Textual Puzzles

The blog posts you find here are created from interpretive problems we puzzled over as we read different texts from British Literature. Each blogger poses a question and then works out a few possible solutions.

2 thoughts on “Textual Puzzles

  1. How can Barbauld’s contradictory statements on women’s education be reconciled?

    Undoubtedly, Anna Barbauld remains a key figure in the beginning women’s rights movement toward the end of the 18th century. However, unlike the staunch women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft, who urged women to find power within themselves and to gain education independent of men, Barbauld took a different approach– one that seems, at first glance, to undermine the intelligence and self-efficacy of women.
    Barbauld turns down the opportunity to help open a school for women, making the statement that a woman’s best chance at getting a quality education comes from conversation in the home with a male brother, father or friend. If Barbauld wants women to gain empowerment, why does she make this statement? We should also consider the fact she was working as a teacher for male students during this time. Barbauld’s actions suggest she thinks woman’s education environment should revolve around the house, which stands against the feminist notion that women need to get outside of the home to activate their rational minds.
    In her poem, “The Rights of Woman,” which responds to Wollstonecraft’s essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Barbauld states, “Make treacherous Man thy subject, not they friend; / Thou mayst command, but never canst be free” (19-20). She then goes on to break the hope of women maintaining this power over men because over time, “thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way” (27-28). Her statements confirm her divergence from Wollstonecraft on the notion of sensibility. Barbauld believed Wollstonecraft was trying to get women to replace sentimentality with rationality, which simply goes against the nature of women (Newlyn 160). If women start acting like men by ignoring their natural tendency to adhere to their emotions, they will not succeed in their quest for become more rationally-minded beings.
    Perhaps working with male students caused Barbauld to perceive inherent differences between the female and male mind and thus take a more conservative stance toward women’s education. Women cannot mask their emotions with “coldness” and rationality in order gain equal footing with men, Barbauld argues. Education should thus take different forms for women and women. However, Barbuald has received a formal education herself. She seems to make an exception for herself, but maybe she thinks she is less sentimental than most women.

  2. Does Falling in Love Affect Feminist Ideals?

    By Cara Campos

    Felicia Hemans, not unlike Wollstonecraft and Barbauld, carries what would be considered a “feminist” tone throughout her works; like her fellow female writers, she is clearly dissatisfied with her lot and life and emphasizes her desire not only to obtain knowledge, but to be able to use it as men do in the real world.

    Her poem Woman and Fame perfectly exemplifies the typical struggle that feminists have to undertake in the time in which she writes. She states how fame “canst not be the stay/ Unto the drooping reed” because she is a woman and women cannot pursue or attain fame as men can, but she is bitter about this fact, and this tone is conveyed clearly throughout the poem.

    A Spirit’s Return, however, seems to convey a clear shift from any feminist ideals—instead, she focuses on the strength of her feelings for a dead lover and even performs a kind of necromancy to commune with him.

    Although at the beginning of the poem she does talk about her “life’s lone passion, the mysterious quest/ Of secret knowledge,” her obsession with her dead lover completely overshadows any hint of feminism. In his article “Spiritual Converse: Heman’s A Spirit’s Return in Dialogue with Byron and Shelley,” Alan Richardson states that Heman’s voice is not anti-feminist because “the beloved’s death removes even the possibility that the speaker’s love may result in domestic happiness.” However, when reading the poem, this idea was unclear to me. Instead, I found that her total fixation on her deceased lover, a man, was incongruent with a feminist message.

    Lord Byron, who also wrote in Hemans’ time, was praised for his romantic poetry, but although Hemans uses similar concepts, since I admire Hemans for being a feminist in her time, I cannot admire her use of romantic poetry in the way I do Lord Byron’s. Although this may be unfair, to me, the very mention of the kind of love that the speaker in A Spirit’s Return feels towards her lover portrays an image that is incongruent with feminism.

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