The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

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The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination


"And the lady of the house was seen only as she appears in each room, according to the nature of the lord of the room. None saw the whole of her, none but herself. For the light which she was was both her mirror and her body. None could tell the whole of her, none but herself" (Laura Riding qtd. by Gilbert & Gubar, 3).

Beginning Gibert and Gubar’s piece about the position of female writers during the nineteenth century, this passage conjures up images of women as transient forms, bodiless and indefinite. It seems such a being could never possess enough agency to pick up a pen and write herself into history. Still, this woman, however incomprehensible by others, has the ability to know herself. This chapter of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, titled “The Queen’s Looking Glass,” discusses how the external, and particularly male, representations of a woman can affect her so much that the image she sees in the mirror is no longer her own. Thus, female writers are left with a problem. As Gibert and Gubar state, “the woman writer’s self-contemplation may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text. There she would see at first only those eternal lineaments fixed on her like a mask…” (Gilbert & Gubar, 15). In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the narrator and heroine Lucy Snowe is faced with a great deal of “reflections” which could influence her self-image and become detrimental to her writing. However, she is aware that the mirrors she finds, whether the literal mirror of the looking glass or her reflection in other characters’ ...


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... authors insisted that they are” (43). However, instead of doing “fiery and suicidal tarantellas out of the looking glass,” (44) Lucy Snowe decides to ignore the inaccurate representations in the mirrors around her and focus her energies toward constructing a mirror of her own – the “circular mirror of crystal” she is always searching for but that can only be found in the text itself. The line Gilbert and Gubar apply to Brontë and other successful women writers is also valid for Lucy. “The old silent dance of death became a dance of triumph, a dance into speech, a dance of authority” (44).

Works Cited

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

O’Dea, Gregory. “Narrator and Reader in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” South Atlantic Review 53.1 (1988): 41-57.

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