Astonished hope and hushed desire

Material Information

Astonished hope and hushed desire aesthetics and difference in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, and Virginia Woolf
Frost, Cyrus Seaberry
Place of Publication:
Denver, Colo.
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
vi, 84 leaves : ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Master's ( Master of Arts)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of English, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
Committee Chair:
Mudge, Bradford K.
Committee Members:
Bookman, Myra
Wiley, Catherine


Subjects / Keywords:
Villette (Brontë, Charlotte) ( fast )
Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references.
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, [Department of] English.
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Cyrus Seaberry Frost.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
26787631 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L54 1992m .F76 ( lcc )

Full Text
Cyrus Seaberry Frost
B.A., University of Colorado, 1989
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty Of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Cyrus Seaberry Frost
has been approved for the
Department of
/ Daj£e

Frost, Cyrus Seaberry (M.A., English)
Astonished Hope and Hushed Desire: Aesthetics and
Difference in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Bradford K. Mudge
Helene Cixous, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Elaine
Showalter, and other feminist critics have directed their
theoretical attentions toward what Gilbert and Gubar have
named an "alternative female aesthetic." In their
influential study, The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and
Gubar examine, among other works by nineteenth-century
women writers, Charlotte Bronte's Villette. While they
understand that an alien status is, for both Charlotte and
her protagonist Lucy Snowe, the precondition for psychic
coherence, Gilbert and Gubar--by setting Villette, with its
"obscure beginning" and "consciously ambiguous conclusion,"
as somehow confuting the postulated female aesthetic--
disallow the possibility that Villette's multiple
ambiguities become constitutive of the aesthetic they seek
to define. Specifically, there exists in Bronte's novel a
kind of clandestine contract between aesthetics and power,
holding that both the integrity of Lucy's narrative and the
solidity of her psychological/cultural status hinge not on
the eradication of difference but on its nurturing.

Similarly, Showalter discusses the work of British
women writers, in particular Virginia Woolf. For
Showalter, Woolf's aesthetic, as manifested in her fiction,
seems not insufficiently female but insufficiently
confrontational. Presumably, had Woolf taken a more
combative stance, Showalter would have found Woolf's works
less "sheltered" by female aesthetics yet more aptly
"translat[ing] the consciousness of their own darkness."
Framing Gilbert/Gubar's and Showalter's assertions both as
theoretical points of departure and as misconstructions of
important narrative accomplishments, this thesis examines
attempts on the part of three women writers--Mary
Wollstonecraft in Letters Written during a Short Residence
in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Bronte in Villette, and
Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas and A Room of One's Ownto
challenge sexist assumptions and aesthetic conventions
endemic to traditional narrative modes. Within this
analysis, Villette performs double duty; Bronte's story
distinguishes itself by its enclosure within a female
psyche that is itself enclosed within an alien territory,
by its narrative reluctance, and by its amorphous
difference. Additionally, by foregrounding Lucy Snowe's
communication through letters, Bronte emphasizes (as do
Wollstonecraft in Letters and Woolf in Three Guineas) the
subversive potential of the epistolary form.

This abstract accurately represents the content of the

1. INTRODUCTION........................................1
Letters Written during a Short Residence
in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark
and The Wrongs of Woman............................38
Villette ........................................ 48
Three Guineas......................................59
Notes............................................ 74
WORKS CITED............................................81

Most women are like this: they do someone
else1s--man1s--writing, and in their innocence
sustain it and give it voice, and end up
producing writing that's in effect masculine.
Hdlene Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?"
Woman ... is wholly and physically present in
her voice--and writing is no more than the
extension of this self-identical prolongation of
the speech act. The voice in each woman,
moreover, is not only her own, but springs from
the deepest layers of her psyche....
Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics
In her now-famous article, "The Laugh of the Medusa,"
Hdl&ne Cixous advances her argument that women (and,
necessarily, women writers) function within the
cultural/literary "discourse of man" only as signifiers
that must situate and define themselves in relation to an
"opposite signifier" (257). According to Cixous, this
opposite signifier holds a massive investment in
perpetuating the hierarchical metaphoric/literal relation
Cixous identifies, a relation that sublimates the value of
the female signifier by always positioning its opposite as
Constitutive to her literary/cultural critique, Cixous
exhorts women writers to resist complicity with this male

discourse, to formulate an alternative writing practice, as
Cixous writes, to "dislocate this 'within,' to explode it,
turn it around, and seize it." The woman writer must,
Cixous argues, "make it [the female position within the
discourse] hers" by "containing it, taking it in her own
mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent
for herself a language to get inside of" (257) .
Cixous argues for a leveling of the hierarchy that the
male discourse establishes, a hierarchy that determines, of
course, not only textual/authorial possibilities but also
the boundaries of cultural/intellectual life. As a way of
beginning this leveling, Cixous seeks the enactment of an
Scriture feminine that, as Verena Andermatt Conley has
written, "comes from the rapport of the body to the social
world" (Conley viii) a mode of writing that, in other
words, disrupts dominant social practices by first
discerning and then literally rewriting them.
This rewriting performs a crucial function, insists
Cixous, for if a woman author fails to conform to the
totalizing formulation advanced within the male discourse,
"if she's not a he," as Cixous notices, there exists for
her only an indentured status within that discourse.
Conversely, Cixous, echoing Virginia Woolf, argues that the
woman writer who successfully confutes this "discourse of
man" will radiate outward more than literary influence,

challenging not only textual ideological interests but also
prevailing cultural institutions: "If she's a her-she,"
theorizes Cixous, "it's in order to smash everything, to
shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law,
the break up the 'truth' with laughter" (258). For Cixous,
then, a genuinely female text, one that successfully
articulates an alternative female discourse, will function
in an inevitably subversive and wide-ranging fashion.
In writings roughly contemporaneous with and
subsequent to those of Cixous, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar,
Elaine Showalter, and other feminist critics have directed
their theoretical attentions toward what Gilbert and Gubar
have called an "alternative female aesthetic" (314) In
their chapter on Charlotte Bront§ in the now-canonized The
Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Gilbert and Gubar concern
themselves with the nascent possibilities of a female
aesthetic as they find those possibilities simmering just
below the surface of Bronte's novels. Theorizing about the
extent to which Bronte, like many other nineteenth-century
women writers, unwittingly conceals within her fiction
dreams of imprisonment and release, Gilbert and Gubar
advance their argument that
even Villette, the most obviously eccentric of
Bronte's novels, and thus the one that comes the
closest to openly presenting its readers with an
alternative female aesthetic, disguises its dream

narrative of female burial and tentatively imagined
resurrection in a complex structure of self-denying
parables and severe moral homilies. Metaphorically
speaking, Satan and Gabriel, angel and monster, nun
and witch, engage in an elaborate dialogue throughout
its pages, from its deliberately obscure beginning to
its consciously ambiguous conclusion, as if to
distract us from the real point.
In their effort to locate within Villette the traces of a
female aesthetic, Gilbert and Gubar understand, as does
Pauline Nestor in Charlotte Bronte (1987), that "division
is for Charlotte the precondition for union" (31). Yet
even as they insinuate the terms of this aesthetic,
Madwoman's authors assert that "Bronte was not always
entirely conscious of the extent of her own duplicity--the
extent, for instance, to which her entranced reveries about
escape pervaded even her most craftsmanlike attempts at
literary decorum" (315). This "duplicity," claim Gilbert
and Gubar, evidences itself in Villette 's "complex
structure of self-denying parables and severe moral
homilies," a structure that serves to obscure--and
therefore to render equivocal and inadvertent--the novel's
subversive message.
While emphasizing Villette's obvious self denial and
duplicity--at the expense of a full acknowledgment of its
divergences from traditional narrative modes (they concern
themselves only in passing with the novel's

"eccentricity")-- Gilbert and Gubar overlook Lucy Snowe's
own carefully marked realization that she, by making
complex use not simply of her story but of the
peculiarities of the narrative itself to explore her
intricate psychology, becomes engaged in a transformative
activity of self realization as individual and woman.
Notwithstanding their careful scholarship and
sophisticated arguments, Gilbert and Gubar fail to take
notice of Lucy's important characterization of her own
story as a "heretic narrative" (235)--a crucial moment in
the novel wherein Lucy acknowledges that her narrative acts
as a private, self-conscious allegorical mode that develops
meaning in a way that confutes the alien social environment
within which she finds herself. Once Lucy's self
consciousness about this "heretic narrative" becomes
apparent, it seems clear that she has undertaken to write
her way out of incarceration in an alien society, to
rewrite as empowered her sublimated position within a
foreign linguistic/cultural milieu, a rewriting that in
many ways anticipates the ecriture feminine so strenuously
sought by Cixous.
As a result of their focusing almost exclusively on
Lucy/Bronte's self effacement, therefore, Gilbert and Gubar
seem to overlook the possibility that Villette' s
characteristics, regarded differently, become constitutive

of the female aesthetic Madwomans authors hope to uncover.
In other words, Gilbert and Gubar fail to come to terms
with important textual evidence regarding the kinetic
potential of Lucy Snowe's Otherness at the very moment they
speculate regarding the Otherness of female literary
values. If, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, readers become
distracted from Villette's "real point," perhaps this
distraction results from a not ineluctable but certainly
highly ironic predisposition to read Bronte's novel in a
reductive fashion that forecloses the detection of
aesthetic alternatives.
Similarly to Gilbert and Gubar, Elaine Showalter
concerns herself with female aestheticism as an important
part of her examination of the work of late nineteenth- and
early twentieth-century British women writers, in
particular Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson. In a
chapter concerning the subject in A Literature of Their Own
(1977), for example, Showalter argues forcefully that the
female aesthetic
was meant for survival, and one cannot deny that
Richardson was able to produce an enormous novel, or
that Virginia Woolf wrote several, under its shelter.
But ultimately, how much better it would have been if
they could have forgiven themselves, if they could
have faced the anger instead of denying it, could have
translated the consciousness of their own darkness

into confrontation instead of struggling to transcend
For Showalter, then, Richardson's and Woolf's aesthetic as
manifested within their fiction seems not insufficiently
female but insufficiently confrontational. In an argument
that echoes Gilbert and Gubar's, Showalter suggests that
what she characterizes as Richardson's and Woolf's "self
denial" manifests itself textually in an atrophying of
polemical muscle, a sidestepping of confrontation.
Presumably, had Richardson and Woolf taken a more ballistic
approach, Showalter would have found these authors' works
less "sheltered" by female aesthetics yet more aptly
"translat[ing] the consciousness of their own darkness."
As these examples of contemporary feminist scholarship
attest, feminist critics have come to regard the issue of
female aesthetics with the same diversity of perspective
with which they approach issues of literary/cultural
theory, practice, language, materiality, and history. This
diversity of thought, perhaps one of intellectual
feminism's greatest strengths, exemplifies a rejection of
the univocity and totalizing schemes that characterize
patriarchal thought in favor of an embracing of differences
and divergences of approach. Yet these various and often
conflicting exegeses of Cixous, Gilbert, Gubar, Showalter,

and others regarding the issue of female aesthetics also
evidence an impulse on the part of feminist critics to
continue to expand and extend the category of the
political, to complicate, rather than to restrict or
conventionalize, their critiques of the dominant system
within which they work.
In this thesis, I examine attempts on the part of
three women writers--Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte,
and Virginia Woolf--to practice, by challenging sexist
assumptions and aesthetic conventions endemic to
traditional narrative modes, what Gilbert and Gubar have
called an "alternative female aesthetic." Within this
analysis, Charlotte Bronte's Villette will perform double
duty; Bronte's story distinguishes itself by its enclosure
within a female psyche that is itself enclosed within an
alien territory, by its narrative reluctance, and by its
amorphous difference.. Additionally, by foregrounding Lucy
Snowe's communication through letters, Charlotte Bronte in
Villette emphasizes--as do Mary Wollstonecraft in Letters
Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and
Denmark and The Wrongs of Woman and Virginia Woolf in Three
Guineas-^-the subversive communicative potential embodied
within the epistolary form. As the third chapter of this

thesis will demonstrate, the epistolary form in the hands
of Wollstonecraft, Bronte, and Woolf becomes the arena in
which multiplicity, subjectivity, emotions, and aesthetic
alternatives are expressed, developed, and resolved.
The chronological arrangement of writers' names in the
title of this thesis suggests an evolution in female
consciousness and voice, an evolution beginning with
Wollstonecraft's response to Rousseau in the late
eighteenth century, continuing with Bronte's nineteenth-
century struggle to confront and resolve issues of voice
and the woman writer, and reaching an apex of sorts within
Woolf's more strident, more assured feminist expressions in
the twentieth. Beyond its organizational utility, however,
this formulation seems by any informed account too simple,
too historically reductive to be serviceable. As Dale
Spender and others have convincingly shown, British women's
writing began a century earlier than has been generally
assumed, even by feminists such as Woolf. Contrary to a
prevailing notion that women writers really came into their
own with Jane Austen, there exists copious evidence that
the works of other female authors preceded and enabled
those examined in this thesis. As early as 1650, poet
Margaret Cavendish, playwright Eliza Heywood, novelist
Aphra Behn, and other female authors began to seek
publication for their works. Even before 1650, as Spender

has noticed, women writers began their explorations into
fiction writing. Lady Mary Wroath, for example, an
aristocrat, wrote her novel Urania in 1621, fifteen years
prior to Aphra Behn's birth. The majority of women writers
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote to make
money, to sustain themselves and their families. It seems
remarkable--given that the names of these authors have
until recently been absent from the pages of literary
history--that the preponderance of these women earned a
living by writing.1 Importantly, these women authors
succeeded in other than economic ways: early female writers
made a more significant contribution than males to the
evolution of the novel itself. Indeed, as the work done by
Spender and others has revealed, most eighteenth-century
novels were produced by women. Arguably, their works
succeeded by providing a window into a new consciousness,
by enabling a new understanding that widened the confined
milieu of their female readers, an audience segregated from
the vigorous economic/cultural/political participation
restricted to males.

1 Spender writes that "Undeniably, a very few women
did not rely on profits from their pens for their living.
But the vast majority of women writers did. Most of the
eighteenth (and seventeenth) century women novelists worked
at writing to support themselves and their families. And
if they couldn't get work as writers they had to find
something else. . Although more than one hundred years
apart, Aphra Behn and Agnes Maria Bennett had similar work
experiences; if they couldn't support themselves by writing
they accepted positions as mistresses" (4).

[A woman's] writing can only keep going, without
ever inscribing or discerning contours, daring
to make these vertiginous crossings of the
other(s) ephemeral and passionate sojourns in
him, her, them. . . . She lets the other
language speak--the language of 1,000 tongues
which knows neither enclosure nor death. . . .
Her language does not contain, it carries; it
does not hold back, it makes possible.
Helene Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"
It has become a critical commonplace to suggest that
both Lucy Snowe' s story and the quality of her narrative
evidence her odd psychological state; that Lucy's neuroses
manifest themselves as much in her discontinuous and
marginally reliable method of storytelling as in the story
itself; that, in many ways, the narrative method of Lucy
Snowe is the story.1 Yet there remain unclarified
important, complex, and mutually vivifying relations
between aesthetics, power, and difference in Villette.
Specifically, there resides within Bronte's novel a kind of
clandestine contract between aesthetics and power, holding
that both the integrity of Lucy's narrative and the
solidity of her psychological/cultural status hinge not on
the eradication of difference but on its nurturing. Under
the terms of this covenant, Lucy Snowe's psychic coherence

and her cultural and narrative legitimacy correlate to her
escalating awareness of Otherness and its potential. That
is, Bronte's protagonist gains psychological unity and
narrative/cultural credibility at the same rate she
recognizes and comes to terms with the affirmative force--
in her life and in her narrative--of what might be called a
female aesthetic.
From its first tentatively drawn chapters, Villette,
chiefly through its depiction of Lucy Snowes alien status,
concerns itself with difference and displacement. The
doubleness of the early chapter title, "Turning a New
Leaf, seems apt, for Lucy will soon be provided with new
paradigms against which she will measure and begin to
reformulate her problematic cultural standing. When Lucy
marks her resemblance to "an over-wrought servant, or a
placeless person," she speaks not just figuratively but
literally. Although she comes to find at the end of
Villette that her displaced status has enabled for her a
kind of autonomy, Lucy tends throughout the novel to draw
parallels between her cultural displacement, her linguistic
impotence, and the unrealized potential of what she often
calls her "voice." All three serve as a measure of her
alien situation; that is, as symptomatic of a disadvantaged
and marginal literary/cultural status.

This analogic predilection evinced by Lucy surfaces
often but perhaps no more clearly than at a moment early in
the novel, when, upon arriving in Villette, Lucy finds she
lacks the language necessary to locate her personal
effects. She wonders,
And my portmanteau, with my few clothes and little
pocketbook enclasping the remnant of my fifteen
pounds, where were they? I ask this question now, but
I could not ask it then. I could say nothing
whatever; not possessing a phrase of speaking French:
and it was French, and French only, the whole world
seemed now gabbling around me. What should I do?"
Along with the obvious issue of linguistic inadequacy
raised within this passage, Bronte's italicizing of the
word "speaking" foregrounds the issue of voice.
Bronte's/Lucy's tendency to create functional analogies
between issues of voice, language, and displacement
manifests itself again when Lucy, given the responsibility
for teaching English to French-speaking students, faces her
first class at Madame Beck's school. The students, testing
their new teacher for signs of weakness, issue "a series of
titterings and whisperings" that soon become "murmurs and
short laughs" and that then escalate into what Lucy
characterizes as "a revolt of sixty against one":

Could I but have spoken in my own tongue,
Lucy allows,
I felt as if I might have gained a hearing; for, in
the first place, though I knew I looked a poor
creature, and in many respects actually was so, yet
nature had given me a voice that could make itself
heard, if lifted in excitement or deepened by emotion.
In the second place, while I had no flow, only a
hesitating trickle of language, in ordinary
circumstances, yet--under stimulus such as was now
rife through the mutinous mass--I could, in English,
have rolled out readily phrases stigmatizing their
proceedings as such proceedings deserved to be
stigmatized. . .
The issues of linguistic and vocal displacement raised
within this passage become a central concern of Bronte's
novel. Yet as much as Lucy dwells upon them as elements of
her alien status, she also concerns herself with the
potential of what she calls her "inner self." While
reading the novel's opening chapters, one begins to realize
that much of Villette's power derives from a tension
between Lucy's "inner" and "outer" selves, from an
awareness of a gap between Lucy's inner potential and what
might be regarded as her outward attempts to conform to the
expectations of the foreign culture in which she finds
herself. This tension leads, of course, to profound
stresses and a distinctively problematic existence for
Lucy; yet even while dealing with the disorientation

brought on by her dilemma, Lucy believes she understands
clearly where the source of her "problem" lies. Lucy
asserts that "The blight, I believed, was chiefly external:
I still felt life at life's sources" (96).
This concern with "life's sources" that Lucy locates
within her "inner self" surfaces often, as when Lucy
describes the possibilities she senses lying before her
after she arrives in London:
when I awoke, rose, and opened my curtain, I saw the
risen sun struggling through the fog. . While I
looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its
always-fettering wings half loose; I had a sudden
feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were
at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul
grew. . .
In addition to Lucy's mutually informing preoccupations
with the potential of her "inner self" and her
linguistic/cultural estrangement, she possesses--as
evidenced by her returning again and again to the issue of
"voice"--a resolve, a determination to move not only toward
the recognition but also the articulation of her "inner
self," a project which she describes provocatively, in the
chapter entitled "London," as the undertaking of a "new"
and "daring--perhaps desperate line of action":

My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances,
were just now such as most to favor the adoption of a
new, resolute, and daring--perhaps desperate line of
action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing
of a desolate existence past forbade return. If I
failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save
myself, would suffer? If I died far away from--home,
I was going to say, but I had no home--from England,
then, who would weep?
The narrative negotiation between this need of Lucy's to
enact a "new," "daring--perhaps desperate" agenda and her
almost overwhelming sense of alienation will become,
notwithstanding Gilbert and Gubar's analysis, the central
project of Villette. Bronte has her narrator carefully
particularize this alienation in the chapter entitled
"Turning A New Leaf":
My mistress being dead, and I once more alone, I had
to look out for a new place. About this time I might
be a little--a very little, shaken in nerves. I grant
I was not looking well, but on the contrary, thin,
haggard, and hollow-eyed; like a sitter-up at night,
like an over-wrought servant, or a placeless person in
Tellingly, Lucy's self characterization as "not looking
well," as "thin, haggard, and hollow-eyed," closely
resembles her subsequent description of Vashti, the actress
who alerts Lucy to a new formulation of power and
aesthetics. Moreover, Lucy's status as "placeless person,"

her expatriation, defines her as a woman-without-a-country
and becomes Charlotte Bronte's narrative anticipation of
Virginia Woolf's famous self representation in Three
Guineas (1938), wherein Woolf allows that "as a woman, I
have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman
my country is the whole world." (109)
Lucy's descriptions of her alienation seem
compelling as a kind of plangent advertisement for what she
stands to lose not only in her separation from a native
home but in her problematic relationship to patriarchal
culture. It seems instructive, therefore, to think of
Lucy's dislocation as an expression of her distance from
the patriarchal "home" of her father and as a measure of
her estrangement from patriarchal power. Such a view
discloses the diverse yet interconnected functions of the
detachment or banishment imposed upon Lucy: geographical,
as an expression of her distance from any clear-cut
cultural identity or proximity to home; empirical, as
evidence of her quest for alternative (aesthetic) vision;
and political, as a measure of both her freedom from
paternal ideology and her lack of patriarchal power.
Without acceding to Lucy's alien dilemma as unique in
intensity and pathos, one can view her position, like that
of Vashti, as a measure of a kind of paradoxical autonomy;
that is, as symptomatic of an independent cultural position

that is necessarily marginalized. Seen in these terms,
dislocation to Villette and away from her dead mistress
seems the logical, even inevitable direction in which a
counter-patriarchal daughter would be required to move.
Lucy will trade her cultural identity for one defined
by her alignment with Vashti; this exchange will place Lucy
in an even more peripheral and precarious position with
respect to family and society, a position as problematized
individual. Yet the relationship also will imbue Lucy with
a new strength. Tellingly, Lucy's descriptions of the
actress seem almost self-referential, as when she allows
that Vashti is "Scarcely a substance herself, she grapples
to conflict with abstractions" (340) Yet Vashti, even
though barely substantial, possesses a power gained from
rebellion, a "strength" that Lucy seeks to adopt for
herself: "Pain, for her, has no result in good; tears
water no harvest of wisdom: on sickness, on death itself,
she looks with the eye of a rebel. Wicked, perhaps, she
is, but also she is strong; and her strength has conquered
Beauty, has overcome Grace, and bound both at her
side . ." (340).
Vashti's estrangement, her "banishment," seems for
Lucy both a theological contingency--"Fallen, insurgent,
banished, she remembers the heaven where she rebelled.
Heaven's light, following her exile, pierces its confines,

and discloses their forlorn remoteness" (340)--and a
virtually ontological condition. This ambiguous status
(which, of course, Lucy and Vashti come to share) becomes,
paradoxically, at once the reward for making the most of
their own differential status and the paternal penalty for
playing fast and loose with the stability of the
patriarchal tradition.2
Lucy Snowe therefore becomes a kind of triple trope,
emblematizing at once the female outsider (without the
sustenance of Woolf's Society of Outsiders); the
nineteenth-century woman writer transcribing her
consciousness onto the page in an effort to write an
autonomy of self; and, because of Villette' s
autobiographical nature, Charlotte Bronte herself.3
Lucy's Otherness has the effect of driving her inward.
She writes that she "hold[s] two lives--the life of
thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was
nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic
joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain
limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter"
(140). As Patricia Johnson argues in her recent article,
"'This Heretic Narrative': The Strategy of the Split
Narrative in Charlotte Bronte's Villette," the structure of
the novel mirrors the bifurcated life that Lucy specifies;
it is within this "life of thought," Lucy's consciousness,

that Villette occurs. The imperatives, what Lucy calls the
"voice," of this inner life serve as the engine that
propels Lucy toward her first rendezvous with female
potential: "I must again move--in what direction? 'Go to
Villette,1 said an inward voice ..." (121).
While Vashti will serve as the novel's most potent
expression of female power, Bronte first thematizes womanly
potential through Lucy Snowe's observations of Madame Beck.
Lucy describes the teacher/businesswoman as gliding "ghost-
like throughout the house watching and spying everywhere"
(136) and reports that "'Surveillance,1 'espionage,' . .
were her watch-words" (135). Reminiscent of Lucy's
descriptions of the nun's ghost, which might be interpreted
as the specter of a repressed self, Lucy's
characterizations of Madame Beck represent her as a
guardian of those female qualities given sanctuary,
segregated from the world, within the Beck house of
exclusively female education.4 Lucy recounts that Madame
would talk to me . about England and Englishwomen,
and the reasons for what she was pleased to term their
superior intelligence, and more real and reliable
probity. Very good sense she often showed; very
sound opinions she often broached: she seemed to know
that keeping girls in distrustful restraint, in blind
ignorance, and under a surveillance that left them no

moment and no corner for retirement, was not the best
way to make them grow up honest and modest women.
Acutely responsive throughout the novel to the disjuncture
between short-circuited female lives and unrealized
potential, Lucy notices that
madame was a very great and a very capable woman.
That school offered for her powers too limited a
sphere; she ought to have swayed a nation: she should
have been the leader of a turbulent legislative
assembly. Nobody could have brow-beaten her, none
irritated her nerves, exhausted her patience, or over-
reached her astuteness, in her own single person, she
could have comprised the duties of a first minister
and a superintendent of police. Wise, firm,
faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and
inscrutable; acute and insensate . what more could
be desired?
Lucy's concerns with Madame Beck's "powers" and with the
coherence of Madame Beck's personality, her "single
person," seem conspicuous. Yet within this passage resides
an important irony. Even as Lucy admires Madame Beck's
power and singularity, she dismisses as "too limited a
sphere" Madame Beck's school, a location precisely
equivalent to that in which Lucy will subsequently assume
her own power and singularity. Lucy thereby recognizes but
undervalues Madame Beck's power, this underestimation
signaling Lucys only nascent awakening.

In addition, Lucy's description characterizes Madame
Beck's educational "system" as insufficiently rigorous: "No
minds were overtaxed; the lessons were well distributed
and made incomparably easy to the learner; there was a
liberty of amusement ..." (136). This laxity provides M.
Paul with the opportunity to furnish a subsequent
corrective, albeit one flawed by its own excess and
leanings toward authoritarianism. These complications
notwithstanding, her concerns with Madame Beck's power and
individuality advance Lucy's knowledge of the relations
between power and difference while prefiguring her
epiphanic proximity to Vashti, who will provide the
dramatic presentation that triggers Lucy's own theorizing
about aesthetics, power, and Otherness.
As she attends Vashti's performance, Lucy seems
acutely sensitized to embryonic possibilities to such an
extent that she thinks about little else. She first
surmises the existence of a female aesthetic as she
witnesses "this different vision," whose difference, Lucy
has been told, "was not good" (340). Through Vashti,
Otherness has come to be regarded as degenerate,
subversive, post-lapserian: "Fallen, insurgent, banished,
she remembers the heaven where she rebelled. Heaven's
light, following her exile, pierces its confines, and
discloses their forlorn remoteness" (340). Lucy,

witnessing a reflection of her own "exile"
"remoteness," projects her own alienation into Vashti, then
sees it inverted and finally empowered by Vashti1s
vitality. Witnessing this crucial transformation, Lucy
carefully analyzes then risks an investment in the emerging
aesthetic economy; Lucy counters that "Wicked, perhaps, she
[Vashti] is, but also she is strong" (340), thereby valuing
Vashti1s strength over her "goodness."
When Lucy herself asserts that Vashti does not "look
good," she affirms her recognition that the actress'
appearance confutes prevailing norms. It is worth noticing
that Bronte's proclivity in Villette to draw "unattractive"
female characters--especially her "thin, haggard, and
hollow-eyed" heroine and the "plain" Vashti--indicates the
author's calculated departure from standards of female
beauty, a departure which, of course, carries with it
baggage packed with massive figurative implications
regarding difference. Plainness is no liability in
Villette. Bronte's women become interesting because of
their plainness, the external marking of their difference.
In one particular phrase, Lucy begins to realize that
Vashti differs in an elemental way, that this difference is
something important and heretofore unwitnessed by Lucy:
She was a study of such nature as had not encountered my
eyes yet: a great and new planet she was" (338). Lucy

continues enthusiastically, recognizing in the actress the
"power" (Lucy's word) of difference:
I had seen acting before, but never anything like
this: never anything which astonished Hope and hushed
Desire; which outstripped Impulse and paled
Conception; which, instead of merely irritating
imagination with the thought of what might be done, at
the same time fevering the nerves because it was not
done, disclosed power like a deep, swollen, winter
river, thundering in cataract, and bearing the soul,
like a leaf, on the steep and steely sweep of its
Lucy assumes her position before Vashti1s stage as a novice
before an altar. She appears slightly skeptical yet ready
to be convinced of what seems to be the actress' special
deity: "Deeply did I feel myself privileged in having a
place before that stage; I longed to see a being of whose
powers I had heard reports which made me conceive peculiar
anticipations. I wondered if she would justify her renown:
with strange curiosity, with feelings severe and austere,
yet of riveted interest, I waited" (338) As she witnesses
the actress' performance, Lucy sees inscribed in the
dramatic pretense aesthetic alternatives--a kind of theory
of female aesthetics transfigured into practice. As Lucy
watches, Vashti deeply embeds herself within Lucy's
consciousness. Vashti's "magnetism of genius" draws Lucy's
"heart out of its wonted orbit" (340); the actress'

"inordinate will," "breathing yet of mutiny, panting still
defiance," resists "the rape of every faculty" (342), one
moment of several in which Lucy suggests sexual/aesthetic
penetration deflected.
Lucy waxes rhapsodically and unexpectedly militant as
she describes Vashti's subversion of specific
aesthetic/sexual artistic codes. Remembering her experience
at the picture-gallery and again exercising her critical
acumen, Lucy rhetorically invites us to "Place now the
Cleopatra, or any other slug, before her [Vashti] as an
obstacle, and see her cut through the pulpy mass as the
scimitar of Saladin clove the down cushion" (340) Lucy
then turns her escalating feminist sensibility toward a
specific artist, one known for his voluptuous portraits of
women5: "Let Peter Paul Rubens wake from the dead, let him
rise out of his cerements, and bring into the presence all
the army of his fat women; the magian power or prophet-
virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one
waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming
the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-
ramparts" (340). in her enthusiasm, Lucy writes that "That
night was already marked in my book of life, not with
white, but with a deep-red cross" (342), one of many
correlations Lucy draws between her life and a book. Dr.
John, Lucy's companion and masculinist critic, tellingly

dismisses Vashti on the basis of gender, refusing to come
to terms with what he realizes is her subversive
"artistry": "In a few terse phrases he told me his opinion
of, and feeling towards, the actress: he judged her as a
woman, not an artist: it was a branding judgment" (342).
Significantly, at the very moment she first sees
Vashti, Lucy understands that the actress' days are
numbered; Lucy seems to extrapolate from her observation
of events that there will soon be an absence, a power
vacuum that will need to be filled:
She rose at nine that night: above the horizon I
saw her come. She could shine yet with pale grandeur
and steady might; but that star verged already on its
judgment-day. Seen near, it was a chaos--hollow,
half-consumed: an orb perished or perishing--half
lava, half glow.
I had heard this woman termed 'plain,' and I
expected bony harshness and grimness--something large,
angular, sallow. What I saw was the shadow of a royal
Vashti: a queen, fair as the day once, turned pale now
like twilight, and wasted like wax in flame.
Suffering had struck that stage empress. . .
A background and entourage and flooring of deepest
crimson threw her out, white like alabaster--like
silver: rather be it said, like Death.
Vashti becomes, like Lucy herself, a kind of apotheosis of
plainness, placing both women in a literal and synecdochal
position that empowers them because it situates them in
violation of normative standards. Yet "the sinister and

sovereign" Vashti seems, additionally, a deified but mortal
ideal, "a queen" of Otherness who opposes prevailing
aesthetics even as she approaches the end of her reign:
"her strength has conquered Beauty, has overcome Grace, and
bound both at her side, captives peerlessly fair, and
docile as fair. Even in the uttermost frenzy of energy is
each masnad movement royally, imperially, incedingly
upborne" (340) .
Other narrative moments bear out an emerging
Lucy/Vashti correlation: Lucy's description of Vashti as
"royal shadow" parallels Graham's later characterization of
Lucy as "inoffensive shadow" (403) while calling attention,
by way of dissimilar adjectives, to a status disequilibrium
between the two women yet to be resolved, a disequilibrium
caused by the weight of Vashti's fullness overbalancing the
lightness of Lucy's yet-to-be-unified fragments.
Eventually, the novel's progression, like M. Paul's
provocations, will push Lucy away from her
"inoffensiveness" and toward a kind of autonomy-of-self
that more closely approximates, indeed, replicates,
Vashti's own "royalty." Bronte continues the correlation
between the two women: M. Paul's characterization of Lucy's
response to his entrance into the classroom seems
reminiscent of Lucy's own description of Vashti. M. Paul
tells Lucy that she reminds him "'of a young she wild

creature, new caught, untamed, viewing with a mixture of
fire and fear the first entrance of the breaker-in'" (311).
Lucy says of her challenging relations with M. Paul
that "A depressing and difficult passage has prefaced every
new page I have turned in my life" (439) If, as Irene
Tayler has argued in Holy Ghosts: The Male Muses of Emily
and Charlotte Bronte (1990), Villette sets out to explore
two discrepant systems of value (202), then turning pages
of a life seems an apt characterization both metaphorically
and literally, for Lucy continues to write/narrate herself
toward an alternative formulation of power, aesthetics, and
voice at the same rate the reader turns the pages of
Bronte's novel-of-consciousness. Lucy witnesses in her
teacher M. Paul a will-to-power the equal of Madame Beck's
and Vashti's, although M. Paul's evidences a disturbing
hegemonic tendency. Lucy tells us that
in a love of power, in an eager grasp after supremacy
M. Emanuel was like Bonaparte. He was a man not
always to be submitted to. Sometimes it was needful
to resist; it was right to stand still, to look up
into his eyes and tell him that his requirements went
beyond reason--that his absolutism verged on tyranny.
Lucy therein resists simultaneously M. Paul's supremacist
notions and a negative paradigm of power sought and
wielded, a paradigm whose authoritarianism contrasts

conspicuously with those furnished by Madame Beck and
Vashti. Nevertheless, Lucy finds that her character grows
larger as M. Paul's provocations persist: she confronts
what she refers to as her "wretchedly imperfect mental
development." Significantly, as long as Lucy's sense of
"incapacity" prevails, M. Paul remains "very kind, very
good, very forbearing; he saw the sharp pain inflicted,
and felt the weighty humiliation imposed by my own sense of
incapacity; and words can hardly do justice to his
tenderness and helpfulness" (439). But Lucy soon learns
from M. Paul distressing lessons regarding power and
gender, lessons that bear out the hegemonic masculinist
tendencies earlier revealed:
But, strange grief! when that heavy and overcast dawn
began at last to yield to day; when my faculties
began to struggle themselves free, and my time of
energy and fulfillment came; when I voluntarily
doubled, trebled, quadrupled the tasks he set, to
please him as I thought, his kindness became
sternness. ... I was vaguely threatened with, I
know not what doom, if I ever trespassed the limits
proper to my sex, and conceived a contraband appetite
for unfeminine knowledge. Alas! I had no such
Yet M. Paul's supremacy being "threatened" yields
paradoxical and motivating results for Lucy; she soon finds
a nascent appetite whetted. Lucy realizes that "when M.

Paul sneered at me, I wanted to possess them more fully;
his injustice stirred in me ambitious wishes--it imparted a
strong stimulus--it gave wings to aspiration" (440). M.
Paul's territorial imperative vivifies Lucy's ambitions of
Notwithstanding Gilbert and Gubar's critique, if one
reads Villet te's ending as constitutive of, and not in
opposition to, an "alternative female aesthetic," one can
reevaluate the novel itself. Villette's ending equivocates
less than Gilbert and Gubar would have us believe. Perhaps
the point of the ending is not that Lucy fails to marry M.
Paul--or even that she bides her time, waiting patiently
and unfulfilled for his return--but that she takes up the
challenge to wield economic power and intellectual
Thus, Lucy's search for place can be seen as
paradoxically returning her to where she began--
unreconstructed, still unmarried to the paternal "family"--
but with a difference: she has the opportunity to exert
real power as a teacher and businesswoman. Lucy embarked
on her quest for a place of her own in an alien culture;
she finds--through the opportunity provided her by the
newly absent and virtually obsolete M. Paul; through the
example established by the businesswoman/teacher Madame
Beck; and, most importantly, through the formulation of

female aesthetics and power dramatized by Vashti--that
place, simultaneously within and without the alien
Therefore, Lucy Snowe learns the paradoxical yet
affirmative lesson that, as I will demonstrate in the
following chapter, female practitioners of epistolary
fiction have also learned: her status is contingent upon
her Otherness, as if there exists some sort of secret pact
between aesthetics and power, stipulating that Lucy cannot
betray the Vashti that resides within her without running
the risk of literary impoverishment--a loss of depth,
ambiguity, and narrative purity--and of losing the psychic
coherence, kinetic potential, and cultural advantages she
has gained through her relationship with M. Paul. Lucy
will survive and become self-reliant only by harboring
Vashti somewhere in her heart of hearts, by becoming, at
least in her consciousness, the new Vashti.

1 Nestor, in Charlotte Bronte, asserts that "In
contrast to Jane Eyre's direct, accurate and trustworthy
narrative, Lucy Snowe's story-telling is frequently vague,
distorted and unreliable. In this new development Bronte
makes complex use not simply of the story of Lucy's life
but of the quality of Lucy's narrative itself to explore
the neuroses of her heroine" (85). Showalter makes a
related though antithetical argument, as do Sandra Gilbert
and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic. Gilbert and
Gubar write that Bronte worked out in her novels a vision
of an indeterminate, usually female figure (who has often
come 'from the kitchen or some such place') trapped--even
buried--in the architecture of a patriarchal society, and
imagining, dreaming, or actually devising escape routes,
roads past walls, lawns, antlers, to the glittering town
outside. In this respect, Bronte's career provides a
paradigm of the ways in which, as we have suggested, many
nineteenth-century women wrote obsessively, often in what
could be (metaphorically) called a state of 'trance,' about
their feelings of enclosure in 'feminine' roles and
patriarchal houses, and wrote, too, about their passionate
desire to flee such roles or houses" (313).
2 In his chapter on Villette, Maynard argues that
"Vashti appears to Lucy, as the famous Rachel appeared to
Bronte, as a kind of demon of unleashed female sexual
energy. . Vashti is immoral but attractive, a figure
of maenad frenzy facing down her own acquaintance with the
suffering and the 'passions of the pit.' As Lucy sees her,
Vashti, despite her errors, acts from experience. Her,
suffering and sin--whatever that unclear thing was--have
made her strong, resolute, regal ..." (180).
3 See Smith for important and recent feminist analyses
of the theoretical and practical problematics of self
representation by women writers.
4 Tanner explores the relationship between the nuns
emergence and Lucy's emotional and psychological evolution.
Tanner asserts that "When Lucy first meets Madame Beck she
is so disoriented by her strange surroundings she expects
something 'spectral' but instead encounters a manifestly

physical being. When she is removed to La Terrasse the
familiar furniture of her childhood is de-realized. . .
Because the 'room and locality were gone', on which her
sense and security depended, a complete epistemological
uncertainty ensues. . The apparition of the Nun
presents the problem in an extreme form" (20).
5 See Berger for a cogent unmasking of the connections
between art, especially the oil painting tradition, and
sexism. Berger writes that "Women are depicted in a quite
different way from men--not because the feminine is
different from the masculine--but because the 'ideal'
spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the
woman is designed to flatter him" (64).
6 Newton argues that Villette reorders the traditional
priorities of a love-and-quest plot. She writes that "Paul
is not the best that Lucy's culture has to offer, and the
very construction of his character represents a deformation
of the traditional love and marriage plot. But the degree
to which he is deficient by the conventions of a love and
marriage plot is the degree to which he is efficient by the
standards of Lucy's quest" (120).
7 Villette's ending seems perhaps even less ambiguous
when measured against the novel's original conclusion in
which M. Paul dies. Bronte's father insisted that she
alter the book's ending to make it more conventional and
therefore presumably more aligned with his own traditional

Literature has more to say about power than
might at first appear. Literature teaches that
power is relative and confused; that power is
everywhere in a variety of forms and degrees;
that all our formulations about power are too
Barbara Bellow Watson,
"On Power and the Literary Text"
Lucy Snowe's literal and figurative quest becomes an
apt emblem for women writers' ongoing search for a
distinctively female narrative voice. Constitutive to this
ongoing quest for a voice of their own, women authors have
sought to articulate a discourse that would function as
more than marginalia to the textual mainstream. As Hdl&ne
Cixous and many other women writers/critics have realized,
if this discourse is to manifest a singularity, it must
resist the appropriative power of a patriarchal literary
tradition; that is, this discourse must be wary of its
potentially ghettoized status within the "expanded"
boundaries of a patriarchal sphere of allowed creativity.
The struggle to realize this sui generis discourse has
become more than problematic for women writers, for it has
been from the beginning a struggle in many ways preordained
for their failure. This preemptive patriarchal fix has

worked most effectively/ forcing the un-coopted woman
writer to become a kind of literary refugee, "free" to say
what she will but expatriated from a genre with which to
say it.1
Aware of these immitigable realities and unwilling to
be either paralyzed or coopted, women writers have
intervened with a form of literary resistance: a
literary/political schema that gives voice to their
underground consciousness. The discursive and distinctly
female letter form, written in a language that can be
regarded as a kind of epistolary code, a cryptogram,
functions strategically as a clandestine articulation of
this subversive, anti-authoritarian literary impulse.2 The
epistolary method can therefore be viewed as the
transgressive intervention of a feminist narrative
strategy, a strategy that expresses critical dissent from
dominant narrative forms.
Particularly effective because it remains unrevealed
precisely as it enacts an alternative agenda, the
epistolary code empowers the woman writer by providing her
the possibility of warding off generic dispossession.3
This intensely personal, deliberately un-elaborate, and
self-affirming epistolary method stimulates woman's writing
and reading, allowing her at once to express and protect
her feminist cognizance, free from familiar ad feminum

attempts at devaluation. Additionally, the code serves to
explore the possibilities of what Gilbert and Gubar have
called "an alternative female aesthetic," lending to this
sometimes explicitly polemical form a non-exclusive and
canorous dimension. In its anti-elitist effort to expand a
solitary individual consciousness, the epistolary code
embodies a kind of oral quality, suggesting the fulfillment
of female conversation otherwise denied. Moreover, the
generic unity that connects one letter to others generates
a consonance of writers/readers that mitigates the
practical as well as theoretical tension between the
possibility of a female self and the reality of patriarchal
Encouraged by the wide-ranging, discursive nature of
the letter, the writer and reader participate in a kind of
feminist historical revisionism; that is, the epistolary
form encourages both writer and reader to examine, revise,
and reconstitute a short-circuited and obscured female
literary tradition.4 By design, this examination occurs in
a fracture of the literary plane, a kind of pacifist de-
militarized zone, established by the epistolary code's
attempt to stake out its own generic province.5 By
examining specific works of three writers--Mary
Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf--an
exploration can be undertaken of the epistolary code's

multiple functions as female cryptogram, feminist corpus
juris, and female enactment of an alternative aesthetic.
Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway,
and Denmark and The Wrongs of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft shares with Lucy Snowe an
unwillingness to settle for an unlived life. Consequently,
Wollstonecraft must, like Lucy, deal on the one hand with
the tension between female and society and on the other
with the fractured halves of a divided self.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792),
Wollstonecraft's concern with reason subsumes her concern
with personal emotion and temporarily sets aside the
expression of her noncognitive self. Her meeting and
subsequent relationship with Gilbert Imlay, taking place in
1793 after the publication of Vindication, seems to have
crystallized within Wollstonecraft an awareness of her
emotional needs. Mary Poovey asserts in The Proper Lady
and the Woman Writer (1984), for example, that
Wollstonecraft "developed from this relationship not only a
new acceptance of her own emotionalism but also a new
openness to emotional dependence and a resolution not to
rest content with theories that denied felt desires of body
or heart" (83). A characterization of Vindication as a

textual denial of "felt desires of body or heart" would be
hyperbolic; but Wollstonecraft1s new-found emotional
cynosure must be seen as significant, for a manifestation
of this noncognitive focus embeds itself within her work.
Searching for an instrument of emotional expression, this
manifestation of personal feelings, Wollstonecraft turned
after writing Vindication to the epistolary form.
In her Letters Written during a Short Residence in
Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), Wollstonecraft ratifies
an ascendancy of subjectivity, of feelings, both her own
and those of her audience.6 The most pronounced evidence
of this ascendancy can be found in her use of the first
person narrative, the distinctive voice of the epistolary-
code. Wollstonecraft writes that
I found I could not avoid being continually in the
first person--11 the little hero of each tale." I tried
to correct this fault, if it be one . . . but in
proportion as I arranged my thoughts, my letter, I
found, became stiff and affected: I, therefore,
determined to let my remarks and reflections flow
unrestrained, as I perceived that I could not give a
just description of what I saw, but by relating the
effect different objects had produced on my mind and
feelings, whilst the impression was still fresh.
In her observation that "I perceived that I could not give
a just description of what I saw," Wollstonecraft proclaims
that reason, and the single-mindedness which had made it

the centerpiece of Vindication, has given way to an
emotive, sentient method: "relating the effect different
objects had produced on my mind and feelings." Just as
"virtue," the watchword of Vindication, now has a meaning
within a subjective as well as an "objective" context,
Wollstonecraft1s "truth" is now found more in the
reflection of her feelings as in a more external, more
"objective" standard. Thus Wollstonecraft's epistolary
narrative accentuates in Letters Written during a Short
Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark the differences
between those traditional characteristics of the "feminine"
voice and those of the "masculine" voice: the feminine
(within this traditional formulation) is held to be
subjective, disordered, associative, illogical; the
masculine is held to be objective, orderly, controlled,
While Wollstonecraft's own rigorous logic in
Vindication works to make such traditional and often-
reiterated dichotomies seem theoretically and practically
problematic, one nevertheless recognizes in
Wollstonecraft1s epistolary voice a release from what might
be called a monopoly of rationalism, the embracing of a new
willingness to explore the emotional world within herself.
Wollstonecraft claims somewhat paradoxically that "my very
reason obliges me to permit my feelings to be my criterion.

Whatever excites emotion has charms for me" (92) As in
Three Guineas, this voice of Letters articulates a message
apart from the words it speaks; that is, the message lives
as much in the voice as in the words themselves. In this
way, Wollstonecrafts epistolary diction becomes as
strategically ingenuous as that of Woolf's narrator,
fulfilling a feminist purpose behind a jejune mask.
In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar make a
related, though antithetical, observation; "As we have
seen, many women working in a male-dominated literary
tradition at first attempt to resolve the ambiguities of
their situation not merely by male mimicry but by some kind
of metaphorical male impersonation" (316) The form of
narrative mimesis particularized by Gilbert and Gubar is
precisely what Wollstonecraft refuses to practice.
Unwilling to conform to the boundaries of a paternal genre,
Wollstonecraft1s epistolary code functions as an expressly
female, anti-mimetic language with which she attempts to
avoid complicity with traditionally constructed forms.
Particularly in the cases of Bronte's Lucy and
Wollstonecraft's Mary (Wollstonecraft herself), the
epistolary form serves not only as an agent of self-
affirmation but also of self-discovery. in Letters,
Wollstonecraft maps the terrain of her personality as
surely as she investigates the Scandinavian landscape. "I

was amused," Mary records, "by . the innumerable young
starfish which floated just below the surface: I had never
observed them before. . Touching them, the cloudy
substance would turn or close . very gracefully; but
when I took one of them up ... it appeared only a
cloudless jelly" (76). One senses in Mary's observation a
fathoming of emotional as well as submarine currents. By
eliding a literal confrontation with this question of self-
discovery, Mary enacts a metaphoric engagement that
interrupts or rewrites the syntax of logical progression
while persuasively expressing a multivalence of feminine
difference. Indeed, possessing its figurative yet self-
referential characteristic, a quality reminiscent of
Villette and shared by other epistolary works by women
writers, Wollstonecraft1s epistolary travelogue functions
as much as a tropological odyssey of self-location as the
literal record of a physical journey.
The epistolary/travelogue form enables Wollstonecraft
to structure her embryonic feelings, providing a
syntactical foundation for her discontinuous emotional
expression. As Poovey points out,
Wollstonecraft uses the public nature of the
travelogue to control the intensity of personal
anguish and direct the focus of her inquiry outward
into a finished form; but she uses the epistolary form

of her narrative to signify the temporal and personal
dimensions of what is effectively an ongoing process.
Through this method of structured emotional explication,
Wollstonecraft becomes the protagonist of her own
unfinished book. Sounding remarkably like Lucy Snowe, Mary
allows that she has 11 turned over in this solitude a new
page in the history of [her] heart" (90-91), evidencing the
self-generative power of the epistolary form.8
Wollstonecraft1 s The Wrongs of Woman, published
posthumously in 1798, functions, similarly to Three
Guineas, as an overtly feminist polemic.9 Wollstonecraft
is unflinching in portraying the oppression of her
protagonist. Maria, Wollstonecraft' s wrongly-imprisoned
central character, has suffered at the merciless hands of
her debauched husband: he has trea-ted her as an "idiot, or
perpetual minor" to the extent that her he has wrongly
incarcerated her in the prison/madhouse, made off with
their daughter, and stolen Maria's inheritance.10
Wollstonecraft--in order to undermine the view of women
that makes such treatment seem right and natural--has Maria
write a narrative of her life, a recounting of her own
excruciating journey to experience, in which she sheds
traditional formulations of her responsibilities and
inclinations as a woman. Maria composes her story in order

to benefit and teach her daughter, to help her, as she
writes, also "gain experience--ah! gain it." In revealing
the covert but unbreakable connections between marriage,
subordination, and the loss of Maria's daughter,
Wollstonecraft demonstrates the paradox that the ideology
of the paternal, biological family attains its full power
only when patriarchal culture has shunted familial
attachments--particularly female ones--into a sublimated
and weakened position.
Desolate following the death of her daughter, Maria
receives several letters from Darnford, a fellow prisoner
and Wollstonecraft's paradigm of a communicative male. As
described by Wollstonecraft1s narrator, Darnford1s letters
have an overtly "feminine" quality:
Two or three letters from Darnford . . . only added
poignancy . . . yet the passionate style in which he
expressed, what he termed the first and fondest wish
of his heart, 'that his affection might make her some
amends for the cruelty and injustice she had endured,'
inspired a sentiment of gratitude to heaven; and her
eyes filled with delicious tears, when, at the
conclusion of his letter, wishing to supply the place
of her unworthy relations, whose want of principal he
execrated, he assured her, calling her his dearest
girl, 'that it should henceforth be the business of
his life to make her happy.'
Through his use of the epistolary form, Darnford functions
as a kind of ironic inversion, illuminating the disjuncture

between what men are and what Wollstonecraft wants them to
be: "He begged, in a note sent the following morning, to be
permitted to see her, when his presence would be no
intrusion on her grief; and so earnestly intreated to be
allowed ... to beguile the tedious moments of absence, by
dwelling on the events of her past life, that she sent him
the memoirs which had been written for her daughter ..."
(123). Darnford's words articulating this female
sensibility resonate with the sound of apostasy. His
sensitivity and the romanticism of Maria's situation become
the instruments of Wollstonecraft's irony, exposing the
gulf between worldly fact and Wollstonecraft1s fiction.
Reminiscent of Woolf's extending of the three guineas,
Maria's entrusting Darnford with her memoirs functions as a
form of feminist imprimatur, an acknowledgment of her
correspondent's embracing of female values. Maria's
memoirs replace, in fact, become, the experience she hopes
to bequeath to her daughter. By creating Maria as a
writer, and by then conflating Maria's story and her
history/experience, Wollstonecraft suggests her view for
the potential of distinctively female narrative.
Interestingly, Maria's maternity provides both the
capacity and the moment for writing; Maria writes to pass
along her history/experience to her daughter. But she also
writes to perpetuate her maternal identity.11 When Maria

dedicates her memoirs to her daughter, she also sanctifies
her in them in what might be considered an attempt to bind
the daughter to the mother; Maria's daughter may actually
be dead and Maria therefore no longer a mother. Maternity,
then, becomes more than simply an emblem of Wollstonecraft
as woman writer.
Wollstonecraft's portrayal of Maria necessarily casts
a revealing light on Wollstonecraft as a woman writer.
Through Maria, Wollstonecraft reinforces her own status as
knowledgeable, as experienced, a status mirrored in A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft then
passes on both her experience and the tradition of being
experienced to her readers, whom she positions to replace
the void left by Maria's absent daughter.
Maria's story, written as a long letter to her
daughter, occupies eight chapters of The Wrongs of Woman.12
As both indictment of patriarchal excess and manifesto of
feminist imperatives, this compelling personal history
becomes metaphoric of a female voice eager to speak to a
world unable to listen: "'Addressing these memoirs to you,
my child, uncertain whether I shall ever have an
opportunity of instructing you, many observations will
probably flow from my heart, which only a mother .
schooled in misery, could make'" (124). Intending a
disclosure of the world's realities to her daughter, Maria

employs an epistolary form that emphasizes her feelings
about life while handing down a female subjective
tradition. Similarly to the employments of other women
writers, Wollstonecraft's use of the epistolary form works
to foreground and call into question both a certain
paradigm of literary accomplishment and, perhaps more
importantly, to highlight the gender specificity of
dominant formulations of literary history.
Thwarting what Maria planned, the death of her
daughter sends her memoirs off on an ironic trajectory;
the memoirs now function as a literary resistance to
Maria's literal and figurative imprisonment.
Wollstonecraft transports her readers back across time,
reclaiming Maria's half-life which, tellingly, has been
suffocated by paternal authority. Maria recounts in detail
'My father . . . was to be instantaneously obeyed,
especially by my mother . [he] took care to remind
her of the obligation, when she dared, in the
slightest instance, to question his absolute
authority. My eldest brother, it is true, as he grew
up, was treated with more respect by my father; and
became in due form the deputy-tyrant of the
house. ... It is perhaps difficult to give you an
idea of the petty cares which obscured the morning of
my life; continual restraint in the most trivial
matters; unconditional submission to orders.'

This re-reading of the past anticipates Charlotte Bronte's
strategy in Villette and vivifies Wollstonecraft1s
revisionist agenda. Thus Wollstonecraft1s subjectivity--a
characteristic that would traditionally be viewed as merely
personal and feminine--becomes transformed into an
efficacious, explicitly political act. Significantly, it
is the epistolary narrative that enables this
transformation of the personal into the political. Instead
of capitulating to dominant historical configurations,
Maria's reconstituted, reformulated personal history now
intervenes as a polemical and transformative agent; her
private letter becomes a public denunciation. Highly
anticipatory of Woolf's epistolary strategy, Maria's
personal correspondence performs an ironic vault over the
authoritarian barrier.
Charlotte Bronte's Villette consolidates woman's
search for voice within a female coming-of-age novel,
interestingly, Villette both prefigures the epistolary
strategy of Three Guineas and contrasts Woolf's method, for
the latent feminism of Bronte's novel, like its
protagonist's letters, becomes buried and therefore more
difficult to identify than the overt interventionism of

Woolf's book.13 While these works share a tripartite
structure, Three Guineas reads as a feminist polemic while
Villette poses as a refined novel, functioning within a
literature-as-art tradition.14
As I have argued earlier, Villette concerns, most of
all, the lack of and search for woman's voice.15 Lucy
Snowe, the novel's meticulously self-effacing central
character, functions as a dyadic emblem, suggesting both
female outsider (alone and without the sustenance of
Woolf's Society of Outsiders) and--because the novel is
strongly autobiographical--Charlotte Bronte herself.
Lucy exists in a non-familial fracture of society: a
parentless, childless, and husbandless world of emotional
desolation. In her expatriation, she becomes a woman-
without-a-country; a contextual refugee without a genre;
the nineteenth-century embodiment of Woolf's famous remark
in Three Guineas. Lucy recounts that she "told [Madame
Beck] how I had left my own country, intent on extending my
knowledge" (127). In this role as dissociated outsider,
going into the world to seek knowledge, Lucy can be read as
Eve, emigrd from Eden, the pariah subject to patriarchal
neglect: "Left alone, I was passive; repulsed, I withdrew;
forgotten--my lips would not utter, nor my eyes dart a
reminder" (504). In a move which distances her, like Eve,

from male/public authority, Lucy refers to herself as one
"who, in public, was by nature a cypher ..." (445).16
Consistent with the suggestion of Lucy-as-Eve, "The
Apple of Discord" (the title of Chapter 36)--the
disjuncture of ideological/religious difference--acts to
keep Lucy and M. Paul apart. As M. Paul admonishes Lucy,
"'It is your religion--your strange, self-reliant,
invulnerable creed, whose influence seems to clothe you in,
I know not what, unblessed panoply.'" (512). Lucy
responds, defending herself against his indictment, stating
that "'I am not a heathen, I am not hard-hearted, I am not
unchristian, I am not dangerous, as they tell you; I would
not trouble your faith; you believe in God and Christ and
the Bible, and so do I'" (512). Therein, Lucy suggests
somewhat problematically that M. Paul has nothing to fear
from her autonomy or intellectual prowess, while she
simultaneously unmasks his resentment as stemming from his
inability to control her intellectual, ideological, and
religious propensities. This narrative gesture by Bronte
depicts Lucy's search for self-definition as a breaching of
the boundaries by which others would define her.
Lucy's journey through Villette's minefield of
psychological obstacles dramatizes the disjuncture between
Lucy's needs and the world's imperatives--between Lucy's
search for voice and the world's quietism. It becomes the

encounter of a mute woman with a world that has an
investment in preserving the status quo. As Tony Tanner
has noted,
It is only in Villette that Charlotte Bronte found the
most appropriate female narrator to explore in a
sufficiently complex way the tensions and alternations
in her own inner and outer experience to produce one
of the great fictional studies, not of self-and-
society, but the self without society ... a study
in how a human being attempts to constitute herself in
a society largely indifferent to her needs.
Read in this way, Villette functions in two very different
but mutually vivifying ways. Perhaps most noticeably,
BrontS's novel constitutes the working out of a subtle
combination of narrative strategies that urge the reader to
relive history as a nineteenth-century woman might have
experienced it from the time of her initiation into the
foreignness of a male-dominated culture, when she
undertakes her own ideological resistance to a European
patriarchal authority, until she gains a measure of both
critical distance and economic/political independence from
that culture's control.
The ways in which Lucy's restricted perspective
engages reader identification with her position becomes one
of the ways in which the novel enacts this reliving.
Because Lucy's representations of her experience filter and

limit the reader's understanding of that experience, the
reader discovers and explores the world along with--and
only through--Lucy herself. This becomes important because
Bronte imagines Lucy as a character who has been formed in
relation to the history of masculinist conquest in
psychologically complex and culturally specific ways. Lucy
Snowe has not mastered (indeed, does not even know) the
language of the country in which she finds herself, does
not travel as a free agent. She must constantly negotiate
her place in a society that makes no attempt to accommodate
her needs, language, or culture.
Secondly and somewhat paradoxically, the novel depicts
an escape into the world and away from Lucy's banishment
into solitude, a liberation of mute woman through the
discovery of voice. Lucy's inability to communicate
functions as the most evident manifestation of her cultural
isolation. After her arrival in Villette, where she is a
foreigner, Lucy discovers her inability to speak the native
language. This lack of voice leaves her in a state of
involuntary incommunicado, linguistically confined without
the means to deal with others.
This sense of being confined and misunderstood lies at
the center of Villette. The "inadequacy" of Lucy's
language leaves her with but one alternative. She must
speak through a male voice; that is, she must relinquish

her own to a man who can translate and restructure her
message into an understandable form: 11 'Sir, said I . .
I cannot speak French. May I entreat you to ask this man
what he has done with my trunk?1 . Do ask him; I
would do as much for you'. . Perhaps this English
gentleman saw the failure of courage in my face; he
inquired kindly, 'Have you any friends in this city?' 'No,
and I don't know where to go' (123-124).
This estrangement, disorientation, and inability to
speak the native language--or, more precisely, of having
one's own language unfathomable to others and of being
forced to speak through the male voice--becomes the central
problem for Lucy Snowe. This male voice through which she
speaks belongs, as the reader later discovers, to Dr. John,
who epitomizes Virginia Woolf's "sons of educated men."
Lucy must not only overcome being viewed as an outsider by
the people of Villette, she must also deal with her
idiomatic inadequacy that necessitates that her "self-
expression" rely upon the male voice. Lucy recounts that
"I did thank him kind; and as to distrusting him, or his
advice, or his address, I should almost as soon have
thought of distrusting the Bible" (124). By virtue of her
apparently unreserved acceptance of this male "savior"
within a analogically Biblical framework, Lucy seems here
an accessory to her own paralysis. An orphaned and

powerless Lucy, however, adopts the counterfeit voice only
as a last resort. There seems to be no alternative for
her. Self-denial functions here as an act of survival.
In all of this, the central question remains, as
Ginevra Fanshawe inelegantly and typically puts it: "Who
are you, Miss Snowe?" (392). indeed, as numerous
commentators have pointed out, and as Gilbert and Gubar
accentuate, Villette seems at first a novel about everyone
except Lucy Snowe. Lucy the narrator acts as her own
parenthesist, creating narrative diversions which
"diminish" her own story while elevating the significance
of the ultimately less important accounts of the other
characters, accounts important only as increments of Lucy's
story. This narrative misdirection renders the first
volume of the novel a kind of self-directed paralipsis;
that is, the narrator emphasizes her own story by seeming
to pass it by without notice. Suggestive of the novel's
strategic dimension, this stylistic waywardness mirrors
Lucy Snowe1s cut-adrift aura while indicating the
desperation of the woman writer (Charlotte BrontS/Lucy
Snowe), attempting to speak her own voice through a
narrative code.
Through her depiction of Lucy's communication through
letters, Bronte emphasizes the exigency of the epistolary
code to the recipient as well as to the writer of letters.

Staking out a female generic province while it stresses the
importance of woman's reading, this disquisitive form in
Bronte's hands becomes the arena in which emotions are
expressed, developed, and resolved. Lucy's elaborate
description of the first letter from Graham indicates her
extensive reliance upon what she views as the communicative
potential and psychological deliverance embodied within the
epistolary form:
A letter! The shape of a letter similar to that had
haunted my brain in its very core for seven days past.
I had dreamed of a letter last night. Strong
magnetism drew me to that letter now ... I felt it
to be the letter of my hope, the fruition of my wish,
the release from my doubt, the ransom from my
terror. ... I held in my hand not a slight note,
but an envelope, which must, at least, contain a
sheet: it felt, not flimsy, but firm, substantial,
satisfying. And here was the direction, 'Miss Lucy
Snowe,' in a clean, clear, equal, decided hand; and
here was the seal, round, full deftly dropped by
untremulous fingers . . . For once a hope was
realized. I held in my hand a morsel of real solid
joy: not a dream, not an image of the brain, not one
of those shadowy chances imagination pictures, and on
which humanity starves but cannot live ... It was a
godsend; and I inwardly thanked the God who had
vouchsafed it.
This critically euphoric moment, in which Lucy expresses
herself with uncharacteristic and anticipatory joy, clearly
defines the letter as the connective between the outsider
and the world, a linkage that dissolves Lucy's alienation,

"the ransom from my terror." It is worth noting that, at
this point, Lucy has not yet opened the letter: "this
letter, the source of my joy, I had not yet read: did not
yet know the number of its lines." As much as anything,
the letter functions as the intervention of hope and as the
locus of Lucy's expectation of self-realization. Bronte's
narrator reiterates and reinforces her interest in the
epistolary method by speculating that Madame Beck, Lucy's
initial model of female cultural power, might harbor a
desire to gauge what she calls Dr John's "epistolary
powers." Lucy wonders about "what she [Madame Beck]
thought of my correspondence. What estimate did she form
of Dr John Bretton's epistolary powers?" (377) .
Frustrated by the intrusion of would-be onlookers,
Lucy tries to find privacy in which to read her letter:
"And I had so wished to be alone, just to read my precious
letter in peace. . Baffled, but not beaten, I
withdrew, bent as resolutely as ever on finding solitude
somewhere" (323). Finding solitude in the garret, Lucy
opens her letter. At precisely this moment, the nun
appears: "Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed,
a stealthy foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from
the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor
cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long--
but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly

chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight,
narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled white" (325) As
Gilbert and Gubar have noticed in The Madwoman in the
Attic, "Lucy reads her own story in the nun's" (410); that
is, the appearance of the nun can be seen as analogous to
Lucy's emerging emotional expression: "a sort of gliding
out from the direction of the black recess ... my light
was dim; the room was long. "17
This appearance occurring concomitantly with the
opening of her letter suggests a conflation of Lucy's
emotional and rational halves, a reading supported by
subsequent events.18 More letters arrive, all from Dr.
John, which temporarily release Lucy from her struggle with
melancholy: "a new influence began to act upon my life, and
sadness, for a certain space, was held at bay. ... A new
creed was mine--a belief in happiness" (334). Lucy
responds by writing two letters of her own: "one for my own
relief, the other for Graham's perusal" (334), a
description which gives the first letter a kind of healing,
anti-pathological quality. Also implied is a redefinition
through emotional self-discovery, if only for the space of
one letter:
Feeling and I turned Reason out of doors . then we
sat down, spread our paper, dipped in the ink an eager
pen, and, with deep enjoyment, poured out our sincere
heart. . When we had done--when two sheets were

covered with the language of a strongly-adherent
affection . then, just at that moment, the doors
of my heart would shake, bolt and bar would yield,
Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful, snatch
the full sheets, read, sneer, erase, tear up, re-
write, fold, seal, direct, and send a terse, curt
missive of a page. She did right.
"She did right" indicates a predominance of "Reason" over
emotion within Lucy, an attempt to erase Lucy's primary
expressive self by more "rational" forces. This sway has
the dual effect of cutting Lucy in two and of fracturing
the previously-mentioned and promising conflation.
Subsequent are "seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of
blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a
visit, not a token" (349). The severing of Lucy's
epistolary umbilical leads her first to rationalization,
then to resignation: "Towards the last of those long seven
weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had
jealously excluded--the conviction that these blanks were
inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate,
a part of my life's lot, and--above all--a matter about
whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose
painful sequence no murmur ever uttered" (349). In an
attempt to regain her emotional equilibrium, Lucy
substitutes conventional reading for her epistolary
connection: "I undertook a course of regular reading of the
driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts

I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. . the result was
as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine
to quench thirst" (349-350).
Failing in her efforts to resuscitate the promise of
emotional fulfillment, Lucy is drawn unresisting toward its
burial: "never more would letters . come to me. . .
That goodly river on whose banks I had sojourned . was
bending to another course: it was leaving my little hut and
field forlorn and sand-dry, pouring its wealth of waters
far away. The change was right, just, natural; not a word
could be said ... I grieved that the grand tide should
roll estranged, should vanish like a false mirage" (378).
What had been her "treasure, the manifestation of a
deliverance whose time had come, Lucy now buries as a
gesture of grief, self-defense, and paradoxical
liberation.19 For Lucy, the seven blank pages become only
an emblem of the myth of self-realization.
Three Guineas
Virginia Woolf deploys the epistolary code in service
of an expressly political agenda.20 Three Guineas (1938),
written as a series of letters, takes the shape of an
intensely anti-traditional, anti-patriarchal discourse
addressing the genesis of war.21 Woolf writes her letters

in a purposefully female mode that disconnects her language
from what she characterizes as the pansophics of the male
lecture: "All these hundreds of years they have been
mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors,
ascending those pulpits, preaching, money-making,
administering justice" (18). Woolf, in other words,
comprehends the way in which woman's marginalized position
becomes synonymous with her literary stance as author and
how each sustains and perpetuates the other. Exploiting
her awareness of the discrepancy between what women read
and what they experience in their own lives, Woolf had
earlier maintained in A Room of One's Own (1929) that
if women had no existence save in the fiction written
by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost
importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid
and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the
extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.
But this is woman in fiction. In fact . she was
locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
In an effort to bridge this disjuncture between "fiction"
and "fact," Woolf in Three Guineas encourages "daughters of
educated men" to "read and write their own tongue" (99) ,
enabling them to speak about their own lives through their
own genre, thereby circumventing familiar failed attempts
at communication.22

As an ideogram of thwarted communication, Woolf
employs the ellipsis: "But . those three dots mark a
precipice, a gulf so deeply cut between us that for three
years and more I have been sitting on my side of it
wondering whether it is any use to try to speak across it"
(4) As Jane Marcus points out in Virginia Woolf and the
Languages of Patriarchy (1987), "The gender gap between
Woolf and her enemies and the class gap between Woolf and
her allies is most often expressed not in words, but in
their absences, in ellipses, so that the dot dot dot of
unfinished sentences and uncompleted thoughts . is an
exact representation in the novels, of her own position in
relation to her culture" (12).
Woolf, however, employs the epistolary code as more
than simply metaphor for failed communication; for her, the
epistolary voice becomes a repudiation of those "voices of
the past" (141) that speak a paternal language, a language
she regards as the authoritarian expression of a fraudulent
omniscience. Once again, Marcus makes an incidental but
crucial observation:23
Three Guineas' use of female epistolary form is a
deliberate last attack on authority in narrative,
almost postmodern in its insistence that the righteous
tone of authority in political pamphlets is a literary
form of fascist dictatorship. The personal form of
the letter is a mockery of demagoguery, a woman's
politics of persuasion. The looseness and
discursiveness of the letter form allows her to

replicate women's sexuality with her textuality. It
is the anti-authoritarian unbound book.
(Languages 146-147)
Concomitantly with this repudiation of "authority in
narrative," Woolf explores not the inequity but the
potential of gender differences, the potential found within
the ascendancy of a female moral alternative. Woolf's
intention to exploit this disjuncture of male and female
values becomes clear early in Three Guineas as she
distances herself from patriarchal security interests. Her
observation that "the great majority of your sex are today
in favour of war" (8) is followed closely by "If then our
answer . . . depends upon understanding the reasons, the
emotions, the loyalties which lead men to go to war, this
letter had better be torn across and thrown into the waste-
paper basket. For it seems plain that we cannot understand
each other because of these differences" (9) Following
this rhetorical stiff-arm, Woolf particularizes her
response to the male correspondent: "Let us then give up,
for the moment, the effort to answer your question ... by
discussing the political, the patriotic or psychological
reasons which lead you to go to war" (11) With her
inclusion of "the patriotic" as one of the "reasons which
lead you to go to war," Woolf uncovers the cryptic alliance
between the patriarchy and nationalism and, by extension,

between patriarchy and war.24 Woolf's assertion that
patriotism generates war casts the nation's foundation--
institutionally entrenched patriarchy--as the mediator of
By virtue of its linguistic distancing of women from
war-making, Woolf's text engages in a type of oppositional
literary politics that holds her correspondents accountable
both to her narrator, the voice of the displaced, and to a
more ecumenical group of correspondents, the readers of
Three Guineas. Unconcerned about the patriarchal
opposition that would punish women with neglect, Woolf
advises women to employ the epistolary code, to "deliver
their message to those who have the time to extract it and
the imagination with which to decipher it" (77). "Their
message" is transmitted through non-authoritarian
correspondence, written in a sub-genre accessible to those
with "the imagination with which to decipher it."
There is generated by this community-within-genre a
mutual accountability which vivifies a civilizing, anti-
barbaric, communal impulse, thereby empowering the
participants as it suggests the potential of alternative
pacifist/feminist values. In addition, this communal
consciousness implicates the subtleties of an engendered
oppression, asking the correspondents to examine the
somewhat less-obvious ways in which authoritarianism

functions. Woolf insists that women "are not passive
spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our
thoughts and actions can ourselves change [the human]
figure." This change, argues Woolf, will come about by
"not repeating your [paternal] words and following your
methods but . [by] finding new words and creating new
methods" (143).
Woolf is explicit regarding the benefits derived from
membership in this community of letter-writers: "a society
is a conglomeration of people joined together for certain
aims; while you, who write in your own person with your own
hand are single" (104). At the same moment she extols the
empowerment found in numbers, Woolf admonishes her
correspondent regarding the dangerous history of "a
society": "The very word 'society' sets tolling in memory
the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not,
shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you
shall not own; you shall not--such was the society
relationship of brother to sister for many centuries"
(105) .
This resolute dialecticism, taking one facet of a
question to the precipice of resolution only to abandon it
to ask an opposing one, lies at the heart of Three Guineas.
The probing naivete of Woolf's narrator functions as the
instrument of Woolf's dialectical technique.

Interestingly, Woolf's narrator--strategically ingenuous,
intuitive, and divorced from male tradition--seems to
embody the characteristics of the epistolary method with
which the narrator seeks to cut through to and expose the
hollow center of her male correspondent's liberalism:
Let us concentrate upon the practical suggestions
which you bring forward for our consideration. There
are three of them. The first is to sign a letter to
the newspapers; the second is to join a certain
society; the third is to subscribe to its funds.
Nothing on the face of it could sound simpler. To
scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy; to attend
a meeting where pacific opinions are more or less
rhetorically reiterated to people who already believe
in them is easy; and to write a cheque in support of
those vaguely acceptable opinions, though not so easy,
is a cheap way of quieting what may conveniently be
called one's conscience.
After first distancing herself from male imperatives and
then rejecting the transparency of her correspondent's non-
solutions ("a cheap way of quieting what may be
conveniently be called one's conscience"), Woolf carefully
situates her narrator firmly outside the patriarchal arena,
poised to enunciate her own agenda:
Your class possesses . . . practically all the
capital, all the land, all the valuables, and all the
patronage in England. Our class possesses
practically none of the capital, none of the land,
none of the valuables, and none of the patronage in
England. That such differences make for very

considerable differences in mind and body, no
psychologist or biologist would deny. It would seem
to follow then as an indisputable fact that "we"
meaning by "we" a .whole made up of body, brain, and
spirit, influenced by memory and tradition--must still
differ in some essential respects from "you, whose
body, brain and spirit have been so differently
trained and are so differently influenced by memory
and tradition. Though we see the same world, we see
it through different eyes. Any help we can give you
must be different from that you can give yourselves,
and perhaps the value of that help may lie in the fact
of that difference.
In her use of "we" and "you," Woolf's narrator stoutly
embraces the disjuncture between female/private/pacifist
values ("we") and male/public/martial values ("you"). She
rejects any female contribution to an "omniscient" male
solution (Woolf's narrator would regard "male solution" as
an oxymoron), while asking questions toward the realization
of a private, female discovery.25
In this feminist/reformer stance of Three Guineas, as
in A Room of One's Own, the reader perceives in Woolf's
narrator an exhilaration of foreignness, the thrill found
in standing apart from and opposing the ancient regime:
"How different it looks to us from what it must look to
you!" (23), and "Your world, then, the world of the
professional, of public life, seen from this angle
undoubtedly looks queer. At first sight it is enormously
impressive. . There, we say to ourselves, pausing in

this moment of transition . our fathers and brothers
have spent their lives" (18). This galvanized foreignness
becomes fully realized in Woolf's "anonymous and secret
Society of Outsiders" (109), which rejects nationalism and
patriarchal tradition in the same way that the epistolary
code renounces a coercive male language and the traditions
it embodies.26 The Society of Outsiders has its own agenda
of "freedom, equality, peace," although
it seeks to achieve them by the means that a different
sex, a different tradition, a different education, and
the different values which result from those
differences have placed within our reach. . [T]he
main distinction between us who are outside society
and you who are inside society must be that . .we,
remaining outside, will experiment not with public
means in public but with private means in private.
Those experiments will be not merely critical but
Therefore, the "private means in private" being "not merely
critical but creative," situates them in active opposition
to the "public means in public," which regard "different
values" as a threat to patriarchal security interests.
Woolf's distinction also aligns those
female/private/creative qualities of the Society of
Outsiders with the language used to articulate them: the
equally private, female, and creative epistolary code.
Additionally, Woolf's "experiments" suggest an eagerness to

investigate literary/political alternatives at the same
time they repudiate the authoritarian suffocation of
Constitutive to these "creative experiments" is the
previously-noted "alternative female aesthetic": "the
beauty which brims not only in every field and wood but
every barrow in Oxford Street; the scattered beauty which
needs only to be combined by artists in order to become
visible to all" (114). Woolf rejects the elitism of "the
dictated, regimented, official pageantry, in which only one
sex takes an active part" (114), while offering the option
of "a Society of Outsiders without office, meetings,
leaders or any hierarchy" (115).
For Woolf, this Society of Outsiders becomes more than
rhetorical pacification of a writer's frustration: "Indeed
it would have been a waste of time to write even so rough a
definition of the Outsiders' Society were it merely a
bubble of words, a covert form of sex or class
glorification, serving, as so many such expressions do, to
relieve the writer's emotion, lay the blame elsewhere, and
then burst" (115). The Society functions as the
manifestation of Woolf's agenda: "intellectual liberty."
This agenda becomes the antithesis of "intellectual
harlotry" and "brain prostitution, the mercantile enemies
of "those whose culture is the unpaid-for culture, that

which consists in being able to read and write their own
tongue" (90). Also through the Outsiders' Society, Woolf
portrays woman's status as historically and socially
mediated. The Society's manifesto can be found in A Room
of One's Own as "thinking back through our mothers,"
recovering undocumented female lives and reconstituting an
obscured female history.27
Woolf proposes to achieve this revisionism through
unrestricted access to "A working library, a living
library; a library where nothing is chained down and
nothing is locked up; a library where the songs of the
singers rise naturally from the lives of the livers. There
are the poems, here the biographies" (63). While the
library serves well as a metaphor for woman's free access
to education, it also can be seen as emblematic of the
corpus of male history into which woman's history has been
subsumed. This immersion of Three Guineas into historical
method is crucially important, for it brings forth the idea
of women's exclusion from male history: "There are no
lives of professional women in the nineteenth
century, . There were no professional women, except
governesses, to have lives written of them" (75).
Woolf's penultimate allusion to the epistolary code
occupies the conclusion of Three Guineas, where she writes
that "the answer to your question must be that we can best

help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and
following your methods but by finding new words and
creating new methods" (143). Once again, the code
functions convincingly as female intervention, resolutely
abjuring an elitist language and regime. Woolf's strategic
objective becomes realized in the three guineas themselves,
each seen as feminist imprimatur given only after the
affirmation of alternative female values.
The epistolary code functions in a formidably
effective way. Due to its modest, personal, and scaled-
down dimension, this device undermines the often
imperceptibly marginalizing and appropriative effects of
traditional narrative forms while advancing its own
alternative agenda. Utilizing the epistolary form, women
writers, well aware that patriarchal power has a strategic
interest in diminishing their public resistance, have
sought a kind of deliverance through language, deploying
this most personal form as a private linguistic
intervention. Through its circumvention of generic
ambiguity, the code enables a woman writer to attempt to
avoid the misunderstandings and mistranslations that infuse
the work of those who attempt to speak through a surrogate

Furthermore, by using the epistolary method, a woman
writer intimates the shape of a female aesthetic by
confuting univocity and monolithic expression, by
disrupting what might be characterized as a masculine
consistency. In its modestly affirmative way, the
epistolary sub-genre encourages a communal mode of reading
and writing that expresses non-exclusive differences so
that the "other" can be thought of as other without being
cast in merely negative or positional terms.
The epistolary code--due to its birth from denial--
shuns the "power" gained through an acquiescence to
tradition. Instead, by expanding and extending the world
within herself, a woman writer communicates to her readers
with power and without sentimentality what it is to become
objectified, angry, lonely, odd, unrepentant. Perhaps more
than any other sub genre, the epistolary method
superimposes the author on the form. In this way, a woman
writer seeks to solve the problem of participating in
literature without being appropriated, of resisting
oppression without disconnecting from the world.
The notion of a woman writer expanding and extending
the world within herself returns this thesis to its point
of departure: Cixous' revolutionary and semiotic

characterization of women as sublimated signifiers in a
paternalistic cultural/linguistic economy. By highlighting
within their narratives the literary manifestations of the
cultural and ideological formulations of gender, these
three women writers, like so many others who have resisted
complicity in their own subordination, employ tactics that
work to undo the cultural/literary hierarchy Cixous
deplores. Furthermore, the women writers' works examined
here raise important questions regarding whether narrative
depictions of reality can ever be disinterested and to what
extent patriarchal narrative constructions can be either
discerned or rehabilitated. In this fashion, their
aesthetic efforts have functioned to redefine the ways in
which the terms of the discursive/cultural/political
conflict identified by Cixous will be comprehended and the
adjudication of those terms approached.
If, as Jane Marcus has insisted, the effective
feminist literary critic must focus upon "forms foreign to
the common practices of communication and art" ("Still
Practice" 217), then Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte,
and Virginia Woolf have enacted at once an alternative mode
of fiction writing and an efficacious, vigorous form of
cultural criticism. Their efforts, unconscious or
conscious, to produce within their works an alternative
aesthetic exemplify the ways in which narrative can be made

to utter critical statements about the psychosexual and
sociocultural construction of gender. In addition, their
efforts demonstrate how women writers have italicized the
ways in which cultural practices that impinge upon gender
enter narrative in an often surreptitious and rarely
innocent fashion.
The concerns of these writers with cultural/authorial
practices--and their strategic and ironic inversion of
them--permeate their works, not only in overt content and
critical remarks but perhaps more acutely in the place
where ideological interests lurk often undetected--in
narrative structure. Corresponding to Cixous' assertions
that the woman writer who successfully challenges the
"discourse of man" will undermine not only textual
ideological interests but also prevailing cultural
institutions--that a genuinely female text will function in
an ultimately subversive and wide-ranging way--these
writers have involved themselves in the production of
narratives that interrogate, reconstruct, or invert
literary, epistemological, and historical patterns that are
culturally ordained, internally monitored,
imperialistically positioned.

1 The woman writer as refugee received a good deal of
attention in the late 1980s. The topic became the subject
of a series of panels chaired by Jane Marcus at the 1986
M.L.A. in New York, and papers from that proceeding have
been collected in Women's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn
Broe and Angela Ingram.
2 For recent feminist essays on the epistolary form,
see Goldsmith. While Goldsmith's volume offers wide-
ranging and cogent treatments of female letter writing and
fiction, its essays fail to consider the potential of the
epistolary form as an encrypted, politicized sub-genre.
3 In her study of Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte,
and Emily Dickinson entitled Women Writers and Poetic
Identity, Margaret Homans investigates the strategies by
which these writers attempted to function within a
masculinist tradition while adjusting that tradition to
their own purposes. Homans writes that "the literary
tradition inherited by nineteenth-century women poets has
implicit male biases that are ordinarily not perceived as
such by male readers. Even in a realm that the women poets
might have sought in the hope of escaping society's
restrictions, they would have found echoes of those
restrictions. . That Dorothy Wordsworth and Bronte are
not known for their poetry, as Dickinson is, is part of
their significance here. They were both potential poets
who . redirected their best energies towards other
forms of writing and of activity" (8-9). See also Levin.
4 Ruth Perry offers an historically useful if
theoretically naive survey of women and the epistolary sub-
genre. Perry points out that "epistolary fiction
flourished in England long before Richardson wrote Pamela.
Some of it was original, some translated from the French;
some was burlesque, some didactic. The novels ranged in
length from several hundred pages to brief stories told
indirectly in one or two letters, buried in the pages of a
weekly paper or in one of the many miscellaneous letter
collections. Those which I will be calling epistolary
novels were often less than seventy pages, sometimes bound
several to the volume costing between one and three

shillings each. The plots often remind one of the plots of
Restoration drama in which the characters outfox each other
for sex, for money, or for marriage. But the stories are
transformed in the new medium, arranged for private
experience, for solitary reading at home, and there is a
good deal more sentimental pulling of heart strings than
rapid plot change or witty dialogue. For example, adultery
is more apt to be an occasion for tragedy than for roguish
humor in these fictions; and the subject is the painful
progress of passion rather than the triumphant
manipulations of wit." Perry continues, noting that
"letters were a very significant part of the written
culture at that time," and that "women seemed to have a
special affinity for this personal one-to-one format. . .
These epistolary stories also foreshadow the purposes of
novels as we know them, providing a coherent world to
experience and permitting readers to live vicariously in
the borrowed emotional lives of the characters" (xi-xii).
5 See Stimpson for feminist discussions of the
importance of letters to female self-expression. See also
Nestor's Female Friendships and Communities.
6 For feminist discussions of Wollstonecraft, see
Ferguson and Todd. See in particular Auerbachs Romantic
Imprisonment, wherein she argues that "[Wollstonecraft]
makes clear her general intention, to use the trappings of
Romantic fiction as an emblem of women's history within
'the partial laws and customs of society'" (17).
7 In her influential study, In A Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Gilligan
argues for an expanded theory of male/female psychological
development, a theory that would embrace, rather than
discard from consideration, the difference expressed
through what Gilligan calls "the feminine voice." Basic to
Gilligans argument is her conviction that men and women
develop in fundamentally different ways with respect to
psychology. Gilligan asserts that existing theories derive
a "normal" structure of psychological evolution that,
because it privileges male characteristics, ignores
feminine aspects of development. This privileging,
suggests Gilligan, leads to a discrepancy between important
cultural concepts of womanhood and adulthood. As long as

the distinctions within which standards of psychological
development are judged are drawn within a male perspective
and based upon male data, insists Gilligan, development
different from the male norm will inevitably be considered
deviant. Gilligan's book identifies a characteristically
"feminine voice" as one concerned with the concept of care
and responsibility, with the desire to not "hurt others," a
voice that expresses a "hope that in morality lies a way of
solving conflicts so that no one will get hurt" (192) .
Gilligan argues that in order to determine whether or not
this "feminine voice" is actually different from a
masculine one depends upon identifying those events where
women have "the power to choose and are thus willing to
speak in their own voice" (198).
8 In Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History
of the Novel, Nancy Armstrong argues that "In triumphing
over the other languages of the novel, personal letter
writing successfully removes domestic relations from all
economic and political considerations as it subjects such
relations to a woman's moral scrutiny and emotional
response" (122).
9 For feminist comment on The Wrongs of Woman, see
Poovey's "Mary Wollstonecraft: The Gender of Genres in Late
Eighteenth-Century England." See also Janet Todd's "Reason
and Sensibility in Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of
10 In Victorian Women's Fiction: Marriage, Freedom and
the Individual, Shirley Foster examines the issue of
marriage as she finds it surfacing in the texts of Dinah
Mulock Craik, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Sewell, Elizabeth
Gaskell, and George Eliot. Contrasting Gilbert and Gubar,
Foster argues that "Bront§ implements romantic and sexual
orthodoxies in order to challenge some aspects of
contemporary ideology. Her heroines' involvement in
traditional roles enables them to question those roles.
One way in which they do this is by closely examining their
own needs and desires; another is by measuring themselves
against contrasting images of womanhood; yet another is by
evaluating their own position in differing sexual
relationships. Their rebelliousness lies in their
attitudes toward such relationships" (79).

11 For an important explication of Wollstonecraft' s
treatment of maternity, see Laurie Langbauer's "Motherhood
and Women's Writing in Mary Wollstonecraft' s Novels."
12 For a related discussion of the importance of
female memoirs, see Bradford Keyes Mudge's Sara Coleridge,
A Victorian Daughter.
13 A comparative reading of Woolf's and Bronte's
feminism is offered by Betty M. Friedman in her as-yet-
unpublished dissertation, "The Princess in Exile: The
Alienation of the Female Artist in Charlotte Bronte, George
Eliot, and Virginia Woolf."
14 For useful discussions of feminism, Villette, and
Bronte, see Nestor's Charlotte Bronte 83-98. Nestor
asserts that "Villette is at once more unflinching in its
content and more sophisticated in its style than any of
[Bronte's] earlier works, reflecting Bronte's maturity both
as a woman and a writer. Lucy Snowe, like her
predecessors, still craves for love, but in exploring her
heroine's quest on this occasion Bronte forswears the
elements of idealism and romance evident in Jane Eyre and
portrays Lucy as more convincingly 'plain' than Jane
Eyre. ... In Villette Bronte explores the indelible
imprint of repression on the individual--the deeply
internalised scarring that makes Lucy Snowe the difficult
woman she that is" (85).
15 Revealing insights into the problem of the female
self in Bronte's novels occur in John Kucich's Repression
in Victorian Fiction 34-113. Kucich argues that "In
Bronte's novels, the energy of self-negation must ward off
opposing dangers: on the one hand, it refuses the
dependence of fusional passion and insists instead on its
profound and autonomous self-negations; on the other hand,
it refuses to unravel the self completely, and instead
restores it to a combative relationship with others,
transforming self-negation into the powerful image of a
sensibility mysteriously defined in its autonomy by
reserve. Though this return to relationship does not open
the boundaries of the self to others ... it does threaten
to lessen the intensity of destabilization: self-

disjunction is converted into the coherent form of a
represented reserve, and, therefore, a functional self"
(95) .
16 The first commentator to equate women and cyphers
was Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman. "Riches and hereditary honours have made cyphers of
women to give consequence to the numerical figure; and
idleness has produced a mixture of gallantry and despotism
into society, which leads the very men who are the slaves
of their mistresses to tyrannize over their sisters, wives,
and daughters" (106).
17 In an exegesis resembling that of Gilbert and
Gubar, Tanner explores the relationship between the nun's
emergence and Lucy's emotional and psychological evolution.
Tanner asserts that "When Lucy first meets Madame Beck she
is so disoriented by her strange surroundings she expects
something 'spectral' but instead encounters a manifestly
physical being. When she is removed to La Terrasse the
familiar furniture of her childhood is de-realized. . .
Because the 'room and locality were gone', on which her
sense and security depended, a complete epistemological
uncertainty ensues. . The apparition of the Nun
presents the problem in an extreme form" (20).
18 Maynard argues that the nun is the creation of
Lucy's complex psychology, that "Lucy sees the nun because
she herself projects it, indeed is a kind of religieuse, as
de Hamal called her in a billet-doux she happened to
find. . Lucy sees the nun both at times of suppression
and at times when her sexual feelings become somewhat too
strong for her resolution of moderation" (192) .
19 Newton contends that "Lucy officially separates
herself from a woman's proper sphere and from a love and
marriage plot, for the second time in the novel, when she
buries Graham's letters, and it is noteworthy that her
second separation is more consciously achieved than the
first: Lucy seals the letters in an airtight bottle, buries
them, and then covers the hole with slate and cement"
(119) .

20 For cogent readings that situate Virginia Woolf's
style within a political-cultural context, see Moore, Short
Season, and DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending. See also
Transue, who argues that Woolf's style, in and of itself,
works as a feminist/political instrument: "Whatever their
sources, Woolf's stylistic innovations function as subtle
vehicles of a feminist consciousness. Realizing the
impossibility of using the traditional novel to express
what was, after all, a new way of seeing reality, Woolf
developed a new form, one which would clothe her vision
without distorting it. . . . Eschewing the logical
processes of thought espoused by her Cambridge-educated
peers, she dove beneath the surface of life to the
unconscious where she could, in Ellen Rogat's phrase,
'discover language unfettered by masculine values'" (12).
21 For a particularly revealing discussion of Woolf's
pacifism, see Carr. See also Marcus' "Art and Anger."
22 As Transue points out, "From the very beginning,
Woolf resisted the constraints of an artistic tradition
which she found unsuitable to the expression of her vision
and set about to metamorphose new forms from the old.
Although she despised 'preachiness' in novels and firmly
believed that the artist's mind had to be 'unfettered by
grievances' in order to create, she was a true feminist in
that she insisted throughout her career on the legitimacy
and importance of a view of reality which was distinctly
feminine. As she struggled to create the style and
structures capable of conveying that perspective, she
exposed in the process the limitations and one-sidedness of
the masculine perspective which had dominated literature
for so long" (181).
23 While Marcus offers an illuminating analysis of
Woolf's effort to distance her discourse from gender-bound
language, she neither investigates the importance of the
epistolary form in nineteenth-century literature nor offers
a sustained analysis of Three Guineas.
24 For an impressive reading of Woolf's focus on
nationalism, patriarchy, and war, see Carroll.

25 On the question of Woolf's calculated detachment
from male-dominated culture, see Maria DiBattista's "The
Play of Will." DiBattista argues that "Woolf's
disassociation from patriarchal culture is no mere
'experiment in passivity,' as some critics suggest. Her
act of withdrawal from the official culture, like
Antigone's, permits her to exercise a natural and therefore
superior right: to reenact the sanctified rituals that
constitute the original ground of all human and natural law
and, in doing so, to fulfill her own feminine nature to
join in loving" (139).
26 DiBattista comments that "In a world at war . .
Woolf remained the purist, the outsider who recalled and
preserved the creative and controlled denotations of an
inherited vocabulary form" (139).
27 Jane Marcus borrows Woolf's phrase as the title of
her essay, "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers," in New
Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Marcus writes that
"When Virginia Woolf wrote that 'we think back through our
mothers,' she had, as usual, a triple point to make, since
her roles as artist, feminist and socialist were subtly
intertwined in what she called 'the triple ply,' and her
literary criticism is always a braided narrative with three
strands of thought. She meant here, I think, to assert
that fiction had long been female territory, but, more than
that, that each generation of women writers influences each
other, that style evolves historically and is determined by
class and sex" (8).

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