Authorship and Hysterical Woman in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat

Throughout the critical culture of the 1970s and 1980s, theorists such as Roland Barthes were postulating the “death of the author.” However, Arya Aryan suggests that the work of some female novelists can be seen to challenge implicit assumptions of authorship, in a way that prefigures later theoretical debates. His lecture shows how Muriel Spark’s 1970 novel The Driver’s Seat expresses concerns with the assumptions of  literary culture, by bringing to the fore the problems that beset all women living in a patriarchal society.

Arya writes:

“My contention is that much of the recent theoretical and philosophical debate around the concept of authorship was reflected much earlier in British literary fiction than the specifically academic debates foregrounded in the 1980s. In particular, there was little specifically on female authorship as a problematic area until feminist debates of the 70s. Yet writers as various as Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble and Muriel Spark began to address such questions from the late fifties and early sixties onwards. Spark’s early to mid career writing directly expresses concerns with the patriarchal discourse that had dominated society and the assumptions of literary cultures by bringing to the fore obsessions and problems besetting all women under patriarchy. An abiding preoccupation in much of this writing and particularly in that of Spark, is the desire to lay bare the patriarchal assumptions underpinning the concept of women as inherently hysteric and driven by irrational emotional responses. Bearing in the mind that hysteria etymologically means suffering in the uterus/womb (and that hysterectomy, derived from this root, refers to removal of the womb), and given prevailing discourses connecting creativity and art with madness, women writers were particularly prone to being regarded as hysteric and mad and the intellectual life too regarded as a threat to female well-being. Because of its history of diagnostic prevalence amongst women, and the ubiquity of the idea of the hysterical woman, hysteria was widely regarded as the “female disease” (Gilbert and Gubar 6) throughout the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Despite disappearing from official psychiatric handbooks, the diagnosis still remained pervasive and lingered on much longer in general cultural perceptions of women. But hysteria might be re-engineered through writing into a reverse discourse describing the conditions of women’s suffering under patriarchal law and seen as a consequence of identity production under patriarchy. Though hysteria had as a diagnosis lost its prominence by the 1920s, it is perhaps hardly surprising that it returned to prominence, after the socially conservative gender politics of the 1950s, to occupy a prominent position in the work of writers such as Lessing, Drabble and Spark. Interestingly, this return was accompanied by an unusually focused preoccupation with questions around female authorship in the 1960s, as in The Driver’s Seat (1970). Accordingly, this paper aims to show that it is in such an ideological space that Muriel Spark, in The Driver’s Seat, set out to create a fictional world where a young woman, whose efforts are directed towards giving shape to her life, undergoes hystericisation in order to take control, gain agency and authority over her life narrative, while challenging dominant misogynistic discourses.”

10403573_528363017292460_8215692497652709481_nFrom the uncanny films of Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, to the flimflamming con artists of Oscar Wilde, Late Summer Lectures covers an eclectic and fascinating mix of topics. The series runs at 7.00 on Wednesday evenings from 13th August to 1st October, in Alington House, Durham.

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