“Miss Grief” (1880) by Constance Fenimore Woolson and “Lady Tal” (1892) by Vernon Lee: a Comparative Study
Université de la Réunion
The nineteenth century is established as a pivotal period in the history of English literature, with its fair amount of women successfully breaking through the male-dominated world of the written word. Indeed, with such famous names as the unavoidable sisters Brontë, but also George Eliot or Emily Dickinson, this particular era stands as what could be associated with a ‘Golden Age’ for women in literature, with a degree of visibility and respect never reached before, reflecting thus a change in the critical reception of feminine literary productions. As Elaine Showalter puts forward in the introduction to her work, Daughters of Decadence:
“Not only as heroines of drama, but also as competitors in the marketplace, women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s. They were writing with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to – and about – the New Women of the fin de siècle.” (Showalter 1993: vii )
Introducing these controversial subjects and thus breaking the taboos established by a rigid society, the woman writer of the fin de siècle places herself in total opposition to the image of the male-subjected female writer, carried along by her predecessors.
Hence, as early as the eighteenth century, with the advent of writers such as Jane Austen, the woman writer gradually expanded her restricted horizon, and the topics explored, as a consequence, acquired more depth. As Vineta Colby analyses in her work entitled The Singular Anomaly:
“Their “proper sphere” widened proportionately from the heart to the head, from the domestic hearth to the world outside, from the sentimental and emotional problems of individual characters to the intellectually challenging social, moral, ethical, and religious problems of society-at-large.” (Colby 1970: 3)
Yet, if the abstract, thematic feminine ‘proper sphere’ was no longer valid to a few daring women writers, for the majority of a new generation of aspiring authoresses, stepping out of the sentimental world and knocking on the door of the male-reserved universe of ‘elevated’ literature meant submitting to the masculine standards of quality: yet another form of subjection. Indeed, as Elaine Showalter points out in A Literature of Their Own: ‘Women writers, who were almost all self-taught, were expected to meet male standards of scholarship if they ventured to use their knowledge’ (Showalter 1977: 42). Wearing the indelible mark of gender, a few authoresses decided to go beyond the stage of imitation of style and, in an attempt to produce pieces of work respected in the higher ranks of the literary circles, went to the extreme of altering their identity, and chose a masculine alias.
From imitation through impersonation, the woman writer had reached the stage of collaboration with her male counterpart by the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the fact that such authors as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde or Henry James were still considered by the feminine circles in literature as eminent figures of authority in their discipline. The two authoresses on which we chose to lay our focus for this study – the American Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) and the cosmopolitan Vernon Lee (1856-1935) – belong to this wave of women writers and, as an interesting point, shared an admiration for the work of the iconic Henry James; both had the privilege to receive in return the respect and friendship of the estimated man. Both authoresses were listed in Elaine Showalter’s work of compilation, Daughters of Decadence, and the novellas chosen by the editor, entitled respectively ‘Miss Grief’’ (1880) and Lady Tal’ (1892), are of particular interest in the frame of the study of the woman writer’s progressive acquiring of a voice of her own.
Our purpose will be to study the intermediary stage between the woman writer’s submissive situation of subordination to the dominant male masters and her newly acquired position as self-reliant, independent master of a self-defined sphere of her own. Thus, we will endeavour in our study to determine the position occupied by the works of Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee, respectively “‘Miss Grief’” and ‘Lady Tal’ in this transitory phase and analyse their tackling the issue of the reversal of power between the woman apprentice and the male master. Our analysis will be threefold: we will first focus on the biographical and intertextual elements binding these two women through their lives and their works, then we will compare the elements contributing to each of these two female authors’ definition of her new version of the woman writer as ‘the other, the unknowable’ [i] and lastly we will analyse the two heroines’ intermediary situation as women writers in their confrontation to their masculine mentors.
I) Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee: interwoven lives and works
Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee have more in common than the central spring in the plot of their respective stories brought here under study: as in a game of mise en abyme between the internal world of the fiction they wrote and the external reality of their lives, they inked down, as women writers of the nineteenth century, the traits and the fate of what could have been the fictional carbon copy of themselves as authoresses aspiring for success. Indeed, they enjoyed the enviable position of successful professional women writers when they wrote the controversial novellas “‘Miss Grief’” (Constance Fenimore Woolson) and ‘Lady Tal’ (Vernon Lee).
If Constance Fenimore Woolson explored the theme of male artistic domination in the world of literature in two other stories, entitled A Florentine Experiment (October 1880) and In Sloane Street (June 1892), “‘Miss Grief’,” published in May 1880 in Lippincott’s Magazine, was her first attempt at presenting the complexities and realities of the condition of the woman writer. In this work, she endeavoured to draw the portrayal of a woman chasing success, to no avail, in a world of literature and publication still dictated by the publishers’ and male writers’ gendered expectations. The story written by Constance Fenimore Woolson introduces the heroine to the reader as a middle-aged lady coming to the house of the unnamed narrator for help and advice, in her desire to have her novel, Armor, published. The narrator, a young and successful author, reluctantly accepts to help Miss Grief but, leafing through the novel entrusted to his care for proof-reading, discovers the unexpected, singular talent of the authoress. The pride, integrity and stubbornness of the lady will be revealed to the young mentor during the ensuing professional meetings, which bear the original – though never met – aim of rectifying and improving the novel. The narrator, left without any news from the writer during several months, eager at the same time to please the helpless woman and to make the novel his, makes several desperate and ineffectual attempts at cutting down the spinster’s eerie plot to a shape likely to make it look acceptable in the eyes of the editor. Coming across one of her relatives some time later, and hearing of Miss Grief’s worrying health, the author decides, in his last visit to the dying lady, to conceal her failure behind the deceptive news of the success of Armor at the house of the publisher. As an epilogue, the narrator informs the reader of his intention, with the invoked motivation of egotism, to burn into oblivion the whole of the literary legacy confided to him by Miss Grief.
Published twelve years later, in a collection gathering three ‘sketches of frivolous women,’[ii] entitled Vanitas, Polite Stories, the novella Lady Tal’ concentrates on the same theme and revolves around an outline similar to that used as the basis of Woolson’s story: the analysis of the relationship established as a ‘she-novelist’ comes to a male author’s in a request for literary help. In Vernon Lee’s work, Jervase Marion, the main male character, meets the young Lady Tal at a dinner party; she is an intriguing widow with ambitious prospects of publishing a story of her own. Brought against his will into the process of helping her carry out her project, the narrator, presented with the major flaw of a devouring appetite for the study of human behaviour, will learn to know better the witty lady through the months covered by the encumbering experience. If for this experimented man of letters the work submitted to his appreciation contains no trace of literary originality or quality, the regular encounters with his unpredictable apprentice will lead him to reconsider his prejudiced attitude towards her. The novella ends with the final painful delivery of the novel and the curtain is drawn down on a scene picturing the two literary collaborators going back on the weary process and Lady Tal’s ambiguous proposal of a future project implying the extension of their partnership.
Similar in their peculiar context of creation – women writers writing about women writers –, similar in theme beyond the nuances brought by their respective plots, these two works also present similarities in their respective fates. Indeed, these stories are mostly famous for their misreadings as romans à clef, under which angles the presence of a Jamesian main character in both works has been the triggering element of a series of critical theories. Within the precise frame of our study, figuring among the numerous rumours surrounding the intriguing pair is the belief that Henry James presumably made extensive use of the literary ideas suggested to him by Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose “‘Miss Grief’” was supposedly to be read as her literary response, in the form of a fictionalised but personal attack against the preying Henry James. Indeed, the male author set as the narrator of Woolson’s story has been the object of several minute analyses aimed at pointing out the several similarities between the character and the famous author, as does Anne E. Boyd, providing in Writing for Immortality a minute analysis of the elements related to Henry James in the plot (Boyd 2004: 190-1).
Nevertheless, as Adeline R. Tintner points out,[iii] the hypothesis establishing Woolson’s work as a direct revenge against him cannot be valid, as the story, though sporting a Jamesian narrator, was written before her actual meeting with the author.
In Vernon Lee’s case, the reading of her work as a roman à clef was indeed motivated by a fair number of fictional details calling for association with echoing elements in the woman writer’s life. Indeed, three main clues can be detected, which, in a literal reading of the work, could encourage the assertion of the position of Lady Tal as Vernon Lee’s fictional double. The first obvious lead lays in the use of the first name ‘Violet’ in Lady Tal’s novella, Christina. Then, appearing in the background of the plot, the evocation of the relationship between Lady Tal and her deceased brother reads as a grim omen concerning the author’s relationship with her own brother, Eugene Lee-Hamilton. As in a partial reproduction of Vernon Lee’s own family tree, Gerald Burne is tellingly presented as Lady Tal’s half brother, born of their mother’s first marriage with a Colonel Burne: Eugene Lee-Hamilton and Violet Paget were born of the same mother, but while Violet’s father was Eugene’s tutor – Henry Paget – Eugene’s was the fruit of their mother’s first union with Captain James Lee Hamilton (Colby 2003 : 4-5).
Thus unconsciously laying the basis for a relation of total correspondence between the contents of the fictional work and the reality of her own life, Vernon Lee’s use of Henry James’s mannerism in her characterisation of Jervase Marion was misinterpreted by the critical reader as an invitation to attribute the acts and thoughts of the fictional look-alike to his real-life model: Vineta Colby points out the fact that Lady Tal’ ‘was unfortunately read as a roman à clef by everyone who knew Henry James and also knew Vernon Lee’s propensity for tactlessness.’ (Colby 2003 : 194).
Having thus worked towards the setting of these two works on parallel tracks, we can see that, as in the repetition of the same story, these two women walked a long section of a similar path writing “‘Miss Grief’” and ‘Lady Tal’ respectively. Nevertheless, beyond the biographical coincidences surrounding their creation and reception, what appears interesting to us is that, in the fashion of an unconscious palimpsest,[iv]Vernon Lee has produced, with a temporal gap of twelve years, a work appearing as the literary mirror image of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s work: reversed yet similar. Indeed, in a closer, comparative study of the contents of these two texts, the reader can notice the repetition of a series of motifs which we will endeavour to uncover progressively throughout our intertextual study. We will thus proceed with a diachronic study of these two works, setting Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella as the hypothetical point of departure for Vernon Lee’s text. In her work entitled Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, [v]Julia Kristeva, extending the results of Bakhtin’s research in the field of language, declares:
“each word (text) is an intersection of words (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. In Bakhtin’s work, these two axes [the horizontal axis (subject-addressee) and the vertical axis (text-context)] coincide, bringing to light an important fact:, which he calls dialogue, and ambivalence, are not clearly distinguished. Yet, what appears as a lack of rigour is in fact an insight first introduced into literary theory by Bakhtin: any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double.” (Allen 2000 : 66)
In Kristeva’s view, the mechanism of literary production thus seems to work as a constant process of appropriation, since the creating subject does not exist in complete isolation but interacts with and reacts to elements present in their environment in a dialogical way. As already put forward, our two authors present a rather impressive number of coinciding, echoing elements in their respective lives, among which the particular context of the fin de siècle in which they evolved, and which has lead them both to pour in their contributions to the debate surrounding women writers’ condition in the veiled form of fiction. While frequently referred to in the same works, often only separated by the space of a comma in the same sentence, Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee seem to be linked by their ‘common denominator,’ their friend Henry James, and there seems to be no mention of the possibility of the existence of a direct relationship between the two women. Nevertheless, Vernon Lee, an extremely learned woman of letters who evolved in a close if not similar circle to that of Constance Fenimore Woolson may have come across and read “‘Miss Grief,’” the production of Lady Tal’ inscribing itself in their common context as a plausible answer’ to Woolson’s work. This hypothetical avenue appears to be reinforced by the two authors’ choice of the form of the novella: this literary form, placing the work of fiction as longer than the short story though shorter than the novel, implies the writer’s limitation in terms of space for expression. Far from the extensive length of the three-decker novel, this literary form of prose fiction would thus lead the writers to enrich their texts by working on a symbolical dimension.
Nevertheless, and as we will see in the course of our analysis, numerous symbols used by Constance Fenimore Woolson are to be found in ‘Lady Tal,’ thus confirming our hypothesis setting Vernon Lee’s work as the likely result of a process of rewriting: in this case, Vernon Lee would thus have recast the symbols used by Constance Fenimore Woolson, fitting them into her own plot, aiming at producing a new, personal message. In this situation, and to take up Genette’s image of the palimpsest (1982), “‘Miss Grief’” could be seen as the original parchment, which we consider to be visible through underneath the textual framework of ‘Lady Tal.’ Yet, as no tangible proof supporting this hypothesis has come to our knowledge, our analysis of these two works will lay the emphasis on their literary quality in relation with their co-existence in a similar socio-cultural context.
Although we cannot talk here of a process of rewriting owing to lack of evidence, we can see through these two works two different treatments of the topic of the condition of the ‘new woman writer’ and her emancipation from male tutors.
The heroine’s characterization and the attributes conferred on the female main character by the two authors appear to be rather reliable clues to their different approaches. The careful choice of a title for their respective works will constitute the starting point for our study of the two women’s construction of their heroines. Indeed, the displaying of the heroine’s name on the front cover turns out to be an element highly revealing of the character’s outstanding features and to hint at the power relations between the male and the female character, the apprentice and the master.
In both titles, Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson chose to join to the names of the heroines what could be considered as social indicators: respectively, ‘Lady’ and ‘Miss.’
In the case of Woolson’s character, the title of ‘Miss,’ if not directly linked to an assumed young age, infers her celibacy: Miss Grief is indeed described as a spinster whose only offspring will be her written works, as she will declare on her death bed. Although Miss Grief’s sentimental life remains an unexplored facet in the story, her extraordinary determination to publish her work reveals a degree of dedication to the literary world so high that it may account for the absence of any exterior interest. Living alone with a person who is referred to alternatively as her maid and her aunt, clearly not fitting in the stereotype of the conventional woman – who can be roughly summarised as the quiet housewife with children – the character of Miss Grief tends to be construed as the epitome of the emancipated woman writer. However far she may have decided to recede from men, this process of submission of her work to the approval of the male authority, which we will explore in more depth later on in our analysis, still constituted an unavoidable step at that time.
Turning now to Vernon Lee’s work, the title of ‘Lady’ endows her heroine with a higher, diametrically opposed social status. Carrying no assumption concerning either her marital status or her age, as was the case with our other heroine, the reader will need to go through the first pages of the story to learn that the female main character is a single widow still in the prime of life. Having already been married once, Lady Tal seems to be more of a conformist as far as women’s marital obligations are concerned than her counterpart in Woolson’s work, even if she refers to this experience of matrimony as a mistake; nevertheless, her apparent decision not to renew this experience seems to set her at the moment of the narration as firmly independent as Miss Grief is. Moreover, her ladyship seems to have inherited from her late husband the wealth associated to her high rank in society, which allows her, economically if not on a gender basis, to stand on an equal footing regarding her mentor, Jervase Marion. Hence, if Lady Tal is not as opposed to the influential company of men as Miss Grief is, the financial gap established in Woolson’s version of the relation is here erased, allowing her to enjoy a less submissive attitude to her mentor.
Studying the social indicators contained in both titles allows us to pinpoint the first traits of the heroines’ characterisation, revealing a socially emancipated but professionally dependent Miss Grief, as opposed to a self-assertive, worldly Lady Tal. Further clues to the power relations between the male and female main characters in those works are to be found in the second part of the title: the heroines’ names.
The names under which these two women appear in the titles and by which they will be addressed most of the time throughout the stories are patent nicknames, simplified forms of either their actual names or surnames.
Providing her real name in full and introducing herself as Miss Aarona Moncrief later on in the story, the heroine is at first identified by the narrator as Miss Grief, following what appears to be the narrator’s servant’s misunderstanding (Woolson 1880 : 166). Despite Miss Grief’s providing her real identity and rectifying the mistake made, the narrator declares that he ‘preferred to call her so,’ in reference to her truncated name (Woolson 1880 : 169). Keeping the altered form of her name is a deliberate choice from the narrator, and his truncating and reducing of the woman’s identity seems to participate in his domineering attitude to her. Indeed, even before tackling her work and trying to remodel it, the narrator here reshapes Aarona’s identity according to his sole judgement, thus imposing his partial appreciation on the reader’s mind. For the narrator and for the reader, Miss Aarona Moncrief becomes a synonym of Grief through an easy game on sounds and this aspect of her truncated personality will be an active factor in the dramatization of her unavailing pursuit of publication. In her reading of “‘Miss Grief,’” Anne E. Boyd analyses:
“The title itself “‘Miss Grief,’” is the name the male writer chooses for her. But the quotation marks Woolson places around the name call his perspective into question. This story told through his eyes again distances the reader from the woman’s experience and neutralizes her anger.” (Boyd 2004 : 192)
Indeed, the weight of the narrator’s subjectivity in his telling of the story, though natural for the reader within the boundaries of the text, is made even more conspicuous by the author’s choice of typography for its title. This subtle warning as regards the masculine bias reminds the reader of the nature of this work, originally written by a woman: taking on the male character’s point of view, and calling the reader’s attention to it, Woolson’s underlying will seems to be to point at the male author’s incomplete vision and evaluation of her heroine’s work, in particular, and of the women writers of the time in a broader frame.
If in Woolson’s heroine’s name, ‘Grief’ comes from the faulty shortening of the patronymic Moncrief, in a rather disturbing coincidence, the name appearing in Vernon Lee’s title also comes from the simplification of the heroine’s real name. Yet, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw’s nickname does not wear the same demeaning aspect as in the negative and dark ‘Grief.’ Coming from the simplification of the heroine’s Christian name ‘Atalanta,’ the abbreviation ‘Tal’ seems to have been chosen by our heroine’s friends and is obviously connected to her ‘six foot high’ body. Besides her high position in the social ladder, Lady Tal’s formidable stature goes hand in hand with an obvious high degree of self-confidence. Casting an analytical, sarcastic glance on the world ‘below’ her, Miss Walkenshaw appears, in the reader’s eyes as well as in Jervase’s, as the dominating force of the aristocratic universe of superficial concerns in which she evolves. We can notice that, as in a deliberate game of oppositions, the portrayal of Vernon Lee’s heroine seems to gradually develop into Miss Grief’s image in negative: Lady Tal’s imposing physical appearance radically contrasts with Miss Grief’s self-effacing manner, the latter’s body being depicted by the narrator as ‘shrinking,’ retreating further and further away in her clothes. While Woolson’s heroine appears physically overwhelmed with her eponymous grief, Lady Tal stands ‘very tall, straight, and strongly built’ (Lee 1892 : 16), bearing the external signs that the reader is likely to interpret as revealing a proud and self-confident woman. The multiple interpretations drawn from the heroine’s nickname ‘Tal’ – confirmed in the analysis of her portrayal provided in the inner pages – thus confirms our hypothesis that the author sets on stage a strong female character. In Lady Tal,’ the simplified name appears weighed on the author’s side, revealing Vernon Lee’s more positive, even optimistic approach to the subject.
II) The powerful woman writer: ‘the other, the unknowable’
The conclusion of our preliminary analysis of the titles of these two works has thus shown the authors’ choice of contrasting angles, with the resulting dichotomy between the sickly-looking Miss Grief and the strongly-built Lady Tal. Yet, while the heroines’ names introduce them as one-faced characters, both authors, unfolding the story, will let us see through the developing of their heroines’ ventures different approaches to the issue of the female novelist’s evolution in the setting up of a ‘literature of her own,’ paralleling their desire for men’s recognition. In order to set these parallel tracks, the heroine’s first step in both works aims at making herself known, imposing the feminine literary production long denied by the representative of the masculine authority in each work: the unnamed narrator in “‘Miss Grief’” and Jervase Marion in ‘Lady Tal.’ Hence initiating their attempt at overthrowing the masculine authority, thus reversing the traditional balance of powers between genders, the two women writers first impose themselves by disarming the male authors. Forcing them to evaluate their novels, the two heroines employ a similar technique of persuasion, reported by the male instance in both novellas as a process of hypnosis.
Having started by obtruding their presence as women writers, both heroines endeavour to assert themselves, a process in which Miss Grief turns out as the fiercest actor, contrary to the narrator’s and the reader’s first expectations. Indeed, while depicted as adopting an attitude of extreme submission during their first encounter – which we will explore later in our analysis – Miss Grief’s tenacity, unveiled in her first uncontrolled fit of anger, is clearly revealed throughout her professional relationship with the young novelist. As she brings her novel with the hope of eventually accessing to its publication, the female author appears determined not to let herself be impressed by the male novelist’s social and professional superior position. Indeed, though showing intermittent signs of awe in front of the narrator, after demanding the narrator’s professional judgement of her work, Miss Grief shows no sign of interest for the male author’s advice as he proceeds with his negative stylistic criticism. Thus remaining stubbornly deaf, Woolson’s heroine actually reverses the situation and presses on making the male author lose his position of supreme authority – consciously or not – as she insists on having him hear and recognise her talent. ‘“I will not read it, but recite it.”’ Woolson 1880 : 178), ‘“I will recite it,” she repeated”’; ‘“And now you will let me recite it?”’ Woolson 1880 : 179, original emphasis). Choosing to read aloud and thus depriving the male author of his Cartesian support for his measuring tool, Miss Grief literally imposes her own voice, and succeeds in making the narrator’s opinion sway in her favour.
Thus proving her capacity to exist with her own voice, Miss Grief radically sets herself on parallel tracks as the other’: assuming an active role in the building of the woman writer’s new, increasingly independent identity, she endeavours to take a separate stance on the literary ground, standing beyond the boundaries of pre-definition of quality as she tries to escape masculine reason. Challenging man’s authority and preconceptions on the literary ground, Miss Grief can be considered to find her female equivalent, in the larger circle of society, in the person of Miss Abercrombie. Indeed, Constance Fenimore Woolson, making this second female character appear in the background, seems to point to the fact that the male author’s patronizing attitude towards the woman writer ensues from his similarly imprisoning behaviour towards the ‘social’ woman. While he attempts throughout the novella to make Miss Grief and her work fit in the circle of his preconceived standards of quality, the unnamed narrator had already endeavoured to incarcerate the young Miss Abercrombie in the frame he had already built for her, as he reveals to have set ‘a careful theory of that young lady’s characteristics in [his] own mind’ (Woolson 1880: 167). Nevertheless, prefiguring the heroine’s success in escaping the narrator’s grasp, standing up for her authentic identity, Miss Abercrombie similarly successfully opposed herself to the young man’s reading grid, challenging the reason of ‘constructor of theories’ he claims he is and, breaking out of his hold, has ‘taken flight’ (Woolson 1880: 167).
Facing the male narrator to a wall of incomprehension, the woman, and by extension the woman writer in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella, turns into an increasingly resistant subject and thus widens the dimensions of her identity beyond the stereotypical image of the dull object easy to master. This same symbol of female opposition through her resistance to masculine endeavour to nail her down can also be noticed in Vernon Lee’s work, as she extends the idea to the main spring governing the relationship between Lady Tal and Jervase Marion. Indeed, though the latter is declared not to be “a man of theories (their cut-and-driedness offending his subtlety)” (Lee 1892: 42), the “demon of psychological study” constantly lurking in his mind seems to have unconsciously lead him to create neatly delineated human patterns and pre-determined psychological labels, a process paralleling Woolson’s narrator’s efforts at rationalising his lover’s attitude.
Nevertheless, escaping Jervase Marion’s boxes and labels, Lady Tal, furthering the example provided by Miss Abercrombie, challenges the psychological novelist on his own favourite field. Indeed, going against the male author’s former judgement that ‘[t]his woman did not seem an individual at all’ (Lee 1892: 18), the young lady’s remarkable character progressively undermines the psychological observer’s authoritarian speculations. Destroying his first prejudices, Jervase Marion acknowledges his mistakes, and turns out to have ‘recognised, in the course of various conversations, that this young lady formed an exception to the rule that splendid big creatures with regular features and superb complexions are invariably idiots’ (Lee 1892: 33). Fostering surprise and incomprehension, Vernon Lee’s heroine shatters most of the male author’s guesses, whether concerning her behaviour or her complex personality. Hence puzzling the male character at the core of his beliefs, the balance of powers here again seems to be reversed: if she cannot be read by Jervase Marion, it appears that she can clearly see through him and seems to be reading his mind. Indeed, unveiling the male author’s train of thoughts, she declares early in their acquaintance : ‘“You say that because of the modelling of my face […] I dare say I have taken too much for granted. One ought never to take anything for granted, in the way of human insight, ought one?”’ (Lee 1892: 37-8). Implicitly warning the psychological novelist by this last sentence, she nevertheless proves to be talented in observation and guesses. This gift shows through the earlier disconcerting declaration about her want of soul or as underlined by such thoughts from Jervase Marion as ‘Quite true’ (Lee 1892: 76) or ‘Lady Atalanta had most certainly hit the right nail on the head’ ( Lee 1892: 53).
This theme of perceptiveness verging on strange clairvoyance is also present in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s work: Miss Grief, endeavouring to demonstrate her respect for the narrator’s work and showing her appreciation of the sentiments conveyed, impresses the young man who declares: ‘she had understood me – understood me almost better than I had understood myself’ Woolson 1880: 170). While in this case this perceptiveness is not an element to be exploited by Woolson’s heroine, Lady Tal on her part uses it as a means to take advantage and assume a dominant position in her relationship with Jervase Marion.
This first analysis of the two heroines’ behaviour in their relationship with their masculine mentors thus puts forward their common strategy of disconcerting the figure of authority as they stand firmly beyond their grasp. Yet, their respective ways of imposing themselves reveal two different choices regarding the situation they yearn for as women writers.
As previously put forward, Miss Grief appears as the more resolute in her endeavour at being fully recognised as a woman writer and seems to build her path to assertion exclusively through opposition. Standing up against the male author, she clearly shows through her behaviour her strong will to preserve her integrity, setting up a situation where it seems that the two participants speak two different languages. Indeed, the two characters obviously do not share the same values in their appreciation of literature, a situation that is exemplified through the narrator’s reaction during their first professional meeting. As he proceeds to underline the flaws he has detected in her work, the narrator realises ‘to [his] surprise […] that she did not see the blemishes – that she appreciated nothing [he] had said, comprehended nothing’ (Woolson 1880: 178). Constance Fenimore Woolson thus sets a situation with the existence of two totally opposed worlds where the stereotypical masculine reason clashes with the cliché of feminine passion: where the male narrator lays the emphasis on stylistic concerns and is focused on the ‘blemishes’ in form – ‘the “how,” rather than the “what,”’ Woolson 1880: 175) – Miss Grief is above all concerned with the emotion of the literary contents and privileges its intrinsic beauty, which she intends to prove by reading out loud an extract of her work to the narrator.
First endeavouring to impose her own values and her own style by opposing herself to dialogue, her resolute desire for integrity without compromise seems to be an element suffusing the structure of her novel in itself. As we can notice in the second part of the plot, the narrator’s efforts at applying the rejected suggestions to Miss Grief’s novel in her absence remain to no avail. Indeed, in the same way as the heroine vocally resisted the young author’s voice, her literary offspring appears to be stubbornly fighting back the strokes from the male author’s correcting pen: following the female novelist’s determined statement that ‘“There shall not be so much as a comma altered”’ in her work (Woolson 1880: 179), the narrator realises in his later endeavour at reshaping her work that indeed, ‘the obstinate drama refused to be corrected; as it was it must stand or fall’ (Woolson 1880: 185). Thus appropriately entitled Armor, not only does the novel remain impervious to the narrator’s stylistic reshaping but also to the male author’s more serious attempt at making the drama his. Here, the alteration clearly shows to be aimed at going beyond the superficial level of the ‘comma,’ as he endeavours to cut down the plot to a marketable script: ‘I was determined that Miss Grief’s work should be received. I would alter and improve it myself, without letting her know’ (Woolson 1880: 185).
The woman writer’s original stamp on the book seems to be deeply imprinted in its framework, an element impossible to remove and indispensable to its functioning. The authentic product of the female novelist, the plot bears in itself a mechanism so alien to the male author’s standards that he cannot manipulate it. This essential element turns out to be similar to the Jamesian baffling ‘complex figure in a Persian carpet’ James, Chapter IV) – as the narrator explains: ‘I found that that apparently gentle “doctor” would not out: he was so closely interwoven with every part of the tale that to take him out was like taking out one especial figure in a carpet: that is, impossible, unless you unravel the whole’ (Woolson 1880: 185).
While Miss Grief succeeds in imposing herself by opposing to the male author an intricate plot marked by a firmly resistant ‘figure in the carpet,’ the presence of a similar image of inscrutability can be noticed in Vernon Lee’s novella. Indeed, setting up elements leading to the progressive allusion to the ‘complex figure in a Persian carpet’ already in use in Woolson’s work, Vernon Lee first evokes the presence, and even the omnipresence of the moon, more precisely under the telling form of ‘[a] white carpet of moonlight’ (Lee 1892: 11), an image underlined by its repetition a few pages later in the description of ‘the moonlight spread[ing] in a soft, shining carpet’ (Lee 1892: 13, my emphasis). Underlined by Catherine Delyfer in her article entitled ‘Rewriting the Myth of Atalanta,’ this image of ‘[t]he moon, traditionally associated with the Greek goddess of maidenhood, is present from the beginning of the short story in an aestheticized form’ (par. 7). This symbol is obviously here to be linked with Lady Tal, as it appears fourteen times throughout the novella, each time in connection with the mysterious female character. This link between the moon and the young lady turns out to be all the more relevant as Vernon Lee proceeds in describing Jervase’s unconscious focusing on this beam of light: the psychological novelist is depicted twice as absorbed in analysing ‘the patterns which the moonlight […] was making on the shining marble floor’ (Lee 1892: 21). This fascination foreshadows his irresistible attraction to Lady Tal’s personality. Having thus linked the moon to the character of Lady Tal, we can notice that if in Woolson’s work the ‘intricate pattern’ is imprinted in Miss Grief’s literary work, in Vernon Lee’s story it is the heroine more than her novel who more directly challenges the male author’s understanding.
In accordance with the description of the complexity lying in the patterns drawn by the moon, Lady Tal is depicted from the outset as an enigma. As an indirect warning against Jervase’s future psychological enterprise, one of the guests, evoking the heroine, declares ‘Lady Tal’s a riddle, and I pity the man who tries to guess it’ (Lee 1892: 26).
Presented in appearance as a compliant pupil eager to follow his example and ‘to conform’ (Lee 1892: 94) to his remarks, Lady Tal proceeds as an actress dissimulating her actual motives. No longer the passive object of observation, but also a source of inspiration, Lady Tal seems to enact the muse’s rebellion as she is empowered by manipulating the psychological observer. While Jervase Marion believes that ‘Lady Tal gratuitously offered herself for study by her quiet, aggressive assumption of inscrutability’ (Lee 1892: 43), the heroine’s behaviour actually seems to conceal a trap. Aware of the temptation she represents for the novelist, if she accepts to follow her mentor’s advice and go through the heavy process of reshaping her novel, her eventual denunciation of the male author’s dishonest attitude is all the more smiting. Indeed, as she fumbles for the symbolical pair of scissors (Lee 1892: 74-5), the heroine denounces the fake dialogue established by Jervase Marion, a so called constructive professional exchange in which the male author has exploited his disciple: pointing at his extensive interference in the rewriting of her own novel, she exclaims ‘“You put all your ideas into poor Christina […] you know you do”’ (Lee 1892: 75). Even though she has accepted this ersatz literary collaboration, Vernon Lee’s heroine eventually proves to be lucid and uncovers the literary project he had begun to contemplate. Indeed, while feeding Lady Tal’s desire of being ‘an incipient George Eliot’ (Lee 1892: 75), Jervase Marion has taken advantage of this professional pretext to use the aspiring novelist as a raw material, a fact which is bluntly unveiled by the perceptive female novelist: ‘“Now, suppose I were the heroine of your novel – you know you are writing a novel about me, that’s what makes you so patient with me and Christina, you’re just walking round, and looking at me”’ (Lee 1892: 69).
Thus facing the psychological novelist to his blameworthy behaviour, the young lady seems to strike the final blow in what we can consider as a constructive revenge. Assuming the active position of an aspiring woman writer, Lady Tal, contrary to Miss Grief, cunningly accepts the dialogue with the male novelist to achieve the collaboration she yearns for: Vernon Lee’s heroine seems to succeed in a slight readjusting of the balance of powers between the two sexes. Indeed, assuming a position of equality as a woman writer, Lady Tal proposes the project of a real literary collaboration: opposing the ‘paternal tone’ (Lee 1892: 83) with which he attempts to reject the prospect, she insists that they ‘ought to write this novel together’ (Lee 1892: 84). Far from Woolson’s heroine’s unavailing attempt at imposition through resolute opposition, Lady Tal hence seems to consider the woman writer’s full recognition through the hope of a situation of actual parity between men and women writers.
III) Women writers’ intermediary situation in their confrontation to their masculine mentors
As explored in the previous part, the two heroines in Woolson and Lee’s works are presented as trying to carve their ways into the literary circles and reach the status of respected women writers, escaping the ‘double critical standard’ as evoked by Elaine Showalter.[vi] Nevertheless, standing at the intersection of a crossroads, with a foot more or less firmly laid on the way to artistic independence, the two aspiring novelists are presented in these novellas, in a more or less accentuated way following the implied message, as still undergoing the smothering weight of man’s domination in their chosen field.
As we can infer from Miss Grief’s peculiarly dark characterisation, Woolson’s heroine appears as the epitome of women’s victimization in this universe. This impression is reinforced by the author’s choice of presenting a set of two diametrically opposed characters: Miss Grief, and the masculine unnamed narrator. Indeed, Miss Grief is presented in negative terms, starting with her physical appearance: being obviously past the prime of her youth, she is catalogued as unattractive and shabby by the handsome young man on their first encounter. Added to the gender superiority the male narrator benefits from, the social gap setting Miss Grief in an inferior position will be a determining element in the adoption of an attitude of blatant submission in the course of her enterprise.
More than contributing to the building up of the reader’s eagerness to meet the mysterious heroine, Miss Grief’s first unavailing visits to the narrator’s house can be interpreted as part of the woman writer’s difficulties in making herself heard and hence succeed in her venture.
Furthermore, after having stepped into the narrator’s home and exposed her project, Miss Grief will unknowingly be confronted to the obstacle of the novelist’s heavy preconception of women writers : the narrator, silently exclaiming to himself ‘“An authoress! This is worse than old lace!”’ (Woolson 1880: 71), is turned into the spokesman of a majority of male writers of the time. This demeaning remark is obviously discriminating against the addition of the feminine suffix ‘-ess’ to the jealously guarded profession, the narrator stubbornly inscribing the woman writer in her stereotypical domestic sphere, grading her literary attempt, or more precisely her appropriation of her right to stand in this field, as more despicable than low-quality embroidery.
In the same view, and as analysed before, Constance Fenimore Woolson points at the partial and prejudiced judgement of women writers’ talent and makes her heroine’s fate clear from the very beginning. Reflecting the narrator’s negative judgement of Miss Grief in advance, despite the absence of any valid basis, the title “‘Miss Grief’” reveals the heroine’s doomed story, bearing a predetermined end, even while the book stays unopened in front of the reader. While in the introductory part of our study, the analysis of the nickname “Grief” laid the emphasis on the ‘conditioning’ effect of the title in the reader’s mind, here our analysis of the same name will focus on the effect produced by this choice at the characters’ level. The narrator, chopping off part of the woman’s identity, in what could be considered as a symbolical act of castration, will doom the authoress to barren production: her literary work being unable to pass through the obstacle of the publisher’s approbation, she will only have given birth to stillborn babies, which she will tellingly refer to as her ‘poor dead children’ on her death bed.
If the young author finally recognises Miss Grief’s talent, the woman writer’s failure will come from her not fitting in the rigid mould of feminine writing. Indeed, going against the publisher’s expectations for a woman writer, the peculiar elements included in the frame of a marketable plot are indeed beyond the limits of the ‘polite story’. The novelist’s unusual creativity brought her to deal with taboos such as death – or more precisely euthanasia – for which she suffered the sentence of censorship in her lifetime and which will doom her works to be buried underground, unknown, with her (Woolson 1880: 188-91). Focusing again on our analysis of the evolution of the women writers’ status, we could say that Woolson in this work introduced to the reader a female novelist ahead of her time, undertaking a literary task doomed to failure – an aborted attempt at breaking ground – her work being placed much too far beyond the boundaries of acceptability for her real talent to be recognised.
In her novella, Vernon Lee presents her heroine as a compliant apprentice and thus seemingly sets her once again as the diametrical opposite of Woolson’s upright female novelist, broaching the issue of conformity with a rather ironical twist. Indeed, as already said before, the female character chosen by Vernon Lee is an aspiring authoress with no artistic gift, but whose main ambition in her venture seems to be the materialistic profits that a successful career as a woman writer would provide her. While Miss Grief’s desire is for her talent to be recognised without any compromise thanks to her novel Armor, Vernon Lee sarcastically points at the apparently well-oiled mechanism enabling the woman writer to reach professional success, and turns Lady Tal into a caricature. In agreement with the presence of a specific sphere for female novelists, our discovery of Lady Tal’s choice concerning the theme of her novel, Christina, places at once the heroine’s novel in a stereotypical frame; as Jervase Marion remarks after his first reading of a book:
The story was no story at all, merely the unnoticed martyrdom of a delicate and scrupulous woman tied to a vain, mean, and frivolous man; the long starvation of a little soul which required affections and duties among the unrealities of the world. Not at all an uncommon subject nowadays; in fact, Marion could have counted you off a score of well-known novels on similar or nearly similar themes. (Lee 1892: 36)
As the mention of an important number of ‘well-known novels’ indicates, the choice of this particular plot and topic, though adding nothing more to the stream of dull writing on the surface, is obviously not part of an innocent process from Lady Tal. While Woolson’s message concerning the woman writer’s situation of subordination regarding man’s status in the literary enterprise is revealed from the fatalistic view, with Miss Grief’s cruel end, Vernon Lee’s ironic tone, piercing through Lady Tal’s fictional voice, presents a less dark though more corrosive view of what appears to be a static situation. If Woolson dooms her heroine to failure and death because of her lack of compliance with these constraints, Lady Tal seems to have learned from the previous novella’s moral: Miss Grief’s talent eventually not being an essential element to success, Lady Tal is determined to assimilate the necessary rules in order to avoid a similar fate. Indeed, accepting to have her work reshaped by the remarks coming from Jervase Marion’s professional eye, Lady Tal applies to her literary undertaking her favourite maxim, articulated in the declaration repeated twice to her mentor: ‘It’s my policy always to conform, you know’ (Lee 1892: 59).
We can notice that, whether in a deliberate effort or out of an unconscious choice, Vernon Lee’s association of her heroine with the male mentor in her apprenticeship underlines the persistent importance of the masculine model. Indeed, while the heroine rather naively declares her desire to soar up to the level of the best writers and become ‘the “new George Eliot of fashionable life”’ (Lee 1892: 72), the whole of her novel is ironically entrusted to a male writer for correction and reshaping. Yet, if we could imagine that Vernon Lee’s heroine comes into contact with Jervase Marion for want of a feminine alternative, her professional proximity with the male writer fathers the production of what appears to be close to George Eliot’s depiction of the lady novelists’ tendency to “an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire.” (Eliot 1854, in Blind 1883: 2). Hence, we could construe the modern reader’s impression concerning Lady Tal’s uncomfortable displacement in her venture as the result of her inaccurate choice of a literary tutor, as compared to her feminine literary references.
The woman writer’s awkward position torn apart between her desire to cling to a masculine literary model and her proclaimed aspiration towards an ideal represented by a feminine literary figure seems to translate into Lady Tal’s depiction of her idea of the perfect woman writer: “a George Eliot and Ouida rolled into one, with the best qualities of Goethe and Dean Swift into the bargain” (Lee 1892: 77). Interestingly enough, both Vernon Lee’s and Woolson’s heroines appear as the representation of an intermediary position, standing physically close to the monster of literary talent imagined by Lady Tal, whose outstanding feature lies in its absence of a definite gender. By their choice of investing themselves in a literary career, and thus stepping into male-dominated circles, these two women, Miss Grief and Lady Tal, can be considered as standing ‘in-between’ the feminine sphere to which they belong by birth and the masculine world of the discipline to which they aspire. Following the widespread criticism of the time which labelled the New Women’s writing as ‘unwomanly’ (Showalter 1993: x), the two authors – Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson – seem to have opted for the same choice of a heroine of questionable femininity.
As in a deliberate attempt to materialise this complex situation, the blending of feminine and masculine characteristics seems to be rendered even more vividly through Vernon Lee’s depiction of her Lady Tal. Furthermore, this physical depiction seems to correspond to the identity of her novel, Christina, as written under Jervase Marion’s influence: a feminine body – represented by the typical choice of theme, the body of the story – endowed with a masculine voice, the articulation of the subject ringing with a male ring.
The image of the borrowing of a masculine voice finds an echo in the authors’ respective choice of a male narrator, in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s case, and of a masculine focalisation in Vernon Lee’s work. This specific – and peculiar – choice remains ambiguous in interpretation, as it appears as a blade with a double edge: while the hypothesis of the plausible aim of criticising the male writer through feigned imitation has been developed in the second part of our study, we can nevertheless analyse at this precise point this adoption of masculinity as an element part of the women writers’ difficulty to grow away from the male point of view. Taking a step back from the fiction for the moment and focusing on the authors’ identity, we could also notice that Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson both have an ambiguous stance in the literary field. Indeed, being turn of the century women writers, their virtual closeness to the masculine authority can be noticed both in Violet Paget’s impersonation through her masculine pen name and through James’s attribution of a masculine identity to his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. The similar proximity with the professional writer must have participated in the two authors’ reverence towards male writers’ authority that can be felt between the lines in both works.
In ‘“Miss Grief,”’ the narrator, though unnamed, is clearly defined as a male character. If the telling of the story made exclusively from his point of view certainly contributes to the female writer’s image of imprisonment, Woolson’s degree of proximity with the narrator’s voice is difficult to assess. Indeed, in her story, the narrator, though obviously condemned for his prejudiced attitude, seems to have the author’s sympathy by the denouement: seemingly sharing with Woolson’s pointing at Miss Grief’s unjust fate, the male character turns out to be the only one who recognised the heroine’s rare talent, as the final endearing formulation reveals: ‘my poor dead, “unavailable”, unaccepted, ‘Miss Grief’ (Woolson 1880: 191). Yet, beyond this simple sharing of feelings with the female novelist, it seems that Woolson’s voice merges with the narrator’s in the appreciation of Armor, as he issues his criticism mingling notes on form and on content: ‘the faults of the drama, which were many and prominent, would have chilled any liking I might have felt, I being a writer myself, and therefore critical’ Woolson 1880: 175). While he admits that ‘the scattered rays of splendour in Miss Grief’s drama had made [him] forget the dark spots’ Woolson 1880: 175), it is nonetheless obvious to him that ‘[t]he want of one grain made all her work void’ Woolson 1880: 190), this ‘one grain’ appearing to be ‘reason’ in its literary aspect. Indeed, we could apply here Anne E. Boyd’s statement, as she reflects on Woolson’s ambiguous position regarding her use of male narrators:
She distances herself from the popular woman writer who possesses a feminine version of genius, “inspiration” without “reason”, as Stoddard would have put it. Rather than valorize this form of genius, like Hale or Henshaw would have done, Woolson looks through the male writer’s eyes and senses both superiority and envy, which she herself probably would feel toward such a woman writer who wrote effortlessly, won admiration, and appeared to be unconscious of her ignorance. (Boyd 2004: 154)
If the narrator is extra-diegetic in Vernon Lee’s novella, Jervase Marion clearly is the main focalizer throughout the telling of the story. Indeed, while the narration shifts between the use of the third person and the occasional insertion of an authorial ‘I,’ the reader benefits from an extensive access to the development of Jervase Marion’s thoughts. As Vineta Colby notices in her analysis of the novella, this complex process of narration is at the origin of ambiguity, with the resulting embarrassing difficulty ‘to distinguish, for example, between Marion berating himself and the author condemning him’ (Colby 1970: 267). Nevertheless, as in the case of “‘Miss Grief,’” in Vernon Lee’s work the narrator’s pieces of negative criticism of Lady Tal’s novel seem to be the echo of the author’s own despising of her heroine’s poor literary style. Vineta Colby puts forward the similarities between Jervase Marion’s protestation – among others – against Lady Tal’s “taking all sort of knowledge for granted in your reader” (Lee 1892: 37) and Henry James’ own criticism of the work submitted to him by Vernon Lee (Colby 1970: 267). Yet, we can say that these same protestations are made Vernon Lee’s, her acute appreciation of style having doubtless been consolidated throughout her career by similar constructive remarks.
It seems that, as far as form and style are concerned, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s and Vernon Lee’s adoption of a masculine point of view allows them at certain points in the story to distance themselves from the imperfect woman writer of their creation, in an attempt akin to George Eliot’s anonymous decrying of the poor quality of the ‘silly novelist’s’ art (Eliot 1856). Indeed, in her originally anonymous critical essay on “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” George Eliot revealed her demanding attitude towards women writers, who seemed too often to shine by the presence in their works of ‘vacillating syntax and improbable incident’ (par. 2), thus echoing the reproaches expressed against the aspiring female novelists in both Woolson’s and Lee’s works. If they both appear through their respective works to fight for the recognition of woman writer’s right to equal status with men in the literary circle, neither of them denied the inherited masculine standards as a basis for a true mastery of the literary art.
Having thus conducted our comparative study of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “‘Miss Grief’” and Vernon Lee’s ‘Lady Tal,’ our main axis has been to underline the relevant elements contributing in placing these texts in the literary continuum as part of what Elaine Showalter designates as the literary ‘missing links’ (Showalter 1993: viii), leading to the opening of the era of feminine modern writing.
While our initial hypothesis had lead us to consider Lady Tal as the outcome of Vernon Lee’s rewriting Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella, the intertextual relationship between these two works is to be considered outside this envisioned link of direct filiation. It now seems more accurate, in the light of the course taken in our comparative study, to consider these works, if not independently, as inter-related missing links representative of two pivotal points in the evolution of the woman writer’s status.
The element that led us to consider “Lady Tal” as the re-writing of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “‘Miss Grief’” had been the presence of a very similar plot in both stories. Yet, what appeared as Vernon Lee’s rewriting of a precise story turns out to be the rewriting of the female writer’s condition on a larger scale, with the presentation of her version of the new woman writer. While the general message conveyed through these two works is aimed at claiming the woman writer’s right to recognition and respect, with the presentation of two muses’ acts of rebellion, the contrasts underlined throughout our study point to the evolution that seem to have occurred in the temporal gap separating their creation and publication, as regards the gender issue in the female-male relation in literary circles. As put forwards in our analysis, Constance Fenimore Woolson approaches this issue by setting her heroine in complete opposition to the unnamed narrator: the solution that seems to be proposed in order to break the male-imposed mould of feminine writing appears in the symbolical, tightly-shut Armor, in which the woman writer finds refuge beyond the control of her masculine mentor. While Woolson presents her heroine’s career as still depending on men’s control, Miss Grief’s conception of the literary ‘sphere of her own’ appears to lie in a distinct and completely hermetic space in this novella. On the other hand, concerning Vernon Lee’s work, the elements gathered throughout our comparative analysis reveal a more sensible approach to this same issue of the dictatorship of gender in the world of literature. Indeed, where Miss Grief attempts to break the mould by bypassing it, Lady Tal subverts this same predetermination, making the mould implode. While Woolson’s heroine appears as the unfortunate, passive victim of this male-dominated universe, Lady Tal goes beyond her predecessor’s mere pointing at the injustices of this milieu, explicitly decrying them in direct confrontation with her masculine tutor. Yet, more than simply pointing at these disparities in treatment, Lee’s heroine, beginning with accepting the rules as defined by the masculine authority, eventually claims her right to stand as a fully recognised literary creator, able to stand on an equal footing with her masculine colleague, bringing her own contribution in the building of a common literary space. Contrary to Woolson’s presentation of a separate feminine sphere, Vernon Lee thus contemplates the woman writer’s sphere as part of what would no longer be a masculine but a global literary sphere, thus allowing exchange and collaboration.
The comparative analysis of these two works has thus revealed the two authors’ diverging presentation of ‘otherness’ in the field of literature: where Constance Fenimore Woolson’s creation proposes the vision of a compartmented literary space, where the only way for women writers’ independent creativity implies the shutting out of the male writer, Vernon Lee, in order to escape from the imposed feminine sphere does not choose opposition but transcends the gender distinction, displaying an androgynous literary sphere, an option which would later be explored and reinforced with Virginia Woolf’s efforts.[vii] Thus, considering the masculine literary tradition as indispensable in women writers’ tracing of their own paths, literary androgyny would constitute, in Vernon Lee’s view, a dynamic feminine response. Hence the New Woman writer would create with authenticity, from an appropriated tradition, transcending the weight of the anxiety of influence.[viii]
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Bloom, Harold. 1997. The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. 2nd edition. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boyd, Anne. E. 2004. Writing for Immortality, Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. United States of America: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Colby, Vineta. 1970. The Singular Anomaly; Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press.
Colby, Vineta. 2003. Vernon Lee, a Literary Biography. United States of America: University of Virginia Press.
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[i] Expression taken from Anne E. Boyd, Writing for Immortality: ‘ The narrator of “‘Miss Grief’” here strongly resembles some of James’s early male characters, most notably Winterbourne in Daisy Miller and Rowland Mallet in Roderick Hudson. For these men, as Priscilla L. Walton says about Roderick Hudson, ‘women function as the Other, the “unknowable”’[…]At issue are the ‘true’ feelings of these women. […] Are these women displaying their ‘real’ selves, or are they, as Christina is accused of being, merely superb actresses?’ (Boyd 2004: 196).
[ii] In a letter directed to “Alla baronessa E. French-cini Pistoia per Igno”, written by Vernon Lee in October 1891 and appearing on pages 5-7 as an introductory notice to her collection Vanitas, Polite Stories as published by Wildside Press.
[iii] “‘Miss Grief’” consisted of showing that, in comparison with James, she was a more powerful, although an un-renowned, writer; there is nothing personal about him in it because she had not yet met him.” (Tintner 1998 : 36) Her establishing Woolson’s work as a personal revenge against James’ fame nonetheless appears rather reductive, as it would undermine the scope of its message concerning the woman writer’s lack of visibility in general.
[iv] Here referring to the image as used by Gérard Genette in the title of his work, Palimpsestes, Paris: Seuil, 1982.
[v] Allen, transl. of Julia Kristeva, Semeiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (1980) (Allen, 39).
[vi] « To their contemporaries, nineteenth century women writers were women first, artists second.» (Showalter 1993 73).
[vii] Elaine Showalter dedicates a chapter to Virginia Woolf’s treatment of the woman writer’s androgynous solution in the setting of a ‘room of her own’, entitled ‘Flight into Androgyny’ in her work, A Literature of Their Own, 1977, pages 263-97.
[viii] For further information about this theory, see Bloom, op. cit., 1944.