All Her Faculties
The Representation of the Female Mind in the Twentieth-Century English Novel
New readings of novels by H. G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy L. Sayers, Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and A. S. Byatt reveal that the female mind, implicated in her outward appearance or inward psychology, is depicted as distorted by scholarship. The female scholar is shown to lack ethos, a moral aspect in relation to action and voice, and the plots of the novels under discussion seem to thrive on this strategic marginalisation of her subjective intellectual being. This study offers original readings of twentieth-century texts through the lens of the female intellect.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1: The Female Mind
- Chapter 2: Walking the Tightrope – The Female Mind Emerging in H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909)
- Chapter 3: Beyond the Arc Light – The Female Mind at Large in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915)
- Chapter 4: Sheltered and Secluded – The Female Mind Confined in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935)
- Chapter 5: Insanity in the Academy – The Female Mind Unhinged in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)
- Chapter 6: Separate Spheres – The Female Mind Retired in David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988)
- Chapter 7: Cycles of Continuance – The Female Mind Incarnate in A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990)
- Chapter 8: All Her Faculties – The Female Mind as Spectre
← 0 | 1 → CHAPTER 1
[A]t no time has any woman enriched the world with a new idea, a new truth, a new discovery, a new invention.
— WALTER BESANT, The Revolt of Man (142–3)
The literary expression of female identity and character in twentieth-century English culture offers an insight into a social, economic and political interpretation of Western womanhood that is nearly as old as human history itself. Drawing on the English literary tradition, one can trace how recurring theories about female character through centuries of Western cultural inquiry – those either originating in England or arriving from the Continent – were absorbed into a particular configuration of English womanhood.
The representation of women as intelligent beings particularly lends itself to such analysis. A brief and simplified overview of how female mental activity has often been treated in English literature could be expressed in the following way: initially intelligence was largely restricted to the spiteful cunning of the medieval harridan. This impression was tempered in the eighteenth century, partly through the influence of the Bluestockings, to one in which women were seen to be possessed of an ‘elegant mind’, a rather turgid expression that lacks any indication of intellectual rigour. Soon, however, this weak notion of female mental independence was exceeded in the nineteenth century by the domestic image of the ‘angel in the house’. The overriding emphasis in England firmly came to be on the ‘sweet nature’ rather than the intellectual capabilities of women. The generalised references to female mental meekness and weakness were then supplanted in the twentieth by dominant scientific assumptions about a ← 1 | 2 → woman’s mental state that separates the normal from the pathological. Hence, even after significant changes in the actual realisation of women’s legal and economic status in Britain, the literary conventions governing the representation of the female character in the English novel have remained curiously conservative, especially with regards to their mental capabilities – a testimony to the prevailing stereotype of women as physical rather than intellectual beings.
This conservative tendency is particularly strident in those novels that portray the female protagonist in a setting that invites expectations of intellectual enterprise, namely the tertiary education sector. By 1900, middle-class English women had, in theory, almost unrestricted access to university education, and writers used this new context to good effect. They exploited sex and money for potent plot devices, as progress in the educational provision for women was not only accompanied by progress in their economic independence but also by a certain loosening of sexual morals. Hence one preponderant critical image of the turn of the century educated female character in England was that of unrestrained womanhood. Yet instead of celebrating their character and agency, literary portrayals of the independent existence of intellectually inclined women retained their customary negative slant. The aim of this study, therefore, is to retrace the evolution of the female character in the novel against the progress of tertiary education in the twentieth century in England, and far from being content with a mere cursory glance at the mental activities of women, it intends to make them the focal point of the examination.
The term ‘intellectual’ or ‘scholarly’ here pertains to female characters that are, in some way, depicted in the English university context, either as students or lecturers, sometimes exhibiting a desire to pursue institutionalised, formal learning, at other times merely existing within this context. The term ‘mental activity’ is used in a specific sense to refer to events when women show ‘character’ or ethos, that is, mental processes of decision making and growth depicted through voice and agency, referencing Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric, in which he stipulated that a person can only be known by her utterances (1.2.3–4). These factors of intellectual exploration correlate with the academic context, in that it enables more cogently the intellectual engagement of character. Combined as the notion ← 2 | 3 → of the ‘female mind’, they are understood as giving evidence of a woman’s individual subjectivity that operates independently to that of men.
The novels under discussion have been selected first of all with a particular attention to chronology and locale, secondly for their fit under the umbrella term of academic fiction and thirdly for their explicit treatment of women in academia as scholars. These restrictions serve as a means of providing a tight analytical framework that allows for a meaningful investigation of the novels within a specific historical and social context. Hence, a focus on English novels of the twentieth century means the necessary exclusion of the American tradition, for example, Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe (1951). Also, whilst the latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of academic reform and widening participation in England, it was arguably only after the turn of the century when writers themselves had personal experience of academia, which was then used to mediate more universal themes in more rewarding fictional forms. The direct focus on the university setting also excludes explicit study of those fictions after 1900 that were located in the school context, such as Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1917). My specific exploration of female identity within academia also necessitates the exclusion of such novels that show no explicit consideration of the role of intellectual women, such as E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), Max Beerbaum’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) or C. P. Snow’s The Masters (1951).
Of the remaining possible twentieth-century English university fictions, I have selected those for close analysis that seem to me to offer an explicit ideological awareness of the educated woman at a particular point in time. Another aspect for consideration was the inter-relationship between the texts, which allows for cross-references that may deepen our understanding of the cultural anxieties about the female mind exhibited in these novels. They include some of the commonly acknowledged examples of that genre as, for example, investigated in Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers, but the final selection was based on the specific treatment of women within a historico-philosophical paradigm. Hence David Lodge’s trilogy was chosen over Malcolm Bradbury’s academic novels because Lodge provides a more direct inroad into the postmodern stance. Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim was included not only as the classic example of the post-World War ← 3 | 4 → II university novel, but also to highlight how his male protagonist usurps some of the qualities female characters have previously displayed, thereby reversing some of the progress that has been made in considering women as intellectual equals to men. Possession was chosen over other possible fictions by A. S. Byatt, since this novel arguably presents a more universal and historical treatment of women in academia than her previous novels of sisterly rivalry or her historical exploration of women, art and education in Edwardian England in The Children’s Book (2009). Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night was chosen over Vera Brittain’s Dark Tide because the former added a new dimension to the trope of academia and marriage. Finally, Ann Veronica and The Rainbow were chosen as ostensibly the only examples of their time of a proto-academic novel with a female protagonist. The novels under discussion thus represent the limited range of narratives that explicitly focus on scholarly women, either as protagonists, or as crucial supporting characters, but they are also presented in dialogue with their contemporaries and antecedents to provide depth and breadth of investigation, widening the point of entry into understanding what appears at first glance to be a new kind of conceptualisation of womanhood.
The novelty lies in the fact that whilst English women were arguably kept in an intellectually redundant position for centuries, by the turn of the century they seem to have found a place in the cultural consciousness as the ‘New Woman’. Recent scholarship supports an image of the New Woman as rather formidable but prone to a tragic denouement.1 Her mind becomes in effect only narratively significant when its presence exemplifies its limitations for women. In fact, even though the novels chosen for this study foreground academic and scholarly women, it soon becomes clear that their intellect is not celebrated but dismissed. With the dawning of a new era of women’s emancipation in the twentieth century, this continued disregard for the female mind in fiction constitutes a damning verdict that has a reciprocal effect on community. This study, therefore, arises out of an ← 4 | 5 → intellectual urgency and political expediency to map this apparent ongoing neglect of female intellectual capabilities in the twentieth-century English novel. It locates the origins for this neglect in the ideological backdrop to the ‘woman question’ in England, in which female mental ability first materialised as an important issue over 150 years ago, and which condensed the dominant paradigms of the era to one in which women and intellect simply do not seem to match. In order to explore this further, I consider three frameworks that may serve as a philosophical, scientific and aesthetic foundation for the suggested pervasiveness of the anti-intellectual bias against women in English narrative.
One such framework is the perceived genderedness of genius. Genius, as a term, is in itself contested, and many different meanings have emerged over the history of human achievement. Julia Kristeva’s recent construction of a new definition of genius located in the uniqueness of the individual, for which she adopts Duns Scotus’s term ecceitas, indicates a path forwards for women that releases them from the ‘constraints of history, biology, and destiny’ and goes beyond the dichotomy of the sexes (Feminine Genius, 496, 503–4). For Kristeva, genius lies in the creativity that allows each individual to invent her sex anew. Whilst she thereby suggests a way to transcend the anxieties of the feminine entrenched in binary oppositions of sex, the discourse on genius is nevertheless traditionally rooted in such dichotomies. However, it is notable that many of these conceptions have perceived ‘female’ origins that, in Christine Battersby’s words, underwent a misogynistic ‘reorientation of female qualities’. Thus, in terms of genius as procreativity, as classical sources denoted, woman is understood as bound by her womb, while only the male seed is an expression of its free genius. In terms of a Romantic sense of genius as spirit, women are perceived to be passive in their spiritual adoration, while the male genius is actively responsive to nature’s sublime magic. Modern psychology, finally, distinguishes between the madly brilliant male genius, while the female mind is only reflective of its sterile disintegration.2 Genius, therefore, may ← 5 | 6 → still be interpreted as a gendered concept that serves the ‘rationalisations of male supremacy’ inherent in it (Battersby, Gender, 103). As Lucy Delap points out, ‘feminine genius seemed to be entirely ruled out by biological and historical evidence’ (115). This does not necessarily erase women completely from the discourse on genius, but it frequently re-interprets male strengths as female frailties.
In contemplating the overall rank and importance of the rational faculty in Western culture, of which genius can be considered a heightened state, one may begin with the Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century, who arguably first championed the power of the mind in modern times. Immanuel Kant’s summons to humanity to have the courage to use their own mind, a summons to think freely,3 for example, indicates his concern with the authority of reason to make moral decisions – a key concept that influences many interpretations of character. Whilst one should not amalgamate Kant’s pure and practical philosophy, feminist engagement with his thoughts has shown that his gendered view of male and female character reinforces nevertheless the ‘maleness of reason’ as a steering force towards universal knowledge and integral truth, whereas he perceived women as intrinsically bound to their nature and thus incapable of rising above it into the realm of intellectual freedom.4 His (in)famous remark that a woman with learning might as well also have a beard (Observations 37),5 indicates that the call to throw off the dogmatic state of ignorance and improve the mind was directed, implicitly at least, solely towards ← 6 | 7 → the male population. Even though Enlightenment philosophy, due to its universalising ambition, naturally spoke of ‘man’ more than ‘woman’, the elemental duality in which women’s mental capacity and aptitude was habitually devalued rightly provoked accusations of androcentricity. These do not automatically degrade these thinkers for the feminist project but necessarily qualify some of their pronouncements.6
This thread of an androcentric philosophy is spun by rare but relevant comments made by thinkers on women’s mental abilities. Whilst one could use this single thread to knit a whole framework of reference, we should perhaps look at Western philosophy more as a weaving together of multiple threads, thus locating misogynistic remarks about women’s minds as a single knot in a multi-patterned fabric. For example, in contrast to Kant, whose interest in women’s minds was perhaps not very central to his overarching critique, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s anthropology in Émile was explicitly formulated upon the notion that abstraction and speculation is not the natural domain of the female and that she is thus disqualified from producing ‘works of genius’, because these demand a combination of precision, attention and knowledge that can only be exercised by the sex whose strengths they are, i.e. men (473–4).7
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- Publication date
- 2014 (February)
- womanhood myth rationality psychology appearance
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 225 pp.