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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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“Away to Solitude, to Freedom, to Desolation!”: Hermits and Recluses in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite (Ina Bergmann)

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Ina Bergmann

“Away to Solitude, to Freedom, to Desolation!”: Hermits and Recluses in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite

Abstract: Howe’s text portrays the gender-ambivalent position of ambitious women and their struggle to defy the traditional female role in the male-dominated creative sphere of the nineteenth century. The resulting female reclusiveness evolves out of limiting situations and comes at a cost, but also provides freedom from social restraints.

1. Ambition and the Female Talent

1.1 A Solitary Book

Julia Ward Howe is today mainly remembered as the author of the Civil War poem “Battle-Hymn of the Republic” (1862), which on its publication instantly brought her literary recognition. She is also recognized as a women’s rights activist and the founder of Mother’s Day. Her other literary achievements, such as her first book of poetry, Passion-Flowers (1854), have almost fallen into oblivion. And her most outstanding work of art was never even published while she lived: the Laurence manuscript, a fragmentary fictional (auto)biography of an intersexual hero/ine, which Howe presumably wrote in the 1840s, was published only in 2004 as The Hermaphrodite (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 1–2; Williams, “Speaking” x).

The Laurence manuscript is a “solitary book,” to borrow a term coined by Elaine Showalter for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) (“Tradition”). Similarly to the late recognition of Chopin’s novel, although due to other circumstances, Howe’s The Hermaphrodite can only now, more than one and a half century after its creation, take its place in literary history (Klimasmith 106). Its importance for studies of American culture in general and for the study of nineteenth-century American women’s writing in particular cannot be overestimated.

My reading of The Hermaphrodite will concentrate on the significance of solitude, loneliness, and isolation. I will focus on aspects of eremitism and reclusiveness and especially on their liberating and limiting facets, thereby illuminating the multitude of cultures of solitude presented in the text and how they tie in with one of Howe’s key topics, the confinement of women’s lives. ← 101 | 102 →

1.2 The Hermaphrodite

As the title of Howe’s text already reveals, its protagonist, Laurence, is an intersexual character, physically male as well as female, but raised as male. The setting of the fragment is Europe, not America: Laurence is English, but he mainly lives in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Attempts at dating the novel’s fictional events have established the period from 1825 to 1829 as a possible time frame (Luciano 218–19). In episodes, which are either a result of the fragmented status of the text or a basic structure intended by the author, the I-narrator, Laurence, gives an account of his family background; of his life as a male student; of his failed relationship with Emma, a young widow, her death, and his subsequent flight to solitude; his erratic travels and his isolation as a hermit; his redemption through a relationship with a young man, Ronald, and the disastrous end of this friendship; his mentoring by a Roman aristocrat, Berto, and his life as a woman named Cecilia, among Berto’s sisters; his reunion with Ronald; and finally, his own death. Howe’s text describes an education, a development, a quest, and an awakening (Elbert 231; Saltz 78): it is thus a Bildungsroman or, more specifically, a Künstlerroman. The Hermaphrodite is an artist’s novel in which the narrator-protagonist is depicted as a poet, an actor, and a singer who tries to find his place in the world. It can also more specifically be read, as I will show, as what has been labeled a female novel of development or a female Künstlerroman (DuPlessis; Fraiman; Huf).

1.3 The Private Writer

The reasons for the fragmentary status of the Laurence manuscript remain a mystery (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 3; Luciano 218; Williams, “Speaking” xxxvi, xxxviii). Howe herself called the text a “stranded wreck of a novel,” not “a moral and fashionable work,” and doubted whether it would “ever be published” (qtd. in Williams, Hungry 81, “Speaking” xi). As the text covers taboo subjects, especially questions of sexual identity, and transgresses boundaries, it could not have been published without the risk of a scandal (Elbert 230; Grant, Private 121; Sánchez-Eppler 26; Williams, “Speaking” xxxvi). Howe obviously never attempted to publish it and she may have never even shown it to anyone (Bergland 159; Williams, “Speaking” xi, xxxvi, Hungry 81). The Laurence manuscript was a project she pursued secretly.1 Its concealment gave her greater creative independence. Yet, the price for this freedom was to be no longer “‘associating with the world’” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 3) through her writing, a state that she replicates in her artistic protagonist’s isolation (Sánchez-Eppler 26). The Hermaphrodite is thus turned into a “projection of begrudgingly reclusive female authorship” (26). ← 102 | 103 →

The manuscript indeed served private ends for Howe (Ashworth, “No” 27). It can be read as a psychological self-analysis and may have even functioned as self-therapy and a means of recovery (Bergland 157; Borgstrom 321; Williams, “Speaking” xi, xxvii, xxxvii). Already as a young girl, Howe was torn between the nineteenth-century male and female spheres. She received an excellent education, but her father disapproved of “ambition and artistic freedom for women” (Showalter, Jury 75). She felt limited like a fairy tale princess in an enchanted castle, with her father as her jailer. But there was also a liberator, her older brother Sam, who encouraged her to read from his personal library and who supported her aspirations of a literary career (Howe, Reminiscences 47–49; Showalter, Jury 75–76; Williams, “Speaking” xii–xiii, xxviii). Later, when she had had early literary success, yet had also become a wife and a mother, this conflict grew even more intense. The writing of the Laurence manuscript may have helped her to come to terms with her own difficult situation as an artist and as a wife and mother. These concepts were not easily merged during the first half of the nineteenth century in American society, and especially not in her marriage with Samuel Gridley Howe (Ziegler 38–40; Elbert 230). Solidifying gender roles generally turned “wives and mothers” into “prisoners in their own temples,” and “those who forsook normative roles … would be branded as having failed in their mission as women” (Godbeer 338). Howe’s personality contained traits culturally ascribed to both genders (Williams, “Speaking” xxvii). The effect of this self-recognition isolated her emotionally, while the home(s) of the early years of her marriage, especially the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where her husband was director, served as spaces of her physical isolation. In The Hermaphrodite, she covertly explores her “resistance to and deviance from contemporary heteronormative definitions of womanhood“ (Warren 109).

The Laurence manuscript can be read as an autobiographical work that allowed Howe to explore her own hermaphroditic nature (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 7). Howe was “cramped by convention, profoundly alone at times, and worn down … by domestic cares” (Grant, “Meeting” 19; see also Ashworth, “Spiritualized” 212) and she felt “desexed, unappreciated, and imprisoned by prescribed social roles” (Elbert 230–31). The Laurence manuscript enabled her to speculate about issues otherwise inaccessible for American women at her time (Williams, “Speaking” xxxvii). Laurence, as Howe’s alter ego, impersonates her feelings of androgyny and of isolation as a female artist within a patriarchal culture (Elbert 231; Noble 49; Sánchez-Eppler 29; Showalter, Jury 76, Civil 88; Williams, Hungry 240, “Speaking” xxvii). As Howe has Laurence act out as poet, singer, and actor, she herself would “borrow the disguise of art” to voice the “internal fire” that consumed her (Howe, Hermaphrodite 121). ← 103 | 104 →

The solitary activity of writing the Laurence manuscript “gave her freedom and, within that freedom, an extraordinary amount of power” (Grant, “Meeting” 21). It paved the way for the publication of her very daring book of poetry, Passion-Flowers (Elbert 230; Noble 70; Sánchez-Eppler 29; Showalter, Jury 76–80; Williams, Hungry 240). And it advanced her work from “feminine” to “feminist” writing (Elbert 230; Noble 48, 65; Showalter, Jury xvi–xvii). Yet, in the Laurence manuscript she would likewise give expression to her notion that a gender-ambiguous person was doomed to loneliness (Grant, Private 123; Showalter, Civil 88). Howe’s writing of the Laurence manuscript during the early years of her marriage, when she was “cloistered” (Ashworth, “Spiritualized” 211) at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, was an inward excursion. As such, it is paralleling and resembling Henry David Thoreau’s solitary sojourn at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847, where he started writing Walden (1854) (Elbert 229).2

1.4 “The Celebrated Woman”

Howe’s text is obviously a product of her literary erudition and her cultural knowledge. The hermaphrodite is a common cultural trope, especially in the nineteenth century (Ashworth, “No” 26–27; Busst 1). And the Laurence manuscript is heavily inspired by numerous and diverse literary and cultural influences which are concerned with hermaphrodism, androgyny, and cross-dressing, such as Plato, Ovid, William Shakespeare, Emanuel Swedenborg, George Sand, Théophile Gautier, Margaret Fuller, and Charlotte Cushman.3

I would like to briefly draw attention to only one literary model here, because it is axiomatic for my reading of the text. Howe was fluent in German since her late teens, and as an adult she was a reader and reviewer of contemporary German literature and philosophy (Saltz 74; Williams, “Speaking” xviii). She was most probably familiar with the polemic poem “The Celebrated Woman” (“Die berühmte Frau,” 1789) by Friedrich Schiller (Williams, “Speaking” xxxix–xl). In the poem a husband describes his wife, whom he finds changed to the worse by her success as a writer, as “[a] spirit strong with a body weak, / Hermaphroditic, so to speak” (qtd. in Williams, “Speaking” xl). Intellectual and creative aspirations were generally seen as masculine in Howe’s time. By being ‘literary,’ unmarried women diminished their chances in the marriage market (Williams, “Speaking” xiv). Nineteenth-century female writers who overstepped socially accepted boundaries were frequently ostracized as unwomanly, and their work was seen as unfeminine, vulgar, and monstrous (Warren 109–10). Thus, Schiller’s poem describes the quite common practice of viewing a female author as a “man-woman” (Robert Bonner qtd. in Warren 110). The “most hermaphroditical of nineteenth-century beings” ← 104 | 105 → was “a woman of genius” (Bergland 184). Following Schiller’s identification of the ambitious wife with a hermaphrodite, my interpretation aims at reading Howe’s text as a document that portrays the gender-ambivalent position of ambitious women and their fight to defy prevailing gender conventions in the male-dominated intellectual and creative sphere of the nineteenth century. I will show how these gender restrictions give rise to a variety of female cultures of solitude.

2. Hermits and Recluses in The Hermaphrodite

2.1 The Hermaphrodite as Hermit and Recluse

2.1.1 Laurence, the Outcast

The initial information the hermaphroditic Laurence gives the reader about himself describes the cultural inscription of his gender. His parents’ choice to raise him as male destines Laurence to perform the gender role of a man. Thus, he has, on the one hand, more options in life than he would have as a woman. For example, he may freely choose a profession and be independent (Klimasmith 97–98). On the other hand, his physical deviation condemns him to loneliness. The patriarchal society with its separate spheres for men and women demanded that women submit to the prevailing, culturally and historically constructed oppressive paradigm, namely the cult of true womanhood, consisting of the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Welter). If they cherished ‘unwomanly’ ambitions, they might be perceived just as ill-suited for their prescribed role as Howe’s intersexual creation (Daniele; Williams, “Speaking” xxvii; Saltz 79, 83).

The young Laurence is a very good and eager student. But aspects of his otherness are already perceptible during childhood. His physical and mental characteristics are described as a combination of the stereotypical gender binaries, the traditionally feminine and masculine attributes. When Laurence has grown up, women as well as men feel attracted to him, but to him, this proves only a burden. He has been warned by his father to “avoid all unnecessary intimacies” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 4). Also, he seems to have no sexual desires and is a strangely asexual person, or is forced to be so by the circumstances. His difference and his fear to be found out isolate him. He feels he has to conceal his real nature. Laurence’s body alienates him from “citizenship in relational worlds” (Ashworth, “No” 30). Persistently, he perceives of himself as “the exile, the outcast, the repudiated of God and man” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 119). The episodes of the fragment alternate between Laurence’s attempts at engagement with the world and his retreats into seclusion (Saltz 73). ← 105 | 106 →

2.1.2 Laurence, the Solitary Artist

At his graduation, Laurence competes for the university prize for the best poem. Laurence’s poem is a composition that reflects upon his feelings and his own situation, putting emphasis on the topics of otherness, alienation, and isolation. He wins the poetry contest,4 but after the recital, he overhears two strangers noting his “striking resemblance to the lovely hermaphrodite in the villa Borghese” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 16). Clearly, Laurence’s self-revealing art betrays his intersexual nature. And the audience’s “gaze … can unmask, reveal, and ruin” (Livengood 42). Laurence flees from the scene to privacy and seclusion, which equals freedom for him: “Once alone, in my own room, I could breathe more freely” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 16). But a surprise visit from Emma von P., a young widow who has long been sexually attracted to him, yet has also sensed his indifference – she constantly compares him to marble – culminates in a catastrophe. Beautiful Emma, courted by every man except Laurence, pleads with him to give her “but this one night, but this one hour” (18). When he refuses to have intercourse with her, she suddenly seems to really ‘see’ him for the first time and calls him a “monster!” (19). The aftermath of this shock of recognition kills Emma, and it prompts Laurence to further withdraw from society. It is noteworthy that Emma is cast as a “sexually experienced, financially independent, and free” woman (Klimasmith 100). Her death may be read as a clue that her lifestyle is unacceptable to society. She is the “antithesis of the passionless, nonsensual woman of idealized womanhood” (Livengood 51). In this respect, Emma von P. has also been read as Howe’s alter ego (Williams, “Speaking” xxv, xxvii).

At another instance, when Laurence lives with Ronald in a German university town, he distinguishes himself as an actor. He is extremely convincing as Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous play, feeling an indifference that liberates him, “a nameless pleasure in being something other than [him]self” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 81). An onlooker claims that “Juliet is a woman” (82) and Ronald fights a duel to defend, as he says, “a lie … [Laurence’s] manhood” (86). Laurence’s art, again, becomes a catalyst for a revelation. When Ronald returns wounded from the duel, it becomes clear that for him, too, the performance has been a disclosure of Laurence’s femininity. The very fact that he, instead of Laurence himself, settles the affair of honor reduces the latter to feminine passivity. Outraged, Ronald tries to force Laurence to have sexual intercourse with him. Like Emma, Ronald finds Laurence “so cold and so still” and mistakenly believes that he can “turn marble itself to molten flame” (87). Like her, he is appalled by Laurence, whom he calls a “[s]orceress! murderess!” (88). And finally he, too, falls into “the stupour of … seeming death” (88). Laurence knows no other way out than to flee from the scene, “away to solitude, to freedom, to desolation!” (89). ← 106 | 107 →

Another scene shows Laurence “in a new guise,” “in feminine masquerade” (130), living as the woman Cecilia, displaying her musical talents as a singer. Again, an artistic performance has liberating as well as revelatory effects. Cecilia’s soul breathes “a wider, purer atmosphere” while she sings, and she is “lost in the impersonality of art” (149–50). She forgets her inner turmoil. Simultaneously, her art again uncovers her intersexual nature. Some members of the audience compare Cecilia’s voice to that of “Uberto … the famous Contraltiste” (150), a castrato in the Pope’s choir. Again, this drives Cecilia into reclusion and retreat. She resolves to sing “no more in Rome” (150).

Taking into account the episodes discussed so far, one can assert that art, be it poetry, singing, or acting, gives the artist freedom to express him- or herself, to uncover his/her real identity, his/her soul. Art becomes a sort of meditation, a vehicle to retreat into oneself. It creates an “inner solitude” (Balcom 283–85) that liberates from the restraints and expectations of society. Laurence/Cecilia enjoys the freedom of art as opposed to the constraints of the very confined society s/he lives in.

Laurence’s musings during carnival season are apt expressions of the function of his art: “So intolerant, so incomprehensive is society become, that fervent hearts must borrow the disguise of art, if they would win the right to express, in any outward form, the internal fire that consumes them” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 121). Masking one’s feelings becomes a means of self-protection. Having to hide one’s real nature inevitably leads to alienation and isolation. Laurence would like to “[shrink] into obscurity” (5). His fear of being found out by being looked at can be read as “scopophobia” (Colegate 244), an anxiety disorder often afflicting solitaries. To the intersexed character especially, “vision may be violence” and “the policing power of the gaze of others” (Young 247) may trigger further withdrawal.

2.1.3 Laurence, the Hermit

The Hermaphrodite can be read as a variant of what Coby Dowdell calls “the American hermit’s tale” (130). The generic formula is as follows: an old, usually male hermit lives in a cave or a hut, secluded in wilderness. His diet is simple, often vegetarian, and he explains to visitors his reasons for withdrawal, which underscore his critique of society. The visitors insist that the hermit returns with them to society, but in most cases he declines. Finally, there is the discovery of the hermit’s manuscript which tells the hermit’s story and spreads his wisdom (130–31).

Laurence feels the liminality of his state and chooses solitude, which liberates him from social and gender expectations (Elbert 232): “Let us have solitude and silence to deal with these vast themes” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 35). He erratically ← 107 | 108 → travels until he comes across a “Lodge in the Wilderness” (36), which seems to be the right place for his withdrawal. He is instantly fascinated by this place, “the very beau-idèal of a hermitage” (36), which is remote, in the midst of nature, with a little garden and a natural spring.

But it is not Laurence’s aim to live in and with nature. He moves into the hermitage excitedly and buries himself in studies. He lives more and more isolated from the outside world. Laurence also willfully neglects his body, which has become a burden to him. He adheres to his own rules of asceticism and frugality. And his self-hatred leads to self-castigation: “the spirit was now lord absolute, and … the flesh had at last learned its place” (46). This episode of “spiritual masochism” (Luciano 237) is about disembodiment. Like so many hermits, Laurence aims at transcending his physis. In shame, he isolates himself in the hermitage, seeking spirituality in order to become oblivious of his deviant body (Crowley 76–77; Elbert 232; Noble 61). When Ronald finally frees Laurence from his self-inflicted imprisonment and literally saves his life, the latter cries out: “I have been buried long enough with the dead forms of things” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 47). What before had seemed to him the perfect hermitage has now almost turned into his “tomb” (50). In retrospect he reevaluates his temporary life as a hermit: “I had clung savagely to my solitary life – I was glad now of the sympathy and companionship” (66).

This hermitage chapter obviously calls for balance between the spiritual and the physical life. In a later text, Howe would argue that “man remains incomplete his whole life long. Most incomplete is he, however, in the isolations of selfishness and of solitude” (qtd. in Elbert 243). Staying away from society in order to study and giving in to one’s inclinations is presented here as an “unnatural mode of life” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 46), a form of death-in-life. The episode also underlines the Laurence manuscript’s topic of coming-of-age or awakening, when the story is read as a symbolic death and rebirth (Elbert 231).

2.2 Laurence’s Foils and Alter Egos

2.2.1 The Late Count, an Eccentric

The Hermaphrodite also gave Howe “the opportunity, through a variety of different characters, to encounter different worlds of experience” (Grant, “Meeting” 21). There is, for example, the story that is related about the former tenant of the hermitage, “the late Count –, an eccentric” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 37), which parallels Laurence’s own retreat: “The Count had … distinguished himself in public life, but often retired … from the cares and tumult of the great world, to enjoy the silent companionship of books. He had done so too often for his own good” (37). This explains why “the solitary abode” is mainly “fitted up as a study,” with “well filled ← 108 | 109 → bookshelves [and] a massive writing table” (37). It is “a place specially devoted to religious study and devout contemplation” (39). The late Count had obviously observed a transcendentalist lifestyle (Elbert 231). Now, whoever wants to do so may live freely in the hermitage, as long as s/he follows the deceased Count’s conditions of piety, purity, frugality, self-reliance, isolation, vegetarianism, sexual sublimation, abstinence, only basic physical hygiene and so forth, rules recorded in verse on one of the walls of the lodge (Howe, Hermaphrodite 40–41). Laurence takes this “transcendentalist oath” (Elbert 232). He follows and mirrors the Count’s example.

This episode is strongly reminiscent of traditional European garden practices. Since the Renaissance, it had been popular to adorn stately gardens with an eremitage (Leisering 63). Most prominently, the eighteenth-century revolution in garden design brought follies like hermitages into landscape gardens (Campbell v). It even became en vogue to employ so-called “ornamental” or “garden hermits” to live in these abodes (Leisering 64; see also Campbell). Often, they were bound by contracts that regulated aspects of their diet or hygiene. It was also among the hermit’s duties to converse with guests and share his life story and his wisdom. A common variety was to put a manuscript into the hermitage in order to acquaint the visitor with the fate of a supposed former resident (Leisering 63–67). The Count’s verses resemble such a manuscript as does his narrative of Eva and Raphael, which Laurence comes across in another episode.

2.2.2 The Marble Woman

There is another important aspect to the hermitage episode. The central room of “the whole anchoritic establishment” is a “chapel” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 37) which holds a piece of art that strangely fascinates Laurence, a marble sculpture of a female figure which features one peculiarity: “a marble veil covered the face, as hopeless as the grave” (38). The resemblance to Laurence’s own situation is remarkable. Continuously, he has to hide his real gender identity and inner conflict. This lets him appear as “the poetic dream of the ancient sculptor” (194), as if he himself was made of stone.5 Laurence’s intersexuality, the physical pathology, symbolizes his psychological state, his anxiety disorder. The veil, which is here associated with the hopelessness of the grave, again evokes death-in-life.6 It is a device akin to the metaphorical mask that Louisa May Alcott implies in her feminist story “Behind a Mask, or, A Woman’s Power” (1866) (Fetterley). But while the mask is empowering and bestowing Jean Muir with agency, the veil is stifling and dooming its bearer to tomblike passivity. Both devices impart solitude, yet while Howe stresses loneliness, Alcott focuses on privacy.7 ← 109 | 110 →

When Laurence isolates himself from society in the hermitage, he is probably most himself, but at the same time the depiction of this period as death-in-life proves that an individual cannot exist away from society and needs social acceptance. The impossibility of ever being able to fully disclose his real identity forces Laurence into mental and physical isolation and turns him into a hermit.

2.2.3 The Hermit of the Alps

When Laurence attends a performance of a ballet entitled “L’eremito degli Alpi” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 108), he observes that the scene on stage is “not altogether unlike [his] sometime Alpine residence,” the central character of the piece being “the tenant of … [a] mysterious hut,” a “magician-hermit” (109) who is “wearing on [his] face a black mask” (108–09). The hermit is under the influence of an evil spell, but is rescued by a girl, Rösli. She delivers him from doom because of her “strange love for the strange being” (111). Consequently, the “black mask drops from the face of the hermit,” but Rösli must pay with her own life “for the rescue of her lover” (112). The hermit of the ballet is obviously just another version of Laurence, who is rescued by Ronald. But while the hermit here is released by Rösli, who accepts his real self and loves him, Laurence, like the marble statue in the chapel of the hermitage, must remain veiled or masked when he is in society.

2.2.4 Cecilia, the Student of Woman

It is very revealing that Ronald, when he first sees Laurence at the hermitage, takes him for a woman. And when given a mirror, Laurence himself has to admit: “I looked a woman” (51). His feminine side seems to be the dominant one when he is free of the expectations of society. When Laurence lives in Rome, he is tutored by his mentor Berto, a Roman aristocrat, who suggests that Laurence should undergo a study of women “[t]o learn their high capacities, and to appreciate the wrong done them by education and position” (99). Berto asserts: “It is important that you should see men as women see them, and no less so that you should see women as they appear to each other, divested of the moral corset de précaution in which they always shew [sic] themselves to men” (133). Thus, the reader finds Laurence “hanging out the veil, that feminine banner of deceit” (130). Temporarily, he takes upon him “the bondage of this narrow life” (131). Laurence experiences womanhood as confinement, he learns that women are “kept under lock and key” (131). During her “days of … feminine seclusion” (158), Cecilia encounters a variety of fellow recluses. ← 110 | 111 →

2.3 Laurence’s Female Fellow Recluses

2.3.1 Eleonora, the Uncloistered Nun

The first example Berto gives Laurence is that of a young girl named Eleonora, a former love interest of his, who is driven to a cloistered life as a nun by her family. Berto and Laurence attend her investiture. There are references to a pall she seems buried under, to her disappearance under a nun’s veil, and to “living death” (106). The scene depicts religious reclusiveness as death-in-life. It ends, as drastically as consequentially, with the girl’s actual “momentary death” (107). Reclusiveness, here equaled with the (prospective) neglect of the physical needs of the body, especially the sublimation of sexuality, in favor of the mental or the spiritual, is criticized harshly. But it is also shown that women who would not succumb to the gender norms of society, to matrimony and motherhood, could only choose solitude, either pious retreat or reclusive spinsterhood.

2.3.2 Briseida and Gigia, the Reclusive Artists

Other examples of female recluses are Berto’s three sisters, Briseida, Gigia, and Nina. The two elder sisters, Briseida and Gigia, are “neither married, nor likely to be so,” although they are engaged in romantic affairs (136). They are “too enlightened and too expansive to doom themselves to the narrow ropewalk of Conventual life. They are, on the other hand, too proud to present themselves as candidates for selection in the great woman market of society” (136). The sisters transcend traditional gender expectations (Klimasmith 102). One sister is an author, the other is an artist. They live in “a dilapidated palace … somewhat aloof from the more frequented parts of the city” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 140). Berto promises Cecilia: “These ladies will indulge you with solitude” (146). And he asks his sisters to “[g]ive Cecilia the freedom of … [their] house and hearts” (146). Briseida, the sister who has a “literary reputation” (152) and leads a “life, embellished only by literature and by friendship” (154), holds revelatory ideas about female choices: “A woman … may choose between the three alternatives of a life like mine, a convent, or marriage” (153–54). It is made clear that following a creative vocation and thereby defying traditional gender norms makes reclusiveness inevitable. Yet, this secluded state also offers a certain amount of freedom not available to nonconforming women within society (Williams, “Speaking” xxxi). Briseida is Howe’s mouthpiece (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 7) for her critique of a society which makes ambitious women’s “moral imprisonment” (Klimasmith 105) inevitable, although she might not be read as a “forward-thinking emblem of an eventually-realized future” (Luciano 234). In The Hermaphrodite, the household of Berto’s sisters is a limiting ← 111 | 112 → as well as a liberating space: “While Berto’s sisters are to some extent free to arrange their time just as he has, the spatial constraints placed on women continue to limit the ways they may take in life” (237). Their Roman palace is “a cloistered world in which women may escape their moral roles, if only privately” (Klimasmith 105).

2.3.3 Nina, the Beautiful Clairvoyante

The most fascinating example of a female recluse in the Laurence manuscript is the youngest of Berto’s sisters, Nina. When her fiancé, Gaetano, is exiled to America, Nina wants to accompany him, but Berto forbids her to go. Upon his leave-taking, Nina promises Gaetano: “my soul goes forth with your soul, and wherever you may be, I shall stand beside you” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 137). At first, Nina follows Gaetano’s journey by referencing his frequent letters with “maps, charts, and books of travel” (137). But when his letters cease, a strange illness befalls her. She enters into a catatonic state, in which she maintains spiritual communion with Gaetano (Bergland 195; Saltz 85). The only possibility to briefly bring her out of this autistic condition is to speak to her about her lover. Only in these moments, it is “as if the mask of death … suddenly” lifts (Howe, Hermaphrodite 141). In this state of spiritual liberation, her soul is “enfranchised and soaring free,” emancipated from “its human prison” (141; see also Ashworth, “Spiritualized” 212). In these conversations, Nina claims to have made Gaetano’s whole journey with him, and, surprisingly enough, when the family finally hears from Gaetano again, the incidents of his journey mentioned by Nina did really occur.8 The “beautiful clairvoyante[’s]” (143) state is described as an “abnormal condition” (139) of the mind, it is believed to be “madness” (142), “somnambulism,” or the possession by an “evil spirit” (143), which even prompts a futile exorcism, undertaken by the family confessor. Nina’s condition is dominated by the dichotomy of body and mind: “Nina, so deaf, dumb, and blind of body, so far-seeing and intelligent of soul. Dream-rapt, isolated from the actual world, half corpse, half angel” (158). Her existence is death-in-life. Briseida asserts, “[w]ere it marriage, death, or madness, it were a relief that it should come” (185). These possible destinies for women are interchangeable, obviously. What comes, of course, is Nina’s death (196). Her incorporeal condition is as unbalanced as Laurence’s sojourn in his hermitage. It is equally “not sublime, but unnatural, even pathological” (Saltz 86).

2.3.4 Eva, the Solitary Lover

A story within the story, about a retreat from society, is read by Laurence to Berto’s sisters from an old manuscript. The document is a “singular German manuscript … by the good Count –” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 146), Berto’s uncle. ← 112 | 113 → It is revealed that he is exactly “[t]he illuminatist, the solitary … [t]he proprietor of a hermitage” (146) into which Laurence had retreated before. This is thus another “hermit’s manuscript,” a significant element of the “American hermit’s tale” (Dowdell 130–31). The story is that of a female solitary, the tale of the eternal love between Eva and Rafael entitled “Ashes of an angel’s heart” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 166). Eva, who has lost her beloved Rafael, does not leave his remote tomb, which significantly is described like a hermitage, as it is situated “in a deep and beautiful dell, shaded by overhanging rocks and thickly interwoven trees – near it was a small quiet lake, softly sunken in the rocks” (167). The female hermit argues with various angels who want to terminate her vigil over her beloved’s grave and return her to the living world: “Death comes not to thee as yet, and yet art thou buried in thine affliction, as in a tomb” (170). But Eva remains steadfast in prayer and in a death-in-life state, alone beside the grave. She lives there, only fed with honey by “a solitary dove” (167) that is described as equally widowed. She does not waver: “Rafael has departed on a far journey, and I am to follow him” (170). Time passes, Eva’s hair turns gray, and she continues to appeal “to the God of heaven for freedom” (178), freedom for her meaning death and her reunion with Rafael in heaven, which is ultimately granted. The manuscript has not only an important function within the text because it comes from the original hermit who inspired Laurence’s sojourn in the hermitage, but it is also seen as crucial by Berto’s sisters, who believe that it, at least to a certain extent, prompted Nina’s illness (164). Nina and Eva have been read with regard to Swedenborgianism. To Emanuel Swedenborg, the celibate and the solitary – “those who choose a life outside of the conjugial [sic]” – are relegated to “the sides of heaven” and “they become sad and troubled” in their isolation (qtd. in Ashworth, “Spiritualized” 208–09).

3. The Female Solitary in American Culture

3.1 The Reclusive Female in The Hermaphrodite

Laurence’s last vision before his death consistently gives an image of him as a martyr who has to die on a cross, torn by conflicting forces, personified by a man and a woman. Renée Bergland and Gary Williams note that “Romanticism valorized androgyny, framing artistic genius as a perfect blend of masculinity and femininity” (“Introduction” 10). But there was a double standard: while men with feminine qualities were perceived as extremely attractive, masculine women were perceived as monstrous, tending to “frighten those around them” (Fuller 91). No wonder Howe held the belief that “superior women ought to have been born men” (qtd. in Richards, Howe, and Hall 263). The haunting tableau of Laurence on a cross fittingly ← 113 | 114 → depicts the dilemma of ambitious women, torn between the binary gender conventions, between social expectations on the one hand and vocation and profession on the other. The deep inner conflicts, the internalized anxiety of being unwomanly, and the feelings of isolation, of otherness, of difference, made them perceive of themselves as outsiders, freaks, and monsters (Elbert 231, 244; Ziegler 112; Livengood). Their self-perception resembles the dichotomy observed by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal study The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). They argue that women in nineteenth-century literature are either presented and perceived as ‘monsters,’ rebellious, unwomanly women, or as ‘angels,’ pure, saintly women who fit the social expectations. And the woman writer had to define herself as “a mysterious creature who resides behind the angel or monster or angel/monster image” (17). Showalter similarly argues with regard to The Hermaphrodite that “the woman artist is not only a divided soul but also a monster doomed to solitude and sorrow” (Civil 89). The women in Howe’s Laurence manuscript either seek seclusion voluntarily or feel themselves driven to it. Always, eremitism and reclusiveness point to a “central critique of society” (Dowdell 131). Female seclusion from society is an – albeit passive – critique of or resistance against the prevailing gender binary, the ideology of separate spheres, and the cult of true womanhood.

For Howe, Laurence, and the women characters in Howe’s manuscript, the withdrawal has liberating as well as limiting aspects. “[F]reedom” might be “understood as that which exists in retirement from society” (Dowdell 130), but liberation from the traditional women’s role by way of withdrawal from society is for most of the reclusive characters in The Hermaphrodite only an ambiguous and, above all, temporary affair. As Laurence so aptly verbalizes in the title-giving quote for this essay, freedom in solitude is always accompanied by desolation. Reclusiveness has side effects such as mental disorder or premature death. The liberation has limiting aspects, it does come at a cost.

The only two women who survive are Briseida and Gigia. The two of them shun social expectations and conventional gender roles. They make the best of the liberating and limiting aspects of their existence as outcasts, finding an alternative way of life, a third option, other than marriage and death, as Briseida so fittingly but not exactly positively, communicates. Especially Briseida follows her vocation as an artist and lets her young toyboy Pepino warm her heart and body. But a conciliation of her independence and social expectations, of her ambition and marriage, is impossible within society. Her alternative lifestyle can only exist in seclusion, on the margins of society. Howe’s text thus protests the binary understanding of femininity and masculinity and calls for an ideal of human beings who are truly androgynous, who are “combining in the spiritual nature all that is most attractive in either sex” (Howe, Hermaphrodite 194). ← 114 | 115 →

3.2 The Solitary Woman in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing

Following my reading of the fragment, I want to finally point out the exceptionality of this “unclassifiable work” (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 1), which has been described as “literally like nothing else in nineteenth-century American literary history” (2). I aim at giving The Hermaphrodite credit as a “solitary book” (Showalter, “Tradition”) about solitary women. With regard to Chopin’s The Awakening, Showalter argues that “it can be a very serious blow to a developing genre when a revolutionary work is taken out of circulation” (“Tradition” 34). This also holds true for the Laurence manuscript, which “offers a strong instance of the transformation of the literary landscape achieved by including unpublished texts in the conception of mid-nineteenth-century American literature” (Sánchez-Eppler 24).9 Implementing these considerations, I will conclude my thoughts here by reinserting the Laurence manuscript into the tradition of the nineteenth-century American hermit’s tale, particularly in its female version. Although unique, Howe’s Laurence manuscript anticipates many later female hermit’s tales. The Hermaphrodite is a text that opens itself forward, generating “worm-holes to the future” (Linda Charnes qtd. in Luciano 221).

Howe’s autobiographical hermaphrodite Laurence is a precursor of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical tomboy Jo March in Little Women (1868). Jo wants to become a writer and seeks and needs solitude for her art, as writing is a solitary activity. She can be read as a temporary female recluse, resembling Briseida.10 In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” (1886) young Sylvia rejects the option of the traditional female role, in favor of the preservation of her environment. Her passive rebellion against the (male) exploitation of (female) nature in the end equals a definite decision for a hermit-like existence, free of confining gender expectations but coming at the cost of isolation in nature (Bergmann 139–68). Howe’s Nina is a European version of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The New England Nun” (1891), Louisa Ellis, who waits for long years for her fiancé to return from a foreign country and throughout develops pathological traits or neuroses. Louisa finally opts for independence instead of marriage, but the ambiguity of the story also points out the downsides of female reclusiveness and spinsterhood. Chopin’s “The Maid of Saint Philippe” (1892) features a tomboy character, Marianne, who rejects the promises of love and luxury and strives for freedom by lighting out to the wilderness, in a pattern typically reserved for male characters in American literature. Her critique is overtly directed against her suitors who want to turn the avid hunter, who seems to be an American variant of Joan of Arc, into a housewife, and thus covertly against the prevailing gender norms (Bergmann 139–68). The central episode of Jewett’s ← 115 | 116 → The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is the narrative of the hermit Joanna. Rejected by her fiancé, Joanna commits the unpardonable sin of directing wicked thoughts towards God in her disappointment. As penance, she signs away her property and retreats to a shack on a small island to live out her life in solitude. Joanna’s hermitic life can be read as a denial or a fulfillment of her female selfhood.

The trope of the female hermit or recluse questions gender norms and critiques social limitations for women. Ann Romines argues that “[t]he best-known fictional portrayals of female solitaries … suggest the possibility that withdrawal mutes and diminishes the woman who chooses it” (147–48). But with regard to Howe’s The Hermaphrodite, I also wonder, just like Bergland and Williams, whether Laurence’s “status bring[s] him mainly sorrow, loneliness, and deprivation” or whether it is also “instrumental in emancipating him from strictures that others take for granted and can’t see beyond,” whether Howe’s text is “a sign of her entrapment in her age’s conventions regarding gender roles” or “mark[s] a stage in a steady movement toward progressive feminist consciousness” (“Introduction” 11–12)? Marianne Noble argues that it is “[o]ne of the values of creative writing” to enable an author “to work on several competing ideas at the same time” (48). Liberation can be found alongside limitation in the text, and both may be found in solitude.

3.3 Solitude and the Ambitious Woman

It is part of Howe’s literary legacy that the Laurence manuscript anticipates prevailing themes and motifs of American Women’s Writing and in particular the nineteenth-century female hermit’s tale. The hermaphrodite can be read as an image of “creative women’s psyches, hinting that the great woman artist is a divided and emasculated man, a monster doomed to solitude and sorrow” (Showalter, Jury 77). Howe’s text is pointing towards the dehumanizing consequences of a cultural insistence on rigid gender norms which prompt voluntary withdrawal or forced isolation. Even more so, Laurence is representative of all individuals disenfranchised by cultural restrictions of gender dualism (Borgstrom 320; Crowley 79). Howe reflects on crucial problems and raises important questions, but may not present straightforward solutions or answers (Sánchez-Eppler 29; Warren 118). Thus, Howe’s work provides what Jane Tompkins has labeled “cultural work,” although during her lifetime it was lacking timely circulation due to its unpublished status.

Howe’s Laurence manuscript is a solitary book by an author who felt isolated and confined due to her ambition and gender. The solitary activity of writing about the “solitude of self” (248), to use Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s dictum, or, as Howe herself would describe it, the soul’s only “two possessions, itself & God” (qtd. in Williams, “Speaking” xxxv) served as an autobiographical vent. But even more so, ← 116 | 117 → Howe’s fragment is a unique document of cultures of solitude generated by stiff gender expectations. The Laurence manuscript is today seen as Howe’s “greatest masterpiece” (Bergland 184), and it has brought about a “seismic shift” (Bergland and Williams, “Introduction” 9) in studies of antebellum America. Above that, The Hermaphrodite also “remains timely” in its urge to “reiterate the truth of repressive gender constructs” (Noble 49).

Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the presidency in 2016 – which, at least to a certain degree, can be accredited to American society’s deeply felt mistrust and suspicion of ambitious women – prompted her to withdraw from society to her upstate New York home. This retreat earned her the jocular sobriquets of “fabled, elusive forest dweller of upstate New York,” “Forest Matriarch,” and even “flaxen-haired Sasquatch of Chappaqua” in the press. The mantra ascribed to this fictionalized female hermit was, of course, a feminist dictum: “Do not give up” (Hutto). This contemporary news story emphasizes that the female cultures of solitude presented in Howe’s Laurence manuscript still strongly resonate with American culture today.


1. The Hermaphrodite was a “closet” or “closeted” manuscript (Ashworth, “Spiritualized” 187; Williams, “Speaking” xlv). On the implications of “‘outing’ Howe’s manuscript and ‘using’ the figure of Laurence,” see Borgstrom 320–23.

2. For discussions of The Hermaphrodite and Transcendentalism, see Daniele; Elbert; Saltz; and Williams, “Speaking” xx–xxi.

3. See Ashworth, “No” 35–36; Ashworth, “Spiritualized”; Bergland 182; Crowley; Daniele; Klimasmith 94, 96; Luciano 220; Noble 49; Schneider 140–42, 145–49; Williams, “The Cruelest” 123–35, “Speaking” xii–xx, xxvii–xxxvi, xli–xliii.

4. The description of Laurence’s creative process very much resembles Howe’s later account of her composition of “Battle-Hymn of the Republic” (Howe, Reminiscences 275; Young 243).

5. Joseph von Eichendorff’s The Marble Statue (Das Marmorbild, 1819) may have been an inspiration for Howe. Howe’s poem “To a Beautiful Statue” (1849) may have been composed around the time she worked on the Laurence manuscript (Sánchez-Eppler 46). For a discussion of The Hermaphrodite, the statue motif, and sculpture, see Ashworth, “No” 36–37; Bergland; Daniele; and Williams, Hungry 95–96, “Speaking” xxviii–xxix.

6. For a link between the veiled marble woman and a sculpture of Laura Bridgman, the celebrated blind, deaf, and mute student of Howe’s husband, see Bergland. ← 117 | 118 →

7. For a discussion of similarities between The Hermaphrodite and Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866/1995), see Warren. Alcott’s Diana and Persis (c. 1879/1978) also parallels Howe’s text. Like The Hermaphrodite, Alcott’s fictionalized life of her deceased younger sister, the painter May Alcott Nieriker raises the question of the compatibility of marriage and artistic self-fulfillment in a woman’s life.

8. There are similarities between this episode and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) (Sánchez-Eppler 46). A possible factual source may have been the story of the explorer Sir John Franklin (Noble 71).

9. For a discussion of The Hermaphrodite as a problematization of the conventions of the Victorian novel, see Bedenbaugh.

10. For an apt analysis of the gender-ambiguous relationship between Laurence and Ronald, see Schneider. Their relationship anticipates the one between the tomboy Jo and the feminized Laurie in Alcott’s Little Women.

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