Feminist Versions of Pastoral

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Editor: Jonathan Vereecke
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,788 words

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[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Francis argues that the garden in The Secret Garden is a female space, which has become a frequently theorized concept. She explains how Burnett understood and depicted the feminine pastoral, images of nurturing motherhood, and feminine energy.]

Robert Scholes has called The Madwoman in the Attic “a massive reinterpretation … of nineteenth century literature by women in the light of feminist poetics.” The book has practical and theoretical implications for the study of children’s literature. Basing its argument on analysis of the term “authorship,” images of women imposed on readers by male texts, and close study of the “plots” that underlie women’s novels and poetry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Madwoman claims that female art is perforce revisionist. Women writers seek the traditions and precursors from which they have been severed by literary history they make the act of search their plot. The need for them to do so is overwhelming, the odds against success substantial. By analogy and association western literary tradition links artistic authority with male sexual power. For Gilbert and Gubar “authorship” connotes procreation of the text upon the “body” of Nature or the Muse, “authorship” invokes the word “authority” (power, autonomy, creativity) as a male prerogative. Traditional genres and genre theory—with their unquestioned assumptions about the nature of sequences, beginning/middle/end, closure, and quest—not only canonize images cast by the “mirror” of the male text, but sanction the rhetorical practices of male writers from which they derive and thus limit the women who would experiment in form. Finally, the woman writer distrusts the notion of mimesis as proposed from Aristotle to Spenser to Auerbach: “mimesis” shows her images of herself she knows to be false.

The problem of the woman writer from the late seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, then, is less how to find a place for herself in “the tradition” (she has none, her best works seem anomalous), but how to overcome her anxiety about authorship itself. Through extensive examination of long works by Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson, The Madwoman in the Attic defines strategies by which female artists reconstruct the texts and genres the tradition gives them and thus “remember” the fragmentary traditions of women’s writing. If women are compelled to see themselves as angels or monsters, then as fiction makers they assess and alter those “copy selves.” If they are thrust outside cultural history by stereotypes of their nature, then they explore the notion of otherness. If they are called duplications and inconstant (Duessa and Eve are examples), then they construct texts that exploit and turn on duplicity—parodies which mimic male literary conventions in order to expose their limitations, palimpsests composed of conventional surface narratives written to veil covert but strong meanings. Since women writers are confined to the small physical spaces of patriarchal domestic architecture and to the limited “space” allowed their intellectual development in patriarchal culture,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420126409