Gender and Culture at the Fin de Sie`cle

By Elaine Showalter

Viking. 242 pp. $19.95


Love, Sex and the Woman Question

By Ruth Brandon

Norton. 294 pp. $19.95

ELAINE SHOWALTER fires an arresting opening salvo: "From urban homelessness to imperial decline, from sexual revolution to sexual epidemics, the last decades of the twentieth century seem to be repeating the problems, themes, and metaphors of the fin de sie`cle." Having evoked economic and political contexts, Showalter turns to her real subjects, sex wars and sexual fantasizing, and her real interest, how the popular culture of novels and movies blames sexual anarchy -- read "uppity women and gay men" -- for social ills.

The appearance of "manly" women adventuring to found women's colleges and to enter professions, and the discovery of "effeminate" men daring to love other men exacerbated other sources of anxiety in the 1880s as well as a century later, she argues. If we can understand these irrational fears, she implies, then perhaps women and men living as true partners can stop scapegoating feminists and homosexual men (lesbians being less evocative in this analysis) and better confront genuine crises of poverty and human destruction.

Showalter romps through later Victorian literature and recent American fiction and film with great intellectual gusto. The most successful British men writers turned against the Victorian family code and took their readers on fantastical adventures that escaped adult responsibilities. In "male quest romances," such as H. Rider Haggard's She, Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, European men bonded in imperialist adventures to conquer dark-skinned savages and to destroy untameable goddesses. When Francis Ford Coppola recreated the genre in "Apocalypse Now," his movie perpetuated the myth of male sexual dominance and lust for power. From the American movie crew, young village men also learned the practices and value of homosexual sex, and "by 1989, a flourishing trade in boy prostitutes supported by the community, had brought economic advantages to the children and their families." Relying on an associative logic, Showalter implies that this legacy reveals the homosexual emotive force of Conrad's and Coppola's classics.

Men, as Sigmund Freud concluded, prefer to remain in a band of boys, better to keep in check the powerful Mother. Unable to be candid about their love of men, whether sexual or not, men cannot bring to the surface their lurking fears of women. They create art that disguises as it titillatingly reveals homosexuality and misogyny, as in the traditional heterosexual drama of Salome. "Is Salome's love for Jokanaan," Showalter speculates about the Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Beardsley collaboration, "a veiled homosexual desire for the male body?" A photo of Wilde garbed as Salome and gazing at the head of John the Baptist leaves little doubt.

Bram Stoker's 1897 thriller Dracula punished the educated New Woman and promoted male togetherness. Dracula's bite infects Lucy with impulses to independence and sexual appetite. Her horrified band of men admirers drive a stake through her heart and decapitate her to kill this evil. Of the numerous (over 133) movies inspired by the Dracula story, Showalter analyses the 1987 "Lost Boys" as an explicit homosexual tale that "portrays vampirism as a metaphor for the kind of mythic male bonding that resists growing up, commitment, especially marriage."

After all this gore, Showalter's conclusion is surprisingly banal. She quotes the fin de sie`cle Anglo-South African writer Olive Schreiner's bromide that "we seem to discern of a condition of human life in which a closer union than the world has yet seen shall exist between the man and the woman." Showalter might have been less sanguine had she read Ruth Brandon.

After Showalter's high style culture analysis, British professional writer Ruth Brandon offers what amounts to soap opera. Quoting extensively from biographies, diaries and prose, Brandon lets us eavesdrop on a number of late Victorian sex reform intellectuals to see how the economically independent New Woman negotiated her love life with an unreconstructed Man. We see the English sex theorist Havelock Ellis disappoint the sexually hungry Olive Schreiner, only to be rebuffed himself by the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger some a few years later. Karl Marx's intellectual activist daughter, Eleanor, lives proudly out-of-wedlock with the (married) socialist writer Edward Aveling, only to kill herself when he, widowed and "free," marries someone else. A married H.G. Wells takes pleasure in successive affairs that culminate in seduction of the young Rebecca West.

What makes Brandon's book intriguing is the hard-won candor of women who wondered how "to satisfy {Woman's} sexual nature and to achieve acceptance in the man's world of work and the intellect." Men, by contrast, theorized about sexual freedom and then contracted old-fashioned marriages. Jane Wells always knew that Herbert G. would never sacrifice domestic comfort and social respectability for his temporary sexual pleasures. Edith Ellis found that a lesbian affair offered Havelock a justification for cutting her off sexually. Many of these, and the subsidiary liaisons of less well known reformers, are commented on tartly by the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb, who accepted marriage with her intellectual partner Sidney and then found him unexpectedly and happily sexually satisfying. Few of these strong women, Brandon concludes, "managed to avoid living their lives on the terms of a male lover or husband."

Male culture, even in the late 20th century, conceives a powerful, sexy woman as a monster out to destroy men, a "fatal attraction," according to the 1987 hit movie. Men's terms still seem to define woman's struggle for meaningful work and satisfying heterosexual love.

Why? Do men's fantasies compel attention because they come from the unconscious and build on raw libido? Where are the images that can break the destructive metaphors of powerful Mother and angry boy that inspire men's violence against women, each other and the earth? Where are the female fantasies of love and aggression? Phyllis Palmer, author of "Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945," teaches women's studies and American culture at George Washington University.