Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1615
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 struck by the evidence, in Dorothy’s journals, of a woman who responded to the emotional deprivation of her youth by narrowing her vision to the pictorial and eschewing generalization; whereas brother William poured meaning into nature, for Dorothy it was “pure sensation that held the meaning of her life without clearly telling her what that meaning was.” Nor does Dorothy analyze people; no real people inhabit her journals. She clung to her dependency so desperately, Hardwick concludes, that she dared not risk writing anything but descriptions of the scenery amid which she lived.
Because of Jane Carlyle’s “subversive irony” and her ambivalent feelings for her husband, Hardwick finds her the most interesting of the mid-Victorian literary wives—but also one too easily gratified. Although her brilliant letters show that she could have been a fine novelist, she lacked ambition and the psychic need for a creation that would stand outside herself; she could be satisfied with her daily social contacts and chores and in being a collaborator in Carlyle’s sacred mission. All this would not, however, save her from the bitter, debilitating unhappiness that was to come because of Carlyle’s friendship with Lady Ashburton. Nor had she serious writing to sustain her. To Hardwick, who has great faith in the powers of literary endeavor—provided it comes in canonical forms such as the novel or poetry—the letters and journals of Jane Carlyle, like those of Dorothy Wordsworth, were regrettably inadequate to comfort her and support her self-esteem. “What strikes one as the greatest personal loss of these private writing careers,” Hardwick comments, “is that the work could not truly build for the women a bulwark against the sufferings of neglect and the humiliations of lovelessness.”
Ironically, though Hardwick does not remark it, their less private careers were unable to provide such bulwarks for the two great writers whom Hardwick dubs “victors” despite their respective suicides: Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Hardwick unreservedly admires Plath, whom she deems likely to remain one of the most interesting American poets for the precision and intensity of her verse: “Overwhelming; it is quite literally irresistible. The daring, the skill, the severity. It shocks and thrills.” To Woolf, however, Hardwick has ambivalent responses: she is put off by Woolf’s Bloomsbury snobbery and aestheticism. Woolf’s abstractness elicits only respectful admiration from her readers rather than a sense of deep engagement with her fictional worlds. Granting Woolf her feminism—“she thought and wrote seriously not only about being a woman but about the defaults and defects of a world made by men”—Hardwick is skeptical of Woolf’s androgyny, that fusion of feminine and masculine traits as a writer for which contemporary critics praise her. To Hardwick, “androgyny” is merely “a way of bringing into line the excessive, almost smothering ‘femininity’” of Woolf’s fiction, so lacking in the salutary masculine (earthbound) knowledge of a writer such as George Eliot. Yet Hardwick must acknowledge superior technique and a great mind working in Woolf’s novels; she even affirms Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) as one of the century’s two most powerful literary images of the cycles of life and culture (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, 1922, is the other).
Among female characters, whose psychodynamics interest Hardwick, she finds herself drawn to Henrik Ibsen’s women because it seems to her that Ibsen thought hard about what it may mean to be born female. (It emerges that he had a distaste for women’s power over men.) His free-spirited Nora of A Doll’s House counters notions that an independent and brave woman cannot also be pleasure loving, domestic, and charming. Nora may leave her husband and children to find herself but, challenging the usual assumptions of Nora’s growth, Hardwick insists that she does not become free in the act; she has always been free spirited. Yet Ibsen errs in Nora’s casual abandonment of her children, slipping into the masculine perspective that refuses to allow children to be an impediment to self-realization—or so it seems to Hardwick, from the perspective of the 1970’s. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, “one of the meanest romantics in literature,” who attracts by her powerful style and aristocratic pride yet simultaneously repels is more male than female; she has turned away from all those props by which nineteenth century bourgeois women tried to invest life with hope and warmth. Yet it is she, Hardwick believes, rather than Nora, who prefigures the future; hardly a woman in Ingmar Bergman’s films would be imaginable without her. As for Rosmersholm’s Rebecca West, who has created a love triangle, Ibsen withholds full sympathy from her, unwilling to grant women the right to live accountable only to desire. The unspoken moral of his plays—appealing to the moralist in Hardwick—is that ultimately nothing is worth the destruction of others or oneself.
Hardwick’s final essay on seduction and betrayal is a powerful analysis of the fictional motif of the betrayed woman, viewed from the perspective of Hardwick’s own moral emphasis. Her conclusion is noteworthy, for having traced outstanding expressions of the theme from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, the History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Hardwick regrets the loss to literature of seduced and betrayed heroines as subjects and as occasions for the reader’s compassion or admiration, now that sex no longer has the status of a tragic, exalted subject and morality is indeterminate: “The old plot is dead, fallen into obsolescence. You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value. Technology annihilates consequences.” For contemporary readers, the illicit has become a psychological drama, not a moral one; the value scheme, like the sense of reality, is subjective and relative. How greatly Hardwick regrets the loss not only to literature but to life as well is indicated by her choice of a closing quotation from the work of Emile Zola: “Venus was rotting.” Predictably, her enthusiasm for seduction and betrayal has not endeared her to other, more pronouncedly feminist critics.
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