This week, the National Book Critics Circle announced that two feminist literary scholars, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, would be the recipients of its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Madwoman in the Attic
The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination
by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
The front cover of my paperback copy of The Madwoman in the Attic got torn off years ago; the back cover is hanging on courtesy of bubbled Scotch tape. On the title page, I wrote my name and the date 1981, which means I bought my copy in graduate school, two years after Madwoman came out. My memory may be faulty, but here's my best recollection of the gender breakdown of the literature courses I took back then: one course devoted to Jane Austen; one modernism seminar in which we read some Virginia Woolf; and ... that was it. Every other writer I studied in grad school was male and, of course, white. That was just the way it was. Even my own dusty dissertation on 19th century culture critics like John Ruskin and William Morris was, to my present-day dismay, an exclusive boys club.
The Western canon was not liberated overnight, but Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar certainly stuck a wedge firmly into the frat house door when they wrote The Madwoman in the Attic. The two were, then, young professors at Indiana University and had co-taught a course in women's literature when they stumbled onto, what they called in their introduction, a "distinctively female literary tradition ... which no one had yet defined in its entirety." If the grandness of that claim sounds akin to something Howard Carter might have said when he discovered King Tut's tomb, well, the buried literary treasure Gilbert and Gubar unearthed was, to many of us readers back then, every bit as dazzling.
The undercover female tradition that Gilbert and Gubar were talking about was one in which writers as disparate as Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot used similar themes and images to dramatize the social limitations they themselves suffered as women. Once you started looking for metaphors of confinement, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrated, you saw that novels like Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey and Middlemarch were jampacked with images of locked rooms and closets, dungeons and enclosures, as well as overbearing patriarch-jailors. Also running through 19th century women's novels and poetry were out-of-control characters, "maddened doubles [who] functioned as asocial surrogates for [more] docile [female] selves." The most famous example of one of these doubles gave Gilbert and Gubar's book its catchy title: howling Bertha Rochester, imprisoned in her husband's attic, giving vent to the forbidden feminist anger of plain Jane Eyre.
To read 'The Madwoman in the Attic' the first time round was thrilling — as though you'd been introduced to a secret code in women's literature, hiding in plain sight.
To read The Madwoman in the Attic the first time round was thrilling — as though you'd been introduced to a secret code in women's literature, hiding in plain sight. But the value of Madwoman is much more than sentimental: The reason I still have my 1981 paperback is that I refer to it all the time when I teach 19th century literature and my students dip into it, too.
How many works of literary criticism have become classics themselves? If you're an old English major you may think of a few — M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Edward Said's Orientalism, essays by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden — but the list is short and, once again, pretty boy-heavy. Gilbert and Gubar's close readings remain sharp, and even if their pioneering punning wordplay now seems a bit tired, the adventurousness of their argument remains undiminished. Their celebration of the rebelliousness of women writers and their female heroines shapes our contemporary cinematic and even Masterpiece Theatre depictions of Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Jo March, and contributes to the ongoing invention of characters like Lady Sybil Crawley.
One more word in praise of The Madwoman in the Attic: To write the book, Gilbert and Gubar had to know their Milton and all the other dead white male writers their female subjects read. Unlike some scholars who followed, Gilbert and Gubar weren't arguing against the existence of a literary canon; instead, they wanted to mix it up, make it more expansive and combative.
Time marches on. Gilbert and Gubar collaborated on many more books, including The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Last year, Gubar published an account of her battle with ovarian cancer called Memoir of a Debulked Woman; it's a raw read. But as we used to say in the '70s and '80s, the personal is political. Illuminating women's lives through writing has been a lifelong project for both Gilbert and Gubar, an escape from the attic of inhibition and convention.
“Penny Dreadful” still.
“It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before [Gilbert and Gubar] rocked literary studies.”
Deborah D. Rogers, TheTimes Higher Education.
In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism. Over 700 pages long, The Madwoman in the Attic presents an analysis of a trope found in 19th-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar proposed that all female characters in male-authored novels can be categorised as either an angel or a monster; women in fiction were either pure and submissive or sensual, rebellious, and uncontrollable (very undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter/mother/wife).
In their book, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the angel/monster trope in novels written by women, covering the works of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and the Brontës. They claim that 19th-century female writers carried a lot of rage and frustration about the misogynistic world they lived in and the predominantly male literary tradition they tried to enter, and that this gender-specific frustration influenced these writers’ creative output. According to Gilbert and Gubar, their rage was often shown through the figure of the mad woman. They conclude by urging female writers to break out of this patriarchal dichotomy and not to let themselves be limited by its impositions.
The title of the book is derived from Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, who is locked away by her husband Mr Rochester in the attic of Thornfield Hall. She is an ominous character, full of uncontrollable passion, violence, sensuality, and madness, almost bestial in her behaviour.
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.
Bertha acts as a foil for Jane’s pure, calm, and controlled nature. However, one could argue that the lines between angel and monster are blurred and that Bertha is not Jane’s opposite, but her double. The two women are more similar than initially meets the eye: Jane possesses some of Bertha’s passion and rebelliousness, acting out as a child and refusing to submit to a position of inferiority to the men in her life.
The Madwoman in the Attic was revolutionary because Gilbert and Gubar showed that literature written by women is not an anomaly, but that there is, in fact, a distinct female literary tradition to be found. After the book’s publication, there was a new wave of appreciation for works by female writers, and, consequently, works that had faded away into oblivion were once again being read and their significance recognised. It has since been criticised more and more in recent years (at times rightly so, but keep in mind that it was written in the seventies!), but there is no denying that this is a foundational work, not only for feminism, but for all of literary theory.
N.B. The angel/monster dichotomy still exists, albeit in a slightly different form: the Madonna/Whore Complex (warning: once you’ve read up on this, you will see it everywhere you go.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) – review here.
This book tells the story of Bertha Mason from her point of view, starting with her childhood in Jamaica.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women” (1931, can be found in the collection The Crowded Dance of Modern Life).
In this lecture, Virginia Woolf talks about how ‘the angel in the house’ would interfere with her writing, and how she chose to kill it, thus freeing herself from the angel/monster dichotomy.