Kirsten Uszkalo: Sex, Death and the Single Romantic Woman
Articles » July 2000

There is little room in Romantic poetry for the female voice. When a female voice is heard above cluttered din of male discourse, she often relates sexually motivated tragedies. Letitia Landon and Mary Robinson were both public figures forced to work at other jobs to support themselves and their writing careers. Although these women were strong and independent enough to work and write, their poetry does not reflect a movement towards representing autonomous, secure women. Conversely, they usher women inward, isolating them to the private sphere and regress farther into an emotional sphere. Women, so far removed from public society, elevate the passionate and sentimental and become victims of their own mythology. The erotics of female passivity help construct a kind of fragile and helpless identity that culminates in the death of the heroine as an ultimate expression of love and submission. Death is not always the narrative conclusion to female passion; often women live and care for their children born out of wedlock, or to exiled from society completely, sell their bodies as prostitutes to survive.

In the "Preface to the Venetian Bracelet" Landon explains her choice of love as a topic. She says that "for a woman, whose influence and whose sphere must be in the affections, what subject can be more fitting than one which it is her peculiar province to refine, spiritualize and exalt?" Landon acknowledges the restrictive nature of the female sphere; unable to freely move outward into the larger society, Landon suggests that women move inward, elevating and looking for substance in the emotional realm. However, In Landon's poetry, few or her female protagonists find satisfaction, instead they remain trapped in a frustrated limbo, waiting for a male figure to come and occupy the void.

The theme of perpetual anticipation is explored in "Expectation" The narrative begins with the girl wearily waiting, cloistered inside her home, pensively looking out side "from the gold clear light of morning/ To the twilight's purple haze"(3-4). Like many other women in Landon's poetry this woman "is looked at, but also looks" ("Landon", 107). The reader of the poem holds the heroine in their gaze, enjoying watching her heartbroken anticipation, as the girl looks out in anticipation. The girl is a s defined by the narrator and reader's gaze as she defines herself by looking out from her prison. All Parties participate in an impotent spectatorship, unable to tears their eyes away, while accomplishing nothing by watching.

This girl waits from dawn till the past dusk at this window, waiting, and wasting away. Two possible readings of this poem suggest that either the girl is waiting for a lover, or that she is simply waiting for something to happen, in an otherwise passive and purposeless life. Often, marriage is seen as the fulfillment of female destiny, the culmination of repressed emotional and physical desires. So it may be that the girl is both waiting for a lover and the identity she will bring to her.

The girl is waiting for a lover she met when "her bright face was written /Like some pleasant book" (16-17). Fresh faced and beautiful, the tragic heroine met and has been seduced by a lover who had promised to return to her. The brightness of her face is an apparition of the past; now the "Colour, sunshine hours are gone" (23), her youth has been quietly and grievously spent waiting for what would never arrive. The girl becomes a "lady" (24) resigned and enjoying a morbid fulfillment by "seeking still in vain"(33) the promise made to her in youth. It is the waiting that both gives the woman purpose and gently washes her substance away, till like a ghost, caught between the two worlds, she forgets that she ever had a life before and is defined and trapped behind the lattice bars of her frustrated sentimentality. Landon expands this woman's destiny to include all who hold a "human heart"(25) in their breast; the heroines tale is the inescapable "fated lot"(26), frustrated anticipation which culminates in the inevitable "death and night" (35). The woman may not be waiting for romantic fulfillment, but a purpose of any kind. She is crippled by her sex, unable to leave her prison, she is forced to wait for someone or something to come along and rescue her. The narrator complicates the Romanticism of this scenario by emphatically stating and asking the heroine "what has been thy gain!" (34)

This woman is trapped in the private spheres of domesticity and emotion. Although Landon was able to find public approval and some mobility through her writing, her heroines are confined to this private sphere were they are force to turn inward and hyper elevate importance of emotions and love. Like the heroine in "Expectation" who seems trapped in a small space, invisible to the out side wold, but not participating in any domestic activities, she is exiled from participating in an active life and is in a stasis, aging, but emotionally unable to move outside of the "boundries of her own plot" ("Haunted",56) trapped within their own bodies.

The construction of the body, the inescapable female prison, is explored in Landon's "Lines of Life". The narrator is able to control her body so that she can cautiously conceal her emotions and write the expected narrative upon her features. The narrator invites us to attempt to read her "cheek, and watch [her] eye" promising that we will be unable to discern her true feelings from her "strictly school'd" (1-2) features. This poem becomes a dirge to the truth and identity the narrator used to share, but now must repress. The narrator is forced to live among "the cold, the false" (9) and to fit in she is forced to play a part, adopt an identity which through sweet and soft is an "other's likeness" (15) which threatens to subsume her own. The narrator mourns how trained she is to act out the false and appropriate gestures that make her as false as those around her. The narrator is trapped within her assumed identity, accepted among her present company, but full of self-repulsion.

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