Books of criticism are a world unto themselves, and this is a book of criticism of criticism. The readers will decide if the authors of the various essays within this world in a world have succeeded in giving us a new understanding of the subject.
In 1979, a ground-breaking work of literary criticism was published: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar. They had worked through a new syllogism: The dominating patriarchy of the nineteenth century either idealized virtuous women or threw them off the pedestal and made sluts of them. Therefore, women who aspired to be writers had to objectify themselves and their characters to fit these constructs. Therefore, the female characters in the books of women writers were squeezed into the roles of “angel” or “monster.” No doubt, too, that the women themselves, writing about themselves obliquely, saw their own lives overborne by these constricting roles. This book was important to literary women of the 20th century seeking to define their own roles, personally and professionally.
I’ve always liked the concept of the “madwoman in the attic,” seeing it best typified in the haunting short story
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I read this story as a young teenager in the 1960s - a tale of a woman cosseted by her protective husband, who has brought her to a lovely home to help her “get over her bad self,” as we might say now, and snap out of her mental illness (there is a hint of the then-unknown problem of post-partum depression). Her husband is a physician and certainly knows best. We see her begging him to understand that the house is not helping, that it may be making her worse, while he forbids her even to voice such an idea
- a classic example of male suppression. The poor “hysterical” female (a prisoner to her hormones and her weak nature) needs to do as she is told by the caring, wiser male. Gilbert and Gubar were as taken with this story as I (and I recommend to all for its powerful writing and truly eerie ending) and, according to the introduction here by Editor Annette R Federico (Professor of English at James Madison University), “reintroduced a virtually unknown story by a prodigiously intelligent woman into the history of the literary women’s struggles, disabilities and self-liberation.”
Perhaps it is my age that makes the image of the madwoman speak to me; I believe that many women of my generation were shackled by the certainty that their mental weakness was the cause of relationship wrinkles, that they needed to take meds and get better in order to placate the men in their lives, that their fears and anger were “their fault.”
The current book (after thirty years) indicates that no less an expert than Chelsea Clinton is suddenly rediscovering these notions, coming to understand “what older women were complaining about” (italics the editor’s). If I have but one complaint about this interesting treatment, it would be that early-on (in the introduction) quote from an email by Chelsea Clinton. Looks like little more than name-dropping to me, and adds nothing to the work.
Not only do modern young women have a less threatened view of male domination and therefore a different perception on the original book, but they take limited and literate exception at times to the book’s basic premise. Some women in the 19th
century considered themselves free from the restraints of men’s rules. Recently I reviewed Louisa May Alcott – The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (Henry Holt & Co., 2009) for Curled Up with a Good Book. Alcott is the focus of one this collection’s essays,
"The Veiled, the Masked and the Civil War Woman" by Keren Fite. Interestingly, Fite compares Alcott’s work to that of Henry David Thoreau, whom Alcott had met and who was a contemporary and friend of Alcott’s father. Alcott’s father was a smarmy idealist who did a less-than-ideal job of supporting his family. Therefore, Louisa took it upon herself to assume the masculine role of breadwinner for all her “little women,” doggedly writing for the marketplace though it soon lost its charms, in order to be the man her father couldn’t be. Alcott knew about that madwoman (that character seeps out in the fictional Amy, Marmee, and at times in the frustrations of Jo), but there was little madness in her own attic. She was a sharp businesswoman who did not let her own ideals for abolition and women’s rights prevent her from making a living. “Neither madwoman nor angel,” Fite states, “Jo [Alcott] transforms life’s burdens into aesthetic creations.”
As I said, literary criticism is a world unto itself, and criticism of criticism describes a smaller circle yet. However, in that smaller circle, After Thirty Years will no doubt be viewed as an important work.