Those proper ladies writing in the attic; The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New Haven: Yale University Press. $25.
The grand success of this study is that it stimulates us to re-read those books by proper ladies from the 19th century. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar reconsider each work, they introduce us to "The Madwoman in the Attic," the author's double, hiding in the seams of her writing, reflecting her anxiety and rage.
Gilbert and Gubar shatter the images of Jane Austen as the timid parlor mouse , the Brontes as contented rural lasses, George Eliot as the ugly, mannish scourge: ". . . almost all late 18th and 19th century women writers from Maria Edgeworth in 'Castle Rackrent' to Charlotte Bronte in 'Jane Eyre,' Emily Bronte in 'Wuthering Heights,' and George Eliot in 'Middlemarch,' secreted bitter self-portraits of madwomen in the attics of their novels. . . ." These "madwomen ," according to the authors, railed about the sexual double standard, the domestic entrapment of women and other feminist issues.
"Feminist" is an approach taken by these two scholars without apology, despite the notable risk to their critical credentials in the male academic establishment. Gilbert and Gubar, associate professors of English literature at the University of California, Davis, and Indiana University respectively, insist on assessing art within the context of sexual politics.
"The Madwoman in the Attic" discusses female literature as a response and a contrast to "male writing." For instance, Miltonian morality loomed large in the consciences of Victorian women; they were carefully schooled in his themes of incest, woman's evil power, man's godliness. But by use of the "madwoman" and other palimpsests, they were able to refute and reinterpret his mandates.
If novelists wrote about "madwomen" to express their feminism, the authors suggest, female poets became "madwomen" because the barriers to lyric poetry were almost impermeable. They cite Emily Dickinson's poems as offering both the ironic impersonation of the madwoman and the realistic reflection of Dickinson's genuine eccentricities: "Dickinson's life itself, in other words, became a kind of novel or narrative poem, in which, through an extraordinarily complex series of maneuvers, aided by costumes that came inevitably to hand, this inventive poet enacted and eventually resolved both her own anxieties about her art and her anger at female subordination."
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?" asked Dickinson, "How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!/How public -- like a Frog -- /To tell one's name -- the livelong June -- /To an admiring Bog!"
Thanks to Gilbert and Gubar, the admiring Bog grows larger. We return to the writing of these 19th-century women with renewed curiosity, with intimations of a discernible female imagination.