FEMININITY AND FEELING 1790-1850
When historians explore the evolution of ‘modern’ ideas of gender, the eighteenth century is usually seen as the time when changes start to accelerate. Certainly from its last decades onwards femininity is a busy category, performing, in Mary Poovey’s useful formulation, a great deal of ‘ideological work’ in western culture, involved in the making and unmaking of theories of gender (Poovey 1988:2). Frequently employed as both an indication and a cause of the uneven development and alarming dynamism of whole societies, femininity is always Janus-faced, read by the dominant culture and by the feminism that seeks to defend and change it as at once a residual symptom of the inequalities or virtues of past cultures and as a sign, good and bad, of things to come. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) the republican and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft uses these past and future tenses to strategic effect. She invokes the Gothic and feudal to describe imperilled femininity, picturing the bourgeois women for whom she is writing as prisoners of a threatening and abusive power, literally and metaphorically ‘immured in their families, groping in the dark’ (Wollstonecraft 1988: 5), or even worse, in the case of her heroine Maria in The Wrongs of Woman, consigned by her husband to a madhouse. Husbands and families may be timeless adversaries for women, but in A Vindication Wollstonecraft associates what she sees as women’s internal enemies, their narcissism, dependency and deference, with the worst aspects of an immoral and oppressive aristocratic culture whose residual feudalism was under attack at the moment of democratic revolution in which she was writing. But, as Harriet Guest has argued, Wollstonecraft in A Vindication, as well as elsewhere in her writing, also figures feminine sensibility, or feeling, in terms of the modern market economy, which in turn is characterized by a gendered division of labour (Guest
Emotion is a key element in every definition of femininity in this period: what woman is or can be is interpreted in terms of the perceived difference between women’s and men’s feelings. The lines of race and class that divide women themselves are marked by distinctions of feeling also: humanist and democratic arguments at this time need to assert what is not deemed to be apparent, that all women have maternal emotions. In the late – eighteenth century, sensibility and sentiment are the operative categories of feeling that women must negotiate. While some critics see little distinction between sensibility and sentiment, it is useful to distinguish them. Sensibility refers to those emotions that seem instinctive or physical, rather than the discourse of moralized sentiment. Sensibility in women can be a dangerous force, easily corrupted; it can fire the utopian imagination or derail or deform its purposes. Guest argues that in the 1790s the ‘dreams of sensibility’ that surface in the work of writers like Wollstonecraft and her radical contemporary, the novelist Mary Hays, were ‘peculiarly appropriate for the articulation of the. . . need to reform the social and political condition of women, and particularly middle-class women’. The ‘language of sensibility’, says Guest, ‘links the feminine pursuit of financial and moral independence with the masculine pursuit of professional ambition’ for it is a language which ‘takes advantage of the blurred public and private character of professional or commercial ambitions, which for men, as well as perhaps for women, are the phantoms of libidinised pursuit, of an idea of self-fulfilment which is as much about the desires of the private and sexual subject as it is about the more thoroughly moralised aim of independence’ (Guest 1996: 19). As a result Guest explains, women’s selfpositioning at this moment is profoundly paradoxical, for even when highly politicized ‘feminine subjects’ in the 1790s, like Hays and Wollstonecraft, conceived ‘of themselves in terms of discourses of politics, of the division of labour, of civil and commercial culture’ they must both reject those divisions insofar as they excluded women and accept them as a regime which would allow them to be agents in modern culture. New, reformed and liberated femininity had simultaneously to accept the terms of the market — including the volatile feelings that were its psychological drivers — and abjure them. Women from this period onwards, seeking more rights and more freedom, had little choice but to move within the emotional and libidinal economies of market societies, which demanded self realization and the up-front desires that went with it. These were the conditions and contradictions under which femininity and feminism were to develop (Guest 1996: 20).
These problems were taking self-conscious shape for feminist writers in the 1790s. They surface again in a somewhat different form in early Victorian Britain, when gender along with other forms of difference and hierarchy is once more being challenged at a time of social and political unrest. The 1840s, like the 1790s, was a particularly turbulent time in British and European societies with economic recession exacerbating class conflict in Britain. The threat of revolutionary uprising at home as well as its reality on the continent undoubtedly contributed to the anxious edge that one finds in women and men’s writing about gender and sexuality. Most of the novels of the 1840s and 1850s that put the working-class Chartist movement for political rights overtly or covertly at the centre of their plots — Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil (1844), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855), and Charlotte Brontё’s Shirley, were all engaged in one way or another with the pleasures and dangers of women in public roles, as Chartist supporters (Sybil), as poor working women and prostitutes (Mary Barton), or cross-dressing landlords (Shirley). Each of these fictions ends conventionally with women happily ensconced in marriage and under male protection, but their concern with women outside the home in defiance of gender norms is woven into their mixed sympathy and unease with working-class subjectivity and the threat of violence implicit in the political orchestration of collective discontents among the poor. This ambivalence is highlighted in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘novel-poem’, Aurora Leigh (1996 ), the story of a woman poet, in which feminism, femininity and working – class resentment and rage are also brought together in a narrative where poetry, not social revolution, becomes the preferred solution to class divisions. Mary Poovey has suggested that in this period anxiety about ‘women’s aggressiveness’, social and sexual, is ‘managed. . . through a series of substitutions’ (Poovey 1988: 12). In the proto-feminist texts of the mid-nineteenth century, humiliation and degradation as well as aggressiveness — those disturbing feelings that all humans are subject to, must be shifted away from the aspiring heroine. In Aurora Leigh working-class women are either an underclass of foul-mouthed slatterns who have neither filial nor maternal feelings, or idealized, deferential victims such as the seamstress Marian Earle; they represent in both cases the extreme ends of the spectrum of possible femininities, incarnations of anger and abjection, those excesses of feeling which the bourgeois woman poet is at pains to dissociate from her own identity.
Perceived racial difference which relied on similar economies of emotion to make its distinctions provided another figurative strategy through which femininity could be fractured and hierarchically ordered. The 1840s was also the first full decade after the abolition of slavery in Britain, a decade which shows a steady decline in humanitarian sympathy with ex-slaves who were now no longer the objects of pity but potential equals and competitors in the world labour market and in other spheres also. This too is reflected in novels by women that are centrally concerned with the limits and possibilities of femininity. In Charlotte Вготё^ Jane Eyre (1987 ) and Dinah Mulock Craik’s Olive (2000 ), the post-slavery revision of social hierarchy is represented by threatening, violent racialized women from the West Indies: the mad wife of Rochester, Bertha Mason in Вготё^ novel, and the mixed race mother-daughter pair, Celia and Crystal Manners, in Olive. The fury these women express at men and women from the privileged, white British culture is at one level a narrative symptom of the complicated response that British writers in the 1840s made to the legacy of colonial slavery.
More immediately, perhaps, the unacceptable anger of British women against the gendered division of emotion and labour that condemned them both to calmness and inaction was, in these novels, displaced into the rage expressed by racialized ‘foreign’ women against both imperial masculinity and femininity.
Gender, but especially femininity and its proto-feminist revisions, in this early Victorian period has, interestingly, been the site of impassioned critical debate in the second half of the twentieth century, as if the trope of emotion that structured the theory and representation of femininity in the nineteenth century itself has acquired a second life in its critical reconstruction in our own time. In her writing about gender in the 1840s and 1850s Mary Poovey has designated certain resonant issues in the period which ‘had the potential to expose the artificiality of the binary logic that governed the Victorian symbolic economy’ as ‘border cases’. Border cases ‘mark the limits of ideological certainty’ and were the site of ‘intensive debates’, Poovey believes, because they ‘threatened to challenge the opposition upon which all the other oppositions claimed to be based — the opposition between men and women’ (Poovey 1988: 12). In turn we might see the intensity of recent debates about gender in Victorian Britain as just such a modern ‘border case’, but one whose ideological stakes are somewhat different. Modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is, and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to ‘traditional’ femininity, but they are posing these questions in the context of another one that has long divided feminists: is gender, in fact, the only or primary ‘founding’ opposition?
While there is an unprecedented mass of social, political and medical discourse in this period which focuses on what femininity should or should not be, recent criticism has given the novel a particular prominence and influence as the space where both gender and genre are under revision: femininity’s story as imagined in early Victorian novels by women is identified as the avatar of a new kind of fiction. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, cultural critic Raymond Williams saw the 1840s as a kind of watershed decade for masculinity and femininity, arguing in particular that these years saw a deepening division between the emotions thought proper for men and women to display. Men’s tears, Williams suggests, became a sign of unmasculine weakness rather than of proper masculine sensibility. Such a cultural shift away from expressive masculinity, Williams believed, meant that imperilled femininity (the female orphan in contemporary fiction is his example) came increasingly to represent the generic plight of ‘man alone’ (Williams 1965: 84—5). For Williams the appearance of such an icon is a tragic effect of modernity: the female orphan stands for the anomie and misery of the alienated psychic life of men and women in industrial societies where communal feeling has been destroyed. When the female orphan represents only herself and her gender, she is no longer a tragic hero. Williams argued that women’s writing, especially the work of Charlotte Бготё, and her orphaned heroines, Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe of Villette, introduces into the novel and the culture as a whole, a distinctively new subjective voice, whose self-representation is both feminine and sinister. This voice, at once ‘private’ and ‘individual’, is the confessional and desiring voice of the quintessentially modern subject, the voice of an unrestrained and asocial individualism which elevates private feeling above public good (Williams 1984: 70). But if for Williams the predicament of the proto-feminist heroine of the 1840s represents a wider crisis of modernity, its remedy or compensation, the development and celebration of mental and emotional life — what some theorists call the invention of human ‘interiority’ — as they are expressed within the narratives created by women writers is seen as false and dangerous.
Williams’s view of women’s writing is, by implication, challenging a perspective that praises the individual and the private, at the expense of the social and communal. Indeed, his reading of gender in the 1840s is soon overtaken by an influential strand of feminist criticism from the 1970s which unambiguously aligns itself with the proto-feminist protagonists of this period and their authors, seeing both as pioneering forerunners of late- twentieth-century bourgeois women heroically struggling against the limitations of marriage, exclusion from public life and the still active double standard of sexual morality. The female orphan in this staging of a feminist analysis does not stand in for a universal subject, but is emphatically the emblematic victim and potential agent of her sex. These early and important feminist studies, especially Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1978) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), delight in women’s personal ambitions and transgressive desires where these fictions actually endorsed them; it is more often the conventional resolutions of marriage and motherhood that they must justify to late-twentieth-century women readers. For them the women writers were not the vanguard of self-referential and selfish materialism, but resistant minority voices, exemplary rebels for their time in what they saw as an unfinished democratic revolution.
By the 1980s, when the euphoria of the early years of feminism was on the wane, this initial body of work on nineteenth-century women’s writing was being subjected to revision within feminism (mirroring wider disagreements in both activism and scholarship) for its failure to take account of the class biases and the racist and imperial assumptions embedded in the novels and authors it championed. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in a groundbreaking 1985 essay ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’ asks feminism to think again about the politics of Jane Eyre, which, she argued, had become the ‘cult text’ of a feminist individualism that was neither reflective nor critical about the less progressive implications of its political investments (Spivak 1985: 263). A later essay by Susan Meyer, ‘ “India Ink”: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre, traces the complex racial representations and identifications which subtend the creation of Jane as moral protagonist and survivor, showing how Вготё manipulates racial tropes to support both Jane’s resistant identity and final emergence as white wife and mother (Meyer 1996). In a fascinating and influential study, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1987), Nancy Armstrong uses the work of Michel Foucault to elaborate and extend the gist of Williams’s argument as part of a debate within feminism. She sees the novel itself, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as ‘containing the history of sexuality within it’, by which she means the history of gender as well (Armstrong 1987: 204).
Its most innovative development was the invention of an interior psychic world which Armstrong figures as feminine. Both the desiring femininity she describes, and the novel itself, are personified as appetitive and acquisitive; indeed the novel’s ‘omnivorous’ form means that ‘there is very little cultural material that cannot be included within the feminine domain’ (204). The writing of the Вготё sisters is key to Armstrong’s analysis. The ideological work that she ascribes to ‘domestic fiction’ generally — fiction by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that centres on the private, subjective sphere of life — was to transform ‘political information’, implicitly gendered masculine, into ‘psychological information’ which then becomes the province of a new kind of femininity. Even where the targets of Charlotte Вготё^ criticism are demonstrably social, such as the hypocrisies and abuse that are practised by the Governors of Lowood school for female orphans which Jane Eyre attends, Armstrong argues that Вготё substitutes the wrongs of woman for the wider injustices of class: ‘she displaces class conflict onto sexual relations’ (200).
Although strongly critical of the immediate and long-term effects of Victorian women’s fiction, Williams and Armstrong, by arguing that the new femininities articulated in the domestic novel altered the form and content of Anglophone fiction for ever after, gave these novels and their authors what could be interpreted as a flatteringly central role in the making of modern literature and culture. However, this supposed power comes with an ethical price tag that is too high in any accounting, for it portrays the femininity constructed by early Victorian women writers as endowed with an exaggerated and malign agency in the making of the modern self, an argument it would be difficult to sustain if we looked at a wider range of discourses on gender and identity. Such an argument also depends on a paradoxical logic in which the critic makes an ethical and political judgement about what kind of questions properly belong to the public arenas of debate. By insisting that issues of gender, sexuality and psychic identity belong to the private sphere, and therefore cannot be ‘political’, this analysis reproduces in theory the very divisions between private and public, personal and political, that are the object of its critique. As a result the psychic life of humans, or their ‘interiority’ as it is sometimes called, is represented as the invention and inherent property of a powerful but pathologized femininity. In this analysis, psychic selfhood becomes not the place where we all dream, but modernity’s bad dream about itself, a dream with material effects that can do infinite social and cultural harm.
Armstrong’s depiction of the feminist femininity of the 1840s has the advantage of rejecting two over-simple characterizations: the received image of passive, repressed and victimized Victorian womanhood and its replacement, the celebratory portrait of vanguard egalitarian feminism, painted by liberal feminists of the 1970s. But her monstrous alternative to abject or heroic womanhood is as unidimensional as these earlier formulations. Should feminism accept the mantle of the begetter of modern fiction, if the price is that it is held responsible for the death of progressive politics? Neither accolade nor accusation seems quite deserved. Nor does the division of public and private inscribed in this analysis bear much relationship to the way in which early and mid Victorians themselves saw those issues, for while conservative social commentators of both sexes advanced the view that ideal femininity conformed to ‘natural and instinctive habits’ of women, ‘love, tenderness and affectionate solicitude’ for children, spouses and parents, such moral qualities were at the service not just of men as individuals, but of men as ‘citizens’ (Gaskell 1972: 165). The state was, as it still is, invested in particular articulations of femininity which supported it. The ‘private’ in which middle-class femininity was supposed to reside might have been the daily business of maternity, marriage and domestic life, but in ideological terms such femininity, conceived as a set of emotional attributes, did highly public work. We might think of femininity in this sense as a kind of fiction of political calculation, a double entry, as it were, in the ledgers of social accountancy. Certainly the women and men who defended or criticized the separation of spheres knew this very well: it was femininity’s function as the mainstay of nation and state through the affective relations of the family that they were debating.
In fact, femininity in the 1840s might best be seen through the lens of Guest’s complex discussion of the 1790s. In the 1840s as in the 1790s the political aims of women for more cultural power and for economic and social parity in the public sphere, as well as their other aspirations and wishes — for passion, marriage and motherhood — draw on an affective vocabulary in which the desiring languages of the market and those of the gendered self are hard to disentangle. While both women and men vigorously critiqued the ways in which the coldly instrumental mores of capitalism were shaping both masculinity and femininity and affective life — Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1982 ) is just such a polemic against the corruption of love and family feeling under the pervasive influence of the market and the desires it unleashes — men’s texts tend to resolve these issues unambiguously in favour of the exclusion of women from all but the domestic and the maternal. Excluded or participant, women’s agency or subordination was emphatically a public matter, and a social one. For women writers, in any case, supporting the relegation of women to domestic life was rarely if ever without contradiction. Their own practice as authors undermined the solutions that the many last chapters which release their heroines from paid employment or cultural production into blissful domesticity provided. Women’s novels in the 1840s imagined women who made a broad claim for the right to desires of different kinds — ‘all the incident of life, fire, feeling’, as Jane Eyre puts it — although their narrative closure often settled for much less (Вготё 1987: 95). In Jane Eyre’s famous soliloquy from the rooftop of Thornfield just cited, we can see how Вготё^ refusal of a gendered division of feeling is the basis of her rationale for a femininity that went beyond the matrimonial or domestic. When Jane declares that ‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer’, she makes her case through the language of public, masculine sensibility, the driving language of approved masculine ambition (Вготё 1987: 96). But most women writers were criticizing the excesses of that sensibility as well as asserting a right to it. The desires and priorities of industrial and commercial masculinity were, they thought, in need of reform, and Gaskell and Вготё both allow the reader and the female protagonists to see the world created by it through the eyes of its economic and social victims. Thus, like Wollstonecraft and Hays, but more opportunistically, since she draws on without ascribing to their republican politics, in Jane Eyre Вготё aligns the suppression of women’s feeling at one point with the situation of the ‘rebel slave’ and the disempowered generally, provocatively implying that the imposition of ‘stillness’ and ‘tranquillity’ on women could spark a rebellion comparable to the ‘political rebellions’ that ‘ferment in the masses which people earth’ (ibid.).
We have been arguing, throughout this section, that a key element in understanding femininity and its discontents from the late-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century is the gendered rhetoric of feeling and its deployment. As we suggested earlier, the discourse of feeling is intimately bound up with the way in which the expanding sciences of the human increasingly differentiated men and women’s physiology. Historian of science Nancy Stepan goes further in arguing that the developing models of sexual difference were interactive and interdependent with the theories of racial difference then being elaborated (Stepan 1990). Skin colour, body type and hair as well as reproductive organs were the physical markers of such differences, but their social meaning was expressed in terms of emotional attributes, capacities and dangers. The language of feeling however was not, as certain critics suggest, the sole property of a newly invented private individual exclusively gendered female, but shared its terms with the discourses of the market that it sometimes resisted and critiqued, as well as with those of the state and nation that it wished to reform and support. When women in the midnineteenth century tried to break down the arbitrary divisions of the emotions that culture set in place and theorized as natural, they defended their transgression by splitting femininity itself across class and racial lines and displacing transgressive emotions into women of lower status. Yet this self-protective move never quite works. Jane Eyre’s defiant soliloquy is preceded by a defensive challenge directed less at the reader than at the gathered opinion of the whole world: ‘Anybody may blame me who likes,
. . . Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented’ (Вготё 1987: 95). This pre-emptive anticipation of blame cannot quite deflect the warning to be meted out for demanding emotional and social equity. For Jane’s meditation is soon interrupted by the sinister and threatening sound of female laughter and the ‘eccentric murmurs’ and ‘oral oddities’ (96) at first wrongly ascribed to the drunken working-class servant Grace Poole, but later correctly identified as the ravings of Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason, the ‘white’ Creole, whose unchaste appetites prefigure her descent into madness and her transformation into a racialized creature with ‘fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments’ (Вготё 1987: 249), without gender or human attributes. The feared punishment for Jane’s desire for equality of feeling and opportunity is averted, narratively speaking, by subdividing the female self and projecting its excesses on to degraded and racialized femininities.
The core statement of Вготё^ polemic — ‘women feel just as men feel’ — strikes at the heart of all arbitrary divisions of affect among types of humans; yet its very radical implications seem to provoke in the challenger herself the immediate need to reestablish the threatened binary by asserting the differences of class or of race. If one is asking, as feminist criticism and theory of the 1980s and 1990s has done, whether the eighteenth – and nineteenth-century origins of modern Anglophone feminism, or the femininities Вготё^ statement advanced, were politically and ethically progressive by late-twentieth-century standards, the answer is sure to be no. Yet the understanding of those ethics and politics through a deeper exploration of the history in which they were embedded is of the utmost interest and importance to us today, not least because that fearful reflex which reinstates the differences it seems to challenge is by no means behind us. But the questions themselves are best posed and answered theoretically in a form that does not replace the historical distinction between good and bad femininity with an equivalent distinction between feminism’s misguided past and its progressive present. Such a distinction implicitly assumes that feminism today can stand completely outside and remain untainted by the political forces of market, state and nation. History suggests otherwise.
‘Always to be a governess, always to be in love’ is how Virginia Woolf, writing of Charlotte Вготё in 1916, characterized (and caricatured) both Brontё’s best known protagonist and the subordinate, monotonous and emotionally static femininity of the Victorians. For Woolf, Вготё is emphatically not the precursor of twentieth century modernity or modernist literary forms, but the exemplary prisoner and victim of a femininity and a fictional aesthetic that must be superseded. Between Вготё who died in 1855 and Woolf, whose writing career began in the early 1900s, lies almost a half century of struggle to advance women’s rights, and challenge restrictive and misogynistic representations of women. English-speaking feminism was a fully – fledged movement by 1916, with a leading cause, the vote, and an embattled but highly visible profile on the political scene. From the 1880s onwards men and women writers and social thinkers fashioned a new, liberated femininity — a vanguard identity dubbed the ‘new woman’ — that demanded parity with men in every sphere, and a new masculinity to go with it. But while the First World War hastened the granting of the franchise in Britain, the underlying beliefs in gender difference and women’s inequality proved much harder to shift. The ‘femininity’ that early twentieth-century feminists were determined to uproot and replace was more than a century old and harder to supplant than had been supposed. Woolf’s frequent evocations in her feminist writings of the thwarted lives of early Victorian women writers, rather than of those born a little later who, like George Eliot, were more unconventional, suggests, rightly we think, that many women between the wars still lived with and under the restrictions that were associated with a much earlier period. Yet in spite of the uneven development of women’s emancipation, there is no doubt that the war proved a catalytic moment for gender as for other social hierarchies, and in its wake women’s fiction, and feminism too, shifted its ground and altered its narratives, with some surprising results in how they imagined femininity.
We will be looking at a range of these fictions, and will be focusing especially on the way in which class and race construct
femininity between the wars, a period when writers of all kinds experimented with formal and philosophical innovation. We began this chapter with Freud’s provocative essay, ‘Femininity’ because, as we have argued, psychoanalysis was the site of some of the most novel theorization as well as the most intense and interesting disagreements about the meaning of identity and gender difference. As a discourse which claimed to have a new truth about psychic life and sexuality, it can be seen as in a kind of covert competition with fiction, with which it shared some of the same ambitions. Psychoanalysis becomes a common referent in the fiction of the interwar years, a signifier of new and ‘modern’ ideas about the self in everything from Agatha Christie’s detective fiction to Dorothy Richardson’s experimental ‘stream of consciousness’ novels. Fiction’s view of psychoanalysis is rarely friendly, but the novel’s theorization of gender, and perhaps especially femininity, betrays some of the same contradictions and uncertainties that we find in Freud, his followers, and his psychoanalytic adversaries. One way of approaching Freud’s ‘Femininity’ and other writings on the same subject in this period is to place them in the context of the imaginative writing by women in the interwar years, approaching psychoanalysis not as an orthodoxy in the making but rather as a discourse that was part of a spectrum of analytic and speculative texts on gender — and women in particular — in this particularly volatile period in the history of gender.
In Britain women were granted the vote in two stages — at age thirty in 1919 and at twenty-one only ten years later. In that crucial decade the media discussion of the ‘flapper’ franchise, about the dangers of letting unmarried twenty-something women vote, and therefore play an official role in civil society, acts as a touchstone for new and daring discussions of what ‘woman’ could mean or be, as well as provoking a strong backlash against the supposed freedoms they might take. Femininity’s supposed excesses included the rampant expression of women’s sexuality and the rejection of what was recognizably feminine: politicians remarked that even women didn’t seem to want to be women any more. Virginia Woolf’s feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own (1929) argues that the resentment and anger, as well as the abjection, that were, she believed, the psychic companions of the restrictive femininity of the Victorians, would soon fade away. Her playful, genderbending fiction, Orlando (1928) is, as Rachel Bowlby puts it in her introduction to the novel, ‘a “what if”, a serious fantasy which imagines what femininity (or, for that matter, another masculinity) might be in quite different conditions — if anything were possible’ (Woolf 1992: xlvi). As Orlando enters the twentieth century, Woolf allows her to be a woman, to have children and a husband and a career, for Woolf believed optimistically in the transformation of femininity, as to a great extent did most of her generation of women writers, although only a few of them would have identified with her outspoken feminism.
We can see this re-imagining of femininity attempted in fictions that were less obviously experimental than Orlando, such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), a novel set in 1920 among the aristocracy in an Anglo-Irish country house during the guerilla war between the British Army and the IRA. Marda Norton, a cosmopolitan 29-year-old visitor, teases the restless, orphaned Lois Farquar who is just emerging from her adolescent dependency on her aunt and uncle. Urging Lois impatiently to some form of independent action, Marda asks her why she continues to live with her relatives. Lois answers: ‘I like to be in a pattern… I like to be related; to have to be what I am. Just to be is so intransitive and so lonely.’ ‘Then you will like to be a wife and mother’, Marda responds ironically, adding, ‘It’s a good thing we can always be women.’ ‘I hate women’, Lois replies fiercely, ‘But I can’t think how to begin to be anything else… I would hate to be a man. So much fuss about doing things’ (Bowen 1998: 98—9).
Lois’s problem — her creative paradox — is how not to be a woman in the mould of her aunt or her dead mother, or alternatively, how not to envy or identify with the too busy or prematurely vitiated masculinity of her uncle, family friends, cousin or suitor. Bowen describes with peculiar poignancy Lois’s desire to steer instead a path of independence that has not yet been charted. To be ‘a woman’, from Marda’s perspective, is an identity of last resort, a safety net that she herself is probably choosing, as, after breaking off a series of engagements, she heads resignedly towards a pragmatic marriage. Lois’s half-formed fears and desires are represented in a more philosophical vein. Bowen gives the adolescent a rather lofty set of anxieties in making her afraid of the ‘intransitive’ isolation of just being, more positively but conservatively she values and needs that relatedness so often associated with femininity, but she also longs for an identity outside the forms of the domestic heterosexuality linked to the social pieties of her upper-class upbringing. Resisting but also embracing the cliches of masculine freedom, ‘She did not want adventures, but she would like just once to be nearly killed’, she reaches clumsily for a heightened experience of life that has analogies to the sublime — an aesthetic confrontation with what is terrible and frightening — one that is neither marked by femininity nor by the familiar tropes of bourgeois culture and leisure (Bowen 1998: 99). In deliberately ambiguous but telling phrases, Bowen describes Lois as wanting to see ‘backgrounds without bits taken out of them by Holy Families’ and hungering to visit ‘unmarried sorts of places’ (99). Not unlike Woolf’s Orlando, she ‘thought it would be pity to miss love’ (99). Indeed, Lois’s sense of the constraints of her gender does not amount to the full rejection that her fierce ‘I hate women’ implies, but is more to do with the way class determines the visibility and status of women, for while she ‘did not mind being noticed because she was a female, she was tired of being not noticed because she was a lady’ (99).
At the same time as Lois strains against the inhibitions and prejudices of her class as it shapes and controls her femininity, she is unconsciously its bearer. When she thinks of travel abroad she thinks of Cook’s, the travel agent of the well-to-do, arranging her itinerary and booking her seats — a gentle, joking reminder from the well-born Irish Bowen that there were social limits to Lois’s imagination and her rebellion. These limits inhere in the writers themselves; for all the boldness with which interwar women writers in the United Kingdom offered their heroines and their readers a chance to fantasize femininity otherwise, in their narratives new femininities are, in very overt ways, mediated by and through class relations, and in less obvious ways by the exclusions of both empire and race. ‘Everything mocked’, was Woolf’s intended motto for her proposed fiction, Orlando, yet this jeu d’esprit on gender mocks least of all the author’s own love affair with the idea of aristocracy; for its renegade androgynous protagonist, affectionately modelled on her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, permission and privilege are intertwined. Jaime Hovey has argued that the Sapphism of Orlando — its subtextual celebration of lesbianism — is represented through racialized tropes of transgression. In Orlando Woolf locates her most negative versions of femininity — its sentimentality, its conventional heterosexuality, and its implied social and political conservatism — in caricatures of nineteenth-century domestic servants, who themselves are made to stand in for the Victorian middle class, including Britain’s bourgeois monarch, while a more buoyant, perverse and adventurous version of female subjectivity is reserved for the upper classes.
Woolf’s double move in Orlando is to celebrate a certain kind of transhistorical aristocratic identity in which the tie to the landed estate permits the destabilizing of gender, so that Orlando can, albeit not at his/her own volition, be alternately a man and a woman. Such a move challenges, if only obliquely, that long tradition reaching back to the eighteenth century in which middle-class women writers — and Woolf, born into the London intelligentsia, is emphatically one of these — targeted aristocratic femininity as both over-privileged and corrupt, placing the advancement of women’s rights and the progressive future of both women and the nation confidently in the hands of the expanding middle class. The interwar years witnessed a kind of imaginative rebellion by women writers against what is seen to be complacent and provincial in both bourgeois femininity and bourgeois feminism, a rebellion which, in fiction at least, transfers to Britain’s titled and historic class, together with the group just below it, the landed gentry or ‘squirearchy’, an oddly vanguardist role in the transformation of gender, considering that this class was generally seen as declining in social, economic and political power.
We have suggested how this revision of class femininity functions in Orlando, and in The Last September. It is also thema – tized in Daphne du Maurier’s hugely popular Rebecca (1938). Alison Light suggests that the ‘desire to be differently female is central to du Maurier’s best-known novels’ (Light 1991: 166). At first glance, Rebecca might seem to be a novel in the antiaristocratic tradition of earlier proto-feminist women writers, focusing like Вготё^ Jane Eyre on the literal and figurative demise of masculine aristocratic privilege, in this case Maximilian de Winter’s inherited estate, Manderley. Yet as Light has argued, while Rebecca pushes the demonization of upper-class femininity as far is it could go, stigmatizing the beautiful, accomplished Rebecca, de Winter’s dead first wife, as sadistic, sexually perverse and diseased, the ‘overkill’ in the narrative attack on Rebecca ‘testifies to the extraordinary power and fascination’ of the novel’s images of ‘sexual anarchy’ (178). It is true that the humble, nameless middle-class heroine who becomes de Winter’s second wife, is gradually disabused of her desire to envy or emulate the aristocratic woman she has replaced; indeed, the novel approvingly charts her progress from a repressed and easily intimidated child – wife into a woman who is at least her husband’s equal. Even so Rebecca is by far the most interesting character in the novel; her amorality and contempt for men and their desires seductively invites identification from the reader. Rebecca, as an idealized and feared construct of the second wife’s imagination, represents in Light’s analysis ‘the insecurity at the heart of all femininity,’ but Manderley, that Tory, English stronghold is also ‘a place in the imagination where a freer and more independent sexuality might have been possible’ (178). Du Maurier explicitly exposes Rebecca’s heterosexual infidelity, and hints darkly if euphemistically at her possible bisexuality. Yet the novel’s open homophobia is directed less at Rebecca than at Manderley’s housekeeper ‘Danny’ Danvers, whose passion for her dead mistress is represented as both creepy and murderous. Nevertheless, the seductive wickedness of its dead protagonist, her entirely transgressive but wonderfully active femininity, overrides the conventional ethics that the novel espouses and seriously erodes the reader’s sympathetic alliance with the tiresomely insecure second wife. As if to emphasize the pleasures of excess Max de Winter’s estate is itself endowed with an exotic, out of order femininity. In Rebecca, Light suggests, du Maurier allows her readers a temporarily dangerous alliance with outrageous femininity, and, if they so wish, a safe rejection of it. While Manderley burns, in a conflagration lit by Danny, the vengeful custodian of Rebecca’s
memory, consuming in its flames the comfortable future of its proprietor and his young wife, it returns, at once longed-for and terrifying like the perverse femininity it comes to stand for, in the dreams of the second Mrs de Winter, now living with Max in virtual exile abroad. More conventional both in its writing and its outlook than Orlando, Rebecca shares Woolf’s love affair with the landed classes, a conservative romance with place and class that is also explicitly aligned with experiment and transgression in relation to femininity.
Radclyffe Hall’s watershed lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness appeared in 1928, the same year as Orlando. While most critics have highlighted Hall’s representation of homosexuality, almost as fascinating is the author’s depiction of normative femininity, at once harsher and more sentimental than any of the other writers we have been discussing. Like Orlando, The Well of Loneliness imagines the transformation of gender in terms of the landed English gentry, as Jaime Hovey has argued. Hall fantasises a privileged childhood in her creation of Morton Hall, the country seat in the Malvern Hills of Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon, and their daughter and only child, the novel’s ‘invert’ protagonist, Stephen Gordon. The Well of Loneliness focuses on the way in which biological females don’t necessarily become women, tracing instead the path to maturity of a girl who identifies as a boy. Stephen becomes an adult who adopts a masculine style and is attracted to other women. In The Well of Loneliness femininity becomes a lost object of desire: something that Stephen can neither be nor have. Unachievable and elusive, the feminine becomes both overvalued and degraded, invested in things as well as people. Morton Hall is described in the opening sentences of the novel through a nostalgic evocation of the femininity of the past, ‘like certain lovely women who, now old, belong to a bygone generation — women who in youth were passionate but seemly; difficult to win but when won, all-fulfilling’ (Hall 1990 : 3). At first Anna Molloy, Stephen’s mother, seems a present incarnation of such idealized femininity: ‘lovely as only an Irish woman can be, having that in her bearing that betokened quiet pride, having that in her eyes that betokened great longing, having that in her body that betokened happy promise — the archetype of the very perfect woman, whom creating God had found good’ (3) Sir Philip’s overwhelming desire for a son and heir is frustrated when Anna bears a daughter; in his disappointment he persuades his wife to keep the male name they have agreed upon. But as the ‘narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered’ baby (5), turns into a tomboyish ‘queer’ child an ‘almost grotesque’ shyness develops between mother and daughter (7) , and Anna’s attitude towards Stephen who so closely resembled her loved husband degenerates into ‘antagonism’, ‘anger’ and distaste (8).
Sir Philip is represented as both noble and tolerant, but as Anna imagines her child as ‘a blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction’ of its father, the mother’s narrow sympathies are exposed (8). Nobility in The Well of Loneliness is associated with the ‘true’ masculinity that Philip possesses; Stephen’s yearning for nobility is an early sign of her masculine identification as she innocently tells the servants that ‘I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one, I feel like young Nelson in the picture upstairs’ (13). Fantasies of male heroism are later merged with more romantic and intellectual ones as Stephen becomes the Byronic figure, suggested by her surname, class and choice of writing as a profession. Rejected by her beautiful mother, who tries to impose a superficial femininity of dress and decorum on her awkward child, Stephen desperately pursues the elusive feminine in a series of inappropriate love objects: a young female servant, a bored local housewife, Angela Crosby, and finally the love of her life, the Welsh orphan, Mary Llewellyn. From Anna through Mary, each of these conventionally feminine women ends in betraying her: her mother’s bigotry, Angela’s fear of her husband and her own social position, Mary’s growing love for Stephen’s old friend Martin — each of these proximate causes springs from the constellation of characteristics that make up a small-minded, shallow and inconstant femininity. The Well of Loneliness histori – cizes femininity as it tracks the changed opportunities for women in the incremental understanding of gender and its more perverse manifestations from Stephen’s Edwardian childhood to the First World War and its aftermath. Yet there is another more static and ahistorical register in the novel by which so called ‘normal’ femininity is seen, through the longing and misogyny of unmet desire, as both hopelessly idealized and ethically wanting — expressing in the end a deformity of spirit as immovable as the biology that Hall believes is responsible for the existence of ‘inverts’. The scientific theories that underpin Hall’s concept of a ‘third sex’ — her novel is dedicated to ‘Our three selves’ — were drawn from the sexology of her time formulated by Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing. However, her contradictory representation of traditional femininity draws on both popular prejudice and on a feminist-inspired revulsion at the narrative closure of female rebellion and independence in conventional marriage and motherhood. At the end of Well of Loneliness Stephen tricks Mary into abandoning her for Martin and a protected heterosexual life in Canada. Once Mary is narratively disposed of, Stephen’s future can be invested in the noble defence of her ‘kind’. And in this crusade her nobility and wide sympathies fully emerge as she champions not only female ‘inverts’ but male homosexuals as well, whom the novel represents as the bearers of the most degraded femininity of all, the simulated, grotesque femininity of gay men, with their ‘shaking, white-skinned effeminate fingers’ (505).
Of the English and Irish women writers we have been discussing, only Woolf was a self-described feminist. Indeed, only Woolf had radical or progressive views on issues other than gender: Hall had fascist leanings, du Maurier was a conservative, and Bowen, as her biographer Victoria Glendinning notes, ‘moved further to the right as she got older’ (Glendinning 1993: 231). Although the interwar period in Britain witnessed plenty of activism around women’s rights from men and women who saw these as part of larger social and political agendas, in this generation of women writers the wish to challenge the norms of gender and to invent new forms of femininity were not necessarily aligned with liberal views on other issues. Nevertheless Bowen, Woolf, Hall and du Maurier have become part of a new literary canon of twentieth – century women writers whose fiction explored the century’s new sense of gender, experimenting as much with the narrative forms through which it could be represented as with the limits of what one could say about it. Impatient with the constraints and pieties of both middle-class femininity and middle-class feminism, their fantasies of gender freedom or gender transgression as an identity that might be ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ become entangled in different ways with an image of aristocracy and its privileges rather than with that of a revolution from below.