Friday, January 15, 2016

Diaries (and Madwomen) in the Attic

So after the winner of the 2016 Scott O'Dell award was announced, I immediately put the book on ILL request for myself. It arrived very quickly (and I had to finish another book before I got too deep into this one) and I'm impressed with it.

The Scott O'Dell award is an award given annually for meritorious historical fiction written for children or young adults, and the award was established by the author Scott O'Dell in order to encourage more authors to focus on historical fiction.

I love historical fiction because it combines two of my passions. The 2016 winner, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, at first appears to be a cliche in the genre. The protagonist Joan lives a life of drudgery, missing her dead mother and working hard for her cruel father. She decides to run away to reclaim her life. The outline might be very basic, but the character of Joan is well developed and very relatable.When I read a review on Roger Sutton's blog, he likened her to the beloved Anne Shirley, and the resemblance in her attitude and her narrative voice is unmistakable.

A common tool in historical fiction is to write the book as a diary, which makes alot of sense when you consider it. If we read a story about the past, we are observing it, watching it through a window constructed of words that opens to another time period. Even if everything in the story is perfect: setting, character development, tone, historical accuracy, we are still observing it. There's a passivity assumed because even if the story WAS real, it happened in a time before our own. When an author constructs a historical fiction as a diary, we feel more engaged. We're not just watching a story unfold, we are being told a story. It's as if the character has chosen to reveal the story to us, they are speaking to us and we are actively listening in order to show our appreciation for the privilege. It's as though we ventured up to an old dusty attic, opened a trunk, and unearthed a treasure.

I think what captured me as a reader is Joan's love for Jane Eyre. Not only has it always been one of my favorites, but there is a deeper textual significance that comes with the recurring Jane Eyre references. On page 30, Joan confides in her diary her dismay about her reflection in the mirror: "the darker it is the prettier I look." I'm certain that this is a common sentiment that most females think to themselves, whether they are 14, or 24 or 34, but that thought resonates in the greater context of the Jane Eyre theme. The less light there is, the less we're able to see and decipher: not only our environment or others, but also ourselves.

I'm not sure whether it's author intention or reader interpretation at work here, but it's impossible for me to ignore the very apparent angel/monster binary which characterizes Victorian texts.

Of course I am referencing Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's foundational feminist criticism piece "The Madwoman in the Attic" here; Gilbert and Gubar argue that female authors and characters from this time period are constructed as angels or monsters, the exemplary Bertha Mason (in Jane Eyre) giving the essay its title. Angels are constructed when a female is domestic and pure and good, like Jane, or Beth in Little Women. A monster is constructed when a woman rejects the Cult of Domesticity, like Bertha. She is violent and unchaste, guarding deep secrets and most troubling of all, she is uncontrollable.

After she runs away, Joan takes a position as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family. Her position encompasses the Cult of Domesticity and should signify 'angel', but the details of her life and her thoughts about herself, revealed in her diary, complicate this one dimensional descriptor. Indeed, as Joan is considering her countenance in the mirror, she observes that she sees the madwoman in Jane Eyre: the girl she sees herself to be is the built-in foil to the girl the reader comes to know through her writing, illustrating perfectly the point that that the angel and the madwoman are not necessarily two distinct entities, but two halves of a whole.

I think my literary theory professors from college and graduate school would be pretty proud of the way I have come to embrace this bit of structuralism. I became so enamored with this theory and this particular essay that I bought this pin, which is always on my purse. 

It's not a warning. It's not a disclaimer. It's an assertion. Gilbert and Gubar write that women we must work to kill off the angel and the monster because neither are accurate representations of women.

But I don't want to kill the madwoman. And I don't want to kill the madwomen.

They write the best diaries.

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