The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:20:43

Nineteenth century women way ahead of the curve

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 19, 2016

Family visiting from Holland (joy!) combined with internet problems (aggravation!) have made for light posting of late. But I'm still reading and reflecting in the background. A person with my cast of mind can't help it.

A visit to the Emily Dickinson homestead last month has me digging into a biography, besides the poems. The biography mentioned ED's copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, which had this line marked:

We’re nettles, some of us, and give offence by the act of springing up.

I loved it so, that I immediately searched for Aurora Leigh and began reading that too. (EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese surpass Shakespeare's, in my opinion. But they're the only things of hers I've read till now.)

A theme in that great poem/novel—a man proposing to a woman, not because he loves her, but because he thinks she'd be the ideal helpmate for his life's mission—reminded me of Jane Eyre, so Jules and I began listening to that again, too. 

I am feeling fairly bowled over by the potent personalism of four nineteenth century women:

Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot.

Each of them dwells sensitively and artistically on the mystery of subjectivity, and the difficulty we have (individually and collectively) in realizing it duly. The tendency of our fallen nature is always to reduce others to categories, to project our own motives onto them, or to use them for our ends and interests.

Take these lines, spoken by Aurora to the cousin who wanted her for his mission:

"What you love,
Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,–
A wife to help your ends . . in her no end!

He protests, and she continues:

With quiet indignation I broke in. 'You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement Of his sex merely.
You forget too much 
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.

This insight is the valid core of feminism.

But it's not only in inter-sex relations that a person needs to assert herself against reductions. Earlier on in the poem/novel, Aurora had to contend with an aunt who resented the awakening of her interior life, in as much as it wouldn't be subjected to the pretend authority of convention. The aunt had become her guardian when her parents died, and had tried to mold her according to her stiff notions of propriety. But Aurora had discovered poetry, and with it her individual passion and vocation.

But I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window now and then,
They had not set there. Who had set it there?
My father's sister started when she caught
My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say
I had no business with a sort of soul,
But plainly she objected,–and demurred,
That souls were dangerous things to carry straight
Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.

In all of Emily Dickinson's writing we find the same constant. She is discretely presenting indications that there is more richness and depth, range and subtlety, freedom and responsibility in her subjectivity than the surrounding society is apt to allow. She, like Aurora and Jane Eyre, knows profoundly that her prime responsibility in front of God is fidelity to her own sense of right, even in the face of peer pressure to conform. And she knows it requires immense courage, especially when the "peers" are family members, who imagine they're acting for her good when they set out to curtail and suppress her individuality.

Take this line:

There are depths in every Consciousness, to which none can go with us.

That's personalism in a nutshell.