Form and Content

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As early as 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick declared, “The proper study of mankind may be man, but the subject for women is other women. . . . It is a subject upon which one can speak with something like authority.” Seduction and Betrayal bears out that conviction. It collects essays on women that Hardwick, a founding editor of The New York Review of Books, originally published in that journal, though some have been altered and others expanded since their initial appearances. A few of the essays were read as papers: The title essay was presented at Vassar College in 1972, and the essays on Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle formed part of lectures given for the Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton University. Although there is a unifying theme insofar as the book considers women and literature, Seduction and Betrayal has no central argument. The ten essays in the slim volume (208 pages long) address women as authors, novelists, or poets; as fictional characters; and as close associates of literary men. They do not offer close textual readings or historical data but rather sensitive interpretations of lives, personalities, and literary themes in accordance with the vision of a cultivated critic who is herself a novelist.

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The essays are arranged in five sections. The long opening biographical essay on the Bronte sisters is followed by “Ibsen’s Women,” a section of three essays devoted to the female characterizations in Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891), and Rosmersholm (1886; English translation, 1889). The third section, “Victims and Victors,” comprises individual essays on Zelda Fitzgerald (construed as victim) and on Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf (victors). Under the heading “Amateurs” follow individual essays on two talented women who, to Hardwick’s regret, never fully exercised their gifts and were dwarfed by their men: Jane Carlyle, the wife of historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, and Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William Wordsworth. Finally, balancing the opening essay, the long title essay, “Seduction and Betrayal,” discusses seduced and betrayed women characters in the Western literary tradition, principally in English, American, Russian, and French novels, though opera and narrative poetry are mentioned too. Although the arrangement of the essays does not constitute a progression, the title essay, easily the most provocative piece, nevertheless serves as a culminating statement by virtue of its challenging claims.

Eminently readable and presented without documentation (except for a single note to the Woolf piece), the essays are directed to the intelligent nonspecialist, male or female, and, while informed by a strong awareness of the problems created by gendering, are not noticeably feminist in tone but reflective and urbane.

Form and Content

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A collection of essays that originally appeared in the influential New York Review of Books, a journal that Hardwick helped to found in 1963, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature focuses on both women’s lives in literature and literature in the lives of women. As a woman critic writing about other women, both real and fictional, Hardwick provides interesting pieces of literary, biographical, and social criticism from a viewpoint that, at the time of their original appearance, was clearly in the minority.

Beginning with an extended discussion of the role of literature in the lives of the three Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily, Hardwick makes her main foray into the lives of fictional women with substantial essays on three plays by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House (1879), Hedda Gabler (1890), and Rosemersholm (1886). This section is followed by a series of essays on three twentieth century women—Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf—after which Hardwick turns to the Romantic period and the early nineteenth century. Her discussions of Dorothy Wordsworth (the sister of the poet William Wordsworth) and Jane Carlyle (the wife of the great man of letters Thomas Carlyle), which together constitute a section of her book that has been entitled “Amateurs,” is followed by the volume’s title essay, which is the most wide-ranging and speculative piece in the book. About the essay “Seduction and Betrayal” Hardwick tells the reader, in a prefatory note, that it was presented as a lecture at Vassar College in 1972, and the setting of its original presentation (a college audience consisting, presumably, mostly of women) may account for the rather pointed formulation of its thesis, which is that although seduction may be very damaging to the victim, the seducer’s activity is fundamentally comic. The female perspective is clearly present here, since most men would be likely to regard their efforts at seduction as serious business indeed.

Hardwick shows much empathy toward the subjects of her essays, especially those women who had to overcome great obstacles in order to become published writers. There is a particular appreciation for the situation of the woman writer whose husband is also a literary artist. This sympathetic understanding no doubt has its roots in Hardwick’s own situation as the wife of the poet Robert Lowell, whose stature often seemed to eclipse her work. Hardwick, who in addition to two volumes of essays and numerous short stories also produced three novels, clearly knew by experience how difficult it can be for a woman to find time and space in which to do her intellectual work.

There is also, however, clear evidence of Hardwick’s ability to be truly critical of the subjects of her essays, be they men or women. There is no glossing over the fact that Thomas Carlyle’s domestic behavior bordered on abuse or that William Wordsworth took advantage of his sister’s work. Her censure is at its strongest, however, when she speaks about such Ibsen characters as Hedda Gabler, in whom she finds no redeeming qualities, and Rebecca West, the female protagonist of Rosmersholm. Hardwick is able to admire many of Ibsen’s women without finding it necessary to admire those traits in them which lead to the destruction of both themselves and others.

Context

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Seduction and Betrayal was Hardwick’s second volume of essays. The first, A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society (1962), whose title alluded to Virginia Woolf’s well-known feminist statement A Room of One’s Own (1929), signaled that Hardwick was consciously placing her work in a feminist tradition of writing. Many of the essays that were collected in Seduction and Betrayal, particularly those that discuss Ibsen’s women characters, touch on the image of women which is presented in literature. They are thus in line with much other feminist criticism that came forth in the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, although Hardwick is not as critical of Ibsen as some of her sister feminists were of the male authors about whom they were writing. Other essays in the volume, which are exercises in literary biography and social criticism at least as much as they are specifically literary criticism, show a much more acute awareness of the way women have suffered in patriarchal society. These essays are representative of a trend in women’s studies which gathered momentum around the year 1975, when feminist scholars and critics developed a perspective that was centered on women, focusing their writing almost exclusively on women’s literature and women’s experiences in life. Hardwick’s work is clearly in the vanguard of this movement and may even have had a hand in shaping it.

Hardwick has received high praise for her polished style of writing, her sensibility, and her wit. Addressing such women’s concerns as how women have had to balance their relationships with men against their concern for their own work, how women, owing to their biology, have been vulnerable, and how they have had to cope with a socially limited set of options in life, she touches on themes of universal interest. Because these essays originally appeared in the pages of The New York Review of Books, a journal that Hardwick helped to found and edit, they reached an important segment of the American public and affected the cultural and political climate in the country.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s other works include the novels The Ghostly Lover (1945), The Simple Truth (1955), and Sleepless Nights (1979), as well as many short stories and essays. A third volume of essays is Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983).

Bibliography

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Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. An exploration of the ways in which women’s behavior is controlled through social norms, Friedan’s book was a harbinger of the American women’s movement in the latter part of the twentieth century. A classic of its kind.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. A collection of readings of major woman writers of the nineteenth century, the volume also presents a controversial theory of female creativity. The authors maintain that male writers have traditionally looked to their sexuality as a source of imagery for explanations of their creativity, and they propose that this has put women literary artists at a disadvantage. Therefore, Gilbert and Gubar claim, women writers should explain their own creativity with reference to the female body. The scope of The Madwoman in the Attic is formidable. The book is, however, also highly readable.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. A pioneering work in feminist literary criticism, Millett’s book first defines the nature of the power relationship between the sexes and then demonstrates how this relationship is enacted in works by such male authors as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. A highly political work, Millett’s book has been criticized for being one sided. It is, however, both powerfully argued and readable. It has a good index.

Moi, Toril. Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985. Emphasizing the Anglo-American and French traditions of feminist literary theory, Moi offers a brief and readable introduction to the field from a leftist perspective. Of particular value is Moi’s discussion of the French feminist theorists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Her section on Anglo-American feminist criticism gives useful summaries of the work of Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar, as well as Elaine Showalter. Sexual-Textual Politics contains an index, a bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Although some feminists believe that Showalter is not sufficiently critical of patriarchal power, Showalter’s book is useful. It contains both an index and a useful bibliography

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