Woman and the Demon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

A decade ago, Nina Auerbach’s boldly original book probably could not have been written. Her critical daring has been made possible by at least three significant developments in recent literary study. First, feminist criticism has matured as an interpretive method. This method passes beyond the necessary but negative task of exposing the stereotypes and misconceptions of women that patriarchal writers and critics have fostered, moving toward positive alternate readings that disclose the undervalued strengths of female authors and characters. One aspect of this evolution has been an increased concern with myth and archetype among feminist critics, exemplified in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s important study The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) and Annis Pratt’s Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (1981). Auerbach herself began moving in this direction in her earlier book Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (1978), which uses female communities in Greek mythology to examine novelistic depictions of matriarchal power in groups such as families and schools.

A second crucial development has been the dramatic growth in Victorian studies as an interdisciplinary field. This field encourages eclectic methodologies and admits evidence freely from history, literature, art, and the social sciences in order to reconstruct and revalue an entire culture. Auerbach fully exploits this cross-disciplinary freedom in her own work.

Finally, one must note the indirect influence of Deconstructionist critics, following the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who destablize literary texts by asserting that the individual reader, not the author, establishes meaning, often by decoding hidden subtexts of which the author himself was unaware. Auerbach speaks intelligibly to a large, diverse audience and staunchly affirms that literature is relevant to life (beliefs that deconstructionist critics seriously challenge). Her insistence, however, that many standard works of Victorian literature and art contain beneath their official messages an opposite, radically subversive one shows the effect that this controversial movement has had on the general critical climate.

Auerbach examines the Victorian cultural imagination, which she considers to be deeply mythic, despite the period’s apparent scientific and moral bias. The most compelling myth the age produced, however, is unarticulated. The myth underlies one of the culture’s most cherished ideals: woman as the egoless, submissive, and sexually pure “Angel in the House.” In fact, Auerbach argues that Victorians devised this repressive stereotype in a subconscious reaction to woman’s explosively vital, demoniac nature, which constantly threatened to break free of the confining but socially sacred boundaries of home and family. The very restrictiveness of the ideal, in other words, signaled the Victorians to the existence of dangerous energy that had to be controlled in women.

Auerbach seeks to liberate this vibrant, magical vision of woman from the subtexts where it supposedly belongs. She compares herself to an archaeologist piecing together shards of a lost culture; an artist assembling a collage; and most suggestively, a weaver of tapestry—much like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s sibylline Lady of Shalott. Moreover, Auerbach genially invites her readers to collaborate with her in this quest to revive the myth of transcendent womanhood. She urges them to add their own examples, which, she implies, will inevitably produce a “richer portrait” than she alone can describe. It is a tactic at once ingratiating and cunningly disarming, for Auerbach sweeps so freely, eloquently, and provocatively through the period. She presents evidence ranging from Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum; from Florence Nightingale’s journal to Punch cartoons. Readers must constantly resist being overwhelmed by her contagious vitality and confidence.

Auerbach organizes her study around the female stereotypes she seeks to revise. Her opening chapters treat two prevalent myths illustrating the extremes of weakness and power that define the Victorian woman’s basic identity: victim and queen. Beginning with material from the 1890’s, on the grounds that the image of woman as helplessly submissive is strongest then, Auerbach sees George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Sigmund Freud’s case history of “Dora” as emblematic. In each instance, she maintains that the oppressed female eludes her disdainful creator’s efforts to control her, displaying an endless capacity to frustrate him by her continual metamorphoses. Thus, the monumental Trilby outlives her mesmerizing Svengali; Dracula shrinks as Lucy Westenra expands, and Dora deserts Freud. These seeming victims draw on inner sources of demoniac energy that enable them to triumph.

Auerbach’s discussion of queens is similarly inventive. She looks both at obvious figures, such as Queen Victoria or those encountered by Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and at unexpected ones, such as those embodied in Victorian variants on the theme of Sleeping Beauty, as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix, in which Rossetti’s entranced beloved is...

(The entire section is 2213 words.)

Woman and the Demon Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Library Journal. CVII, July, 1982, p. 1326.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 20, 1982, p. 60.