Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination second edition. 1979, 2000.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

The man who does not know sick women does not know women.
-S. Weir Mitchell

I try to describe this long limitation, hoping that with such power as is now mine, and such use of language as is within that power, this will convince any one who cares about it that this “living” of mine had been done under a heavy handicap.
-Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie
Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria
-Emily Dickinson

I stand in the ring
in the dead city
and tie on the red shoes.
They are not mine,
they are my mother’s,
her mother’s before,
handed down like an heirloom
but hidden like shameful letters.
-Anne Sexton

What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are, as we have seen, both overtly and covertly patriarchal? If the vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen? If the Queen’s looking glass speaks with the King’s voice, how do its perpetual kingly admonitions affect the Queen’s own voice? Since his is the chief voice she hears, does the Queen try to sound like the King, imitating his tone, his inflections, his phrasing, his point of view? Or does she “talk back” to him in her own vocabulary, her own timbre, insisting on her own viewpoint? We believe these are basic questions feminist literary criticism - both theoretical and practical - must answer, and consequently they are questions to which we shall turn again and again, not only in this chapter but in all our readings of nineteenth-century literature by women.

That writers assimilate and then consciously or unconsciously affirm or deny the achievements of their predecessors is, of course, a central fact of literary history, a fact whose aesthetic and metaphysical implications have been discussed in detail by theorists as diverse as T. S. Eliot, M. H. Abrams, Erich Auerbach, and Frank Kermode [1]. More recently, some literary theorists have begun to explore what we might call the psychology of literary history - the tensions and anxieties, hostilities and inadequacies writers feel when they confront not only the achievements of their predecessors but the traditions of genre, style, and metaphor that they inherit from such “forefathers.” Increasingly, these critics study the ways in which, as J. Hillis Miller has put it, a literary text “is inhabited ... by a long chain of parasitical presences, echoes, allusions, guests, ghosts of previous texts.” [2]

As Miller himself also notes, the first and foremost student of such literary psychohistory has been Harold Bloom. Applying Freudian structures to literary genealogies, Bloom has postulated that the dynamics of literary history arise from the artist’s “anxiety of influence,” his fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential priority over his own writings. In fact, as we pointed out in our discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity, Bloom’s paradigm of the sequential historical relationship between literary artists is the relationship of father and son, specifically that relationship as it was defined by Freud. Thus Bloom explains that a “strong poet” must engage in heroic warfare with his “precursor,” for, involved as he is in a literary Oedipal struggle, a man can only become a poet by somehow invalidating his poetic father.

Bloom’s model of literary history is intensely (even exclusively) male, and necessarily patriarchal. For this reason it has seemed, and no doubt will continue to seem, offensively sexist to some feminist critics. Not only, after all, does Bloom describe literary history as the crucial warfare of fathers and sons, he sees Milton’s fiercely masculine fallen Satan as the type of the poet in our culture, and he metaphorically defines the poetic process as a sexual encounter between a male poet and his female muse. Where, then, does the female poet fit in? Does she want to annihilate a “forefather” or a “foremother”? What if she can find no models, no precursors? Does she have a muse, and what is its sex? Such questions are inevitable in any female consideration of Bloomian poetics. [3] And yet, from a feminist perspective, their inevitability may be just the point; it may, that is, call our attention not to what is wrong about Bloom’s conceptualization of the dynamics of Western literary history, but to what is right (or at least suggestive) about his theory.

For Western literary history is overwhelmingly male - or, more accurately, patriarchal - and Bloom analyzes and explains this fact, while other theorists have ignored it, precisely, one supposes, because they assumed literature had to be male. Like Freud, whose psychoanalytic postulates permeate Bloom’s literary psychoanalyses of the “anxiety of influence,” Bloom has defined processes of interaction that his predecessors did not bother to consider because, among other reasons, they were themselves so caught up in such processes. Like Freud, too, Bloom has insisted on bringing to consciousness assumptions readers and writers do not ordinarily examine. In doing so, he has clarified the implications of the psychosexual and sociosexual con-texts by which every literary text is surrounded, and thus the meanings of the “guests” and “ghosts” which inhabit texts themselves. Speaking of Freud, the feminist theorist Juliet Mitchell has remarked that “psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but an analysis of one.” [4] The same sort of statement could be made about Bloom’s model of literary history, which is not a recommendation for but an analysis of the patriarchal poetics (and attendant anxieties) which underlie our culture’s chief literary movements.

For our purposes here, however, Bloom’s historical construct is useful not only because it helps identify and define the patriarchal psychosexual context in which so much Western literature was authored, but also because it can help us distinguish the anxieties and achievements of female writers from those of male writers. If we return to the question we asked earlier “where does a woman writer ‘fit in’ to the overwhelmingly and essentially male literary history Bloom describes?” we find we have to answer that a woman writer does not ‘fit in.’ At first glance, indeed, she seems to be anomalous, indefinable, alienated, a freakish outsider. Just as in Freud’s theories of male and female psychosexual development there is no symmetry between a boy’s growth and a girl’s (with, say, the male “Oedipus complex” balanced by a female “Electra complex”) so Bloom’s male-oriented theory of the “anxiety of influence” cannot be simply reversed or inverted in order to account for the situation of the woman writer.

Certainly if we acquiesce in the patriarchal Bloomian model, we can be sure that the female poet does not experience the “anxiety of influence” in the same way that her male counterpart would, for the simple reason that she must confront precursors who are almost exclusively male, and therefore significantly different from her. Not only do these precursors incarnate patriarchal authority (as our discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity argued), they attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and her potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster) drastically conflict with her own sense of her self - that is, of her subjectivity, her autonomy, her creativity. On the one hand, therefore, the woman writer’s male precursors symbolize authority; on the other hand, despite their authority, they fail to define the ways in which she experiences her own identity as a writer. More, the masculine authority with which they construct their literary personae, as well as the fierce power struggles in which they engage in their efforts of self-creation, seem to the woman writer directly to contradict the terms of her own gender definition. Thus the “anxiety of influence” that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more primary “anxiety of authorship” - a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a “precursor” the act of writing will isolate or destroy her.

This anxiety is, of course, exacerbated by her fear that not only can she not fight a male precursor on “his” terms and win, she cannot “beget” art upon the (female) body of the muse. As Juliet Mitchell notes, in a concise summary of the implications Freud’s theory of psychosexual development has for women, both a boy and a girl, “as they learn to speak and live within society, want to take the father’s [in Bloom’s terminology the precursor’s] place, and only the boy will one day be allowed to do so. Furthermore both sexes are born into the desire of the mother, and as, through cultural heritage, what the mother desires is the phallus-turned-baby, both children desire to be the phallus for the mother. Again, only the boy can fully recognize himself in his mothers desire. Thus both sexes repudiate the implications of femininity,” but the girl learns (in relation to her father) “that her subjugation to the law of the father entails her becoming the representative of “nature” and “sexuality,” a chaos of spontaneous, intuitive creativity.” [5]

Unlike her male counterpart, then, the female artist must first struggle against the effects of a socialization which makes conflict with the will of her (male) precursors seem inexpressibly absurd, futile, or even “as in the case of the Queen in ‘Little Snow White’” self-annihilating. And just as the male artist’s struggle against his precursor takes the form of what Bloom calls revisionary swerves, flights, misreadings, so the female writer’s battle for self-creation involves her in a revisionary process. Her battle, however, is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization. Her revisionary struggle, therefore, often becomes a struggle for what Adrienne Rich has called “Revision” the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction ... an act of survival. [6] Frequently, moreover, she can begin such a struggle only by actively seeking & female precursor who, far from representing a threatening force to be denied or killed, proves by example that a revolt against patriarchal literary authority is possible.

For this reason, as well as for the sound psychoanalytic reasons Mitchell and others give, it would be foolish to lock the woman artist into an Electra pattern matching the Oedipal structure Bloom proposes for male writers. The woman writer - and we shall see women doing this over and over again - searches for a female model not because she wants dutifully to comply with male definitions of her “femininity” but because she must legitimize her own rebellious endeavors. At the same time, like most women in patriarchal society, the woman writer does experience her gender as a painful obstacle, or even a debilitating inadequacy; like most patriarchally conditioned women, in other words, she is victimized by what Mitchell calls the “inferiorized and ‘alternative’ (second sex) psychology of women under patriarchy.” [7] Thus the loneliness of the female artist, her feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors, her urgent sense of her need for a female audience together with her fear of the antagonism of male readers, her culturally conditioned timidity about self-dramatization, her dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her anxiety about the impropriety of female invention - all these phenomena of “inferiorization” mark the woman writer’s struggle for artistic self-definition and differentiate her efforts at self-creation from those of her male counterpart.

As we shall see, such sociosexual differentiation means that, as Elaine Showalter has suggested, women writers participate in a quite different literary subculture from that inhabited by male writers, a subculture which has its own distinctive literary traditions, even though it defines itself in relation to the “main,” male-dominated, literary culture - a distinctive history. [8] At best, the separateness of this female subculture has been exhilarating for women. In recent years, for instance, while male writers seem increasingly to have felt exhausted by the need for revisionism which Bloom’s theory of the “anxiety of influence” accurately describes, women writers have seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intense that their male counterparts have probably not experienced its analog since the Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era. The son of many fathers, today’s male writer feels hopelessly belated; the daughter of too few mothers, today’s female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitively emerging.

There is a darker side of this female literary subculture, however, especially when women’s struggles for literary self-creation are seen in the psychosexual context described by Bloom’s Freudian theories of patrilineal literary inheritance. As we noted above, for an “anxiety of influence” the woman writer substitutes what we have called an “anxiety of authorship,” an anxiety built from complex and often only barely conscious fears of that authority which seems to the female artist to be by definition inappropriate to her sex. Because it is based on the woman’s socially determined sense of her own biology, this anxiety of authorship is quite distinct from the anxiety about creativity that could be traced in such male writers as Hawthorne or Dostoevsky. Indeed, to the extent that it forms one of the unique bonds that link women in what we might call the secret sisterhood of their literary subculture, such anxiety in itself constitutes a crucial mark of that subculture.

In comparison to the “male” tradition of strong, father-son combat, however, this female anxiety of authorship is profoundly debilitating. Handed down not from one woman to another but from the stern literary “fathers” of patriarchy to all their “inferiorized” female descendants, it is in many ways the germ of a dis-ease or, at any rate, a disaffection, a disturbance, a distrust, that spreads like a stain throughout the style and structure of much literature by women, especially - as we shall see in this study - throughout literature by women before the twentieth century. For if contemporary women do now attempt the pen with energy and authority, they are able to do so only because their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers struggled in isolation that felt like illness, alienation that felt like madness, obscurity that felt like paralysis to overcome the anxiety of authorship that was endemic to their literary subculture. Thus, while the recent feminist emphasis on positive role models has undoubtedly helped many women, it should not keep us from realizing the terrible odds against which a creative female subculture was established. Far from reinforcing socially oppressive sexual stereotyping, only a full consideration of such problems can reveal the extraordinary strength of women’s literary accomplishments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Emily Dickinson’s acute observations about “infection in the sentence,” quoted in our epigraphs, resonate in a number of different ways, then, for women writers, given the literary woman’s special concept of her place in literary psychohistory. To begin with, the words seem to indicate Dickinson’s keen consciousness that, in the purest Bloomian or Millerian sense, pernicious “guests” and “ghosts” inhabit all literary texts. For any reader, but especially for a reader who is also a writer, every text can become a “sentence” or weapon in a kind of metaphorical germ warfare. Beyond this, however, the fact that “infection in the sentence breeds” suggests Dickinson’s recognition that literary texts are coercive, imprisoning, fever-inducing; that, since literature usurps a reader’s interiority, it is an invasion of privacy. Moreover, given Dickinson’s own gender definition, the sexual ambiguity of her poem’s “Wrinkled Maker” is significant. For while, on the one hand, “we” (meaning especially women writers) “may inhale Despair” from all those patriarchal texts which seek to deny female autonomy and authority, on the other hand “we” (meaning especially women writers) “may inhale Despair” from all those “foremothers” who have both overtly and covertly conveyed their traditional authorship anxiety to their bewildered female descendants. Finally, such traditional, metaphorically matrilineal anxiety ensures that even the maker of a text, when she is a woman, may feel imprisoned within texts folded and “wrinkled” by their pages and thus trapped in their “perpetual seam[s]” which perpetually tell her how she seems. Although contemporary women writers are relatively free of the infection of this “Despair” Dickinson defines (at least in comparison to their nineteenth-century precursors), an anecdote recently related by the American poet and essayist Annie Gottlieb summarizes our point about the ways in which, for all women, “Infection in the sentence breeds”:

When I began to enjoy my powers as a writer, I dreamt that my mother had me sterilized! (Even in dreams we still blame our mothers for the punitive choices our culture forces on us.) I went after the mother-figure in my dream, brandishing a large knife; on its blade was writing. I cried, “Do you know what you are doing? You are destroying my femaleness, my female power, which is important to me because of you! [9]

Seeking motherly precursors, says Gottlieb, as if echoing Dickinson, the woman writer may find only infection, debilitation. Yet still she must seek, not seek to subvert, her female power, which is important” to her because of her lost literary matrilineage. In this connection, Dickinson’s own words about mothers are revealing, for she alternately claimed that “I never had a mother,” that “I always ran Home to Awe as a child. ... He was an awful Mother but I liked him better than none,” and that “a mother [was] a miracle.” [10] Yet, as we shall see, her own anxiety of authorship was a “Despair” inhaled not only from the infections suffered by her own ailing physical mother, and her many tormented literary mothers, but from the literary fathers who spoke to her - even “lied” to her - sometimes near at hand, sometimes “at distances of Centuries,” from the censorious looking glasses of literary texts.

It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters. Recently, in fact, social scientists and social historians like Jessie Bernard, Phyllis Chesler, Naomi Weisstein, and Pauline Bart have begun to study the ways in which patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick, both physically and mentally. [11] Hysteria, the disease with which Freud so famously began his investigations into the dynamic connections between psyche and soma, is by definition a “female disease,” not so much because it takes its name from the Greek word for womb, hyster (the organ which was in the nineteenth century supposed to “cause” this emotional disturbance), but because hysteria did occur mainly among women in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and because throughout the nineteenth century this mental illness, like many other nervous disorders, was thought to be caused by the female reproductive system, as if to elaborate upon Aristotle’s notion that femaleness was in and of itself a deformity. [12] And, indeed, such diseases of maladjustment to the physical and social environment as anorexia and agoraphobia did and do strike a disproportionate number of women. Sufferers from anorexia - loss of appetite, self-starvation - are primarily adolescent girls. Sufferers from agoraphobia - fear of open or public places - are usually female, most frequently middle-aged housewives, as are sufferers from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. [13]

Such diseases are caused by patriarchal socialization in several ways. Most obviously, of course, any young girl, but especially a lively or imaginative one, is likely to experience her education in docility, submissiveness, self-lessness as in some sense sickening. To be trained in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since the human animal’s first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion. In addition, each of the “subjects” in which a young girl is educated may be sickening in a specific way. Learning to become a beautiful object, the girl learns anxiety about - perhaps even loathing of - her own flesh. Peering obsessively into the real as well as metaphoric looking glasses that, surround her, she desires literally to “reduce” her own body. In the nineteenth century, as we noted earlier, this desire to be beautiful and “frail” led to tight-lacing and vinegar-drinking. In our own era it has spawned innumerable diets and “controlled” fasts, as well as the extraordinary phenomenon of teenage anorexia. [14] Similarly, it seems inevitable that women reared for, and conditioned to, lives of privacy, reticence, domesticity, might develop pathological fears of public places and unconfined spaces. Like the comb, stay-laces, and apple which the Queen in “Little Snow White” uses as weapons against her hated stepdaughter, such afflictions as anorexia and agoraphobia simply carry patriarchal definitions of “femininity” to absurd extremes, and thus function as essential or at least inescapable parodies of social prescriptions.

In the nineteenth century, however, the complex of social prescriptions these diseases parody did not merely urge women to act in ways which would cause them to become ill; nineteenth-century culture seems to have actually admonished women to be ill. In other words, the “female diseases” from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the goals of such training. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have shown, throughout much of the nineteenth century “Upper-and upper-middle-class women were [defined as] ‘sick’ [frail, ill]; working-class women were [defined as] ‘sickening’ [infectious, diseased].” Speaking of the “lady,” they go on to point out that “Society agreed that she was frail and sickly,” and consequently a “cult of female invalidism” developed in England and America. For the products of such a cult, it was, as Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi wrote in 1895, “considered natural and almost laudable to break down under all conceivable varieties of strain” a winter dissipation, a houseful of servants, a quarrel with a female friend, not to speak of more legitimate reasons. . . . Constantly considering their nerves, urged to consider them by well-intentioned but short-sighted advisors, [women] pretty soon become nothing but a bundle of nerves. [15]

Given this socially conditioned epidemic of female illness, it is not surprising to find that the angel in the house of literature frequently suffered not just from fear and trembling but from literal and figurative sicknesses unto death. Although her hyperactive stepmother dances herself into the grave, after all, beautiful Snow White has just barely recovered from a catatonic trance in her glass coffin. And if we return to Goethe’s Makarie, the “good” woman of Wilhelm Meisters Travels whom Hans Eichner has described as incarnating her author’s ideal of “contemplative purity,” we find that this “model of selflessness and of purity of heart “ this embodiment of das Ewig-Weibliche, suffers from migraine headaches. [16] Implying ruthless self-suppression, does the “eternal feminine” necessarily imply illness? If so, we may have found yet another meaning for Dickinson’s assertion that “Infection in the sentence breeds.” The despair we “inhale” even “at distances of centuries” may be the despair of a life like Makarie’s, a life that has no story.

At the same time, however, the despair of the monster-woman is also real, undeniable, and infectious. The Queen’s mad tarantella is plainly unhealthy and metaphorically the result of too much storytelling. As the Romantic poets feared, too much imagination may be dangerous to anyone, male or female, but for women in particular patriarchal culture has always assumed mental exercises would have dire consequences. In 1645 John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, noted in his journal that Anne Hopkins “has fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books,” adding that “if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women ... she had kept her wits.” [17] And as Wendy Martin has noted

in the nineteenth century this fear of the intellectual woman became so intense that the phenomenon ... was recorded in medical annals. A thinking woman was considered such a breach of nature that a Harvard doctor reported during his autopsy on a Radcliffe graduate he discovered that her uterus had shrivelled to the size of a pea. [18]

If, then, as Anne Sexton suggests (in a poem parts of which we have also used here as an epigraph), the red shoes passed furtively down from woman to woman are the shoes of art, the Queen’s dancing shoes, it is as sickening to be a Queen who wears them as it is to be an angelic Makarie who repudiates them. Several passages in Sexton’s verse express what we have defined as “anxiety of authorship” in the form of a feverish dread of the suicidal tarantella of female creativity:

All those girls
who wore red shoes,
each boarded a train that would not stop.
They tore off their ears like safety pins.
Their arms fell off them and became hats.
Their heads rolled off and sang down the street.
And their feet - oh God, their feet in the market place
... the feet went on.
The feet could not stop.
They could not listen.
They could not stop.
What they did was the death dance.
What they did would do them in.

Certainly infection breeds in these sentences, and despair: female art, Sexton suggests, has a “hidden” but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness. Perhaps it was her semi-conscious perception of this tradition that gave Sexton herself “a secret fear” of being “a reincarnation” of Edna Millay, whose reputation seemed based on romance. In a letter to DeWitt Snodgrass she confessed that she had “a fear of writing as a woman Writes,” adding, “I wish I were a man - I would rather write the way a man writes.” [19] After all, dancing the death dance, “all those girls / who wore the red shoes” dismantle their own bodies, like anorexics renouncing the guilty weight of their female flesh. But if their arms, ears, and heads fall off, perhaps their wombs, too, will “shrivel” to “the size of a pea”?

In this connection, a passage from Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle acts almost as a gloss on the conflict between creativity and “femininity” which Sexton’s violent imagery embodies (or dis-embodies). Significantly, the protagonist of Atwood’s novel is a writer of the sort of fiction that has recently been called “female gothic,” and even more significantly she too projects her anxieties of authorship into the fairy-tale metaphor of the red shoes. Stepping in glass, she sees blood on her feet, and suddenly feels that she has discovered

The real red shoes, the feet punished for dancing. You could dance, or you could have the love of a good man. But you were afraid to dance, because you had this unnatural fear that if you danced they’d cut your feet off so you wouldn’t be able to dance. . . . Finally you overcame your fear and danced, and they cut your feet off. The good man went away too, because you wanted to dance. [20]

Whether she is a passive angel or an active monster, in other words, the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her, and the crippling effects of her conditioning sometimes seem to “breed” like sentences of death in the bloody shoes she inherits from her literary foremothers.

Surrounded as she is by images of disease, traditions of disease, and invitations both to disease and to dis-ease, it is no wonder that the woman writer has held many mirrors up to the discomforts of her own nature. As we shall see, the notion that “Infection in the sentence breeds” has been so central a truth for literary women that the great artistic achievements of nineteenth-century novelists and poets from Austen and Shelley to Dickinson and Barrett Browning are often both literally and figuratively concerned with disease, as if to emphasize the effort with which health and wholeness were won from the infectious “vapors” of despair and fragmentation. Rejecting the poisoned apples her culture offers her, the woman writer often becomes in some sense anorexic, resolutely closing her mouth on silence (since in the words of Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney: ”a woman’s only power is the power of refusal” [21]), even while she complains of starvation. Thus both Charlotte and Emily Bronte depict the travails of starved or starving anorexic heroines, while Emily Dickinson declares in one breath that she “had been hungry, all the Years,” and in another opts for “Sumptuous Destitution.” Similarly, Christina Rossetti represents her own anxiety of authorship in the split between one heroine who longs to “suck and suck” on goblin fruit and another who locks her lips fiercely together in a gesture of silent and passionate renunciation. In addition, many of these literary women become in one way or another agoraphobic. Trained to reticence, they fear the vertiginous openness of the literary marketplace and rationalize with Emily Dickinson that “Publication is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” or, worse, punningly confess that “Creation seemed a mighty Crack/To make me visible.” [22]

As we shall also see, other diseases and dis-eases accompany the two classic symptoms of anorexia and agoraphobia. Claustrophobia, for instance, agoraphobia’s parallel and complementary opposite, is a disturbance we shall encounter again and again in women’s writing throughout the nineteenth century. Eye “troubles,” moreover, seem to abound in the lives and works of literary women, with Dickinson matter-of-factly noting that her eye got “put out,” George Eliot describing patriarchal Rome as “a disease of the retina,” Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh marrying blind men, Charlotte Bronte deliberately writing with her eyes closed, and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge writing about “Blindness” that came because “Absolute and bright,/The Sun’s rays smote me till they masked the Sun.” [23] Finally, aphasia and amnesia - two illnesses which symbolically represent (and parody) the sort of intellectual incapacity patriarchal culture has traditionally required of women - appear and reappear in women’s writings in frankly stated or disguised forms. “Foolish” women characters in Jane Austen’s novels (Miss Bates in Emma, for instance) express Malapropish confusion about language, while Mary Shelley’s monster has to learn language from scratch and Emily Dickinson herself childishly questions the meanings of the most basic English words: “Will there really be a ‘Morning’?/Is there such a thing as ‘Day’?” [24] At the same time, many women writers manage to imply that the reason for such ignorance of language - as well as the reason for their deep sense of alienation and inescapable feeling of anomie - is that they have forgotten something. Deprived of the power that even their pens don’t seem to confer, these women resemble Doris Lessing’s heroines, who have to fight their internalization of patriarchal strictures for even a faint trace memory of what they might have become.

“Where are the songs I used to know, / Where are the notes I used to sing?” writes Christina Rossetti in “The Key-Note,” a poem whose title indicates its significance for her. “I have forgotten everything/ I used to know so long ago.” [25] As if to make the same point, Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe conveniently “forgets” her own history and even, so it seems, the Christian name of one of the central characters in her story, while Bronte’s orphaned Jane Eyre seems to have lost (or symbolically “forgotten”) her family heritage. Similarly, too, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff “forgets” or is made to forget who and what he was; Mary Shelley’s monster is “born” without either a memory or a family history; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is early separated from - and thus induced to “forget” - her “mother land” of Italy. As this last example suggests, however, what all these characters and their authors really fear they have forgotten is precisely that aspect of their lives which has been kept from them by patriarchal poetics: their matrilinea) heritage of literary strength, their “female power” which, as Annie Gottlieb wrote, is important to them because of (not in spite of) their mothers. In order, then, not only to understand the ways in which “Infection in the sentence breeds” for women but also to learn how women have won through disease to artistic health we must begin by redefining Bloom’s seminal definitions of the revisionary “anxiety of influence.” In doing so, we will have to trace the difficult paths by which nineteenth-century women overcame their “anxiety of authorship,” repudiated debilitating patriarchal prescriptions, and recovered or remembered the lost foremothers who could help them find their distinctive female power.

Return to Modernism



In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot of course considers these matters; in Mimesis Auerbach traces the ways in which the realist includes what has been previously excluded from art; and in The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode shows how poets and novelists lay bare the literariness of their predecessors’ forms in order to explore the dissonance between fiction and reality.


J. Hillis Miller, “The Limits of Pluralism, III: The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry (Spring 1977) :446.


For a discussion of the woman writer and her place in Bloomian literary history, see Joanne Feit Diehl, “Come. Slowly Eden: An Exploration of Women Poets and their Muse,” Signs 3, no. 3 (Spring 1978): 572-87. See also the responses to Diehl in Signs 4, no. 1 (Autumn 1978): 188-96.


Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Vintage, 1975), p. xiii.


Ibid., pp. 404-05.


Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 90.


Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, p. 402.


See Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).


Annie Gottlieb, “Feminists Look at Motherhood,” Mother Jones (November 1976):53.


The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), 2:475; 2:518.


See Jessie Bernard, “The Paradox of the Happy Marriage,” Pauline B. Bart, “Depression in Middle-Aged Women,” and Naomi Weisstein, “Psychology Constructs the Female,” all in Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, ed., Woman in Sexist Society (New York: Basic Books, 1971). See also Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Doubleday, 1972), and for a summary of all these matters: Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1973).


In Hints on Insanity (1861) John Millar wrote that “Mental derangement frequently occurs in young females from Amenorrhoea, especially in those who have any strong hereditary predisposition to insanity” adding that “an occasional warm hipbath or leeches to the pubis will ... be followed by complete mental recovery.” In 1873, Henry Mauldsey wrote in Body and Mind that “the monthly activity of the ovaries .. . has a notable effect upon the mind and body; wherefore it may become an important cause of mental and physical derangement.” See especially the medical opinions of John Millar, Henry Maudsley, and Andrew Wynter in Madness and Morals: Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Vieda Skultans (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 230-35.


See Marlene Boskind-Lodahl, “Cinderella’s Stepsisters: A Feminist Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia,” Signs 2, no. 2 (Winter 1976): 342-56; Walter Blum, “The Thirteenth Guest,” (on agoraphobia), in California Living, The San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle (17 April 1977):8-12; Joan Arehart-Treichel, “Can Your Personality Kill You?” (on female rheumatoid arthritis, among other diseases), New York 10, no. 48 (28 November 1977):45: “According to studies conducted in recent years, four out of five rheumatoid victims are women, and for good reason: The disease appears to arise in those unhappy with the traditional female-sex role.”


More recent discussions of the etiology and treatment of anorexia are offered in Hilde Bruch, M. D., The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), and in Salvador Minuchin, Bernice L. Rosman, and Lester Baker, Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).


Quoted by Ehrenreich and English, Complaints and Disorders, p. 19.


Eichner, “The Eternal Feminine,” Norton Critical Edition of Faust, p. 620.


John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, ed. James Savage (Boston, 1826), 2:216.


Wendy Martin, “Anne Bradstreet’s Poetry: A Study of Subversive Piety,” Shakespeare's Sisters, ed. Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 19-31.


“The Uncensored Poet: Letters of Anne Sexton,” Ms. 6, no. 5 (November 1977):53.


Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 335.


See Northanger Abbey, chapter 10: “You will allow, that in both [matrimony and dancing], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.”


See Dickinson, Poems, J. 579 (“I had been hungry, all the Years”), J. 709 (“Publication is the Auction”), and J. 891 (“To my quick ear the Leaves conferred”); see also Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market.”


See Dickinson, Poems, J. 327 (“Before I got my eye put out”), George Eliot, Middlemarch, book 2, chapter 20, and M. E. Coleridge, “Doubt,” in Poems by Mary E. Coleridge, p. 40.


See Dickinson, Poems, J.101.


The Poetical Works of Christina G. Rossetti, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1909), 2:11.