The Hidden Rooms of Isabella Valancy Crawford and P.K. Page

By Campbell, Wanda | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Hidden Rooms of Isabella Valancy Crawford and P.K. Page


Campbell, Wanda, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


I am trying, as I have already indicated, to go back through the masculine imaginary, to interpret the way it has reduced us to silence, to muteness or mimicry, and lam attempting, from that starting-point and at the same time, to (re)discover a possible space for the feminine imaginary.--Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One

The discursive triangle--architecture, feminist theory, creative texts--enhances our understanding of the architecture of the female imagination. This essay applies reflections on gender and space to two Canadian poems with the same title written more than a century apart.

According to Diane Favro, "architecture is as much about words as about actual buildings" (295), and many of these words have recently been invested in establishing feminist theories of architecture that explore the power relationships inherent in created structures. "Throughout history and across cultures, architectural and geographic spatial arrangements have reinforced status differences between women and men" (Spain 3). As Alice Friedman points out, "architectural experience is not simply physical and aesthetic but also cultural, and it is through the culturally constructed body that the mind and spirit of an individual are reached" (228). In her essay 'This Sex Which is Not One' French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray imagines a civilization where "woman's desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man's" (25), and despite the literalist readings to which critics have sometimes subjected her, Irigaray is interested in how the counter-myths she offers translate into "public and social fo rms" (Whitford 183). Reflections on sexuality and space such as Irigaray's can be productively applied to poems that explore the architecture of the female imagination, including two poems with the same title written by Canadian women over a century apart. Both "The Hidden Room" written by Isabella Valancy Crawford and published in her 1884 collection "Old Spookses' Pass," "Malcolm's Katie," and Other Poems and "The Hidden Room" written by P.K. Page and first published in the December 1996 issue of The Malahat Review and later as the title poem of her two-volume Collected Poems, attempt to reveal and recover "a possible space for the feminine imaginary" (Irigaray 164). The poetry of Page and Crawford is briefly linked in a 1994 article by Diane Relke with regard to the "ecological poetic" (29) they share, but Relke does not elaborate on the comparison, nor does she deal with these specific poems, which explore interior space through an "architectural poetic" that can be interpreted as feminist.

As Hilde Heynen points out, there is no consensus as to what feminist architecture or even a feminist theory in architecture might be. Topics and strategies in this "rather heterogeneous field" range from "a direct criticism of design projects in terms of their emancipatory value [to] a focus on the work of women architects" and "a more general reflection on power relationships in architecture" (174). Further areas of enquiry include studies of "gendered spaces" and the kinds of forms being used in buildings designed for and by women, and how the application of "female" values might translate into architectural change. In her essay "A Feminist Approach to Architecture: Acknowledging Women's Ways of Knowing," Karen A. Franck suggests several qualities that have been interpreted as "feminine," or feminist ways of knowing, and explores how these might be applied to architectural projects designed by women. According to Franck, "these qualities of connectedness, multiple use, flexibility, and complexity find expr ession in designing space as a matrix" (211), a term that actually appears in Page's poem and that also informs Crawford's exploration of the hidden room. In Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story, the best known of Crawford's poems, Sorrow is described as the "Dark matrix" that builds character and gives birth to the mature human soul (32). …

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