbert and Gubar to task for their readings of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. She wants to prove that Eliot is more fairminded than Gilbert and Gubar by citing her sympathetic portrait of Lydgate, a man as painfully trapped in marriage as the novel’s heroine. But once more, Dinnage misses the point. She elides Eliot’s satire of Lydgate’s condescension toward women, the “spots of commonness” which lead to his fairly conventional marriage, and she misconstrues Gilbert and Gubar’s own critical method, whereby woman writers do not repudiate male characters but infuse them with female anxiety; thus, they see Mary Shelley’s monster and Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as disguised images of an outcast and tortured Eve. Here and elsewhere, Dinnage reviews not The Madwoman in the Attic, but the book Gilbert and Gubar were too knowledgeable to have written.

Her desire to make of Shirley a robust love comedy is even farther from the novel Charlotte Brontë wrote and critics have read. She maintains that its action “is to find a workable solution to the problem of women and men coexisting affectionately,” but of course the main action of this novel of class division deals with the tension between masters and men; the love stories are part of a larger anatomy of work, social class, and the nature of social power. Moreover, Brontë’s tone could not possibly be construed as “evenhanded”: the love stories are interwoven with long feminist polemics about women’s mutilation by society. The final marriages are far from the jolly compromises Dinnage lauds; such eminent male critics as Asa Briggs and Robert Bernard Martin have commented upon the bleak implausibility of Brontë’s “happy ending.” Gilbert and Gubar understand but do not create Shirley‘s rage against woman’s social powerlessness, which is if anything too explicit to be artistically satisfying. Here and elsewhere, they are truer to their material than is Dinnage, who is eager to sanitize the turbulent art of the nineteenth century.

We write this letter to correct the distorted impressions your reviewer gives of a complex and important work of feminist literary criticism. The biases and distortions noted in the review are in virtually every case the reviewer’s own. Gilbert and Gubar have read their texts patiently and closely. Their challenging interpretations confirm what most avid readers already know, that major art, like adventurous criticism, concerns itself with the emotional truths a fair mind conceals. We doubt whether Dinnage would find it fair to excoriate King Lear‘s lack of fairmindedness toward Goneril and Regan, though she accepts only cautionary virtues in nineteenth-century novels by women. As a result, she ignores the larger theoretical importance of The Madwoman in the Attic in order to worry at some of its details, about which she is inaccurate, and to belittle the power of its insights into the female psyche. One might have expected a psychologist to show more interest in and sympathy for the monstrous images relentless fairmindedness induces.

Sandra Zagarell

Department of English

Oberlin College

Oberlin, Ohio

Nina Auerbach

Department of English

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Rosemary Dinnage replies:

Professors Zagarell and Auerbach do what they accuse me of doing myself: set up a parody to attack, rather than the text itself. One would assume from their letter that my review of The Madwoman in the Attic had been entirely derogatory, that I had denied there was discrimination against nineteenth-century women writers, had agreed with none of the authors’ arguments, had not called them “scholarly” and “ingenious,” nor concluded that they “open up a new dimension” in the books they discuss so that “one will always see them differently.”

Where I offer—as any critic legitimately may—different interpretations from those of Gilbert and Gubar, Professors Zagarell and Auerbach ascribe this to downright ignorance. To take the “crucial errors” in turn: I could hardly have been unaware that a male critic and a male poet are important to the book’s theme, since the authors make that clear; nevertheless a discussion of women’s novels that avoids mentioning any of the literature by male writers with which they were surrounded has a bias—perhaps an interesting one, perhaps a necessary one, but a bias. Secondly, because I argue that Gilbert and Gubar impose twentieth-century assumptions on their material, Zagarell and Auerbach impute to me an ignorance of the existence of feminist arguments in the nineteenth century. Of course they existed—in my first sentence I mention “the woman question”—but they were of the period: very different in assumptions and context from ours.

Thirdly Zagarell and Auerbach take issue with my generalization that women’s “horror of being…reduced to a tool of the life process” is a contemporary and not a nineteenth-century phenomenon. They quote Jane Austen’s expressions of disgust in her letters over childbearing; one might equally quote Elizabeth Fry’s expressions of regret, at forty-two, that her coming eleventh child was likely to be her last. What is clear is that the worst horror was to be barren and passed over by the life process; and that there could be pride and pleasure in being fecund.

Zagarell and Auerbach have curiously misunderstood my point about Charlotte Brontë’s mother deserting her—I meant, of course, by dying. No doubt Mrs. Brontë was “kind and tidy,” but before Charlotte was five her mother was closeted away from her children with a mortal illness. Children bereaved so early often carry through life a feeling of having been neglected and betrayed. This is not an unimportant point, for being an orphan is an overriding theme of Brontë’s books.

Lastly, my disagreement with Gilbert and Gubar’s interpretations of Middlemarch and Shirleyf. I did not pass over Lydgate’s foolish attitude to women which contributed to his unfortunate marriage, any more than Dorothea’s equally foolish female fantasies (he made the “mistake of rashly hoping for a compliant angel” were my words); but maintain that George Eliot distributes wisdom and folly, meanness and generositiy, equally between the sexes. Shirley I would not describe as a robust love comedy, but doubt whether most people read it for its engagement with class war. One of the themes that Brontë struggles with in it is that, for her, the most erotic words were “my master” (in Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and her letters to Héger)—yet who wants to have his or her life mastered by someone else? I think she brings a great deal of imagination to what is probably an insoluble problem. As for Heathcliff as Eve, space and energy are inadequate to cope with this extravagant comparison.

  • Email
  • Print