Women’s situation, Charlotte Brontë wrote, involves “evils—deep-rooted in the foundation of the social system—which no efforts of ours can touch: of which we cannot complain; of which it is advisable not too often to think.” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s closely argued interpretation of nineteenth-century women’s writing is concerned to show that, even in writers such as Brontë who were openly concerned with the “woman question,” pent-up frustration over the evils of which it was best not to think produced images of rage and violence: vicious doubles of submissive heroines, saboteurs of conventional stereotypes, coded messages between innocuous lines. Mad Mrs. Rochester, creeping from the attic to tear and burn, stands for them all.
Though ultimately, I believe, Gilbert and Gubar belittle their women subjects by ignoring their generosity and detachment, by representing them—as they particularly wished not to be—as women before writers, and by imposing a twentieth-century gloss on nineteenth-century imaginations, they have an important subject to explore. They are equipped (if one accepts the bias produced by ignoring male writers and most male critics) with a scholarly knowledge of the period, including its obscure corners—Frankenstein, Aurora Leigh. Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen’s juvenilia—and they ingeniously bring in myth and fairy tale to support their arguments.
Lilith, Snow White, Beth March; the angel in the house, Salome, Swift’s sullied Celia; the Blessed Damozel, Medusa, Cinderella; Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; the witch and the nun, stepmother and fairy princess, mermaid and Virgin Mary; as women are the first gratifiers and punishers in all our lives, so they reappear in the imagination for ever after in opposed images of goodness and badness. In the nineteenth century the split reached its most grotesque proportions: the spotless Victorian lady, in London, lived in a city of 6,000 brothels. Thackeray’s repellent image, quoted by Gilbert and Gubar, condenses the angel and the monster into one:
In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all around, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster’s hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling around corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous…?
Gilbert and Gubar argue that women’s conception of themselves as writers has been deeply overshadowed by this ambivalence, by the lack of an appropriate model, and the threat of monstrous unwomanliness; if, with a part of themselves, women writers endorsed the ideal of woman as modest and self-abnegating (and I think they did so more often than the twentieth century or Gilbert and Gubar imagine), it was in conflict with the part that, just by writing, defied the unforgettable reply of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.…
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