Power to the Sisterhood — I guess?

December 21, 2008 at 5:03 pm 6 comments

Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland in the BBC’s production of Northanger Abbey, courtesy of The New York Times

Yep, I am a failure. See what happens? You give me a co-blogger and I get lazy. Anyway, trust me, I have been doing lots of literary things, just nothing that’s made it on this blog…until now.

I know this is not going to win me any friends, but I am becoming less and less a fan of feminist criticism. This is not to say that it’s entirely without merit, or that feminist critics are not really intelligent, educated people. What I would like to point out, though, is that because most feminist critics are women themselves, they’re more apt to project, or to see what they want to see in the books they examine.

Take The Romance of the Forest, for example. This is a great story, by one of the first popular woman writers, and clearly Ann Radcliffe must have been somewhat independent in her own right to even be a female writer. The main character in Romance is Adeline, a young lady who has been separated from her father, separated from her foster family, is being chased by an evil marquis, and who is pretty sure her ain true love is rotting in prison awaiting his death. So you can see how there is a lot of opportunity for Adeline to step up and assert her strong-willed womanhood or whatever.

Claudia Johnson, in her book Equivocal Beings (which is actually brilliant, except for this one point), argues that “Adeline behaves like a pretty good man, at least when her ‘glowing charms’ aren’t in the way,” further saying that Adeline and Theodore essentially ‘trade off’ being tearful and valiant at various points in the novel.

While it’s true that Theodore has some tears throughout the novel, they are mostly when he is in prison being visited by his sick father. It’s more standard for the male lead to be brave in this case, but when confronted by the prospect of death within the hour, along with a sobbing father, sister, and lover, I think pretty much any man would break (or could without being judged, at any rate). And let’s remember that Theodore has valiantly rescued Adeline about twelve times before this point.

Adeline, however, is not valiant. Ever. Possibly when she finally breaks and tells La Luc she’s in love with Theodore could be construed as heroic, but really, since she doesn’t even know why that’s important, it’s not that heroic (hopefully that’s not a spoiler…). She weeps and wails and moans and faints at every opportunity, including when she and Theodore are confronted in an inn by the Marquis’ troops and both their lives are threatened. At some point, she actually hinders Theodore’s usefulness, preventing him from defending them against the soliders by throwing a faint.

To interpret the book in a way that made any sense to me, I was forced to read Adeline not as a character, but as a plot device, or a catalyst, a passive center around which everything revolved (much like the eye of a hurricane). I should hesitate to take Claudia Johnson on regarding this point, but I think she’s mistaken.

That’s not to say she’s the only one. Constantly, discussions in my literature class will revolve around “strong women” in novels where such women simply don’t exist. One memorable discussion revolved around Isabella Thorpe, a character in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Isabella and Catherine Morland, the main character, are both in Bath for the marriage market, but while Catherine sets her sights on Henry Tilney and sticks with him for the duration, Isabella plays two or three men against each other and, I believe, ends up losing both of them.

One girl in my class argued that Isabella was a strong woman, playing the marriage market to her own advantage and going after what she wanted. She argued that Jane Austen was way ahead of her time, having a character like this who went after her goal and didn’t let anyone get in her way. She said she loved Isabella as a character because she was strong-willed, said what she liked, and did what she wanted.

Note, please, that this same girl takes pride in her own strong will and straight talk.

Note, also, that while Catherine Morland manages to nab the guy she wanted in the first place, Isabella constantly attempts to sell herself to the highest bidder, who turns out to be no bidder at all and abandons her in Bath.

That’s not even mentioning the slight aside that while Catherine is a flawed character, she is still human and fairly realistic, while Isabella is an exaggerated gold-digger and, some critics argue, just an ironic characiture of the kind of woman in high society who was only interested in marrying well.

So while I’m glad women out there are re-reading classic novels from a feminist point of view and attempting to shed new light on the works, I think every reader and critic out there needs to be aware of the temptation to project what one wishes a character was onto a fairly ordinary and un-liberated character.

Obviously, there are flaws in every critical theory, from biographical critics who draw lines between actual and fictional events where there is no connection, to formal critics who fail to draw connections where they clearly exist, and we cannot expect those flaws to disappear. But it’s important to recognize these flaws when we meet them, and also to be able to field them with more well-founded arguments.

(I promise, more book reviews at some point! I’m swamped with two papers for various classes, parts of which I am sure will make it up here at some point, so I haven’t been doing much other reading. But it’s coming!)


Entry filed under: Classics, Musings and Essays.

A Less Than Magical Look at Fairies ‘Tis in my memory lock’d…

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  December 22, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Anachronism is another problem I have with feminist criticism. However far ahead of her time Jane Austen was, she had never heard of “feminism” and the concept itself would have been unspeakably foreign to her. It’s like talking about “bisexuality” in terms of Tudor England. That simply wasn’t something Elizabethans were familiar with even if, by modern definition, many Elizabethans were, in fact, bisexuals. Drives me crazy!

  • 2. KT  |  December 22, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    EXACTLY! I was reading something about Jane Austen’s Emma being a lesbian, and I was immediately thinking, um, since I am guessing the concept of lesbianism was not only less defined than male homosexuality, but even less accepted, and more likely than not Jane Austen would never write a lesbian novel anyway, I’m going to say for the purposes of argument that Emma was straight. Jesus.

    Speaking of sexuality, I am sick of hearing that Henry Tilney was gay. Actually, I am sick of critics labeling every character they can get their hands on as gay. THEY CAN’T ALL BE HOMOSEXUAL, GUYS. THEY JUST CAN’T. I am pretty sure I read an article once that said Pip from Great Expectations was gay — you know, the kid who builds his whole life around the possibility of marrying Estella? It might sound homophobic that I’m this mad about it, but come on, Great Expectations is not a gay novel.

  • 3. Corey  |  December 23, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Call me simplistic, but I rather like the idea of my Austen heroines getting some hetero-normative happy endings. Emma loves Mr. Knightley. (Happy) end of story!

    In terms of every other character, you’re right. They cannot and in all likelihood were not all gay. I don’t care if they seem so to us, it just wasn’t a thing prior to at least the twentieth century! Spartans? Not gay. Yes, they had sex with boys, but they were not gay. That was just not how they would have seen their actions!

    In all ties in with my clever theory about the twentieth century ruining everything. It’s great.

  • 4. KT  |  December 23, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    “Yes, they had sex with boys, but they were not gay.”

    Quote of my LIFE. :P We actually had a whole discussion in Victorian Child about how fooling around with men, especially while at public school, just wasn’t weird or even homosexual. Then there was the discussion about the Socratic mentoring thing that generally involved sex but that wasn’t the point of it.


    The twentieth century really does ruin everything. I am way on board with your theory. Except for I rather like the fact that I am 22, single, without children, and don’t consider myself a spinster. That part’s nice.

  • 5. Corey  |  December 28, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Here here for the Anti-20th-Century (Minus Spinsterhood) Theory of Life! There are some nice things about the recent past, I admit (tampons spring most readily to mind), but I prefer the broad strokes of what was better pre-20th century. :)

  • 6. KT  |  December 29, 2008 at 1:09 am

    TAMPONS. Yeah, that’s an advancement I’d have a hard time living without. I would jump on the anti-corset bandwagon, too, but since I kind of like them and I’m willing to bet that the average woman did not tighten their waists nearly as much as either Scarlett O’Hara or the current corset festishists, I bet I could have dealt with it.


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