Out of the house

Dinah Birch

  • The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 by Janet Todd
    Virago, 328 pp, £12.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 86068 576 4
  • Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian Britain by Mary Poovey
    Virago, 282 pp, £12.99, February 1989, ISBN 1 85381 035 5
  • The Woman Question. Society and Literature In Britain and America, 1837-1883: Vols I-III edited by Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets and William Veeder
    Chicago, 146 pp, £7.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 226 32666 7
  • Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett
    Harvard, 245 pp, £15.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 674 80290 X

How can women come to a better understanding of their cultural situation? What needs to be changed, and why? The questions are as urgent as ever, despite wishful rumours to the contrary. Numerous books about women continue to appear, offering diverse models of thought to those looking for counsel. Psychoanalytical and deconstructionist critics have been among the most glamorous figures in the crowd, encouraging women to examine the complex linguistic processes that compose feminine subjectivity. These strategies give a new dimension to what has long been perceived as women’s domain: the inward life, placed in a primarily familial setting. To privilege the private over the public as such critics do may be interpreted as a feminist gesture. But it’s a self-limiting challenge, for their language often chooses to exclude the wider community, operating in terms of jokes and quarrels shared within a closely-knit intellectual family. The repressive fathers are simply shut out, excluded by language.

Feminist historians have taken a different line. Their argument has been that in order to analyse the identity of women as it is constructed now, we need to know how it has been constructed in the past. In literary terms, at least, this has sometimes been seen as a misplaced ambition – at best unsophisticated, at worst a collusion with the powers of oppression. Knowledge of the past was indicted as no more than an illusion in the sceptical light of new theoretical practices, and the women who wrote before Freud seemed so hopelessly implicated in patriarchal cultures that they were scarcely worth studying. When set beside the knowingly intricate patterns of signification which characterised the stylish theorists taking apart the bricks and mortar of patriarchal principles, the pursuit of a feminist history could look naive.

There was some justice in such thinking. The first feminist literary historians were prone to see what they wanted to see – simple patterns of dissent and resistance, right and wrong, heroism and villainy. Every woman writer was acclaimed as a doughty rebel; all others were tyrants. Such campaigns proved hard to sustain. Could Jane Austen really be read as a feminist insurgent? Were Aphra Behn’s royalist politics simply a disguise for radical feminism? It became clear that more cogent and complete ways of understanding the literary past were called for. Janet Todd was among the first to recognise this need, and her developing work has made a substantial contribution towards fulfilling it. One of the most valuable things she has to offer her readers is information. Her studies of women’s writing in the 18th century have greatly enlarged our sense of its richness, variety and scope. The Sign of Angellica is an ambitious survey of her chosen period, juxtaposing an account of the literary culture as a whole with specific analyses of individual authors. The focus is on what women achieved in the period, particularly in the field of fiction. But men are neither absent nor routinely vilified. Janet Todd recognises that ‘the novel as a genre has both fathers and mothers.’

The Sign of Angellica has a story to tell. In Aphra Behn’s play The Rover (1677), the prostitute Angellica Bianca displays a sign of herself to win custom. Such open advertisement is a disgrace, and she is eventually denied the love of the hero. What interests Todd is Behn’s recognition of the social construction of women – a process usually hidden, but nevertheless essential to commerce between the sexes. Todd claims that the earliest development of women’s fiction is grounded in ‘an analysis of female signs and masks’, an investigation which took place in a period of ‘considerable frankness in writing’. In the middle years of the 18th century, the possibility of such frankness was closed by a more moralistic ideology of femininity. Passive self-sacrifice was expected, and was presented as the nature of women rather than a cultural product. But self-abnegation did not go unrewarded. Virtuous heroines acquired moral authority, and readers were fed with fantasies of the wealth or saintly deathbeds that vindicated their lives of suffering. Only at the end of the period were some women able to question this ubiquitous image, and they did so with no more than partial success.

Among the most engaging aspects of Todd’s argument is her exploration of unexpected sources of women’s self-assertion. We’ve grown used to the idea of their victimisation throughout the period, and Todd isn’t inclined to write the more dismal details out of the story. But she also emphasises ways in which concepts of feminine virtue became pervasively dominant, giving women a new kind of cultural status. Scholarly histories have tended to understate the sentimentality that enveloped literary culture in the mid-18th century, emphasising instead the brisker perspectives represented by Henry Fielding. Henry’s sister Sarah, whose novel The Adventures of David Simple is examined in detail here, demonstrates the power of the vision of sensibility which culminated in Richardson’s Clarissa.

It was a double-edged rule, bound up with the perverse gratifications of misery. Virtue could be revered only as long as it was helpless, and its real reward was deferred to the next world. A surprisingly compelling and persistent model, its death-hunger made it of limited use to the politicised women of the final decades of the 18th century. It’s with some relief that Todd and the reader turn to the fresher air that came with the storms of 1789. But here, too, we learn more about contradiction and compromise than feminist heroism. The impact of Wollstonecraft’s passionate arguments was limited by the scandal of her private life, and the gentler moral perspectives of Ann Radcliffe and Fanny Burney were more widely influential. Teachers rather than agitators, such women handed the moral authority of fiction to their inheritors in the 19th century. In doing so, they exhort women to conformity rather than rebellion. Excitement and independence is, after all, seen to be of dubious value in their work. As Todd remarks, happiness, for a Burney heroine, could be defined as ‘never having to go off in a coach alone again’.

One of the aims of Todd’s work is to refute the lingering notion that women’s history begins in 1830, and her book does much to remind us of continuities between the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Victorian period, still in many ways defined as the source of modern social policies and prejudices, continues to exert a powerful attraction for feminist critics. Mary Poovey has written on women’s writing in the Romantic period: in Uneven Developments she turns her attention to Victorian England. She defines her methodologies as those of post-structuralist versions of formalism, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, her emphasis is on the narratives of history. Poovey, like Todd, wants to show that our pictures of the past are simpler and more coherent than they need to be. We might assume that we know, more or less, what the Victorians thought about relations between the sexes: Poovey asserts that the ideology that emerged from middle-class formulations of the issues was in fact always in debate, and ‘open to revision, dispute and the emergence of oppositional formulations’. This she demonstrates in a series of case-studies that range far beyond the field of literature.

Poovey is stiffly apologetic about the fact that she wants to tell us stories (‘I remain at least partly within the narrative paradigms underwritten by individualism’). In fact, the fascination of the tales she unfolds is one of the strengths of her book. She identifies four cultural areas in which the controversies of gender were particularly heated: medicine, law, literature and education. Two of her case-studies relate to medicine. The first deals with the introduction of chloroform as an analgesic in childbirth. The disagreement generated by this innovation centred on questions of the definition and control of women. Clergymen and doctors entered the argument with conflicting preconceptions. The pains of labour were seen by the Church as part of God’s purpose for women, a natural expression of their ordained role of passive maternity. But doctors saw that chloroform made mothers still more passive. The delivery of a baby confirmed the most significant social role available to women. Emphasising the concept of childbirth as a disorder rather than a natural process, chloroform gave the developing profession of medicine a new way of managing women at this crucial moment in their lives. Technologising childbirth had the added advantage of wresting influence from the traditionally female practice of midwifery. Some doctors, though, had misgivings. Poovey recounts evidence of deep anxieties about what might be revealed by women under the influence of chloroform: Would they show an uncontrollably sexual nature, once cultural constraints were dissolved by the drug? Would doctors be degraded by associating themselves with ‘scenes of an indelicate character’? Comparable contradictions cluster round Poovey’s second medical case-history – the story of Florence Nightingale’s role in the emerging profession of nursing. Nightingale enabled respectable women to become nurses, thus helping to head off the threat of women wanting to become doctors. But the image of the saintly and heroic Nightingale moving among rows of wounded soldiers in the Crimea – the Angel out of the House – is at odds with what Nightingale actually stood for. She wanted hospitals (and, by implication, doctors too) to be made redundant by an army of disciplined nurses who would bring health through hygiene and domestic order rather than drugs and surgery. The elaborate myth of an invincible Nightingale opposes much of what she worked towards throughout a long and largely frustrated life.

Taking the role of Caroline Norton in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the professionalisation of the man of letters as expressed in Dickens’s treatment of women in David Copperfield and social unease about the role of governess as expressed and questioned in Jane Eyre as further examples of divided thinking on gender, Mary Poovey gives us a composite picture of a culture sharply at odds with itself in its ambitions and fears. What emerges is a view of women which is more closely integrated with the ideologically-grounded history of the period as a whole than feminist historians have usually offered us. Poovey’s conclusions throw out a question. Have we, feminists and non-feminists alike, been too ready to accept ‘woman’ as a single entity? Poovey thinks that we have. The more we learn about the contradictions and complications which have always surrounded the notion of ‘womanhood’, the less confident we should feel about its future.

Detailed historical scholarship of the kind needed to substantiate new women’s histories such as those given by Todd and Poovey might seem to have one pragmatic drawback: it’s exceptionally time-consuming. Pioneering research – and a great deal of the most basic digging in these areas remains to be done – absorbs month after patient month in libraries. In the contemporary academic climate, work of that kind might look like a luxury. Short cuts take you only part of the way, but they can give a crucial lift in the early stages of a project. Poovey’s book clearly owes much to the three-volume collection of primary texts by Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Sheets and William Veeder, published by Garland Press in 1983 under the title The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America 1837-1883.

The avowed purpose of this substantial work, which has now made a welcome appearance in paperback, is close to that of Mary Poovey’s study. The editors want to demonstrate conflicts within Victorian thinking about women. ‘The predominant form of Victorian writing about women is not pronouncement but debate.’ Poovey has called this collection ‘the single most important bibliographical guide and introduction to doing research in the Victorian period’. That’s perhaps going it a bit – there are some significant rivals – but it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the resources of those without ready access to a major library.

The chapter on science, now emerging as one of the most keenly argued areas of feminist study, is among the most suggestive sections of the volume on social issues. The annals of medicine, as Mary Poovey confirms, have proved an especially productive field for feminist historians. The objectivity claimed by medical theorists makes the emotional biases of their arguments all the more apparent. Cynthia Russett’s Sexual Science offers a careful and witty examination of the supposedly scientific appraisal of women’s nature on which social policies were based. Though her survey isn’t limited to medical hypotheses, some of her most pungent evidence does come from the medical establishment. It’s one of the more cheering ironies of history that a man like Henry Maudsley, eminent psychiatrist and virulent misogynist, has turned out to be such a friend to feminism. His writings provide an apparently inexhaustible mine of pronouncements on women, compounded of such stupidity and malice that simply to quote him will always help to clinch a feminist argument with a flourish. Russett makes spirited use of Maudsley and his many compeers. Together, such masculine authorities have bequeathed an extraordinary testimony to the volume and weight of the pressures which combined to constitute Victorian perceptions of women’s identity.

Yet here, too, no clear consensus emerges. Scientists disagreed about women as sharply as did lawyers or churchmen. Some of the fiercest dissension arose out of evolutionary theory. One popular argument was that women were less likely to vary from the norm: few idiots were female, and few geniuses. This supposedly fixed nature legitimised a strong propensity to generalise about women’s identity. Where did they fit into the evolutionary scale? Were they, as some argued, to be grouped among the savages? Or were they more like children, representing a kind of permanently arrested development? Did they resemble both? Whatever a scientist decided, nature was claimed to authorise his verdict. Those who are still hankering after a definition of women founded in the unalterable prescriptions of biological determinism would do well to ponder this chastening history of repeated scientific attempts to bring off this feat in the past. What Todd, Poovey and Russett show is that efforts to define woman as a unified category are part of the long process by which femininity has been defined as a social construction. As feminist history grows in confidence and maturity, it’s the differences between women, not their sameness, that increasingly claim our attention.