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Adriana Craciun, Fatal Women of Romanticism

Monday, March 20, 2006 - 03:13
Adriana Craciun, Fatal Women of Romanticism. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xviii + 328 pp.  Price. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-81668-8).

Reviewed by
Kathryn Pratt
Auburn University

Feminist inquiry in Romantic studies achieves new sophistication with the publication of books such as Adriana Craciun's study, which addresses the need for scholarship on sexuality in order to supplement the vast range of works on gender that have already enriched the field.  After the early emphasis on male writers' representations of women and, in recent decades, the recovery of popular and respected women writers who had been written out of the Romantic canon, critical attention necessarily turns to the historicizing of Romantic feminism.  In other words, recent developments in feminist theory demand a self-conscious critique of feminist ideology: how do feminist notions of gender and sexual difference reify the women they purportedly seek to liberate?  Examining how representations of the body disrupt normative notions of sexual difference at the very moment of their cultural enshrinement in the early nineteenth century, Fatal Women of Romanticism offers a compelling and timely argument for the importance of women's literature to an understanding of the cultural history of the Romantic Period in Britain.

Craciun addresses the paucity of feminist criticism on issues of sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain, rightly noting that the emphasis on the construction of Romantic gender roles has resulted in a naturalization of sexual difference.  Although she follows Judith Butler in making this claim, Craciun enriches her observation by attending to the history of this naturalization in the late eighteenth century itself: during this time, the complementary two-sex model replaced the longstanding scientific prejudice that women were simply inferior versions of men (the one-sex model).  Yet the ways in which women writers refused or rewrote the two-sex model, specifically through their representations of the femme fatale, demonstrate how the effects of sexual discourse transgressed the sexual and gender boundaries that scientific and cultural hegemony attempted to uphold.  At once hypersexual and hyperviolent, the "fatal woman" figure subverts the two-sex ideology that represents the female sex as naturally benevolent and passive in comparison with the active, violent male.

Fatal Women is impressive because its rigorous methodology combines the best of new historicist analysis with a cutting-edge cultural-studies sensibility.  By focusing on the significance of literary works, Craciun avoids the problems of broad cultural analysis that cannot hope to address differences in textual form and ideologies of production.  In her use of cultural materials as context and evidence, however, she attends to the political concerns that continue to motivate feminist theory and praxis.  By historicizing Butlerian notions of sexual difference within the context of British Romanticism, Craciun contributes to both ongoing feminist and Romanticist conversations.

Craciun introduces her book by noting the convergence of the Romantic femme fatale and contemporary theory's attempt to de-naturalize received notions of sexual difference.  She argues that women writers' femmes fatales were crucial to the development of these women's poetic identities, because they challenged the assignation of mastery (along with violence) to men only.  Craciun states her intent to investigate the very origins of theories of sex in order to steer the book away from a simple application of "postmodern performative" sex.  With admirable attention to the genealogy of her approach, she describes the feminist critique of the passive Foucaultian subject by writers including Grosz, MacNay, Mackinnon and Ramazanoglu, and indicates her own interest in Foucault's later writing on resistance as a fertile source for feminist theory.  She debunks a lingering essentialism in feminist Romantic studies through her insistence on examining "women's subjectivity as an effect of power" (8).  Androcentric histories of the femme fatale figure separate the violent "unfeminine" woman from the sexy femme fatale, but Craciun examines the power that connects the two.  Mentioning how "natural" female nonviolence was used to bolster ideas of bodily sexual difference, she notes, "In women's violence and destructiveness we find the end of woman as a sex" (9).

In the first chapter, Craciun uses the notorious "mad" matricide and gifted children's author and poet Mary Lamb, with her poetry's interest in "fatal beauty," to establish the link between the hypersexual femme fatale and the violent woman.  After thoroughly explaining and supporting the ideas sketched in the Introduction, Craciun uses her second chapter to expand her argument, showing how British women writers used the femme fatale figures of the French Revolution to historicize emerging notions of "natural" sexual difference.  A crucial question for activists like Wollstonecraft and Mary Robinson was the possibility of cultivating women's physical strength, although they were thought to be "naturally" feeble by proponents of the two-sex model of sexual difference.  In the next chapter, Mary Robinson becomes the central writer under analysis, as her celebration of Marie Antoinette provides a combination of bourgeois and aristocratic ideals in an "Aristocracy of Genius."  The executions of both queen and antagonistic female revolutionaries became in popular narrative the ritual exclusion of women from public life, but Robinson combats this exclusion in A Monody to the Memory of the Late Queen of France, published after Marie Antoinette's death, as well as in writings on French republican murderesses and women salonnières.  Evidence from journals and political tracts provides political context for the argument.

In Chapter Four, Craciun turns her analysis to Charlotte Dacre, the notorious Gothic novelist also known as poet "Rosa Matilda," and her portrayal of female violence and sexual transgression in novels including Zofloya and The Passions.  Although critics have claimed that Dacre's femmes fatales reveal her sympathies with the sexist status quo, Craciun argues that Dacre destabilizes the sexuality of the female subject through her pornographic Sadean heroines, who claim the power pathologized in Bienville's (two-sex model) Nymphomania and other misogynist scientific treatises of the period.  Chapter Five discusses poet Anne Bannerman's femmes fatales as types of the poet as "magnificent destroyer," a formerly masculine ideal.  Bannerman intensifies the mystification of women seen in Coleridge and Schiller for her own poetic ends.

The final chapter takes perhaps the most innovative approach to sexuality in the work of women Romantic writers by linking bodily death and decay to Letitia Landon's "beautiful" aesthetic.  Beginning with a discussion of the literary and cultural display of mermaids during the period, Craciun churns through theories of water pollution, miasma, and contagion.  Reading poems including "The Fairy of the Fountains," "The Mask," and "The Altered River," she argues that Landon is explicitly anti-Wordsworthian due to her poetic assertions that "the will to purity central to Romanticisms such as Wordsworth's is unsustainable and 'In vain'" (226).  Using texts from sanitation investigations and reforms, Craciun offers compelling evidence for Landon's use of the miasmatic theories of disease to portray the corporeal body's disruption of Romantic transcendence.  Various contemporaneous portrayals of the unnatural, "undead" female body in both mermaid and human form reveal how Landon's woman is not all passivity and death, as in recent readings like Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body, but instead a miasmatic sexual transgression, an unnacceptable, dangerous, yet exhilarating form of life in a "philosophy of decomposition."

The pertinence of Craciun's book lies in its refusal to provide simple answers to the complex questions that motivate current theorizing about human sexuality.  The author acknowledges the dangers of undermining theories of "natural" sexual difference since, as in the one-sex model that dominated scientific discourse before the nineteenth century, patriarchy often exploits claims of sexual similarity or intellectual "transcendence" of material circumstance.  Fatal Women of Romanticism is a tightly focused and controlled history of the ideology of sexual difference, and as such it offers insight into the history of contemporary feminist thought.  When the field has already been enlarged by so many studies of playful and performative gender in the writings of Romantic women, Craciun's attention to the seriousness of literary "women's work" is a timely contribution.