To begin a unit on the trope of professionalism in women’s writing, I assigned three prefaces to major fictional works by notable women writers: Aphra Behn’s preface to The Lucky Chance, Frances Burney’s preface to Evelina, and Mary Shelley’s 1831 preface to Frankenstein. I offered historical background on each of these three professional writers, offering some clues as to their attitudes toward their own personae as professionals. Thus, when one person asked about the status of tropes in the reading for last Tuesday, the proper answer was that the tropes were found in the writers’ self-conscious self-presentations.
For example, Behn creates a trope out of the Third day, the day on which (according to G&G’s footnote) all profits from a play’s performance went directly to the playwright. By asserting straightforwardly that “I am not content to write for a Third day only,” Behn is simultaneously asserting figuratively that she is not content to write for immediate gratification. To ensure her reader doesn’t miss her point, her very next sentence begins “I value Fame…” She wants a lasting reputation; she wants her status as professional to be taken seriously for decades or even centuries thereafter. She uses a trope to establish her professionalism.
Unlike the theorists we’ve read who have written more or less abstractly about women’s writing–Gilbert and Gubar, Fetterley, Showalter, Cixous, Wittig–the three fiction writers present their views on women’s writing in highly tangible language. Their feminist claims have everything to do with their own relation to the emerging oeuvre of their contemporary writers, women and men alike. All three mention male writers prominently in their prefaces, though they do so in such different ways that to consider them together is, to my mind, absolutely fascinating. Notice Behn’s furious tone of voice and how she deploys language to communicate scorn, pride, poise, self-confidence, and literary skill all at once. Her status as a professional depends on all of those qualities. But she very clearly articulates that the scorn arises only out of necessity, and that if men would just take her seriously and judge her work on its own merits, regardless of her sex, she would not need to be scornful.
I will make just a few more remarks that highlight some important passages–but these are definitely not the only passages worth close reading in the three prefaces. Burney, by contrast to Behn, begins her piece by showering fulsome admiration on her male predecessors. How simply marvelous that novelists like Richardson and Fielding have come before her to legitimate the novel genre! What a blessing and a relief! Notice that she tropes badly written novels as an incurable contagious disease that young women readers are especially vulnerable to, and that she uses that trope to make room for the novel she is prefacing (Evelina) as it is one of the novels “which may be read, if not with advantage, at least without injury” to the young girl reader. But her finest trope is the one in which she slyly undermines her earlier-stated veneration for male predecessors, asserting that they have not only cleared some ground for themselves, but they’ve managed to obliterate all healthy and beautiful vegetation in the process.
Mary Shelley writes a preface to her novel that has already been in circulation for thirteen years. She is writing not to a publisher but to her readers, many of whom have already read the novel at least once and are in a position to appreciate the slight alterations she has made to this edition (see her final paragraph). The original (1818) preface, as she says in her 1831 preface, was written by her husband. This one, though, is written eleven years after his death. As the small group devoted to Mary Shelley in our class discussion observed, this 1831 preface is chock-full of apparent deference (some called it name-dropping) to the famous male poets in her husband’s circle, notably Lord Byron. And the question that small group debated, admirably, was whether such apparent deference was sincere or insincere. I’d say the key to Mary Shelley’s self-presentation as a professional is the unstated fact that she goes on, after 1818, to write “a number of tales, five more novels, and a range of essays, travel sketches, and biographies, along with insightful notes to her husband’s poems” (G&G headnote, page 71). The headnotes like this one in the G&G anthology are pure gold for interpretation of historical nuances–I recommend reading them nearly as closely as you read the texts themselves. Gilbert and Gubar include plenty of background they understand their readers are unlikely to know and will benefit from learning. So when Mary Shelley insists that “waking dreams” and her “imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” in her writing of this very very famous novel, one can employ some historical background to doubt how passive a professional she actually is.