The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 173-175
[Access article in PDF]
The Belle Gone Bad— and Just Gone
Carol S. Manning
Among the feminist and revisionist studies of southern literature that have emerged over the last twenty-five years, several have probed methods southern women writers have used to challenge the limited roles their patriarchal society would allow to women. In this enlightening new study, Betina Entzminger uncovers one more method. She takes as her text "the belle gone bad" or the dark seductress, an image she traces through fiction by eleven women writers of the South, from the nineteenth century's E.D.E.N. Southworth to our own Kaye Gibbons. Whereas most of the previous studies have examined challenges to the patriarchy by single writers or by writers from a more narrow time span, Entzminger's study is notable for the scope of her undertaking and for the complexity of what she discovers.
In her introduction, the author defines the belle gone bad as an exaggeration of the flirtatious southern belle and "the opposite of the ideal southern lady": she is "sexually knowing, physically powerful because of her allure, and morally dangerous." Since antebellum days, Entzminger argues, southern women writers have used this character as a means to subtly or openly critique the patriarchal society: "the bad belle . . . parodies her society's negative conceptions of powerful women and highlights the hypocrisies and weaknesses of the society that imposes limiting roles on its women." In setting the context for her study, Entzminger links the bad belle to the more familiar and universal "femme fatale" image dating from ancient mythology, makes cogent use of previous feminist studies, and rehearses how the South came to define southern [End Page 173] womanhood in terms of the idealized belle and lady. Then, working her way chronologically through relevant fiction, she undertakes in the chapters that follow to demonstrate that the bad-belle image and, through it, southern women writers' critique of the patriarchal society have evolved over time, from the mild and ultimately retreating critique of nineteenth-century women writers, to the strong critique offered by women writers of the Southern Renascence, to contemporary women writers' freeing of southern women from the conventional stereotypes.
In her chapter on nineteenth-century writers, Entzminger looks at selected fiction by three women: Southworth, Caroline Lee Hentz, and Augusta Jane Evans. The bad belle emerges in this fiction as a woman who, while having most of the usual credentials of the ideal southern lady, "violates her culture's code of moral purity by openly expressing and relying upon her sexuality" to achieve some sense of power. Though the writers never explicitly link the bad belle to African ancestry, Entzminger suggests that, with her dark features, the character recalls descriptions of the mulatto in antebellum fiction. As antebellum writers often do in portraying the mulatto, these women writers make the reader feel sympathy for the dark belle by portraying her questionable behavior as the consequence of an unfortunate past and herself as a victim of a racist and sexist society. Entzminger also sees the dark figure as a possible surrogate for the women writers themselves, who might wish to share the freedom they allow this figure. Yet in having the bad belle die by the end of the stories, the writers ultimately retreat from their critique and reinforce old values.
In the next chapter, Entzminger argues that this mild critique of the patriarchal society evolves into an overt critique through portrayals of the bad belle by Southern Renascence writers such as Ellen Glasgow, Evelyn Scott, Margaret Mitchell, and Caroline Gordon. Mitchell's Scarlet O'Hara, of course, is the most famous bad belle/dark seductress ever. Entzminger distinguishes the bad belle of the Southern Renascence from her counterpart of the nineteenth century in several ways, but most specifically in terms of the fate awaiting the character. Whereas the bad belle usually perishes—while the good...