Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Paradox of Effeminized Masculinity and the Crisis of Authorship

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Paradox of Effeminized Masculinity and the Crisis of Authorship

Article excerpt

Making a spectacle out of oneself seemed a specifically feminine danger. The danger was of an exposure. Men, I learned somewhat later in life, "exposed themselves," but that operation was quite deliberate and circumscribed. For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had more to do with a kind of inadvertency and loss of boundaries.

Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque

"O come (a voice seraphic seems to say) Fly that pale form--come sisters! come away. Come, from those livid limbs withdraw your gaze, Those limbs which Virtue views in mute amaze; Nor deem, that Genius lends a veil, to hide The dire apostate, the fell suicide."

Richard Polwhele, The Unsex'd Females

Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft

Throughout his 1798 anti-feminist satire, The Unsex'd Females, Richard Polwhele constructs a clear dichotomy between a female authorial subject whose literary activities do not compromise the operation of a femininity "to NATURE true" (11) and the "unsex'd" female author whose literary pursuits render her monstrous, deviant, and, above all, "unnatural." Although Polwhele attacks (and simultaneously constructs) the generic category of the "unsex'd" female author throughout his poem, he reserves his most virulent satire for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the radical 1790 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, and its feminist counterpart of two years later, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Presenting her as the "intrepid champion of her sex" (13) and as leader of her band of "unsex'd" female followers, Polwhele represents Wollstonecraft as a pathological aberration, a vision of bodily disease and moral sickness that threatens the "healthy" state of femininity best embodied by the "seraphic" Hannah More (28). My second epigraph stages the climax of this confrontation, as More, a vision of grace and happiness, recalls her "unsex'd" "sisters" from the "pale form" and "lived limbs" of a morally and physically "sick" Wollstonecraft (28).

While Polwhele's poem serves as a significant document pathologizing the "unnatural" authorial body of Wollstonecraft, it takes perhaps its most compelling form as an intertext to another 1798 publication also invested in constructing a public face for the recently deceased author. William Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in an attempt to "give to the public some account of the life of a person of eminent merit deceased," an attempt meant to counter and defuse the "thoughtless calumny" and "malignant misrepresentation" that had dogged his wife in the final years of her life (43). On one level, the intention of the Memoirs is clear: in constructing Wollstonecraft as a heroine of sensibility, a woman of acute feeling who is both sensitive to the inequalities of gender and class and determined to address them through reasoned argument, Godwin attempts to recuperate Wollstonecraft's personal reputation and preserve, for posterity, her authorial persona. It is in this sense that Mitzi Myers reads the text as an "idealized labour of love" (303)--a sympathetic narrative of an early feminist icon structured around the literary conventions of the eighteenth-century novel of sensibility.

As Myers recognizes, however, such a narrative is anything but objective, and, for Myers, the text is so infused with Godwin's personal introspection that it becomes his own "autobiography" of "intellectual" and "emotional" development (300). Despite the balance suggested by this parallel narrative structure, there are significant moments in the Memoirs where the text elides its own biographical subject in favour of what Mary Jacobus sees as its true narrative--that of Godwin's "conversion into a man of feeling" (278). What remains to be explored, however, is the extent to which this construction of himself as a "man of feeling" furthers Godwin's more general articulation of his own authorial identity within the public space of a proliferating and shifting print culture. …

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