Girls won't save the world if they are blind to history. Credit: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty

June 30, 2021   6 mins

Not long after graduating from Cambridge with a bare pass and spending a few months mooching about doing not very much, the 21-year-old William Wordsworth travelled to France to escape the demands of his guardians that he get a proper job.

It was 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille. In his autobiographical work, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes pocketing a stone from the fortress rubble, and thrilling at the world born anew in the white heat of revolution:

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive!
But to be young was very heaven.

For a moment, the slate of human failings seemed to have been wiped clean. He imagined “France standing on the top of golden hours,/And human nature seeming born again”.

The Terror, though, horrified the young poet. The implosion of this astonishing, thrilling moment of Reason, renewal and revolutionary promise into brutal violence and political repression drove him to re-evaluate his early political passions.

But something of that longing to sweep the slate clean does survive in Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, written, along with The Prelude, in 1798. In it, he reflects, from the grand old age of 28, on the wild passions of his revolutionary youth and how much he’s changed. He describes the power of a beautiful landscape to convey profound insight: “that serene and blessed mood” in which

…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy
We see into the life of things.

It’s a fairly safe bet that LAMBDA Literary Award and Triangle Publishing Award finalist Melissa Febos would scorn Wordsworth as one of her literary forerunners. The bibliography of Girlhood, her recent collection of semi-autobiographical essays on growing up female in America, cites Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jaques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and is noticeably light on such crusty old classics from the traditional literary canon as the Romantic poets.

Nonetheless, in both style and content Girlhood echoes the Wordsworthian revolutionary dream of “human nature born again”, the Romantic rejection of nearly all overt reference to history, tradition or culture, and the longing to “see into the life of things” via self-reflection and the natural world.

Like Wordsworth’s Prelude, it’s also that very Romantic thing, a Bildungsroman. She begins with the experience of reaching puberty at the age of 11 and finding herself abruptly the focus of adult male sexual attention; it takes us through her adolescence, sexual promiscuity, drug addiction and work as a professional dominatrix to falling in love as an adult and finally reaching a measure of emotional comfort and embodiment as a successful writer in her thirties.

In the course of its chapters, via often raw vignettes from her life, she tackles a range of familiar liberal pop-feminist themes such as “slut-shaming”, the “male gaze”, voyeurism, sexual consent and embodiment. She weaves her history with interviews, references to (usually contemporary or near-contemporary) writers of critical theory, and a sprinkling of social science data.

She depicts girlhood as a kind of coercive scripting by the overwhelming force of patriarchal culture. “Before I learned about beauty,” she writes, “I delighted in my body. I was a passionate child with callused feet and lots of words.” But having hit puberty early, at 11, faced with an onslaught of sexual attention, “I came to better understand the lessons about my female body, the ones that tell us punishment is a reward, that disempowerment is power.”

She becomes increasingly dissociated from herself: “I let the persistent older boy dig under my clothes and between my legs. My once-strong body became a passive thing, tossed and splintered, its corners rounded from use.”

Radical literature has a long history of rejecting canonical content and form. Wordsworth drew on a radical tradition of blank verse instituted by John Milton, Puritan author of Paradise Lost (and sometimes propagandist for Cromwell’s Protectorate), who saw escape from poetic formalism as a metaphor for real-world liberation from religious and cultural tradition, and a return to the “ancient liberty” of Saxon England from the Catholic Norman yoke.

Wordsworth, in turn, imagined a new politics where stuffy tradition might be swept away by the light of Reason, while the overly-ornate Augustan poets and their formalism might likewise be swept away by muscular Miltonic blank verse.

Two centuries further on again, this permanent revolution continues to devour its children. Wordsworth himself has received the same treatment from more modern feminist critics as the Augustans did at the hands of Wordsworth and his Romantic contemporaries. But even after dynamiting the literary canon, including its Romantic poets, the anti-traditionalism, self-exploration and rejection of canonical authority Wordsworth helped to inaugurate lives on in writers such as Melissa Febos.

Febos paints her life as a Romantic tale of self-fashioning: a rejection of the stifling formalism of patriarchal ideology into (as Milton might have put it, were he not such a ghastly misogynist) “ancient liberty” of unchained female embodiment. Like training the body to athletics, Febos writes, it’s possible to re-shape the mind and its desires away from its patriarchal conditioning: “Like any process of conditioning, it is tedious, minute, and demands rigorous attention.”

The book itself was an instant bestseller. The Oprah Daily website recounts breathlessly that it’s “so definitive, so necessary” the article author wishes she could go back in time and tell her younger self to read it. I found much in her story that echoes my own often unhappy experiences of growing up. But Girlhood also left me feeling suffocated.

Like Tintern Abbey, Febos dials back every frame of reference save self-reflection, the phenomenal world and the supposedly universal one. Her account of lying on damp pine needles in a forest and emoting herself into a state of communion with the sublime plugs her straight into Wordsworthian tradition:

“I would read or think or feel myself into a brimming state—not joy or sorrow, but some apex of their intersection, the raw matter from which each was made—then lie with my back to the ground, body vibrating, heart thudding, mind foaming, thrilled and afraid that I might combust, might simply die of feeling too much.”

Girlhood is an account of someone who began in this rich, passionate wildness and experienced growing up as a series of traumatic constrictions, before finally making peace with her body and finding a place in the world. Her retelling implies that we may draw conclusions from her experiences, about the condition of women more generally.

But unlike the Romantic writers from which her self-exploratory style is descended, Febos seems profoundly ignorant of the mass of shared cultural and historical material Wordsworth knew well, but set aside. Where she encounters such material, she treats it as the enemy: a delivery mechanism for a hostile ideology. And yet her own biography shows how rejecting our own shaping by history, culture and tradition doesn’t prevent these things operating upon us.

She writes on several occasions, for example, about her abandonment as a baby by her biological father, then the repeated absences of her adopted seafarer father and his eventual separation from her mother. Studies have shown that girls with absent fathers often reach puberty early, and are at greater risk of early sexual activity and abuse.

But nowhere does Febos draw a link between these elements of her biography and patterns in wider social life. Nor does she have much to offer in the way of reflection on why we have those cultural phenomena we have concerning sex and love. For that would require a reflective examination of the wider contours of our shared culture: a move that necessitates thinking historically.

Instead, her suffering is the fault of something nebulous called “patriarchy”, which is “the house in which we all live”, which “possesses all of Western culture and industry and has for centuries”.

Febos is a vivid writer. But having pushed the Romantic mode of self-exploration to its extreme, she has produced as a source of human (or at least female) universals a book of the most stifling imaginable solipsism. In this world, there is no shared cultural or historical terrain between the absolutely subjective individual, and the crushing force of oppressive ideology. At best we can hope for a sprinkling of critical theory, movie references and the odd snatch of poetry.

And there are wider political ramifications to writing like this and calling it “feminism”. For, if selfhood is the sole legitimate ground for thinking, and all of canonical culture is a hostile vector for patriarchy, then we have no shared and cumulative life in common – at least none with any moral legitimacy. And once we treat who we were as infinitely plastic and subject to remodelling, the political project of who we are and can become is radically up for grabs.

This state of liquefaction thrilled Wordsworth in 1792. But in practice, the more uncertain we become of our past, the easier it becomes for anyone with a political interest in doing so to rewrite it in the interests of shaping such futures as are open to us. And these may be less enticing: the 1789 sweeping-away of the past that so thrilled Wordsworth didn’t take long to become 1793’s Terror.

Those writers, such as Febos, who remain not just blind to history but hostile to it as a delivery mechanism for oppression leave us not just navel-gazing in an airless world stripped of cultural riches, but disturbingly adrift. All common life and heritage has been repudiated, leaving us unable to refashion anything except ourselves.

And while doing so may have felt to Febos like liberation, as a programme for the greater good it’s not just myopic and profoundly defeatist. It’s Ground Zero for an authoritarian nightmare.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.