Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Jane Austen’s Cover Story”, in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Ninteenth-century Literary imagination (Yale UP 1979) [Chap. 5], pp.148-85; this extract, pp.146-54. [Here without footnotes.]

[Note: this extract, pp.146-54. [Here without footnotes.]]

Jane Austen was not alone in experiencing the tensions inherent in being a “lady” writer, a fact that she herself seemed to stress when, in Northanger Abbey, she gently admonished literary women like Maria Edgeworth for being embarrassed about their status as novelists. Interestingly, Austen came close to analyzing a central problem for Edgeworth, who constantly judged and depreciated her own “feminine” fiction in terms of her father’s commitment to pedagogically sound moral instruction. Indeed, as our first epigraph is meant to suggest, Maria Edgeworth ‘s persistent belief that she had no story of her own reflects Catherine Morland’s initiation into her fallen female state as a person without a history, without a name of her own, without a story of significance which she could herself [146] author. Yet, because Edgeworth’s image of herself as a needy knifegrinder suggests a potential for cutting remarks not dissimilar from what Virginia Woolf called Austen’s delight in slicing her characters’ heads off, 1 and because her reaction against General Tilney — “quite outrageously out of drawing and out of nature”— reflects Austen’s own discretion about male power in her later books, Maria Edgeworth’s career is worth considering as a preface to the achievement of Austen’s maturity.

Although she was possibly one of the most popular and influential novelists of her time, Maria Edgeworth’s personal reticence and modesty matched Austen’s, causing Byron, among others, to observe, “One would never have guessed she could write her name; whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else was worth writing.” Even to her most recent biographer, the name Edgeworth still means Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the father whose overbearing egotism amused or annoyed many of the people he met. And while Marilyn Butler explains that Richard Edgeworth must not be viewed as an unscrupulous Svengali operating on an unsuspecting child, she does not seem to realize that his daughter’s voluntary devotion could also inhibit and circumscribe her talent, creating perhaps an even more complex problem for the emerging author than outright coercion would have spawned. The portrait of Richard Edgeworth as a scientific inventor and Enlightenment theorist who practiced his pedagogy at home for the greater intellectual development of his family must be balanced against his Rousseauistic experiment with his first son (whose erratic and uncontrollable spirits convinced him that Rousseau was wrong) and his fathering twenty-two children by four wives, more than one of whom was an object of his profound indifference.

As the third of twenty-two and the daughter of the wife most completely neglected, Maria Edgeworth seems to have used her writing to gain the attention and approval of her father. From the beginning of her career, by their common consent, he became the impresario and narrator of her life. He first set her to work on censorious Madame de Genlis’s Adele et Theodore, the work that would have launched her career, if his friend Thomas Day had not congratulated him when Maria’s translation was cancelled by the publishers. While Maria wrote her Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) [147] as a response to the ensuing correspondence between Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth about the issue of female authorship, it can hardly be viewed as an act of literary assertion.

For, far from defending female authority, this manuscript, which she described as “disfigured by all manner of crooked marks of papa’s critical indignation, besides various abusive marginal notes,”* actually contains an attack on female flightiness and self-dramatization (in “Letters of Julia and Caroline”) and a satiric essay implying that feminine arguments for even the most minor sorts of self-determination are manipulative, hypocritical, self-congratulatory, and irrational (“Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”). She does include an exchange of letters between a misogynist (presumably modelled on Day) who argues that “female prodigies ... are scarcely less offensive to my taste than monsters” and a defender of female learning (presumably her father) who claims that considering that the pen was to women a new instrument, I think they have made at least as good a use of it as learned men did of the needle some centuries ago, when they set themselves to determine how many spirits could stand upon its point, and were ready to tear one another to pieces in the discussion of this sublime question.’

But this “defense,” which argues that women are no sillier than medieval theologians, is hardly a compliment, coming — as it does — from an enlightened philosopher, nor is the subsequent proposition that education is necessary to make women better wives and mothers, two roles Maria Edgeworth herself never undertook. Written for an audience composed of Days and Edgeworths, Letters for Literary Ladies helps us understand why Maria Edgeworth could not become an author without turning herself into a literary lady, a creature of her father’s imagination who was understandably anxious for and about her father’s control.

“Where should I be without my father? I should sink into that nothing from which he has raised me,” Maria Edgeworth worried in an eerie adumbration of the fears expressed by George Eliot and a host of other dudful daughter-writers. Because Richard Lovell Edgeworth “pointed out” to her that “to be a mere writer of pretty stories and novellettes would be unworthy of his partner, pupil & [148] daughter,” Maria soon stopped writing the books which her early talent seemed to make so successful — not before, however, she wrote one novel without either his aid or his knowledge. Not only was Castle Rackrent (1800) one of her earliest and most popular productions, it contains a subversive critique of patriarchy surprisingly similar to what we found in Northanger Abbey.

As narrated by the trusty servant Thady Quirk, this history of an Irish ancestral mansion is told in terms of the succession of its owners, Irish aristocrats best characterized by their indolence, improvidence, and love for litigation, alcohol, and women. Sir Tallyhoos, Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, Sir Kit, and Sir Condy are praised and served by their loyal retainer, who nevertheless reveals their irresponsible abuse of their position in Irish society. Castle Rackrent also includes a particularly interesting episode about an imprisoned wife that further links it to the secret we discovered in the overlooked passageways of Northanger. All of the Rackrent landlords marry for money, but one of them, Sir Kit, brings back to Ireland a Jewish heiress as his wife. While Thady ostensibly bemoans what “this heretic Blackamore” will bring down on the head of the estate, he actually describes the pathetic ignorance and vulnerability of the wealthy foreigner, who is completely at the mercy of her cruelly capricious husband. Her helplessness is dramatized, characteristically, in an argument over the food for their table, since Sir Kit insists on irritating her with the presence of sausages, bacon, and pork at every meal. Refusing to feed on forbidden, foreign foods, as so many later heroines will, she responds by shutting herself up in her room, a dangerous solution since Sir Kit then locks her up. “We none of us ever saw or heard her speak for seven years after that”, Thady calmly explains.

As if aware of the potential impact of this episode, the author affixes a long explanatory footnote attesdng to the historical accuracy of what “can scarcely be thought credible” by cidng “the celebrated Lady Cathcart’s conjugal imprisonment,” a case that might also have reminded Maria Edgeworth of the story of George I’s wife, who was shut up in Hanover when he left to ascend to the English throne, and who escaped only through her death thirty-two years later. 10 Sir Kit is shown to follow the example of Lady Cathcart’s husband when he drinks Lady Rackrent’s good health with his table [149] companions, sending a servant on a sham errand to ask if “there was anything at table he might send her,” and accepting the sham answer returned by his servant that “she did not wish for anything, but drank the company’s health”. Starving inside the ancestral mansion, the literally imprisoned wife is also figuratively imprisoned within her husband’s fictions. Meanwhile, Thady loyally proclaims that Sir Kit was never cured of the gaming tricks that mortgaged his estate, but that this “was the only fault he had, God bless him!”.

When, after her husband’s death, Lady Rackrent recovers, fires the cook, and departs the country, Thady decides that “it was a shame for her, being his wife, not to show more duty,” specifically not to have saved him from financial ruin. But clearly the lady’s escape is a triumph that goes far in explaining why Castle Rackrent was scribbled fast, in secret, almost the only work of fiction Maria Edgeworth wrote without her father’s help. Indeed she insisted that the story spontaneously came to her when she heard an old steward’s voice, and that she simply recorded it. We will see other instances of such “trance” writing, especially with regard to the Brontes, but here it clearly helps explain why Castle Rackrent remained her book, why she steadily resisted her father’s encouragement to add “corrections” to it.

Certainly, when viewed as a woman’s creation, Castle Rackrent must be considered a critique of patriarchy, for the male aristocratic line is criticized because it exploits Ireland, that traditional old sow, leaving a peasantry starved and dispossessed. Rackrent means destructive rental, and Castle Rackrent is a protest against exploitative landlords. Furthermore, Thady Quirk enacts the typically powerless role of housekeeper with the same ambivalence that characterizes women like Elinor Tilney in Northanger Abbey and Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, both of whom identify with the male owner and enforce his will, although they see it as arbitrary and coercive. Yet, like Maria Edgeworth, the needy knifegrinder, even while Thady pretends to be of use by telling not his own story but his providers’, his words are damaging, for he reveals the depravity of the very masters he seems to praise so loyally. And this steward who appears to serve his lords with such docility actually benefits from their decline, sets into motion the machinery that finishes them off, and [150] even contributes to the demise of their last representative. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this “faithful family retainer” manages to get the big house. Exploiting the dissembling tactics of the powerless, Thady is an effective antagonist, and, at the end of the story, although he claims to despise him, it is his own son who has inherited the power of the Rackrent family.

Pursuing her career in her father’s sitting room and writing primarily to please him, Maria Edgeworth managed in this early fiction to evade her father’s control by dramatizing the retaliatory revenge of the seemingly dutiful and the apparently weak. But in spite of its success and the good reception accorded her romance Belinda, she turned away from her own “pretty stories and novellettes” as “unworthy” of her father’s “partner, pupil & daughter,” deciding to pursue instead her father’s projects, for example his Professional Education, a study of vocational education for boys. Devoted until his death to writing Irish tales and children’s stories which serve as a gloss on his political and educational theories, Maria Edgeworth went as far as she could in seeing herself and presenting herself as her father’s secretary: “I have only repeated the same opinions [Edgeworth’s] in other forms,” she explained; “A certain quantity of bullion was given to me and I coined it into as many pieces as I thought would be convenient for popular use.” Admitting frequently that her “acting and most kind literary partner” made all the final decisions, she explained that “it was to please my father I first exerted myself to write, to please him I continued.” But if “the first stone was thrown the first motion given by him,” she understandably believed that “when there is no similar moving power the beauteous circles vanish and the water stagnates.”

Although she was clearly troubled that without her author she would cease to exist or create, Maria Edgeworth solved the problem of what we have been calling “the anxiety of female authorship” by writing as if she were her father’s pen. Like so many of her successors — Mrs. Gaskell, Geraldine Jewsbury, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner — she was plagued by headaches that might have reflected the strain of this solution. She was also convinced that her father’s skill in cutting, his criticism, and invention alone allowed her to write by relieving her from the vacillation and anxiety to which she was so much subject. In this respect Maria Edgeworth resembles [151]

Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, for “if she had written a book she must have done it as Saint Theresa did, under the command of an authority that constrained her conscience” (chap. 10). Certainly we sense the strain in her biography, for example in the incident at Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s deathbed: the day before he died, Marilyn Butler explains, Richard Edgeworth dictated to his daughter a letter for his publisher explaining that she would add 200 pages to his 480-page memoir within a month after his death. In the margin his secretary wrote what she apparently could not find the courage to say: “I never promised.” Like Dorothea Casaubon, who finally never promises to complete Casaubon’s book and instead writes silently a message on his notes explaining why she cannot, Maria Edgeworth must have struggled with the conflict between her desire to fulfill her father’s wishes by living out his plots and her need to assert her own talents. Unlike Dorothea, however, she finally wrote her father’s book in spite of the pain doing so must have entailed.

Literally writing her father’s book, however, was doing little more than what she did throughout her career when she wrote stories illustrating his theories and portraying the wise benevolence of male authority figures. At least one critic believes that she did manage to balance her father’s standards with her personal allegiances. But even if she did covertly express her dissent from her father’s values — by sustaining a dialogue in her fiction between moral surface and symbolic resistence—what this rather schizophrenic solution earned her on the domestic front was her father’s patronizing inscription on her writing desk:

On this humble desk were written all the numerous works of my daughter, Maria Edgeworth, in the common sitting-room of my family. In these works which were chiefly written to please me, she has never attacked the personal character of any human being or interfered with the opinions of any sect or party, religious or political; ... she improved and amused her own mind, and gratified her heart, which I do believe is better than her head.

Even as Castle Rackrent displays the same critique of patriarchy we traced in Northanger Abbey, then, Mr. Edgeworth’s condescending praise of his daughter’s desk in his sitting room reminds us that [152] Austen also worked in such a decorous space. Likewise, just as Richard Lovell Edgeworth perceives this space as a sign of Maria’s ladylike submission to his domestic control, Virginia Woolf suggests that such a writing place can serve as an emblem of the confinement of the “lady” novelist:

If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room .... She was always interrupted... . Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. “How she was able to effect all this,” her nephew writes in his Memoir, “is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any persons beyond her own family party.” Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper... . [She] was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before any one came in.

Despite the odd contradiction we sense between Woolf ‘s repeated assertions elsewhere in A Room of One’s Own that Austen was unimpeded by her sex and her clear-sighted recognition in this passage of the limits placed on Austen because of it, the image of the lady writing in the common sitting room is especially useful in helping us understand both Austen’s confinement and the fictional strategies she developed for coping with it. We have already seen that even in the juvenilia (which many critics consider her most conservative work) there are clues that Austen is hiding a distinctly unladylike outlook behind the “cover” or “blotter” of parody. But the blotting paper poised in anticipation of a forewarning creak can serve as an emblem of a far more organic camouflage existing within the mature novels, even as it calls to our attention the anxiety that authorship entailed for Austen.
We can see Austen struggling after Northanger Abbey to combine her implicitly rebellious vision with an explicitly decorous form as she follows Miss Edgeworth’s example and writes in order to make herself useful, justifying her presumptuous attempts at the pen by inspiring other women with respect for the moral and social responsibilities of their domestic duties, and thereby allowing her surviving [153] relatives to make the same claims as Mr. Edgeworth. Yet the repressive implications of the story she tells — a story, invariably, of the need for women to renounce their claims to stories of their own — paradoxically allow her to escape the imprisonment she defines and defends as her heroines’ fate so that, like Emily Dickinson, Austen herself can finally be said to “dwell in Possibility — / A fairer House than Prose—”.


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