This week, the National Book Critics Circle announced that two feminist literary scholars, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, would be the recipients of its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award.
The front cover of my paperback copy of The Madwoman in the Attic got torn off years ago; the back cover is hanging on courtesy of bubbled Scotch tape. On the title page, I wrote my name and the date 1981, which means I bought my copy in graduate school, two years after Madwoman came out. My memory may be faulty, but here’s my best recollection of the gender breakdown of the literature courses I took back then: one course devoted to Jane Austen; one modernism seminar in which we read some Virginia Woolf; and … that was it. Every other writer I studied in grad school was male and, of course, white. That was just the way it was. Even my own dusty dissertation on 19th century culture critics like John Ruskin and William Morris was, to my present-day dismay, an exclusive boys club.
The Western canon was not liberated overnight, but Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar certainly stuck a wedge firmly into the frat house door when they wrote The Madwoman in the Attic. The two were, then, young professors at Indiana University and had co-taught a course in women’s literature when they stumbled onto, what they called in their introduction, a “distinctively female literary tradition … which no one had yet defined in its entirety.” If the grandness of that claim sounds akin to something Howard Carter might have said when he discovered King Tut’s tomb, well, the buried literary treasure Gilbert and Gubar unearthed was, to many of us readers back then, every bit as dazzling.
The undercover female tradition that Gilbert and Gubar were talking about was one in which writers as disparate as Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot used similar themes and images to dramatize the social limitations they themselves suffered as women. Once you started looking for metaphors of confinement, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrated, you saw that novels like Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey and Middlemarch were jampacked with images of locked rooms and closets, dungeons and enclosures, as well as overbearing patriarch-jailors. Also running through 19th century women’s novels and poetry were out-of-control characters, “maddened doubles [who] functioned as asocial surrogates for [more] docile [female] selves.” The most famous example of one of these doubles gave Gilbert and Gubar’s book its catchy title: howling Bertha Rochester, imprisoned in her husband’s attic, giving vent to the forbidden feminist anger of plain Jane Eyre.
To read The Madwoman in the Attic the first time round was thrilling — as though you’d been introduced to a secret code in women’s literature, hiding in plain sight. But the value of Madwoman is much more than sentimental: The reason I still have my 1981 paperback is that I refer to it all the time when I teach 19th century literature and my students dip into it, too.
How many works of literary criticism have become classics themselves? If you’re an old English major you may think of a few — M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Edward Said’s Orientalism, essays by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden — but the list is short and, once again, pretty boy-heavy. Gilbert and Gubar’s close readings remain sharp, and even if their pioneering punning wordplay now seems a bit tired, the adventurousness of their argument remains undiminished. Their celebration of the rebelliousness of women writers and their female heroines shapes our contemporary cinematic and even Masterpiece Theatre depictions of Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Jo March, and contributes to the ongoing invention of characters like Lady Sybil Crawley.
One more word in praise of The Madwoman in the Attic: To write the book, Gilbert and Gubar had to know their Milton and all the other dead white male writers their female subjects read. Unlike some scholars who followed, Gilbert and Gubar weren’t arguing against the existence of a literary canon; instead, they wanted to mix it up, make it more expansive and combative.
Time marches on. Gilbert and Gubar collaborated on many more books, including The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Last year, Gubar published an account of her battle with ovarian cancer called Memoir of a Debulked Woman; it’s a raw read. But as we used to say in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the personal is political. Illuminating women’s lives through writing has been a lifelong project for both Gilbert and Gubar, an escape from the attic of inhibition and convention.