Reviewers of novels in the American midcentury approached them, as we have repeatedly seen, as individual formal entities controlled by a unitary though complex plot. At the same time, as many quotations in earlier chapters show, they were greatly, interested in authorship, constantly relating books to their authors and relating the books by a given author to one another. Their interest was controlled by the concept of the author as a literary practitioner rather than a biographically interesting individual, and it operated between two boundary conditions. At the one extreme was the author’s private life, in which reviewers were generally not interested—with the continuing and nontrivial exception of women authors. At the other extreme was the favorite conception of genius, which transcended individual authority and raised the work into a higher realm.
Such a level was attained only rarely, even in the novel form where relative freedom from rules might have been thought to make it more possible than in other literary modes; and reviewers were always on the lookout for it. Again, the notion of genius is applied with the same striking and important exception—the woman author. In both cases these exceptions, though they led in different directions, stemmed from the reviewers’ feeling that women ought to write not as individuals, but as exemplars of their sex. Their private lives were scrutinized to see whether they lived womanly lives; the category of genius was denied to them because, writing as women rather than as individuals, they could not attain something that was in its essence the highest expression of individuality.
Here are examples of the continuous reviewer preoccupation with authors. From just a few months of reviewing in Arthur’s Home Magazine, we find the following: “The author of The Initials has produced another work of extraordinary interest” (July 1853); Simms is “at the head of American novelists,” and his new work “may be safely pronounced one of Mr. Simms’s best efforts, and, being of a lighter and rather more humorous cast than many of his previous novels, will most probably become even more popular” (August 1853); “it is always safe to recommend a novel by Mrs. Gray, since we well know that it illustrates moral principles by examples admirably wrought, and inculcates no lesson but what tends to purify and instruct” (September 1853); “the popularity of the various novels and nouvellettes written by Mrs. Hentz, rests upon a firmer, purer and altogether superior basis to that of many of her contemporaries” (May 1854). The move between author and novel in these and hundreds of other instances is automatic. Each novel is invariably conceived of as a human product created by a singular human being whose familiar presence acts as a signal of the sort of work the reader will find in any given instance. Author, then, after subgenre classification, is the chief way of describing a book, and the corpus of works by a given author becomes a way of describing an author. “The mere announcement of any thing from the sparkling brain of the Bachelor of the Albany, is sufficient to raise anticipations of brisk and business-like satire, of felicitous expression, and of good-natured representation of the follies of conventional life” (Graham’s, July 1849). Granting that every novel was a unique instance of a literary form, reviewers also assumed that all works by one person had real resemblances and could be properly thought of as forming one class.
“A new work of fiction by that excellent domestic writer, Mrs. Ellis, is sure to meet with a cordial welcome in families”; “any work from the pen of Miss Sinclair is sure to be welcomed in America”; “we are among those who recognize in James a sterling historical novelist”; “possessing the same elements of passion, and a certain dramatic force, which have made her books popular” (Home Journal, February 8, March 1, September 6, September 20, 1851). “There is no author living who can surpass this man in force and brilliancy of description” (Peterson’s, July 1845). “Dumas is one of the few French novelists we can recommend”; “a novel of remarkable power and interest, fully equal to the best of Miss Sewell’s productions” (Godey’s, May 1851, October 1855). “No living American author but Hawthorne could have drawn such a character as Clifford” (Peterson’s, June 1851).
The novel frequently becomes syntactically identical with its author, the one noun substituted for the other. Thus reviewers believed that the totality of the author’s work constituted a second, related unity, beyond the unity of form in each novel. The progress and development of that larger unity represented a sort of second story that novels told. “Had this work been put forth anonymously, we should have commended it as a production of considerable merit and more promise. But it is strikingly inferior to the former productions of Dr. Bird, and, measured by his own standard, it is found wanting” (Mirror, May 25, 1839). “Never having read any work by this author before, we can hardly judge of it by comparison”; “in the present volume Mrs. Marsh has not been quite as successful as in her former productions generally”; “though exhibiting continually the same genius that shone in Alton Locke, this work … is, by no means, equal to its predecessor.” James’s books “are getting to be … made to sell. They are always readable, however, and will have numerous admirers”; “presents its author’s genius in a new light”; “possesses even more attractiveness and opulence of incidents than is characteristic of preceding works from the same pen” (Godey’s, November 1848, July 1856, August 1859). The “closure” of this authorial plot does not occur until the career ends, and thus the connection of books with their authors left open the promise of more new novels from the same pen—casting the evolving corpus into the shape of a dramatic serial.
Authors develop reputations, are associated with certain kinds of work, yet change (for better or worse) over time, so that it is important to know who they are, and so that they are part of the novel in a different sense from the narrator’s presence discussed in chapter 7. That is, they are there as individual selves as opposed to literary roles. Yet these individual selves are authorial rather than personal selves, defined by the work they produce, not the circumstances of their lives. The relationship between author and novels is entirely circular, wholly self-contained, and purely textual. “The Glens sufficiently resembles his former productions to betray the identity of their origin. With greater compression of style, and a more natural development of incident, it exhibits the same passion for dealing with legal evidence, and the same acute and comprehensive analysis of character, which distinguish the other writings of the author. He certainly possesses a rare power of clothing the darker emotions of the soul with a lifelike naturalness, and depicting the excesses of stern and sullen passion in colors that are no less abhorrent than truthful”; “it exhibits her characteristic glow and energy of style, her power of effective grouping, and her facility in applying the forms and colors of the material world to the illustration of a narrative” (Harper’s, July 1851, August 1858).
The qualities of the author reside in choice of subject, habits of treatment, characteristic tone, and the like. If these characteristics originate in the personal life, that life is not directly present in the work. Indeed, the few comments about the private life (of a male author) tend to point out disjunctions between life and writing. For example, this on Dickens: “how any gentleman of five-and-thirty, with a wife and children and a proclivity to dinnerparties and their accompaniments, can sit coolly in his library, month after month, elaborating such horrors, is quite a mystery to us” (Sartain’s, February 1848). Another comment about the impact of life on art, or the traces of life in art, is this on John Pendleton Kennedy: “it is very plain that Mr. Kennedy has had scant time to study, frame, and perfect the novels, which during this busy life, he has given to the public; and consequently, Swallow Barn, which required no labor of this sort, which was but a collection of sketches without a plot … is, as a whole, the best of his productions” (New York Review, January 1842). The comment explains a weakness rather than analyzes a motif; so do several remarks on Melville as his work radically changed its form (as his authorial story became incoherent)—for example, on Mardi: “‘Vaulting ambition has overleaped itself.’ Every page of the book undoubtedly exhibits the man of genius, and facile writer, but exhibits also pedantry and affectations. We are confident that the faults are attributable to the praise … that the author’s other delightful works, Typee and Omoo, received, especially on the other side of the Atlantic” (American Review, September 1849). Several journals, to be sure, featured columns of literary gossip, but these concerned themselves with the public lives of authors—their comings and goings, the progress of their new novels, and the like.
Having assigned classificatory power to the concept of the author, reviewers were enabled to make connections between works by a single author; they also agreed, however, that distinct authorial identity was not equally possessed by all writers or equally present in all novels. And the reviews show that, where individuality was marked, the novel was thought to be better than where it was not. Here are instances from Graham’s: Melville’s Mardi possesses “magical touches which indicate original genius”; “the peculiarities of Cooper’s genius are so impressed on the minds of so many thousands of readers, that it is almost an impertinence to mention them anew”; “the sharpest test to which an author can be subjected [is] has he novelty of nature? Is he an absolutely new power in literature?” “brimful of the author’s genius”; “contains, with all its faults, enough genius to make a reputation” (June 1849, July 1851, September 1852, October 1852, November 1854). Characteristically, the notion of individuality slides into a notion of genius as a transcendent, transindividual possession of the artist that vindicates art and humankind. “To reveal genius is the highest office of literature” (Putnam’s on Dickens, March 1855). This kind of genius is a surplus in the work, something beyond the genre’s requirements yet not incompatible with it.
The problems of the concept of genius, as we well know, have to do with evaluating a given rule-breaking work: because genius breaks normal rules and operates according to its own, an unruly work may be either an instance of genius or a case of ineptness or presumption. In their own times, Hawthorne was perceived as a real genius and Melville only as aspiring. “The real cause for congratulation in the appearance of an original genius like Hawthorne, is not that he dethroned any established prince in literature, but that he founds a new principality of his own” (Graham’s on The Blithedale Romance, June 1852). In contrast, as the Literary World said, reviewing Mardi, “originality belongs only to ripe minds, who have a perfect knowledge of their depth and their extent. … Pretension to excessive novelty has in this case resulted only in an awkward and singular mélange of grotesque comedy and fantastic grandeur” (August 11, 1849), and the American Review saw in Pierre only “a morbid craving after originality” (November 1852). Reviewers knew they might err about whether a work was an expression of genius in this transcendent sense. Nevertheless, they operated on the assumption that a really striking genius would declare itself unmistakably through the communication of that sense of power and force that was consistently seen to be at the heart of the reading experience. The genius, then, exceeded requirements while the would-be genius fell short. To go beyond these rules and ask how genius communicated was to ask how language worked and whether human beings were essentially so constructed as to be able to understand each other. The first question remained unanswered and the second unasked: the powers of genius were magical, and if people could not understand each other, authorship was not possible.
We may identify reviewers’ candidates for genius rank through the frequency with which they reviewed them and made such reviews an occasion for overviews of their accomplishments. Repeatedly selected were Scott, Cooper, Bulwer, Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and—usually taken as a group—those pesky “French novelists” including George Sand, Balzac, Eugene Sue, Dumas, and (somewhat less frequently) Victor Hugo. The French novelists presented a serious problem to the reviewer who, wishing to place the highest office of art in its moral tendency, had to acknowledge the genius of a group of irreclaimably immoral authors. George Sand presented a double problem, in that she also raised gender issues in a particularly vivid form. Reviewers devoted considerable space to debate about whether Charlotte Brontë was or was not a genius, and here too the gender issue gave them difficulty.
While reviewers almost never considered the private lives of male authors, they did discuss the lives of women. Throughout the period, journals (including women’s magazines) featured essays on women writers, giving biographical information. Such information also appeared in individual reviews, and the womanliness of a piece of writing was a matter for discrimination and praise in a way that manliness was not. “We entertain the pro-foundest respect for female genius,” the Democratic Review announced forebodingly, reviewing a reissue of Pride and Prejudice in March 1855, “and are well assured that, when confined to its proper sphere, its productions are not only ornamental, but requisite to the completeness of any national literature. We would not see our wives or sisters plunge into the arena of politics or meddle with pursuits unsuited to them; but in the walks of fiction or romance, in song, and in all those branches of intellectual culture where tenderness and sensibility are required, the finer and more delicate mind of woman might greatly aid the full development of human nature. Miss Edgeworth, Miss Porter, Mrs. Sigourney, Mrs. Hemans, and Miss Landon might well be pointed out as exemplars of female genius working steadily in its true direction.” The Democratic Review’s choice of authors represents a clear effort to impose an identity on women authors, as the term “true” in the phrase “true direction” makes clear. (Yet the willingness of the Democratic Review to allow that women might be authors represents an advance over the situation a half-century earlier.)
The category of female author was not symmetrical with that of the male author because there was no such latter category; there were authors and female authors. Female authors were examples of a special case defined in such a way as to put genius out of woman’s reach. It need hardly be said that no man would have wished to distinguish himself by achieving female genius. To achieve female genius, to signal oneself as a female writer, was to take on a variant or deviant authorial role, author as woman. Author as woman accepted use and morality as her fictional aims, and she sacrificed greatness and genius. Women authors and women editors and reviewers cooperated in the construction of this special role for women authors. The purpose of this role was to neutralize the threat of the woman author by setting her to work on behalf of true womanhood. Here, for example, is a revealing extract from Peterson’s by its editor Ann Stephens, a lead article entitled “Literary Ladies” (April 1843):
Miss Sedgwick and Mrs. Sigourney, Mrs. Child and one or two others, exerted mental wealth to render domestic life lovely, and to persuade their sisters into content with the blessings of their natural [sic] condition. Their fiction was full of truthfulness, and the sweet lessons which it gave were calculated to exalt woman in her own sphere, but never to entice her beyond it. They have taught the ambitious of the sex, in many a beautiful page, and by their own blameless lives, that women may become great, yet remain humble and affectionate, and that the most lofty ideal is not necessarily divorced from the useful. … At the time these ladies devoted themselves to literature, they might indeed tremble for the opinion which men would form of them, for at that time a woman who wrote books was considered almost a rival to masculine intellect, and regarded as something strange and unapproachable by her sister women. The division lines which are now so strongly drawn between the masculine and feminine mind, were very little understood in that day, and the idea that a woman of genius could be domestic, cheerful, and unpretending, would have been considered visionary in the extreme.
Observe Stephens’s assertion that in the early decades of the nineteenth century would-be women authors had a great deal to fear, that in a context of male dominance their best strategy was to disarm male criticism by disarming themselves, since combat would invariably produce women’s defeat. At the same time that the “strong division lines” restrict and structure a female personality, they also enable women writers to come into being. The condition of this enablement is that they will not compete with men. This approach was useful, perhaps necessary, in the earlier decades of the era; its “problem” from a feminist point of view is that many women were afraid to abandon it when the times changed sufficiently to allow for some relaxation of those divisions.
We may think of the woman novelist before, say, 1840 as engaging in a cottage industry that required protection in order to flourish. As early as October 1823 the North American, writing on Maria Edgeworth, commented that “an equal degree of merit in a female author, evinces a much greater mental vigor than in a man, and the whole constitution of society is so opposed to the development of the female mind in that degree of maturity and conscious power, which are requisite for a successful writer, that a moderate excellence implies much greater native talent.” Said the Mirror: “we do not consider it exactly fair to judge of them by the same rigid rules which may be applied to the lucubrations of those who are ironically termed their lords and masters. … Ladies have many difficulties to contend with in coming before the public, of which male creatures may easily get the better. Restricted as the former are to a much inferior knowledge of life and the world, the choice of subjects is much more limited, their style and expressions must be much more guarded, and their delineations of the more hidden passions of human nature must, in many instances, be much more feeble and imperfect. Female talent, therefore, with a few brilliant exceptions, ought always to be spoken of comparatively, in reference to itself, and not to that of men” (September 3, 1842). It does not follow that because women’s experience is restricted, and their knowledge of the world accordingly limited, their expression “must be much more guarded.” Another criterion has crept in; even if women had experience and knowledge, the state of their relation to society as a whole requires them to suppress the expression of it. The threat of the woman author is balanced by a threat to the woman author.
The bargain being struck here is that women may write as much as they please providing they define themselves as women writing when they do so, whether by tricks of style—diffuseness, gracefulness, delicacy; by choices of subject matter—the domestic, the social, the private; or by tone—pure, lofty, moral, didactic. Where the novel, generally speaking, was defined as a field for the expression of the individual author, possibly rising to genius, it was defined in the case of the woman author as a field for the expression of the sex, in which case genius in the large sense is out of the question, since the most she can do is lose herself in gender and hence sacrifice the individuality that is the foundation of genius.
This bargain permits reviewers over and over to speak of the “fair authoress” or evaluate the woman writer within the field only of “lady writers,” and it permits most of the field of novel writing to be left to her in security. “‘Dear delightful woman’ is inking her fingers on both continents in endeavoring the amusement and instruction of novel readers; and by-and-bye the fields of fiction, in the world of letters, will become crowded with bonnets, shawls, and green parasols. … In revenge for the monopoly in the severer pursuits of literature held by the masculine mind, womanhood is striving for the monopoly in novel writing. And if she will allow the world a little of Dickens and Thackeray now and then, we will not oppose the establishment of the monopoly” (Literary World, March 9, 1850). Of course the severer pursuits of literature were superior; but what these reviewers were ignoring or forgetting, in “allowing” women this particular corner, was that the novel was the most popular literary form. In effect they were abandoning the novel in toto to women. The enforced sexual differentiation thus worked not only to the obvious disadvantage of women, but to the less obvious detriment of men who were writing for an audience that did not exist.
Thus, where the cult of the author leads in the man’s case to the expression of his individuality with the possibility of genius at the end of the road, it leads in a different direction for the woman. For her it leads to the suppression of individuality and the substitution of the expression of her womanhood. This is also precisely what transpires in the criticism of women characters: for where character was everywhere to be individualized, that everywhere did not encompass female characters, who were rather to be “womanized” (see chapter 5). Across an unbridgeable divide we find the highest theoretical expressions of authorship regarding one another: the genius, and the woman. The most bizarre result of this compartmentalization, perhaps, was that in writing as women, female authors were not allowed to say what they knew about their own sex (see the Mirror’s comment quoted above), because their knowledge did not accord with the stereotype of the sex they were required to represent.
These generalizations must be qualified, however, because critics were much more rigid in their theoretical pronouncements about authors and authorship than in their reviewing practice. While women were expected to be moral as a matter of course, men were not excused from that requirement on the grounds of their masculinity. The likely feebleness of a woman’s work was not exonerated, and women who wrote powerful works were praised; a powerful style and a gripping story were desiderata regardless of the gender of the author. Though virtually no woman writer transcended boundaries to attain genius, women authors were treated as individuals and the nature of each particular genius was isolated and described, usually, without invidious judgment.
Although genius was the hoped-for end of every novelistic venture, it was the special rather than the usual case when it occurred, and on the whole readers did not expect to encounter genius in novels as a matter of course. Those authors who were the subject of repeated essays on account of the extraordinary caliber of their achievement in a genre were not to be taken as defining the genre itself. The novel was more congenial to expressions of genius than some other literary forms, but true genius was rare in it as elsewhere. When a woman author’s work called enough attention to itself to be scrutinized for genius in the transcendent sense, however, the terms of the discussion changed; where genius was wholly praised in men, in women it was a controversial possession. In the antebellum era only three women authors were discussed in American magazines as though they were eligible to be thought of as examples of genius: George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charlotte Brontë. In each instance the writing about them was troubled.
George Sand was the most difficult case of all, because she was the only one of these three whose genius could not be debated; because the morality of her private life was problematic to say the least; because it was the intention of her writings to attack the one moral position to which women above all were supposed to be committed, the sanctity of secular marriage; and because her intellectual powers were clearly equal to or greater than those of most men. The North American wrote (July 1841), “none but a mind and heart thoroughly diseased could pour forth such effusions, while the impetuosity of manner, the vivid descriptions, the eloquent portraiture of passion, and the richness of style prove, but too evidently, that a noble nature has gone astray” and then added that “the writer is resolute in her determination to unsex herself in the general tone and execution of her works, in the boldness of her theories, and the warmth and freedom of her descriptions.” Up until this last point, the review takes the same line toward Sand that it would take toward any gifted but immoral writer; then the sex enters as an additional judgment.
In a similar mode, the Christian Examiner (March 1847) ran a long essay devoting more than twenty-two pages to an attack on the morality of her work, only to conclude, “of the literary execution of George Sand’s writings, in general, it is not easy to speak in terms of too high commendation. … She writes always with beauty, often with singular power. … Among the intellectual manifestations of the age she is one of the more remarkable phenomena. … She is equal, intellectually, to high endeavors and unusual achievements.” Unfortunately, “the strength of her moral principles has not balanced the vigor of her mind,” she exemplifies “genius wandering from rectitude,” and her false principles result directly from the questionable morality of her life. “For the office of a genuine reformer it is to be feared she has unfitted herself. … We naturally require of a Magdalen, that she should be even farther removed, in repugnance, from every trace of the sin forsaken, than another.” The fiercest attack on Sand found that “the wastefulness and prostitution of genius is ever a mournful ruin—in woman it is doubly melancholy” and concluded, “we blush for our sex and our species” (Sartairi’s, October 1851). It was signed with a woman’s name—Miss Maria J. B. Browne. Sand had broken the unspoken agreement among women that they would write only as women—that is, only as men imagined or expected women to be.
In an earlier review Sartain’s had acknowledged that “George Sand’s books can hardly be noticed like other books” on account of “the acknowledged genius of the author. … The talent and even genius, of the writer is most obvious; and there is a certain awe attending the contemplation of genius, as of beauty, which bids us beware with what intent we approach it in the spirit of criticism. But . . .” (November, 1847). And the but triumphed, as it did again in September 1850 when, in an essay on Fredrika Bremer, George Sand’s name came up: “the institution of marriage, the roots from which society springs, the groundwork upon which it stands, George Sand, with all the force of her genius and eloquence, seeks to degrade and destroy; while Fredrika Bremer would ennoble, not the institution of marriage only, but she would exalt it into that deeper and holier spiritual union, of which the actual marriage is but the symbol.” One sometimes gets the impression that the critics’ enthusiasm for the admittedly only modestly talented, though popular, Bremer lay in their ability to present her as an alternative or antithesis to the attractive and even more popular Sand.
“It is too late in the day to discuss the question, whether the writings of the personage variously called Aurore Dupin, Madame Dudevant, and George Sand, shall be introduced to the American people. A name which has excited equal terror and admiration abroad, is fast getting familiar among us. … We do not wish to be understood as underrating the talents of the author, or joining in the hasty condemnation of all her writings. She is a woman of great powers of mind, of a philosophical insight in the discrimination of character, of imagination expressed in her acute sympathies, and she conveys all this in a style of pure harmony” (Literary World, February 2, 1847). She has a “gifted but erratic muse. … It seems astonishing that one who is so much an artist as George Sand, should at times be led into such absurdities; but, after all deductions, we pronounce her the first of French novelists since Balzac died, and Victor Hugo devoted himself to politics” (Putnam’s, September 1853).
A critic in the American Review, considering all the French novelists, began his discussion of Sand by announcing, “it does not please us to speak harshly of any person invested with the sanctity of the female form. But we must plainly state, that we regard her as one who has unsexed herself; who has thrown aside that winning softness and delicacy, which give to the female character its peculiar charm. … If, then, the current gossip of her associates is to be credited, George Sand constitutes one of that numerous class, of whom it is said, in strong but homely phrase, that ‘they are no better than they should be’; and that assuming occasionally the masculine costume, she also habitually exercises the privileged vices which custom and society have restricted to the sex who wear the pantaloons.” The review went on to say both that “we regard her as a gifted, reckless, unprincipled woman of genius” and that “we love and revere the female character too much to accept her either as a fit exponent or advocate of the feelings or sentiments of refined and virtuous women—those intermediate links between the men and the angels who, kept apart and above the contaminating influences to which the ruder sex are exposed, preserve inviolate that purity of heart and feeling, which makes a modest and true-hearted wife the best and highest good attainable below” (March 1846).
This rhetoric is only what a modern feminist might expect to find everywhere, so it is important to note that the American Review’s essay is an extreme statement. It does, however, share concerns expressed in milder reviews. Two of these are whether there can be a woman of genius, or whether a woman who is a genius has not lost her character as a woman; and whether there is not a close connection between the freedoms of genius and other kinds of freedoms. Certainly the review makes it seem that a woman of genius is unsexed, hence a biological monstrosity, hence not a genius or a woman either. But at the same time, in her unsexing Sand is associated with “a numerous class” who are “no better than they should be.” The woman of genius is associated with a sexual liberty that, the journal admits, is known to quite a number of women, all of whom it is eager to define out of the sex along with Sand in favor of the “refined and virtuous women” who are “intermediate links between the men and the angels” and are produced by being “kept apart and above the contaminating influences to which the ruder sex are exposed.” We are in the presence of the Victorian attempt to define the woman without sexual feeling as a representative of her sex and to see the sexed woman (in that horrible Victorian paradox) as one who has unsexed herself. The controlling fear is left unstated: the frightful possibility that Sand does speak for women, and in so doing puts the crucial social concept of woman in question.
The sexless woman, the modest and true-hearted wife who is advanced as the true woman, clearly cannot be a genius of any kind; indeed, from her ranks no “fit exponent or advocate” of anything can emerge. Such women would never take expounding or advocacy upon themselves. It follows almost inevitably, then, that a woman of genius will be unsexed and advocate values different from those of the “intermediate link.” Thus no women can actually articulate women’s values, and the ideal woman must content herself with being silent, or spoken for by men. Indeed, the American Review’s essay on George Sand is such a bespeaking. But its speaking, in turn, is put into question by Sand’s popularity; for the numerous class that reads her cannot be totally composed of those who are no better than they should be. Certainly reviewers did not imagine they were writing to fallen women! Thus beneath all this rhetoric we sense that reviewers recognized perfectly well that George Sand was a woman and wrote about her as they did because of this recognition. The same genius and advocacy in a male would occasion commentary and criticism (as it did, for example, in the instances of Eugene Sue and Balzac), but of a different sort. George Sand’s peculiarity was to be a genius who was a woman and who wrote the kinds of book she did as a woman, women’s books putting into question the very institution whose announced function was to keep women apart from and above life—marriage—in order that a female character be created and society allowed to continue on its orderly and undisturbed way. Because Sand testified against marriage as a woman and on behalf of women, her voice was particularly alarming.
In this context Margaret Fuller’s defense of Sand in the Tribune was, though admirable, somewhat naive. Consuelo, she said, “is entirely successful, in showing how inward purity and honor may preserve a woman from bewilderment and danger, and secure her a genuine independence. Whoever aims at this is still considered by unthinking or prejudiced minds as wishing to despoil the female character of its natural and peculiar loveliness. … Miss Bremer, Dumas, and the Northern novelist, Anderson, make women who have a tendency to the intellectual life fail and suffer the penalties of arrogant presumption in the very first steps of a career to which an inward voice calls them in preference to the usual home duties. … If the heroines of the novelists we have named ended as they did, it was for want of the purity of ambition and simplicity of character” that Sand’s heroines continue to exemplify (June 24, 1846). The purity and simplicity Fuller urged was, if it existed at all, the product of keeping women above and apart from the world, confining her to the “usual home duties,” rather than a natural essence. Fuller’s hope, for Sand and herself, was that feminism and woman’s rights did not threaten the concept of the “female character,” but obviously they did. And do. Sand subjected the concept to particular tension because she was, by all standards, a genius. She commanded acceptance as such and therefore raised the possibility that her genius was related to her freedom.
Because Sand was the only woman about whose genius there was no question and at the same time the only woman writer whose life was known to be less than blameless, hers was the most excruciating case of female authorship that reviewers faced in the entire period between 1820 and 1860. Another and perhaps ruder shock, however, was given to their sensibilities by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though by 1860 Stowe had not produced enough for reviewers to treat her as a genius in the class of Dickens or Thackeray, the one book was considered a work of genius and, though domestic and familial in its ideology, still strikingly in violation of the boundaries of an acceptable woman’s literature. It addressed itself to political and social issues, areas supposed to be outside the woman’s grasp; and it was unconciliatory and uncompromising—unfeminine, in a word—in its attitudes. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, other women authors who dealt with slavery were praised for doing so in the conciliatory spirit that was appropriate to the female mission.
“For Heaven’s sake, Mrs. Stowe!” exclaimed the Literary World in its first of two reviews (April 24, 1852—see chapter 10 for more on antislavery fiction). “Wife of one clergyman, daughter of another, and sister to half a dozen, respect the cloud of black cloth with which you are surrounded, and if you will write of such matters, give us plain unvarnished truth, and strive to advise us in our trouble.” Here we note how the writer’s personal situation enters as an element of the commentary, and how Stowe vanishes into the cloud of black cloth, not her own skirts but the garments of the men of her family, and is asked to keep them in mind as she speaks. Graham’s in its hostile review of “Black Letters” asserted that “our female agitators have abandoned Bloomers in despair, and are just now bestride a new hobby” (February 1853). As for the Southern Literary Messenger, which attacked Uncle Tom’s Cabin with missionary fervor, it abandoned its usually approving albeit patronizing attitude toward women authors as enlighteners and elevators of the race for something much more savage and cruel. “We know that among other novel doctrines in vogue in the land of Mrs. Stowe’s nativity … is one which would place women on a footing of political equality with men, and causing her to look beyond the office for which she was created—the high and holy office of matrimony—would engage her in the administration of public affairs. … On this ground she may assert her prerogative to teach us how wicked we are ourselves and the Constitution under which we live. But such a claim is in direct conflict with the letter of scripture. … ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’” (October 1852). Two years later, the Southern Literary Messenger approvingly classified Farmingdale with The Wide, Wide World in a “department of letters eminently calculated to advance the cause of purity and religion. … We are quite sure that the sermons preached by these lady writers are of more use than many which are uttered from the pulpit” (July 1854). It seems clear that the causes of purity and religion were no longer living issues to this journal; woman was free to speak so long as she uttered nothing to any important purpose, and to teach so long as she did not presume to teach “us”—the reviewer and those he represented, the adult and dominant males of society.
Even more interesting is the Southern Literary Messenger’s second review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (December 1852), which began by describing a historical change in the mission of the novel over time. It has “descended from its graceful and airy home, and assumed to itself a more vulgar mission, incompatible with its essence and alien to its original design. Engaging in coarse conflicts of life, and mingling in the fumes and gross odors of political or polemical dissension, it has stained and tainted the robe of ideal purity with which it was of old adorned.” Precisely the same image is used for the novel here as the American Review used for woman herself. The politicizing of the novel is analogous to the attainment of woman’s rights for the woman; extraordinarily, from any conservative man’s point of view, these movements were both being carried out by women themselves, something which was plainly inconceivable from the starting point of their thinking, which assumed that the intermediate link between men and the angels was woman’s “natural” character, or that society had successfully conformed women to this design. In other words, the women who were doing these things, the Sands and the Stowes, ought not to exist. But they did. In its issue for June 9, 1860, the New York Ledger commented in a squib on women’s suffrage that “there are 10,000 females in the City of New York, ay twice that number, with whom no modest woman would like to go in collision anywhere, least of all at the polls during the excitement of a hotly contested election. … Where is the respectable wife and mother that would choose to go herself, or send her daughters where they would have to mingle with the most degraded of the sex. … In the country, where there is more purity and decency than in cities, respectable married women might perhaps approach the polls without danger of contamination or indignity, but not in dense communities … mixing up all classes or both sexes at the polls.” One gets a sense here of a mass of women whose existence reviewers were trying not to acknowledge, whose voices would expose the feminine mystique—expose the existence of this female underclass, as well as the existence of that secret female in the respectable woman. Any deviation, on the part of speaking women, from an ideal of the female voice became the occasion for a generalized gender terror and called out a gender terrorism.
A third instance, in some ways the most revealing or curious of these special cases, is that of Charlotte Brontë (sometimes conflated with Emily or Anne Brontë since Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were announced as being by the author of Jane Eyre). Jane Eyre was reviewed at first as a man’s work, criticized for its masculine coarseness and praised for its extraordinary power and clear evidence of genius. Soon rumors circulated that the author was a woman, at which point the question of the author’s sex became an element of reviewer commentary. Some maintained that the author was clearly a man, and when Wuthering Heights, which they took to be even more obviously masculine in character, appeared, they felt vindicated. Others compromised by advancing the idea that Jane Eyre was the work of a brother-sister team. Still others, though deciding for a woman author, allowed that in parts it seemed to have been written by a man. When the author was definitely known to be a woman, the feminine character of Jane Eyre was suddenly perfectly obvious to all. What nobody saw in this sequence of events, however, was that you had to know the gender of the writer before you could see the book as a feminine product; that, in other words, reviewers were creating rather than reporting the sexuality of the text.
In October 1848, for example, the North American announced firmly that “Currer Bell” was a brother-sister team because “the work bears the marks of more than one mind and one sex. … From the masculine tone of Jane Eyre, it might pass altogether as the composition of a man, were it not for some unconscious feminine peculiarities, which the strongest-minded woman that ever aspired after manhood cannot suppress. These peculiarities refer not only to elaborate descriptions of dress, and the minutiae of the sick-chamber, but to various superficial refinements of feeling in regard to the external relations of the sex. It is true that the noblest and best representations of female character have been produced by men; but there are niceties of thought and emotion in a woman’s mind which often escape unawares from a female writer. [Note here the contrast between the conscious creation of a female character by a male artist, and the unwitting self-revelation of the female writer.] There are numerous examples of these in Jane Eyre. The leading characteristic of the novel, however, and the secret of its charm, is the clear, distinct, decisive style of its representation of character, manners, and scenery; and this continually suggests a male mind.” Moreover, “when the admirable Mr. Rochester appears, and the profanity, brutality, and slang of the misanthropic profligate give their torpedo shocks to the nervous system,—and especially when we are favored with more than one scene given to the exhibition of mere animal appetite, and to courtship after the manner of kangaroos and the heroes of Dryden’s plays,—we are gallant enough to detect the hand of a gentleman in the composition.” (Gentleman!)
But a Graham’s reviewer, believing Currer Bell to be a woman, had no trouble seeing that Rochester was a woman’s creation. “The authoress of Jane Eyre has drawn in Rochester an unnatural character, and she has done it from an ignorance of the inward condition of mind which immorality such as his either springs from or produces. The ruffian … she knows only verbally, so to speak. … The authoress of Jane Eyre is not a Byron, but a talented woman, who, in her own sphere of thought and observation, is eminently trustworthy and true, but out of it hardly rises above the conception of a boarding-school Miss in her teens”; the character of Rochester is “romantic humbug” (May 1847). Given the reproaches leveled in the 1840s against Bulwer and Harrison Ainsworth, one cannot see why Graham’s assumed that only women could or would create romantic humbug; nor do the reviewers consider the possibility that his character was not supposed to be real but was meant for the sort of romantic daydream figure that many women enjoy so much (to judge by the popularity of the “gothic romances” of today, works whose heroes women never mistake for real men). It is interesting, in any event, that the character of Rochester was taken as brutal but true when the author was thought to be a man, as silly and soft when the author was thought to be a woman. Then, in another odd twist of argument, Graham’s in a May 1853 review of Villette complained about Brontë’s portrayal of women, which it saw as a satire on the sex attributable to the woman author’s own defective femininity. She is “a strong-minded woman, a hardy, self-relying egotist from the very strength of her individuality, and she has stores of vitriolic contempt and scorn for her weak sisters.”
The Literary World equivocated in its review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, beginning its review with the masculine pronoun, allowing the author “a mind of great strength and fervor, but coarse almost to brutality”; there is an “intense vulgarity” in his very fiber that the journal wanted “American readers to recognize … while doing just homage to his genius.” The reviewer mentioned Currer Bell’s genius several times; and then, when considering the male characters, moved to the feminine pronoun: “we shrewdly suspect these books to be written by some gifted and retired woman, whose principal notions of men are derived from other books; or who, taking some walking automaton of her native village for a model, throws in certain touches of rascality, of uncouthness or boisterousness, to make her lay figures animated and, as she thinks, masculine” (August 12, 1848). The interesting point here is that the term “genius” disappears when the writer becomes a woman.
“We hope,” a Sartain’s reviewer said, that Wuthering Heights “will be proven to have been written by another hand than that which wrote Jane Eyrey but if the authorship should be identical, it will at least settle the much-discussed question of sex. No woman could write Wuthering Heights” (June 1848). Reviewing Shirley, Sartain’s commented that the question of the author’s sex “seems to us no more settled than before. We read the first half of the volume with almost a conviction that the writer was a man. There was everywhere manifest a knowledge of affairs, an intimate acquaintance with the outdoor world, such as is certainly very rare among writers of the gentler sex. … Yet as we proceed towards the close of the volume, and see the familiar, the truly wonderful acquaintance which the author has with the female character, we are half disposed to doubt the foregone conclusion” (February 1850). Most amusing of all, the American Review, absolutely certain of the male authorship of Wuthering Heights, criticized the author for his evident ignorance of women: “he dissects to you their characters and finds out motives for them which they never dreamed of. He fancies he understands them perfectly, all the while you are quite sure he is mistaken. … He looks upon women as a refined sort of men, and they therefore are unable to give him their confidence” (February 1850). One month later, a critic in the same journal who knew that the author was a woman expatiated on the ignorance of the male character manifest in Wuthering Heights: women “see nothing of men in their struggles with the world. Our manners with them are trimmed.”
This particular comedy came to an end with the publication, following Charlotte Brontë’s death, of her biography, written by Elizabeth Gaskell. But it ended in an ironic fashion, for the mission of the biography—in which it certainly succeeded on this side of the Atlantic—was to define Brontë as a true woman and force a reading of her works that made their womanliness manifest. As the North American wrote in October 1857, “those who have been accustomed to regard Currer Bell only as an author who has dared to speak on certain topics with a plainness somewhat unusual among the fashionable lady-writers, and have consequently assailed her for coarseness and immorality, will stand abashed before this record of womanly virtue and tender affection.” The coarseness and brutality of the characters no longer rose either from a crude male imagination or from female inexperience, but sprang from the horrible actualities of life in the English moor country as perceived by a deeply sensitive woman. And note the cutting reference to “fashionable lady-writers”: the reviewer was using one woman’s work to denigrate the achievement of others.
The reviewer responses to Charlotte and Emily Brontë make it seem that they had no real notion of how to tell a male from a female writer, did not know what constituted the very distinction they were certain was innate, inevitable, and—in all other circumstances than the literary—absolutely plain. In fact, the only criterion they could finally think to apply was that of special knowledge: women knew about clothes and sickrooms, men knew about hunting and politics. It is not, then, merely that these books sent out mixed signals, but that the supposed textual differences were in fact the product of prior knowledge and matters outside the text. The woman author in the text was, after all, no real creature but a selection of evidence after the fact.