A Blurred Picture: Adolescent Girls Growing Up in Fanny Burney, George Eliot, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen and Dacia Maraini
Giobbi, Giuliana, Journal of European Studies
She experienced a sudden distress of spirit, thinking in a half-conscious way that she hadn't - hadn't yet found herself . . . couldn't - could not put herself together, all of a piece (. . .) Why suffer so much?(1)
Adolescence is certainly one of the most difficult and interesting stages in the progress of human life. In the case of adolescent girls, there are even more complex transformations and traumas both on the physical and on the psychological level.
We propose to examine the different images of adolescent girls given by women writers in different times and situations: to this purpose, we shall analyse Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860), Rosamond Lehmann's Invitation to the Waltz (1932), Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart (1938) and Dacia Maraini's L'Eta del Malessere (The Awkward Age, 1962). In differing fashion and atmosphere, all the girls depicted by these authors follow a definite path of formation and growth, according to the pattern established by the Bildungsroman genre.(2)
However, the fact of the writer being a woman and the particular attention given to the feelings and reactions of adolescent girls create many exceptions to the male prototype and give us a chance to consider the relevance of such a theme for modern - and post-feminist - revaluation purposes.
Puberty is when the still struggling woman-child receives her coup-de-grace. (. . .) This is the time when she will reap the fruits of the whirlwind. All her conflicts come home to roost. If she cannot strike an equilibrium between her desires and her conditioning this is when she breaks down, runs away, goes wrong, begins to fail in school, to adopt forms of behaviour which are not only anti-social but self-destructive.(3)
Adolescence in itself is a dramatic change, which takes up many different aspects: physical, emotional, family, legal, group and social. It is also a search for identity, in so far as genders become polarly opposed, so that boys and girls adapt themselves to the roles and stereotypes sanctioned by the society in which they live. In conforming to their peers and to the common 'rules', adolescents acquire different attitudes and try to discover how to behave 'socially' in order to be accepted and become adults. The different spheres of family, school and friends may challenge the adolescent and provoke conflicts. There is uncertainty and chaos in the mind and in the body of the adolescent; there is joy and pain at the same time, novelty and awkwardness in the young person's adjusting to a new dimension of being and doing. Lack of self-confidence, mistrust of adults, wish for autonomy, wealth of energies and feelings, all these elements contribute to cause an unprecedented turmoil which is difficult to live through. This is probably the main reason why an adolescent is an interesting 'subject' for a novelist to focus his/her interest upon. Naturally, female adolescence is richer in complexities and problems in comparison with the male. In the novels we have arbitrarily chosen - without a particular chronological preoccupation - as thought-provoking examples of fictionalized female adolescence, we may notice that the writer's all-pervasive attention is for the young heroine. As readers, we are made to follow the young inexperienced heroine along the initiation path, to sympathize with her uncertainties and approve - or disapprove - of her choices while observing her reactions to the trials imposed by life.
Oh my dearest Sir, were I but worthy the prayers and the wishes you offer for me, the utmost ambition of my heart would be fully satisfied! but I greatly fear you will find me, now that I am out of the reach of your assisting prudence, more weak and imperfect than you could have expected.(4)
Fanny Burney had a notable success in the genre of the domestic novel focused on the delineation of manners and the detailed behaviour of characters in a limited social environment. …