trope: the professional

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.


A Room of One’s Own discussion questions

  • Why do you believe she mentions food so often?
  • Is there a pattern in the mention of food?
  • What does the pattern signify?
  • Which are the primary ideological questions she raises (and which pages are they on)?
  • What are the major ideological claims/answers she posits? (Again, please use page references)
  • Does having money and a room of one’s own leave women the opportunity for raising families in addition to working? See especially pp. 22-23 of the annotated edition, or in any edition the very long paragraph beginning “At the thought of all those women working year after year…”
  • At the end of chapter 1, Woolf’s narrator states, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.” How does chapter 2 expand on that insight? Does it confirm or deny the idea that it is “worse perhaps to be locked in”?

baby and bathwater

Today our class discussion seemed to me livelier and more productive than ever, and I loved that. I realized, of course, that the conversation in which we defined feminism roused frustration and anger in a number of people. I suspect that the most vocal members of the class were surrounded by others who silently agreed with them. Several vocal students explained that second-wave feminist criticism seems hopelessly outdated and that, by extension, a definition of feminism that has its roots in first-wave feminism is doomed to failure. We should just throw the whole definition out and start afresh is what I heard from some and saw in others’ faces.

I hope that, in this expansive fourteen weeks that will very soon appear much too brief, we can develop durable skills in reading texts on their own terms before imposing our own on them. Without a working definition of feminism, those skills will be flimsy if they develop at all. 

The key to skillful interpretation of a text, as opposed to mere reaction, is first to make every effort to become the audience the author has in mind when writing. At some point one may decide that the effort required to do that is not worth the result; the reader then closes the book and goes away (tossing out both baby and bathwater). But in the majority of cases, maturity and judgment should prevail, meaning you adopt the stance the author wants you to take and in that way to read the text on its own terms. Reading something like the passages I gave the small groups provides a chance to do just that. Engage with the author directly, through attention to individual words and phrases, and see what s/he is saying. 

Step two, of course, is to be a resistant reader. Once informed by a responsible and civil reading of the text, you can deliberately reject the parts you choose to reject, appropriate the parts you choose to change, and learn from the parts you choose to admire. That is to read resistantly, as a feminist. Doing this allows you to discard the bathwater but keep the baby.

No one, least of all the second-wave feminists themselves, wants to relive second-wave feminism. Better to learn from them rather than to ignore their writing (thus wasting their effort) and consequently repeat their mistakes. 


Showalter notes

From my lesson plans today: Showalter—locks and keys. Tell me the passages you marked as significant, and whether that significance was something you understood or wanted help unpacking.

My passages:

  • Images and stereotypes of women in literature (women as a theme) versus the act of reading as a feminist—how to see and name and therefore live afresh 527
  • Showalter worries that feminist critique currently practiced (in 1985) is nothing but a grievance, shaped and defined by male normativity 528
  • Gynocriticism—Pat Spacks. How is women’s writing different from men’s? 530-31
  • English feminist criticism (Marxist; stresses oppression); French feminist criticism (psychoanalytic; stresses repression); American feminist criticism (essentially textual; stresses expression). All are gynocentric. 531
  • The benefits and dangers of biocriticism 533-34
  • Invent a language; reinvent a language 535
  • Witches—including queer men (Godbeer) 536
  • Postcolonial literature—the melding of two languages 536
  • It is appropriate for gynocritics to focus on the ideological and cultural determinants of expression 537  —I would add to this the way authors deliberately (or unwittingly) shape that expression to communicate what those those ideological and cultural determinants are. That is, we can through close reading detect both what the author’s raw materials are and who the author wants to suit by crafting those materials this way and not some other way (KSN)
  • Double-voiced discourse and the danger of tropes that backfire 541. {After class, Rachel astutely pointed out the frequent invocation of Alice in Wonderland in the reading we’ve done so far. She’s right, Alice functions as a trope that, at the time of writing, was quite successful–the little girl who navigates with eventual success a contorted storyworld in which she is a conspicuous outsider. But as Rachel remarked, once the biographical details of Lewis Carroll’s personal behavior emerged, that trope backfired retroactively in a very big way.}  

commonplace books

commonplace books—what is a commonplace book?

dates back to at least sixteenth century in England; probably earlier in other parts of the world

OED: “a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred.” In other words, a collection of quotations, written by other people, people presumably wiser than oneself, inevitably men. For centuries the custom among the rich was to keep these books pristine, recording quotations in one’s best penmanship and then hiring someone to bind them together in leather for posterity. Others used them more constructively, writing responses in the margins to those wise passages and clever quotations.

  • Although I have looked quite a bit, I have yet to find a feminist history of commonplace books, one that tells me when and how people began using commonplace books to record the wisdom of the non-normative. But that is how we will use our commonplace books.
  • We will appropriate the commonplace book not just as a reading journal that records the wisdom of feminist writers but also as a feminist instrument. Since gender, sexuality, and feminism itself are constructions, we will construct the understanding we have of them by writing it ourselves. Writing is a form of thinking.
  • As Gilbert and Gubar point out in their introduction, for centuries there was no difference between creative writing and literary theory/criticism: the literary form was the critique of the literary form.
  • Let the commonplace book be a feminist instrument of rethinking the way gender and sexuality are troped in literature. Let it be a method of unpacking the double and triple voices in the literature we read.
  • Be specific. Always include page numbers and textual details in your commonplace book. I want this to be an instrument you can use not only on the final exam to your immediate advantage but in years to come.
  • I take them seriously. Bring them every day, write in them consistently. I will collect them on an unannounced schedule. In a class of this size I will read them and write only sparse responses, but I assure you, I will read them closely. I am not just looking to check off a box. I am quite interested in the substance of your thoughts.