Friday, December 11, 2009

with all due respects your Honour

I’ve been reading “The Mad Woman in the Attic”. I feel guilty because it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it, and I’m impressed by the readings of the Brontes. (and a little embarrassed to have missed some of the things they point out.)

But the general sections are getting harder to read. It’s not that I doubt the truth of their argument, I’m just getting put off by the way they are making it.

The real problem seems to be their use of “women”. As if “women’ in 19th century England had the same experience regardless of race, rank and personality. When they write about women being encouraged to be passive, to adopt a role of almost willing invalidism, and how anorexia and agoraphobia were almost de rigueur, they seem to have forgotten that to be the pallid angel in the house you had to have robust servants to do all the hard work. They seem to have forgotten that the majority of the population (regardless of Gender) would quite happily have swapped the problems of economic survival for the conditions that allowed writers (male for female) to agonise about their role in the literary tradition.

While Anne Finch, countess, was writing sonnets (and fine sonnets they are too) about the problems of being a woman who wrote, men and women denied her education and her leisure were living a life one step up from slavery to keep her household running and allow her the time to worry about such things. Virginia Woolf had leisure to ponder the problems of having a room of ones own because people bought up in houses where the whole family lived in one room were running around doing the housework for one.

My other problem is that they buy into Bloom’s fantastic version of literary history and then use it as a touchstone. What they don’t so is show how the spectre of Milton, for example, which in the 19th century cast a long shadow over a certain type of poet, was different for men and women. They quote Woolf’s response at length, but I don’t see how that response is particularly “a woman’s”: it reads like an intelligent response to the complicated work of art that is Paradise Lost and there is nothing in it to gender that response. Present it clean, without the author’s name, and I defy you to identify the gender of the writer.

I suspect they don’t try to differentiate because since all women are the same, and would obviously share Woolf’s response, then all men must be the same and any male poet would simply acquiesce in Milton’s rank misogyny while girding up his loins to kill Milton’s ghost in the boxing ring of Bloom’s Freudian mishmash. Woolf’s contemporary, Robert Graves, who last time I checked was male, hated Milton. Personally.

Given the serious problems facing women in the 19th century: an invidious legal situation, lack of access to formal education, exclusion from careers and the vote, the fact that a small group of leisured ladies worried about their literary role doesn’t seem that important. And I’m not sure that the Brontes, or Emily Dickenson, are any more representative of their gender than Coleridge Robert Graves or Tiger Woods.

I don’t doubt their case your honour, and I know this was a brilliant pioneering work that's been argued over and developed in subsequent years, but with all due respects, I think they are calling the wrong witnesses and spoiling the argument by asking some wrong questions.

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