Madwomen in the Attic and Drama Queens: Considering Katharine Jones Sullivan’s Recent Talk

Gabriel Duckels completed the MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at Cambridge in Summer 2018 and will begin a PhD at the Centre in Michaelmas 2019. He has been the Library Assistant at Homerton College Library since January 2017 and a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Education (DIALLS Project) since August 2018.

In this short blog I want to attempt a very basic overview of the ambitious range of themes and concerns raised by Katharine Jones Sullivan in her seminar Sense and Sensibility in Child Literature: Disinformation, Affect and the Literary Imagination, which took place at the Centre on the fifteenth of May 2019. The talk was an invigorating and broad session about the relationship between sense, sensibility, and truth in seven texts for and about children. If you, like me, are a peasant, you may be confused by the Sense and Sensibility reference. I always assumed that Jane Austen used sense to refer to the sensuousness of sensation and sensibility to denote a rigidly sensible mind. It turns out these meanings are the other way around. I try not to think about bonnets when I invoke Austen’s title, calling upon these two words to evoke the perceived opposition between logic and emotion. Following this overview, I add an eighth text to Jones Sullivan’s corpus, The Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon, and try to interpret her thesis through a brief reading of this work.

This perceived opposition between sense and sensibility is unhelpful. Jones Sullivan used girl heroines from a range of texts published over the past 150 years to see how sense and sensibility occur as an interaction – rather than an opposition – in the formation of feminine subjectivity. One confession: I am dreadful at taking notes. But rest assured, Jones Sullivan provided a robust overview of the ethics of emotion, from Plato’s contention that to feel is fundamental to the creation of knowledge, to the twentieth and twenty-first century thought of Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum, and Sara Ahmed’s understanding of emotions as political sensations. Crucially, the discrepant relationship between logic and emotion is problematised by the gendered subject. Jones Sullivan, making ample reference to The Madwoman in the Attic (Gilbert & Gubar 1979), draws upon the longstanding tropes that place girls and young women as irrational, hysterical creatures who cannot feel emotion the ‘right’ way. The representation of this process in her corpus of seven texts is not only about promoting interactivity between sense and sensibility but exploring the gendered implications of girl heroines demanding a space for their emotions to be recognised within their families and communities. These texts, suggests Jones Sullivan, dramatize this demand in ways that test the boundaries of the dichotomous relationship between logic and emotion, even threatening to collapse it.

Key to Gilbert & Gubar’s classic work is the binary between the trope of the angelic woman and her counterpart, the madwoman in the attic, typified by Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Vanessa Joosen outlines this dichotomy as “the pervasive idealist image of the angel, the woman who is selfless and pure; on the other hand, […] the female monster, the woman who is active, aggressive and unfeminine” (2011, 216). Emotional authenticity, suggested Jones Sullivan, is the antidote to the oppositional rhetoric that divides logic and emotion, which perhaps means that the difference between sense and sensibility is synonymous with the opposition between angelic and monstrous women.


An illustration of Bertha Mason being a madwoman by F.H. Townsend in the second edition of Jane Eyre

Two of the texts in Jones Sullivan’s corpus used disability to direct a young heroine towards either side of this binary, which reminded me that emotion is about action and orientation. For example, it is through her accident that Katy in What Katy Did fulfils the trope of the angel in the house. On the other hand, the boisterous and imaginative Judy in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians overcomes a bout of illness without conforming to this trope, and instead returns to her free-spirited and altogether unacceptable self. It is no surprise that there is no room in the narrative for Judy once she has reclaimed her status as a budding example of the madwoman in the attic. Narrative, understood here as a psychic project of patriarchal thought, jettisons Judy from it: she winds up dead, like so many tenacious female characters in texts for adults and children alike. The monster in the attic is a woman who simply seeks the power of self-articulation.

Accordingly, Jones Sullivan followed this by considering how girls and young women are shown to attempt self-articulation in these texts. For example, the writing behaviours of Jo March in Little Women and Nanda Grey in Frost in May become fruitful reserves of tenacity as these characters veer between resisting and conforming to the expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal system in which they appear. It is through considering the writing behaviour of the eponymous heroine of Harriet the Spy that Jones Sullivan introduced the final tenet of her thesis, which I took to be that the interaction of logic and emotion can help readers navigate the potential of the truth as a subjective or objective reality. Harriet claims that her non-fictional reportage is actually fiction in order to bend the truth to her favour, even though this is essentially wilful disinformation. This led Jones Sullivan to suggest that the political implications of truthfulness in today’s era of fake news and alternative facts is under-examined in children’s literature – and indeed in children’s literature studies.

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A contemporary cover of Seven Little Australians by Penguin Australia

I am still confused by what Jones Sullivan meant by the relationship between sense, sensibility, and the truth, but it is compelling to bring these three concepts together into a paradigm. Accordingly, I want to conclude my thoughts on the seminar by (very briefly) considering an example of young adult unreliable narrator from this perspective: Lola Cep in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Perhaps “drama queen” is another way to describe the madwoman in the attic – you could certainly call Bertha Mason a drama queen.

Bohemian spirit Lola is really called Mary but tells us on the first page that her parents named her Mary “by mistake” (7). She is from New York but has been forcibly relocated by her mother to the “soporific suburb” of Dellwood, New Jersey, or as she calls it, “Deadwood” (9). Her hubristic attempts to play around with the truth lead Lola into a bitter feud with Carla Santini, the Regina George of Deadwood High. Hearing that Carla has tickets to see the farewell show of Siddhartha, everyone’s favourite rock band, Lola has seemingly no choice but to begin a campaign of lies to convince the whole school that she will also attend the concert in her native Manhattan.

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Author’s note: the 2004 film version of Confessions is shambolic, a dreadful misrepresentation of Lola and a waste of Lindsay Lohan’s time and talent!

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The lies Lola tells are extensive: she pretends to have tickets to the Siddhartha afterparty, pretends her father is dead, steals school property, obsessively lies to her mother, pretends to have a dying younger sister, and so on. Her drive to beat Carla, and so to prove her worth to the society of Deadwood High, is tautly palpable. The title of the book is a misnomer, because what confessions can possibly be made if their reader can see straight through their veracity? The effect of this is that Lola’s self-deceit (about her own popularity, her isolation, her familiarity with New York, even her talent as an actress) becomes a tangible presence in the text, while our plucky narrator seems totally unaware of it.

Lola’s best friend is her opposite, just as sense and sensibility are perceived in opposition. While Lola is bold and brash, Ella Gerard is demure and rational. Lola performs a cliché of female hysteria at several points in the text to get what she wants (or attempt to). This reframes the Bertha Mason trope as a way to achieve her own goals Meanwhile, Ella’s simple logic is represented as almost beatific. This purity is shown to be synonymous with Ella’s privilege as a wealthy suburbanite, inducing sympathy for the need for women to perform an exaggerated emotionality to better their material circumstances. Lola’s knack for twisting the truth is a way to create more space for herself in the world, and so is her reliance on hysterical behaviour.

Ella and Lola’s opposition is resolved once Lola’s audacity is proven correct and the pair find themselves stranded in New York late at night accompanying the drunken lead singer of Siddhartha as he faces arrest in an all-night diner. It is only once brought to this degree of crisis that Lola, so far led exclusively by the pleasure principle, runs out of ideas and comes face to face with the lies she has told. In contrast, it is through this crisis that Ella comes into her own, handling the drunken behaviour of the rock star and the police arrest. Perhaps the emotional authenticity recommended by Jones Sullivan occurs in this text through the interactivity of sense and sensibility, logic and emotion, in the mutual formation of Ella and Lola’s identities.

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A very grainy photo of the original 1999 hardback edition.

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The arbitrariness of the truth is made clear at the end of Lola and Ella’s adventure. Carla Santini does indeed catch sight of Lola and Ella at the Siddhartha afterparty, once the drunken rock star has sobered up and made them his guests of honour. However, back at Deadwood High, Carla denies all knowledge of their presence, simply refusing the version of the truth set before her by Lola’s campaign of lies and audacious behaviour. Beaten at her own game, Lola comes face to face with the fact that the truth is an arbitrary economy that she cannot control no matter her determination. The truth, then, is about relating to another person and their version of events. Lola must overcome her rage that Carla has essentially cancelled her victory. Ella suggests she accepts her own reality: “Well, weknow we went to the party,” said Ella. “We know we met Stu Wolff. I mean, that’s what reallycounts, isn’t it?” (281).

Yet what use is the truth without an audience? What use is the truth when it has been rejected by the wider social body? The eventual stand-off between Lola and Carla is deliciously ambiguous, with the entire final chapters of the text asking readers to consider whether the truth is the truth or whether the truth is something that can be performed, and so therefore can be edited and rewritten. The performance of emotion, and the bending of logic, are mutually interactive. To watch this process in Lola’s unreliable narration is to recognise the discrepancy between logic and emotion in the justification of the truth. Her final conversations with Ella constitute the power of ethical dialogue to expedite radical change

It seems to me that Lola is a good example of Jones Sullivan’s thesis, as a young heroine who feelthinks her way through a social system intent upon limiting her self-expression and self-attainment. I am unsure how successful my attempt to convey the breadth of Jones Sullivan’s seminar has been. Nevertheless, I have certainly appreciated the opportunity to rethink a beloved children’s book through considering how sense, sensibility and truth interact on the page.

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