Waller, Gary. The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and Early Modern Construction of Gender. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.
Reviewed by Andreas Zacharau | March 24, 2003
There is a theme dear to anthropologists: the self-confirming character of belief systems. Gary Waller seems to believe that literature is first and foremost a symptom of gender assignments, reflecting the incessant construction of a bipolar gender ideology. “We are,” Waller holds, “always already chosen by ‘our’ stories” (283). And so he explores the works and documents left behind by William Herbert and Mary Wroth (Members of the Sidney clan and first cousins who produced two illegitimate children) as a story that was shaped by a male-dominated tradition that still holds its sway. Thus Waller’s reading of Herbert and Wroth is politically charged, expressing a yearning for social engineering. Taking his cue from their struggles to write themselves into their works, he thinks it essential to struggle with one’s own ideological coordinates, to “write from one’s own place in the system of sexual politics” (28). Males, such as Herbert (and Waller), are assigned a less problematic role, determined to be “active,” roam the world, seeking satisfaction. But although Waller detects in Herbert’s writings misgivings about and problems with this gendered universe, they do not question or challenge the status quo. It is Wroth, who, in Waller’s opinion, furnishes her contemporary readers and us with the glimpse at an alternative space without the gender binary. Women are assigned to passivity and doomed to failure in their attempts to emulate male roles. Just like so many of the heroines in Urania, a female “submits and adores an other who is what she cannot be” (44). Through the exploitation of literary traditions and conceptual frameworks (space, sexuality, gossip, etc.), Wroth constructs a space that is constituted not by the recognition through submission, but “a relationship of mutuality” (44). “Like a kleptomaniac,” Waller tells us, “she must steal what has hitherto been the prerogative of the male,” feeling maybe both “revenge and erotic excitement “ (203). Clearly, Waller is quite taken with his subject. But I do not believe that Wroth’s concerns are Waller’s – her alleged space of mutuality is his construct. To begin with, Wroth introduces mutuality among her heroines, the ones who move in Urania’s terrain of female fantasies. Togetherness is created by the “acknowledgement of victimization” (218). The males in this story still act as if women function as a terrain for their fantasies. Wroth’s struggle to assert agency for women does not seem capable of fulfilling Waller’s utopian dream. In addition, there are enough deep layers and embedded discourses in her text – such as the problem of mimesis, time, the exploitation of recessional space – that might not be wholly concerned with the feminist strand of current academic theories and their seductive self-confirming stories.