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Word of Mouth explores two major British modernists whose names have most commonly been linked as antagonists, not as women struggling with similar concerns about the problems that embodiment presents to the would-be female artist. Moran frames her discussion of Mansfield and Woolf with a well-argued corrective to French feminist theories—most prominently those of Hélène Cixous—that postulate a feminine writing born of women’s bodies and challenging patriarchal systems in a subversive and affirmative manner. Rather, Moran demonstrates, the woman who desires to write often experiences a contempt for femaleness, even as she seeks a “feminine” consciousness, [End Page 1024] and her works may thus write a body that expresses self-loathing—not just a “different,” positive language of women. Moran would have readers examine “the material inscriptions that also bear witness to the cultural construction of femininity and the uses of the female body in patriarchy.” In doing so, she herself focuses on what she terms the “scar tissue” of the crippling inflicted on women’s minds as they internalize their culture’s perceptions of the female body, and the unavoidable tension between this revulsion for materiality and an art that contests such a destructive (self-)devaluation.
Acknowledging the differences between the two writers under study, in particular Woolf’s professed disdain for Mansfield’s fiction, Moran yet finds in their strained friendship a central shared element, “what it meant to each to be a woman writer.” Both authors saw severe limitations to women’s expression: in language itself, in narrative conventions, and most importantly in female embodiment—frequently metaphorized in the figure of the mother, to which Moran devotes much of her close study of specific texts by the two authors. An important distinction emerges in these discussions: while Mansfield often describes female bodies that engulf a woman’s subjectivity with monstrous flesh, Woolf perceives the woman writer as having to conceal her femaleness from a largely male audience. Nevertheless, using Nancy K. Miller’s concept of “overreading,” Moran argues that in the works of Woolf and Mansfield, “female writing” incorporates both a desire for subjectivity and a conflicting desire to deny or erase that embodied subjectivity. The hysteric joins the mother as a central figure in this study, as Moran employs (while revising) psychoanalytic approaches to anxiety and pathology.
In her first chapter, “Signing the (Female) Body,” Moran convincingly deploys Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection to discuss the ambiguous and borderless maternal body as the abject that can lead to fear of the feminine—for a woman writer translating into fear not only of the maternal but also of one’s own and other female bodies. One specific manifestation is anorexia, a form of matrophobia or fear of becoming the mother; following Luce Irigaray, Moran argues that the symbolic order restricts women’s identity to a “phallocentrically defined maternal practice” that is in fact purely a function. A further limitation to female development arises from normative heterosexuality, demanding [End Page 1025] that the daughter give up her primary attachment to the mother, a renouncing that causes not only conflict and rage, but madness.
Moran then proceeds in the next chapters to close readings of Mansfield and Woolf to illustrate her argument. Given her astute assessment of the damage done by the heterosexual imperative, it is disappointing that Moran does not include discussion of the lesbian critiques made possible by these texts. In the chapter devoted to Mansfield’s short story “Bliss,” for instance, Moran clearly illuminates not only the renouncing of the maternal but also the refusal of heterosexuality enacted by the central character, Bertha, “frigid” in her marriage to the older, adulterous Harry, but briefly experiencing a merger or fusion with another woman. Moran describes this experience as an orgasmic moment that does not move beyond the imaginary, but she does not explain this withdrawal as a failure attributable to a heterosexist rejection of bonds that would challenge dominant, male-inflected views. In the subsequent chapter, a comparison of “Bliss...