Metaphor and the Masculine Canon

Eve Tavor Bannet
University of Oklahoma

Bridget Hill, Naomi Tadmor, Leonore Davidoff, and Catherine Hall demonstrated in their different ways that the patrilineal family was still the basic unit of economic organization in eighteenth-century England.[1]   In most ranks, whether in town or country, the master and his wife and children lived with and worked alongside relatives, domestic or field servants, apprentices, and journeymen; and in most cases, the master’s eldest son could expect to inherit from his father. Family and work were not yet physically or conceptually distinct, and both were scenes of inheritance.   In her new book, Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon 1660-1830 (Oxford, 2005), Jane Spencer therefore asks how family relationships were extended metaphorically to works and workers in the literary domain, and how these familial metaphors compared to the lived experiences and actual interrelationships of the writers involved. The result is a demythologizing, and often wickedly entertaining, study of the disjunctions between image and reality.

Spencer begins with the father-son metaphor for literary inheritance as applied by Augustans to their own classical practices of imitation and translation.   Here the literary “son” proved his title by the manner in which he imitated his literary father.   The false son’s imitation was “slavish,” because too closely bound to the words and matter of the imitated or translated text.   The true son, by contrast, captured his literary father’s “spirit” and emulated his skill and creativity by clever, regulated, imitative transformations of the generative and inherited text.   Dryden, who adopted and popularized this father-son metaphor in the later seventeenth century, married the concept of literary paternity to contemporary practices of literary patronage, and tried to apply it literally; he is therefore offered as Spencer’s primary reality check.   Dryden had three biological sons, who were also poets; but they rebelled against his influence, and chose their uncle as their patron and mentor instead.   Dryden in turn passed them over in favor of making Congreve his literary “son”; but Congreve failed to repay Dryden’s extensive patronage and mentoring either by imitation, or by public acceptance of the filial role. So it was left to “posterity” and to Samuel Johnson to make the metaphor work by proclaiming Pope Dryden’s literary son after both were safely dead. Spencer offers Frances Burney as another kind of reality check, to remind us that daughters had literary fathers too. Burney had three: “Daddy” Crisp, “Daddy” Burney, and “Daddy” Johnson. Unlike Congreve, however, Burney did enact the filial role. She allowed her fathers’ patronage, mentoring and indeed, their mutual rivalries, to govern her early career–for instance, when Daddies Burney and Crisp demanded that she suppress The Witlings, which she had written under the patronage and mentoring of Daddy Johnson, she dutifully suppressed the play. Burney apparently gave more weight in practice to biological than metaphorical paternity.

Spencer explores the mother-son metaphor in a similar way. She shows that male poets made the literary mother mythical and materially invisible by portraying her as Goddess or Muse.   Whether they represented her negatively, as in The Dunciad‘s monstrous Goddess of literary Dulness and Chaos, or positively allied her to nature, inspiration, and the lyre, as in Gray, Collins, Akenside, and the Romantic poets, male writers failed to equate maternal influence with any actual historical woman. Spencer uses Pope and Richard Brinsley Sheridan as her reality checks. Though violently rejecting any maternal literary inheritance in The Dunciad, Pope was devoted to his biological mother and to his nurse, who both fashioned his character and conduct until they died quite late in his life. And Sheridan imitated and used in his own work elements borrowed from the writings of his famous biological mother, Frances Sheridan. In neither case did the metaphor accord with their lived reality.

Spencer argues that the mother-daughter metaphor was almost as invisible as the mother-son metaphor. It remained only “implicit” or “submerged” (114) in women’s discussions of the female literary tradition, in part because “scandalous” women writers such Behn, Manley, and the younger Haywood offered a sexual and commercial legacy from which virtuous women wished to distance themselves. Here again, Spencer offers two examples of women who did address their matrilineal literary inheritance. She presents Mary Shelley’s novels as efforts to “negotiate the complex question of inheritance from her dead mother,” Mary Wollstonecraft. And she shows how Jane Brereton, early in the eighteenth century, allied herself with “virtuous” maternal alternatives to the scandalous trio (such as Katherine Philips or Elizabeth Rowe), and represented motherhood in positive terms as the source of daughters’ education in virtue and piety. But since many didactic women writers throughout the century used one or both of these strategies too, it could also be argued that they were elements in a recognized female convention for representing their matrilineal literary legacy.

In her third and fourth chapters on sibling relations, Spencer agrees with Lynn Hunt and Jay Fliegelman that fraternal metaphors were applied to collaborations and rivalries among male contemporaries, and to their revolutionary efforts to throw off paternal authority. But she confronts such metaphors with the reality of literary relations between brothers and sisters. The latter was a family relationship that was far more important in the eighteenth century than it   subsequently became, yet it is one for which there appears to be no metaphorical dimension or proper name. Spencer considers how women writers such as Sarah Fielding or Dorothy Wordsworth participated in the literary sphere as the sisters of male writers who were busy founding “new provinces” of writing and competing “fraternally” amongst themselves.   Besides subordinating their sisters to themselves, much as male writers subordinated their female disciples, Spencer finds that Henry Fielding and William Wordsworth both appropriated their sisters’ writings as by right and incorporated them into their own.   Both sisters also played a distinct role in their brothers’ fraternal rivalries.   But where Fielding and Richardson extended their rivalry to winning Sarah Fielding’s admiration, gratitude, and loyalty, William Wordsworth used his closeness to Dorothy and to the immediacy of her contact with nature, to preserve his independence from Coleridge.   Women’s reactions to such conduct lead us back to the metaphorical domain. Sarah Fielding and Dorothy Wordsworth–like women writers before and after them–responded by turning to real and literary “sisters” for friendship and support, and by representing in their writings the value for women of sympathetic sisterly bonds with other women.

The associated question which Spencer raises and explores throughout   is why women writers who were highly regarded in their own time were excluded from the patrilineal national   canon. Spencer’s explicit answers here are not as convincing. She argues, first, that the patrilineal concept of generative literary fatherhood can best be explained through the continuing influence of Aristotle, who made the father the true parent of the child by representing the masculine sperm as giving form and spirit to feminine matter. But like Aristotle, classical practices of translation and imitation were learned in Latin grammar schools, which were entirely male preserves. For a Dryden, Pope, or Fielding, imitation was therefore in reality, as well as metaphorically, a privileged masculine method of literary inheritance and transmission. Though placing Evelina in a male-authored line of novels, Burney quite properly denied that she was imitating them. Imitation could be applied metaphorically to vague likenesses between texts or writers only once imitation’s numerous classical rules for the regulated transformations of model texts were forgotten or ignored.

More convincing is Spencer’s second argument, that male writers felt so threatened by competition from women poets, dramatists, and novelists that they used the father-son metaphor to exclude women writers from the national literary canon. The problem here is that Spencer herself calls into question the existence in the eighteenth century of any fixed and patrilineal “national literary canon.”   We learn from her very first chapter that Dryden conceived of the patrilineal canon of great poets as running from Homer and Virgil, through Chaucer, to Waller and Denham (21); that Pope was only made Dryden’s “son” by “posterity”; that Dryden, Pope, and Johnson all worked with, mentored, and supported women writers; and that Burney was dismissed from the canon of great novelists only by nineteenth-century literary critics.   Dryden’s canon of great poets was no more the same as ours, than the eighteenth century’s list of great eighteenth-century novels was the same as the nineteenth century’s.   If, despite overlaps, different periods offer different literary canons; and if, as other feminist scholars agree, women writers were effectively excluded by male critics only in the nineteenth century, the question of women’s exclusion from the national patrilineal canon during the eighteenth century is less than fully intelligible.

Far more productive is Spencer’s brilliant demonstration of how family metaphors were manipulated by now-canonical eighteenth-century male writers to elevate themselves and their writings qualitatively above their frequently more popular and successful female competitors.   Spencer shows that, not content with using the father-son metaphor to place themselves within a supposedly superior masculine tradition, now-canonical male writers adapted the mother-son metaphor to render maternal influences invisible. She also shows that while using fraternal metaphors to dignify their personal rivalries or mark their own originality, now-canonical male writers left their familial relations to their sisters’ writings unregarded, unmetaphorized, and unnamed. The question with which we are left is why for so long we mistook their dream for truth.


[1]   Bridget Hill, Women, Work & Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century England (Montreal, 1994) and Women Alone: Spinsters in Britain 1660-1850 (New Haven, 2001); Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship and Patronage (Cambridge, 2001); Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago, 1987; revised ed. New York, 2003).