Seduction and Betrayal Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Hardwick

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Seduction and Betrayal Analysis

Hardwick’s essays are stylistically elegant, written in a polished, often-epigrammatic prose that sparkles with witty insights and striking claims. Her critical approach is moral and psychological rather than formal. She investigates not techniques or structures or, as a rule, aesthetic issues, but rather values and personalities in pieces that, perhaps reflecting her reviewer’s training, are often musings around a center rather than tightly reasoned arguments. (Her essay on Virginia Woolf, which begins as reflections on Bloomsbury, is particularly discursive.) The tone of the essays remains objective; any anger Hardwick may feel at literary women’s plight is kept so carefully controlled that her essays will interest male readers without accusing or affronting them.

Nevertheless, Hardwick has no particular feminist position to argue even if she has opinions about women. She is dissatisfied with women’s subordinated lot and indignant at their victimization; she consistently admires independent-minded and ambitious females. The essays as a whole, however, do not maintain any sustained theoretical perspective on women in literature. Hardwick does not write with a special consciousness of women authors as differing from their male counterparts or embedding subtexts in their work; she does not have a particular affection for such historically characteristic forms of female writing as the letters and journals. Except when discussing the Brontes, she treats her material ahistorically; her women, unlike those of most feminist critics, are figures without a social background that may have conditioned them. Written as individual pieces, her essays remain discrete entities, valuable as individual comments on literature and life issuing from an intelligent and perceptive mind, although it is one which still views literature through a masculine critical perspective.

Nevertheless, Hardwick called to public attention in the early 1970’s topics neglected until the renascent women’s movement. Her essay on the Bronte sisters, for example, honors women whose achievement Hardwick considers heroic. Though restricted by their class, their situation, and even their temperaments, they created an honorable way of life for themselves by developing their talents. Hardwick sees them challenging the fate of women in the nineteenth century, when chaperones and fatuous rules of deportment and occupation drained the energy of intelligent, needy females and when even opportunities for independence crushed the spirit. Despite society’s contempt for the prodigious efforts such women made to survive, despite the emotional burdens of an eccentric father and a weak-natured brother, the sisters persisted in their writing to escape the hard destiny of being governesses. The indomitable spirits of the Bronte sisters have a renewed hold upon their readers’ admiration.

Similarly, in an essay inspired by Nancy Mitford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Hardwick asks the reader’s admiration—and “respectful pity”—for Zelda Fitzgerald, whose desperate attempts at independence were perpetually foiled. Zelda’s creative urge to dance, paint, or write was neither understood nor valued by those in charge of her fate, though F. Scott Fitzgerald cavalierly appropriated the fruits of her literary talents. She had not only an extraordinary zeal to cure her schizophrenia but also the ambition to work at something that would diminish her dependence on Scott. Hardwick solicits respect for that “astonishing desire” of a beautiful, indulged woman for a work of her own.

Hardwick is clearly sensitive to talented women whose lives were subordinated to those of their men. Yet whereas she can admire Zelda, she writes critically of “amateurs” Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle, whose efforts at self-definition through works remained sporadic and casual; she demands of them more authenticity and independence than they chose to show. She is...

(The entire section is 1615 words.)