Jones looks at the work of seven white women writing before WWII who “all criticize the ideal of southern womanhood point by point in similar ways, and by means of similar imagery, plotting, characterization, and narrative points of view.” Importantly, she observes that
the ideal of southern womanhood that informed these women’s lives and fictions not only often conflicted with their actual human needs but also contained its own internal ambiguities and contradictions. When the image exhorts both intelligence and submission, both bravery and fragility, conflict seems inevitable. (xii)
As Jones observes “that ideal did not serve only as a norm for individual behavior[,] it became also a central symbol in the South’s idea of itself” (xii), she provides an important reason for the study of women in this literature: “in the American South woman represented as well [man’s] ambivalent feelings about social class, race, and national identity” (5). Further, she points out that for traditional southern womanhood, itself more a personification than a human possibility, “efforts to join person and personification, to make self into symbol, must fail because the idea of southern womanhood specifically denies the self” (4). While acknowledging the similarities between traditional southern womanhood and the Victorian lady or American True Womanhood, she points out important differences:
the southern lady is at the core of a region’s self-definition; the identity of the South is contingent in part upon the persistence of its tradition of the lady. Secondly, and perhaps for that reason, the ideal of southern womanhood seems to have lasted longer than other ideas….in a third divergence…southern womanhood has from the beginning been inextricably linked to racial attitudes….finally, the very image itself seems, if not radically different from, at least an extreme version of the nineteenth century lady….And the class—aristocratic—that the image of the lady represents receives a stronger emphasis in the South than elsewhere. (4-5)
Significant to my work is her quote from Robert Afton Holland, a clergyman at the University o the South, who in 1909 said that, “once outside the home, woman become a horrific animal, acquiring ‘bigger hands, bigger feet, higher cheek bones, lanker limbs, flatter chests, hook noses, lips thin and tight” (20).
While the individual chapters have analyses and observations on specific authors, works, and characters which I find useful, Jones’s remarks in her conclusion are the most useful for my project. For example, she observes that,
In contrast to symbolizing beauty as purity and fragility, as the southern lady should, these protagonists have dark eyebrows and strong bodies. Probably because their values—free intelligence, aloneness, self-assertion—are traditionally masculine, the physical appearance of the protagonists is often atypical, even androgynous. Edna, Scarlett, Katharine, Beulah, Hagar, and Gabriella are all described as striking but not beautiful: they have “character.” On the other hand, to Oliver, Virginia appeared fragile and delicate, her skin like magnolia blossoms. Moreover, many characters feel and express their sexuality, from the adolescent Claire’s emerging sensuousness, responding to the dancing in the streets, to Calixta’s full adult pleasure in the act of sex. (354)
Further, she points out that “traditional images of beauty of the southern female are, in almost every work, scorned or ignored. Beginning by discarding the fragility of the skin like magnolias and eyes like violets, these women writers are inventing through imagery their own definitions of southern womanhood” (362). In Jones’s consideration, the heart of the conflicts expressed in these works is a fundamental tension between realism and romanticism. Romanticism, a familiar mode, allows the author to “substitute for material reality a dream that is, paradoxically, more ‘realistic’ than objective reality. This is, in fact, what these writers do when they dream up characters who are neither beautiful nor fragile, conventionally good nor powerless” (359). While these authors grew up with romanticism as the primary mode of their society, “because the realist depicts the actual daily experience of ordinary persons, realism would have appealed as the literary method for debunking the ideal of the southern lady. It would thus serve as a corrective for the entire society of the South, in exposing the romantic illusion of the marble lady” (359). Realism “reveals the ugliness, the injustice, and the sordidness of society, which romanticism can pass over” (358).
It occurs to me that Jones’s observations circle around Sonnet 130—that the physical appearance of Shakespeare’s mistress is what attracts the speaker—it makes her corporeal, rather than ethereal. It may be in part that we want characters we can relate to. It may be that flaws make someone more attractive, more interesting—in the whole “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Tolstoy way.