Susan Fromberg Schaeffer: The Madness of a Seduced Woman; E. P. Dutton; New York.

 The specter of solipsism has long haunted the romantic temperament, and romantic eros in particular. The sense that one’s self is the locus and source of all value and meaning in the universe has characterized both the critical cele­brations and the denunciations of roman­ticism as a movement. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has written a veritable expose of the female mind as polluted and finally destroyed by romanticism. Hers is a study of that selfless love of another that is actually its opposite, an egotistical mania that absorbs the loved one as part of oneself.

It is one thing to criticize the romantic mentality as dangerous, limited, and egocentric from a philosophical stand­point, and another to present in fiction a feminist attack on romanticism because of its psychological, social, and emotional devastation of middle-class women. Schaeffer’s scheme is not new; she is tripping along in the literary footsteps of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Richardson’s Clarissa, and many other novelistic presentations of the seduction and betrayal of women. A scene reminiscent of the pig slaughter­ing in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure begins the novel, and in many ways, the aura of Hardy pervades this work. As the two women in Jude were split between spirit and flesh, the heroine in Schaeller’s hook experiences a continual warfare between her intellect and her body. In a recurring dream she finds a doll’s head on a table and can never locate and attach the head to its body. Such a dream, Schaeffer implies, haunts all women who are taught to endorse their intellects at the expense of their emotions. Women are fragmented and then forced into accepting dangerously idealistic notions of love, marriage, and identity because of their wholesale indoctrination in romanticism. The madness of this particular “seduced” woman is, by extension, the madness of all middle-class women with little meaningful education, time on their hands, and nothing to do but partake of the illusion of love. 

The Madness of a Seduced Woman depicts in minute detail the life and mind of Agnes Dempster, a Vermont farm girl who leaves an unhappy home for life in Montpelier around 1897. Her intense love affair with Frank Holt, a stonecutter, results in an abortion and her abandonment shortly thereafter. Although she has threatened to kill herself and has bought a gun, Frank refuses to take her threats seriously. In a stupor, she goes to Frank’s new girlfriend, lures her to a field, shoots her through the head, and then turns the gun on herself. Agnes, however, survives and faces trial for murder. Dur­ing the trial she is forced to hear her lover initially deny her, deny their love, and, when confronted with the facts, admit that he left her because her desires were “insatiable.” Because her lawyer and a psychiatrist are convinced that Agnes was, as she describes herself, “more sinned against than sinning,” she is not condemned to hang, but instead is committed to life in an insane asylum. Agnes’s life in the asylum is depicted in lesser detail, as is her life after her release at the age of 40. As she dies she dreams one last time of the doll, this time with both the head and body attached, whole and unified. One is left with the overwhelming sense of the waste, pain, and suffer­ing she has expended in her pursuit to unify head and heart, to live with both her emotions and reason simultaneously. The Madness of a Seduced Woman pro­vides, then, a microcosmic portrait of the extremes in the life of a young woman around the tum of the century—from the genteel needlework to an illegal and gruesomely detailed abortion on a dirty mattress.

 This novel must be a feminist attack on romanticism’s destructive effects on women because it would be difficult to take it at face value. In fact, one is tempted to read it as high camp, a modern, tongue-in-cheek retelling of the 19th-century seduction tales. Schaeffer’s book is a virtual catalog of themes and issues currently of conern to feminist writers. In books such as Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering and Helen Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur; women are depicted as indoctrinated not primarily by fathers or masculine figures, but by mothers, who are more potently dangerous because they have internalized patriarchal values and attitudes. Such is Agnes’s fate, for she is raised primarily by her mother and grandmother, the three generations of women locked in a sort of matricidal cycle. Each woman seeks to escape the fate of her predecessor while at the same time fearing that she will be replaced by a younger version of herself.

 Schaeffer’s book also eschews the depiction of women as victims in favor of the more recent version of women as powerful, albeit passively aggressive shapers of their own destinies. But ironically, when Agnes does act in a direct way to control her life—e.g., the abortion and the shooting—her actions are only self-destructive and destructive. Women can assume power, Schaeffer implies, only by denying an aspect of their being and becoming like men, vio­ lent and careless of life. To trade the position of victim for that of victimizer is hardly an ennobling one. As Agnes herself recognizes, all human beings are caught on a wheel, an inescapable web of entanglements and enotions that ensure life’s continuation.

Elizabeth Hardwick, in her Seduction and Betrayal, reminds us that “Sex can no longer be the germ, the seed of fiction. Sex is an episode, most properly conveyed in an episodic manner, quick­ly, often ironically.” Schaeffer’s book is contemporary fiction aping the sensibil­ities and attitudes of 19th-century litera­ture, so it is difficult to determine how the book is to be read. If the author in­tends for us to sympathize with the heroine, then she has failed, as Agnes is altogether too extreme, too willful to evoke our affection. At the same time, she is incredibly vapid. She reads only romantic novels and at one point tells her lover that she “would not mind being a cow if [she] could get rid of [her] mind.” She often has dreams of being a puppet. And Agnes also wallows in self-pity and fails as an adult to accept responsibility for her own actions. She sees her mother as an “intelligent storm bent on destroying [my] life,” and thinks that “fifty years after firing the shot, I still blame my mother.” In order to escape her childhood misery which, one has to conclude, was largely self-inflicted, Agnes dreams the fatal dream of ideal love: “Somewhere, I knew, was the one ideal love for whom I was intended, the one perfect love who would catch me up in my own wheel.” But after the disastrous experience and the long recovery, Agnes realizes that “only those who hate the real world do what I did. I tried to create an ideal world.”

Agnes’s first attachment is to a “good man who offers her simple happiness, security, and fidelity. But she rejects him; she seeks out unhappiness because there is, after all, something very noble in suf­fering. She chooses a man who has caused other abortions, other disappointments. She even sees the specter of her future self in a former girlfriend of Frank, a woman who also had an abortion and is consumed by bitterness and self-pity, called “mad” by her friends and family. Agnes’s love for Frank, however, is not just romantic; it is specifically Shelleyan. She tells a friend that she wants “some­ one like me,” an ideal version of herself. One thinks in this context of Shelley’s description of love in his essay “On Love.” There he pictures love as an impulse that “thirsts after its likeness,” and as a “mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness; a soul within our soul.” For Shelley, the “invis­ible and unattainable point to which Love tends” is the point where “the chords of two exquisite lyres” become “one delightful voice.” The impulse to merge totally with the beloved is the Shelleyan ideal of love. The transforming power of love, the ability of love to make one divine, these were the sacred credos of Shelleyan eros. Adapted as a literal philosophy of life by the people with little or no appreciation of the complexity of human emotions, these attitudes proved fatal.

 Agnes’s dream of love is hopelessly Shelleyan, or platonic.  Once she resolves to love Frank, she thinks: “There had to be another person who fit you perfectly so that the two of you together formed one whole.” And once she has chosen Frank as her ideal, she muses that “the fabric of this life had ripped neatly to re­veal the perfect world for which I was al­ways looking, and that he was the per­fect man for whom I had been looking.” Frank is perfect not only because Agnes imagines him to be a hero, but because he is a competent stonecutter and thus, in her eyes, an artist. She dreams of gaining happiness on earth by fostering Frank’s artwork, which she sees as “per­fect” and “permanent.” She wants, that is, to be a romantic muse, an Eternal Feminine who leads him to great heights of artistic immortality, her immortality ensured through her guidance and inspiration.

Agnes was attracted to Frank by his carving of a mother and baby on a tombstone, which is a fitting image, given her vehement rejection of motherhood because of her disdain for the natural world. She proudly thinks that she will be different from her mother and all women who are trapped by their bodies. Her goal, as she describes it, is to “transcend my own nature.” But her lawyer draws this lesson from Agnes’s fate: “we’re all biological creatures, and the greatest of us know that and work with biology, not against it.” Only late in her life does Agnes realise that she has put her mind and her body in opposition. She explains:

Well, in our day it was the fashion to neglect the mind and fulfill one’s bio­logical destiny, and in every age there are rebels, and I was one. I didn’t want children, or so I thought. But in the end, not having a child was the worst punishment visited upon me. Today, some women are beginning to talk of the body as if it were a mousetrap wait­ing to spring shut on the mind, and I suppose the body is like that, but the mind is there, too, waiting to spring on the body.

After writing her farewell suicide note to Frank, Agnes muses her most dangerous Shelleyan thought: “I believed that the real world was worthless, a pale imitation of the the world which our imagination had created between us.” Such extreme thinking leads her to self­-delusion, to a world where her desires are the only reality. But she has no sense of her own identity; she quite literally does not know who she is, and therefore she has sought the easy solution of finding herself in her beloved. But she finally realizes after many years that it is no real answer: two people cannot become one ideal person, platonic metaphysics not­ withstmding. Only as an adult, after many years within the asylum, does she grasp what she calls the reality of life: “that life was hard…impermanence was at the very heart of things, and that, therefore, there was no such thing as perfection on this earth.” This conclusion comes as no small admission to Agnes the idealist. 

Agnes eventually realizes that she must take control of her life. As she finally comes to acceopt, “we are animals. Deformed animals, animals with minds.” But this conclusion merely involves the author in the romanticism she condemns, for she gives us human nature only as two extremes—pure spirit or pure animal. The work would succeed if it could realistically convey a sense of the human personality as it struggles with its inner compulsions to balance mind and body, but instead it indicates that women’s struggle with head and heart tends to hopeless extremes. Ultimately there is a failure of imagination in this view, for clearly the struggle can be won in a synthesis between these implausible polar oppositions.