Female Heads

John Bayley

  • Woman to Woman: Female Friendship in Victorian Fiction by Tess Cosslett
    Harvester, 211 pp, £29.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 7108 1015 6
  • Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century by John Mullan
    Oxford, 261 pp, £25.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 812865 7
  • The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Vol. I: 1768-1773 edited by Lars Troide
    Oxford, 353 pp, £45.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 812581 X

Since the 18th century, and the novel’s coming of age, inventing female consciousness has become an absorbing masculine activity, a sex-in-the-head game. It is in the male head that Clarissa scribbles and Molly Bloom muses. For many male novelists, like the Austrian Robert Musil, erotic self-metamorphosis becomes mystical, a kind of religious substitute. The sphinx has her mystery, but in the final and most subtle analysis it is that of having no secret at all. One of Musil’s most memorable passages, a kind of essay reverie, describes his sensations as he lies in bed in a hotel room, listening to his partner’s preparations. He cannot imagine what she is up to: what are these clinks, knocks, swishing and rubbing noises, repeated what seems an infinity of times? Like the noises of bird or animal in a nocturnal garden, these sounds assure him that she ultimately belongs, without consciousness or design, to a world in which he has no being. Yet all the time he knows she is ‘hurrying to join him’. Creating an imaginary fresco of King Candaules awaiting his wife on the nuptial couch, Anthony Powell observes that the expectant monarch has in him ‘something of all men’, his spouse absorbed in her own rituals ‘something of all women’. In the legend, Candaules dies for thinking his wife’s nakedness belongs exclusively to him, to show off as he pleases.

Compellingly written as it is, Musil’s meditation is not only a fine specimen of the higher male chauvinism but an indication of how masculine sensibility in fiction creates a female one as an extension of its own erotic being. Faced with her own self, or non-self, as a male dream preserve, the woman’s refuge might be, as St Paul said, in silence. And, ironically, it is the most ‘sensitive’ males who could be, in this context, the most exasperating. Feminism is surely right to be particularly resentful of male attempts to create, in however full a degree of sympathy, the feminine.

These matters must be well-known to Tess Cosslett, who has written a searching study of woman-to-woman relationships in the 19th-century novel. The century saw the first attempt to explore a specifically female relationship – women, as it were, becoming fictively actual in each other’s context, rather than in that of men. As she points out, there are many records of prolonged and loving female friendships in the 18th century, and anonymous independent women by the score who depended on each other’s society, but apart from stylised Utopias and parodies, like Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, there are no explorations of the topic, although one should add, thinking of the role of dramatic confidantes – that it was a part of life too much taken for granted for the new novel to interest itself in realistically. Richardson uses as a convention the letter-writing of Clarissa and Anna Howe, but their intimacy is itself a fact to be taken for granted.

The problem is that once men have invented women in fiction, it is difficult for women not to produce a counter-invention in the same spirit. Guidelines and frontiers are all too easily drawn. I doubt that this happens in life, as opposed to fiction, and it certainly did not happen in Chaucer or Shakespeare. Criseyde’s, or Cressida’s, problems and dilemma are those of a woman, but her consciousness is the same as a man’s: she has no specific sexual sensibility. Jane Eyre is a different matter, and Tess Cosslett is surely right to emphasise Charlotte Brontë’s unobtrusive skill in demonstrating such a sensibility in relation to female comradeship. Lucy and Polly and Paulina, Shirley and Caroline, ‘bring each other out’ much more subtly than do their creator’s specifically feminine exclamations, isolations, self-satisfactions. Charlotte’s female presence, at once irritating and absorbing, is as complacent in the exclusiveness of its femininity as are the many versions of it in fiction today. Indeed, together with George Eliot, once thought of as a masculine talent, it is Charlotte Brontë who laid down today’s guidelines, drawing continual attention to the female presence in the centre of the book, though both would have balked at saying, as Fay Weldon has done, that being women made them unable to understand or feel sympathy with a man. The honesty of that remark shows just how far, in the post-Drabble-Byatt novel, the process has gone. Elizabeth Bowen or Elizabeth Taylor ignored, in their individual ways, all idea of being ‘women novelists’, as Anita Brookner does today. However ‘feminine’ their subject-matter, they don’t approach it determinedly as ‘women’.

And it is ironic that Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, themselves ignoring predecessors like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, should have taken their feminine image from Richardson-Clarissa. As John Mullan shows in his useful and scholarly book, the early prestige of Richardson went underground, his ‘fairer and better sex’ taking on its vulgar Victorian form, but also appearing metamorphosed in George Eliot’s measured approval (‘we have fallen on an evil generation who would not read Clarissa’) and being definitively rejected, in what Mullan calls ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’, by the Leavises. In conformity with the ideology of their time, Q.D. and F.R. would have nothing to do with exclusive femininity, but it is surprising that in reviving George Eliot they did not see how much she owed to the ‘fairer and better’ sex image created by an 18th-century man whose novel they thought wholly obsolete. What it comes to is that the very determined ‘woman’ novelist today prefers what is historically a man-made sexual image to the less serious and monolithic sexual sterotypes in Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, both of whom were regarded with suspicion if not scorn by the Brontë-Eliot axis.

For being a woman in fiction is a serious matter, and it was the men, from Richardson to Henry James, who recognised the fact, and portrayed women in a proper isolation, and therefore a proper individuality. Emily – the ‘only’ Brontë, according to the Leavises – was not a bit interested in the seriousness and exclusiveness of being a woman, and created a female Byron who ignores psychologically the female province. In their sexual imagination men see women as separate and isolated beings, and in this respect, too, women take over men’s imagination of them. The point is in a sense confirmed, rather than denied, by Tess Cosslett’s study, because she is concerned, not with women as the centre or as part of the family, but with women on their own, meeting others in a like position, and it is precisely with women on their own that the male imagination is itself concerned. There seems no escaping the coincidence of female self-discovery with male self-indulgence, however different in purpose the two drives may be. Not for nothing did D.H. Lawrence begin Women in Love with that uniquely memorable conversation between Ursula and Gudrun, although it is of course orientated to their feeling about men. Significantly, Lawrence does not ‘dream’ about women, but wishes to confine them in a separate feminine enclave, away from men’s dreams about them. Feminists today do not thank him for this; and it is probably true that in terms of sexual imagination women do not depend on men as men do on women. They do not need, or wish, to ‘take over’ men. This may be one reason for the notorious failure in creation of George Eliot’s Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, or indeed her Daniel Deronda: a man she admired and desired was not something her imagination rose to, as it did to the image of other women. Quoting Dolores Rosenblum, Tess Cosslett remarks on the ‘silent, iconic female face’ that haunts Victorian male art, an image that Elizabeth Barrett perhaps consciously sought to dispel when dwelling on Marian Erle’s ‘imperfect’ and ‘changeful’ face in Aurora Leigh. George Eliot has no trouble in making Dorothea or Rosamond fully human in this sense.

In The Reproduction of Mothering Nancy Chodorow posited a self-perpetuating system, in which the primary parenthood of women turned naturally to daughters and to other women, on a path leading back to the finding of husbands and wives. In a review in these pages recently of Margaret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning I commented on the way in which the author of Aurora Leigh makes use of Marian Erle to get her heroine the desired husband. It seems that in her study of the novel in verse Barbara Gelpi has even seen the villainous and sexually predatory Lady Waldemar, who arranges Marian’s abduction and rape, as Aurora’s Jungian ‘shadow’. Certainly Aurora first accepts and then rejects the idea of independent woman plus child represented by Marian, wishing to be ‘low and wise’, ‘less known and less left alone’.

                                       the vines
That bear such fruit are proud to stoop with it.
The palm stands upright in a realm of sand.

None the less, Tess Cosslett is surely right in suggesting that what matters to the poem is precisely the friendship between Aurora and Marian, and the change it brings to both their beings. The poem’s success lies in its mixture of conscious and unconscious motives and wishes: Aurora discovers what she needs by consciously exploring and unconsciously exploiting her relation with Marian. Such women extend to each other by instinct both maternal protectiveness and maternal treachery. In terms of authorship, the reproduction of mothering favours the male, because his primary relation is with women, whereas the male figure a woman creates dates from her experience of adult sexuality.

Later 19th-century novels are less hopeful, stressing the isolation of women rather than their potential solidarity – a pattern that again goes back to Richardson. The lives of sisters in Olive Schreiner’s novels, The Story of an African Farm and the unfinished From Man to Man, make up what seems a deliberately aborted story, leading to nothing, as if fiction had no way of making a proper story out of female relations, which simply continued, or failed to continue indefinitely, whereas Jane Eyre or Aurora Leigh, like standard romances, were ended by marriage. The experience of life and the traditions of art were not compatible. Women depended on each other in an essential but provisional sense, and when they wrote fell back on the old masculine pattern of romance. A story might be made, none the less, out of Emily Brontë’s contempt for her sister, who sentimentalised her in Shirley, and Charlotte’s own close friendship with Ellen Nussey. The story would be one of silence in the face of vulgar intrusion, disguised as feminine solidarity, for women in these fictions do tend to take over each other – the archetype would be Jane Austen’s Emma taking over Harriet Smith – as if the maternal role had in this new context got out of hand. ‘George Egerton’, the intense but somewhat clumsy author of an intriguingly named novel, The Spell of the White Elf (1895), is a passionate advocate of motherhood but also of lesbianism (not named as such) as a kind of prelude or surrogate motherhood. In terms of fiction, her ‘solution’ to female relations is to stress the perception of women about each other, a hidden intelligence wholly denied to men, who must be played up to on their own terms.

Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that women have to learn to be women, but men could just be themselves, was certainly not true of polite 18th-century society. Both sexes were required to study the behaviour suited to their roles, and as the century progressed the man of principle became by easy stages the man, or woman, of sensibility. The two roles were in practice not so very different, although the cult of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling attached more importance to speechless sentiment, which

    ne’er was apparelled with art,
On words it could never rely;
It reigned in the throb of my heart,
It spoke in the glance of my eye.

Girls, one infers, were much less speechless than boys, and for a natural and compulsive writer like Fanny Burney reliance on words in any context was second nature. Beautifully edited by Lars Troide and printed to ensure the greatest readability, this first volume, 1768-1773, of a new edition of her Journals makes one look forward to the rest with curiosity and pleasure. She shows, as Jane Austen was to do, how absolute naturalness is most at home with formality. When she says of Voltaire’s Henriade, ‘I cannot think it right,’ she is not being pompous or bien-pensant in imitation of her elders, but expressing a genuine opinion, based on solidarity with her culture and class. ‘M. Voltaire is not a man of very rigid principles. Susy and I walked in the park this morning but we saw nobody we knew.’

Both her Journals and John Mullan’s excellent book demonstrate the importance of the family in easing the lot of women and making conditions for them, if not more egalitarian, then at least more democratically sociable. For every bad family like the Harlowes there were many good ones like the Burneys and Austens. In fact, the Grandisons were Richardsons’s considered reply, as it were, to the Harlowe family, who had made Clarissa such an interesting and solitary sufferer; and Jane Austen based not only Mansfield Park but most of her good families upon the Grandisons, and the standard they set. Mr Knightley is her Grandison and a very much more natural and acceptable one than the original. In a family of the Austen world there was no inducement for men to invent female consciousness, or for women to claim a special one of their own, and a special relation with their own sex. The end of the family in the novel is the beginning not so much of sexual equality as of true sexual differentiation. The novel has come to batten on that, and to make it a highly useful convention, which, like all such in literature, increasingly parts company with daily experience. Even humour has become in some fictional worlds a wholly female asset. Fay Weldon’s women are unnaturally jokey, her men unnaturally stuffy. In Barbara Pym, on the other hand, humour is the only thing the sexes can share, and which can sometimes bring them together.