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.

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