THE PENS OF AUTHORSHIP have not only been, until the 19th century, entirely in the hands of men: the pen has also been male, a part of the male anatomy. Woman could possess it only as a monstrosity. With the beginning of the 19th century, this attitude, taken less obviously for granted, began to be stated: Gerard Manly Hopkins called the artist's creative gift a male gift, a male quality. Jane Austen, Anthony Burgess latterly remarked, "lacks a strong male thrust." Women who wrote, therefore, became by that act anomalous creatures.
Nor was this all. Woman had no story of her own; men have always told her this, and woman has believed it. She must be either silent and angelic or, rebelling, try to tell her story and become monstrous. The woman writer's battle had been, therefore, not so much against the male reading of society, as against the male reading of her .
As women now labor to create a tradition for themselves in which female stories are possible, the need for a profound study of women writers and of the female literary imagination has become apparent: feminists need not only examples of their despair and enforced passivity, they need a theory to explain the cause of that despair and to establish a base for the rebellion against it. Professiors Gilbert and Gubar have now given us such a study. It is imperative reading not only for feminists, but for any scholar, particularly of the 19th century, who thinks he or she has understood the great novels of that time.
As a creature "penned by man," the authors tell us, woman has been penned in and penned up. As woman began her "journey through the looking glass toward literary autonomy," her choices were few. The story of Snow White neatly embodies these choices. Like Snow White, woman may be passive, worshipped in a glass coffin or, like the stepmother, she may tell her own story. Gilbert and Gubar show how women authors, by projecting their rebellious impulses not onto their heroines, but onto mad or monstrous women, like Bertha in Jane Eyre , have dramatized their own desperate divisions. These monstrous women act out the subversive, if unconscious, impulses every woman feels before the patriarchy.
If a lovely young girl like Austen's Catherine Moreland believes she can become the heroine of her own life story, the author of herself, she discovers, no less than Frankenstein's monster (another female creation), that she is an actor only in someone else's plot. As Charlotte Bronte was to observe, "the good woman is . . . half doll, half angel; the bad woman almost a fiend."
The great dazzle of this book arises from its analysis of female texts. Consistently, the authors are able to show how the true version of women's destiny lies hidden beneath the surface story. Women's great literature, the sort everywhere studied by grad students, is a palimpsest, and the picture the artist painted with her soul lies beneath the surface colors, has long so lain, waiting to be revealed.
Let me speak plainly. This book's importance lies partly in its awareness that women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them their own power of story-making. But its major contribution is its careful development of theory and of a reading of literature which needs no excuses before the proud and closed male establishment. This work must come as a revelation to all readers, not least of all those male scholars who will be unable to ignore it in their own work. Gilbert and Gubar have written a pivotal book, one of those after which we will never think the same again.
The Madwoman in the Attic is long and expensive and worth every penny, although one hopes soon for a paperback edition. Gilbert and Gubar have not, of course, sprung full blown from nowhere. In addition to their own brilliance, this book reflects the work of many scholars of both sexes; it is particularly encouraging that much of its analysis incorporates what other women scholars have expressed, or adumbrated. At last, feminist criticism, no longer capable of being called a fad, is clearly and coherently mapped out.
Woman has always known the costly destructiveness of anger; as she has raged to escape from male houses and male texts, she has known the cost to herself and has rewritten the male plots, especially Milton's, taking for herselfthe role of devil. Allowing the doubles in her writing the violence she could not allow herself or her heroines, woman has revised male genres to record her own story in disguise. Like the mythic Ariadne, woman has known the way through the labyrinth for men, but has been unable herself to escape. Now, women novelists and poets, no longer alternatively, either scorned as feminine or put down as deficient in feminity, may begin to use their skills for their own, and not male, purposes. The Madwoman in the Attic , by revealing the past, will profoundly alter the present, making it possible, at last, for woman writers to create their own texts.