Margaret Anne Doody

Margaret Anne Doody is John and Barbara Glynn Family Professor of Literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She is the author of The True Story of the Novel

No Fol-de-Rols: men in suits

Margaret Anne Doody, 14 November 2002

What is it our mammas bewitches To plague us little boys with breeches? To tyrant Custom we must yield Whilst vanquished Reason flies the field. Our legs must suffer by ligation To keep the blood from circulation.

Our wiser ancestors wore brogues Before the surgeons bribed these rogues With narrow toes and heels like pegs To help to make us break our legs.

And to increase our other pains...

Royal Classic Knitwear: Iris and Laura

Margaret Anne Doody, 5 October 2000

Margaret Atwood’s tenth novel is both familiar and new. As it is an Atwood novel, we get eggs, a ravine, shit, snow, an ethereal double or sisterly doppelgänger, a bridge, a river, an act of violence – images and themes from her earlier fiction metamorphosed. The Blind Assassin also possesses the unusual lyrical sensuousness that distinguished Alias Grace (1996),...

The One We’d Like to Meet: myth

Margaret Anne Doody, 6 July 2000

Do real queens or goddesses get raped? Can beauty become vile? Such problems are raised by Helen of Troy, wife of King Menelaus, and by Sita, wife of Rama. Their stories (in multiple versions) are entertainingly retold and analysed by Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions and of South-East Asian languages and civilisations. As Doniger – who can read Sanskrit and Hindi as well as Greek, Latin and modern languages – tells us, in the earliest versions of these stories (the Iliad and the Ramayana), both women are carried off by a rival to the husband king; both are ravished (or commit adultery). The kingly husband then fights his rival to retrieve his wife, in order to punish the abductor and his now guilty (or at least suspect) spouse. But the story of the stories of Helen and Sita does not end there.

I am an irregular verb: Laetitia Pilkington

Margaret Anne Doody, 22 January 1998

Laetitia Pilkington has been remembered chiefly as a source of information about Swift. In their happier days, she and her husband were friendly with Swift, whom it was in their interest to cultivate. She and her husband were rather small people, physically, socially and economically, but they were brave enough to have Swift as a visitor:

Boom and Bust

Margaret Anne Doody, 19 June 1997

‘The sexualised view of the breast,’ Marilyn Yalom asserts, is a Western phenomenon. Non-Western cultures, she assures us, ‘have their own fetishes’. This seems dismissive, running the risk of a National Geographic style of condescension, other cultures representing the (scorned) site of an (inferior) idyll in which everything hangs out, and there are no hang-ups. Women who have been ‘going abroad with their breasts uncovered since time immemorial’ are not necessarily bare of any cultural suspicions about them. Yalom has some of the vices and virtues of the writers of the Enlightenment in whose line she follows. If we see how changeable and culturally determined our view of ‘the breast’ is, we have, she believes, some chance of conquering the irrationality and superstition surrounding the fetishised object. What might happen then is not so clear.

Docility Rampant

Margaret Anne Doody, 31 October 1996

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is known to us as the author of travel writings, witty poems and remarkable letters. If it were not for Isobel Grundy’s diligent work in the archives, we should not know that Lady Mary also produced prose fiction. This is hardly strange. She published in her own time neither the travel writings nor (of course) her letters to her daughter. She permitted the public to enjoy only a few poems (and one anonymously edited journal). These were written during brief periods of unusual literary confidence, and of association with literary people in London. In 1716 she travelled to Turkey, where her husband was sent as a rather incompetent ambassador. The best result of their two years’ residence in Turkey was the volume familiarly known to us as Turkish Letters. By 1724 she had prepared the collection for the press. At her request, Mary Astell, the leading feminist of her day, supplied the Preface. But Montagu was persuaded, chiefly by her husband’s relatives, not to do anything so foolish and damaging to her status and his career as to publish the book, and it was not printed until the 1790s, long after her death. The volume of travels and observations would probably not have pleased the authorities in Constantinople, and would certainly have been shocking to English society in the reign of George II. One of the letters describes a visit to a harem, in what is among the most elegantly erotic scenes in travel literature. Montagu constantly discusses sexual mores and paradoxically praises the unusual freedom that the complete shrouding of a supposedly modest woman can allow for the conduct of an assignation, since a woman’s own husband couldn’t recognise her if he met her on the street. Montagu tells us that she – a Western woman, nominally, at least, not only English but Christian – went about in heavy veils and dress disguised as a Turkish woman and was able to see sights which were forbidden to male travellers, or to Western females in European garb. At some point she disguised herself as a Turkish man in order to move about more freely still. Her letters repeatedly work on the motifs of disguise and freedom, and the relation between the two. Nobody knew better than Montagu that heavy veiling is in use in English polite society.’

Never mind the neighbours

Margaret Anne Doody, 4 April 1996

In England during her exile of 1792, Mme de Staël was puzzled as well as offended that Frances Burney, who was then 40, should have felt it necessary to obey her father’s instruction no longer to associate with the adulterous Baronne. Mme de Staël remarked in some puzzlement to Susanna Phillips, Burney’s younger sister: ‘But is a woman under guardianship all her life in your country? It appears to me that your sister is like a girl of 14.’ Frances herself, although she bowed to the need to preserve not only her own but her father’s reputation, was not happy about the restriction: ‘I wish the World would take more care of itself and less of its neighbours. I should have been very safe, I trust, without such flights, & disturbances, & breaches.’’

Poxy Doxies

Margaret Anne Doody, 14 December 1995

This is an interesting, infuriating, brilliant, maddening book. In short, it is a work by Germaine Greer, who prefers (or so one sometimes thinks) anything to stagnation. The title is taken from Pope, whose Virgilian Sibyl in the Dunciad is the modern female British poet as satire liked to see her. Possessed by the muse or Apollo though they claim to be, women as poets are untidy, slovenly, careless of housekeeping. They are, like Virgil’s harpies, truly dirty beings. (Try saying ‘slip-shod sibyl’ and you will find that tongue-twisting tempts other words to come through.) The shit-soiled sibyl, the woman poet, is a hackney, a prostitute. If she receives you in her boudoir, you find she is a strumpet, affected, grimly bedizened perhaps, but poverty-stricken. She is always in a state of undress, of unattractive undress, slapping loose about the house in her slippers, her rhyme and metre shuffling loosely along.

Studied Luxury

Margaret Anne Doody, 20 April 1995

The title of Benstock’s biography of Edith Wharton is somewhat mal à propos. Edith Wharton, other reviewers have pointed out, had plenty of gifts from chance. She was born, in 1862, into wealth and leisure, she had a sufficiency of good looks (in an era when that mattered even more than now). As a writer she was highly successful, both critically and commercially. Benstock takes her title from a snatch of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Resignation’ copied by Wharton into her Commonplace Book in 1908: ‘They believe me, who await/No gifts from chance have conquered fate’. What Arnold is celebrating is that markedly Victorian duty to bustle and hustle. Certainly Edith Wharton was no Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. In taking up writing seriously, she broke out of the mould into which she was being set, as women were set, like large bland puddings, turning away as she did so from the pleasant, vacuous life of a society matron of means. But Edith Newshold Jones did have to become the society matron first. And her marriage to Teddy Wharton might be thought of as dictated by chance. As Benstock makes clear, she had reached the point when she had to marry somebody when she got engaged in 1885: ‘At 23, her 1879 debut six years in the past, Edith was running out of time.’

Fear of Rabid Dogs

Margaret Anne Doody, 18 August 1994

In his last days, the exiled and ageing Aristotle wrote to a friend: ‘The lonelier and the more isolated I am, the more I have come to love myths.’ We may puzzle over what Aristotle meant. Did he love folk-tales, religious stories or high-minded allegories? The Greek word mythos means (centrally) ‘story’ but all stories have or acquire meanings, and we tell ourselves stories all the time. A culture is the stories that it tells itself. In Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, the Reith Lectures of 1994, Marina Warner takes up some of our stories and the ways in which we manage them. Her use of the word ‘myth’ is deliberately all-encompassing, taking in the varieties of meaning now attached to the word; and her ‘myths’ include, but are not limited to, the famous old Greek stories that have so vexed our lives. She deals with narrated stories (e.g. the Odyssey) as well as with dramatic forms (the Oresteia, Jurassic Park), narrative images, folk beliefs, popular canards – and lies.’

In praise of manly piety

Margaret Anne Doody, 9 June 1994

Donald Davie is already known for – among many other things – his striking comments on the hymns of Watts and Wesley in A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest 1700-1930 (1978). Now he has devoted an entire book to the hymn in 18th-century England – or rather, as the title indicates, he is trying to define a specific genre or set of modes and tones that constitute ‘the 18th-century hymn’. The Christian hymn is a difficult subject, for it always belongs to a particular church party or group, is associated with congregations and public occasions, and the success of an individual hymn is partly measured by the success of its tune. Although Davie professes to approve the congregational nature of hymns, and the living transmission of them (‘They are like the Border Ballads’), he refuses to deal with music or singers, and his book shows a preference for the poetic abstracted from vulgar congregational performance – he likes John Byrom and Christopher Smart, whose greatest successes, as Davie sees it, were not pointed towards the actual singing of current congregations. Some poems which have been highly successful as sung works in congregations – of the past and sometimes of the present – seem to him scandalous or uncomfortable.’

Where a man can be a man

Margaret Anne Doody, 16 December 1993

In Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, the young hero, imprisoned in a jail in Mexico and suffering harsh conditions, has a brilliant dream – a dream calling for some very earnest writing on the part of the author:’


Margaret Anne Doody, 5 August 1993

Pray, sir, give me leave to ask you … what, in your opinion, is the meaning of the word sentimental, so much in vogue amongst the polite, both in town and country? In letters and common conversation, I have asked several who make use of it, and have generally received for answer, it is – it is – sentimental. Every thing clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word; but … it is impossible every thing clever and agreeable can be so common as this word

Very very she

Margaret Anne Doody, 22 April 1993

‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ Virginia Woolf asserted. Aphra Behn (c. 1640-89) was the first Englishwoman to make her living ‘by her pen’, as we used to say. Now nobody makes her – or his – living by the phallic and virile pen. Linguistic and cultural structures no longer combine in exhibiting the exciting transgression, the impudent androgyny, of the man-woman who picks up her pen to write, for the she-writer, like the he-writer, will feed symbols through the word processor, a brooding matrix-box far more uterine than penile. Aphra Behn was a shady lady who muscled into the men’s preserve, and was called a whore for her pains. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own fails to make quite clear how truly successful Behn was in her time. She may not have been Judith Shakespeare, but she got play after play on the stage, her poems appeared in diverse publications, and there was a strong demand for her prose fiction.’

Dressed in black

Margaret Anne Doody, 11 March 1993

This beautiful, vexed and tragic novel is well served by its title, for its narrating heroine both wrestles with and represents the female forces of retribution; and since Orestes at last escapes maternal retribution, Janet Hobhouse’s Helen is arguably the more tragic character of the two. Yet the saddest page of the book comes before the story: ‘Hobhouse, Janet, 1948-91 … Copyright 1993 by the Estate of Janet Hobhouse’. I had met (I cannot say ‘I knew’) Janet Hobhouse in her youth, when I was a graduate student at Oxford and she was an undergraduate. I feel embarrassed about surviving such a vital person who was substantially younger than myself. Perhaps the most surprising thing about death, that great commonplace, is that it never ceases to surprise.

Dear Miss Boothby

Margaret Anne Doody, 5 November 1992

Life is never perfectly happy for the hero of a Collected Letters. One of the things that letters rather than biographies display is how much incidental illness human beings tend to undergo, even those of reasonable health who are destined to make old bones. Johnson has all the 18th-century’s bluntness on matters of health. ‘The old flatulence distressed me again last...

Women beware men

Margaret Anne Doody, 23 July 1992

The appearance of these two books marks a new epoch in our social history. Although first published in the United States, both books deal with England and other countries. Susan Faludi extensively revised her 1991 American edition for the 1992 British edition. This version, with a Preface by Joan Smith, includes information regarding the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Marilyn French deals with Southern and Eastern countries, including the ‘Third World’ – a term which she thinks passé and dishonest. Both books are contemporary and well-informed, and both announce by their very existence that the Nineties are going to be a different era from the Eighties. One of the pleasures of both works is that they analyse the previous decade with knowledge and pungency. The word ‘pleasures’, it is true, is unlikely to occur very often in discussion of either book. To some, these writers will appear to be among the Monstrous Regiment of Women who are responsible – as women always are – for the Death of Civilisation as ‘We’ Know It. To other kinds of reader, these books will be too true to be good, painful indeed, as they clearly render acts of brutal injustice which women may expect to encounter as they live their lives. But for some of us the announcement of the truth after an era of lies and fictions is itself a pleasure – the mind, as Dr Johnson indicated, delighting to rest on the stability of truth. Both writers appear to have a strong sense of the paradoxical – or perhaps it is merely that the paradoxes that appear in the investigation of men’s treatment of women demand recognition.’’

Whig Dreams

Margaret Anne Doody, 27 February 1992

This new issue of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain is very pretty. It is a glossy book, lavishly illustrated with 18th-century maps, portraits, landscapes, prospects of towns and representations of buildings, markets, ships. This is obviously meant to function as a coffee-table book, or as a book to put in the back of a car (along with the National Trust’s guides). It’s the sort of book that would look much more at home in a BMW or Mercedes than a Mini. This production breathes an odour of ‘England’s Heritage’: one can imagine it in a bookcase beside works with titles such as ‘Roman Highways of Old Britain’ or ‘Our Cathedral Towns’.

Preceding Backwardness

Margaret Anne Doody, 9 January 1992

Both of these books are on ‘women’s subjects’. That is to say, they deal with the major arrangements of a society in its (usually uneasy) dispositions of property and power, including control over reproduction. Elizabeth Bergen Brophy’s book is a response to the question which must have occurred to every reader of 18th-century novels: ‘Are the novels really at all like life at the time?’ Were there ‘real life’ counterparts to Clarissa Harlowe and Sophia Western – and to the other ladies, old and young, married, widowed or single, who turn up in the pages of 18th-century novels? Brophy has undertaken an impressive labour in reading a couple of hundred separate (and often, one gathers, large) manuscript sources, collections of journals and letters by various women who lived between the late 17th and the early 19th centuries. She has also consulted the substantial number of such collections already published. Her strategy is to lay side by side the accounts of women’s lives in the novels and the accounts emanating from the women themselves.’

Taking it up again

Margaret Anne Doody, 21 March 1991

Why do they do it? Why would they ever want to? Why do novelists revise novels? The very thought of revising one is daunting. Yet of course novelists do revise their printed works, on occasion, for various reasons. No novelist has made such a job of it as Henry James.

Tit for Tat

Margaret Anne Doody, 21 December 1989

The publication of this anthology is an important event – as significant as the appearance of Roger Lonsdale’s earlier Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse, that unmarmoreal volume. As our battle of the books is waged, and canons to the left and right volley and thunder, this dignified Fellow of Balliol has done more to change our view of the 18th century than many avowed canon-chargers with more ostensibly up-to-date artillery. In the production of these two anthologies Lonsdale changes, not just a book list, but our view of the nature of poetry-writing and reading in ‘the Augustan Age’. Earlier in this century it was customary to praise the 18th century as the last bastion of the old order which referred itself to a Divine system of things. To emphasise the Providential and hierarchical aspects of the period is to overlook the important fact that men and women of the late 17th and 18th centuries were the first who knew themselves to be of ‘a period’, belonging to ‘an Age’. To regard oneself as inhabiting a local, human-made and changeable realm may in some respects be disconcerting: it can also be exhilarating. The very instability presented in acknowledging that one lives at a particular period offers hope for future change, and encourages changes of focus in the present. The mobilities and uncertainties of the 18th century were co-opted by emergent capitalist theory and practice, and by the powerful intellectual movements we collectively term ‘the Enlightenment’. Philosophers and gentlemen sought to identify universal ‘human nature’, and to identify the modes of social operation that would best enable the fulfilment of the aspirations of both groups and individuals – best bring ‘happiness.’’

Marshy Margins

Frank Kermode, 1 August 1996

Literary criticism seems to be putting on weight in its old age – Margaret Anne Doody’s book is well over three hundred thousand words and loaded with learning, which may appal the...

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Englamouring the humdrum

Rosemary Ashton, 23 November 1989

Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the past, a collection of essays published in recent years (with one, on Richardson and Milton, dating from as long ago as 1968), is richly written, contains...

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Alethea Hayter, 14 September 1989

In a spirited attempt to forestall criticism, Margaret Doody warns her readers that they may ‘feel horrified at what they they regard as a changeling-substitution of a mad Gothic feminist...

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