The Gendered Gothic: Dorothy Hewett’s Alice in Wormland

By | 1 April 2010

Dorothy Hewett and ‘zombies' are not generally found in the same sentence. However, Hewett liberally utilises Gothic tones and imagery in her poetry. These Gothic trappings do not serve only as motifs: they permeate the mood, conflicts and resolutions of Hewett's Alice in Wormland. This collection, published in 1987, combines pseudo-autobiographical elements with parody, mythology and morbid images to reach a strangely optimistic resolution.

The collection's child persona grows to adulthood and dies, only to be reborn in a new, metamorphosed form, in an act of embracing. Gothic notions of decay, destruction and reconstruction offer a new, grotesque, but efficient form of existence. Even though this collection of free-verse persona poems is framed by images of death and metamorphosis, the persona does not end up being consumed or defeated by these confrontational images. Instead, Alice lives her life surrounded by these ideas, and manages to reconcile with and defeat what oppresses her, namely representations of physical mortality, stifled creativity and social discrimination, by embracing death and Gothic transformations.

Striking images of the grotesque, which include mutilated bodies, blood, madness and physical transformations, fail to elicit the kind of terrified, helpless reaction in Alice that a reader would expect from a traditional Gothic heroine. These morbid motifs do not promote a pessimistic message. Instead, Hewett flanks Alice with these images to present the idea of personal triumph over the ‘horrors' of the ‘real' world, particularly regarding restrictive gender conventions for women, thwarted creative energies, and the inevitable limits of mortality. However, the horrific aspects of these images cannot be completely ignored. The problems that Alice faces still render the heroine vulnerable, and it is only at the poems' conclusion that she is able to embrace the Gothic as a means of asserting her own identity.

The term ‘Gothic' has a long and varied history, the initial meaning of which, outside of architecture, was ‘barbarous' (1923: p 434). In the eighteenth century, the adjective ‘Gothic,' according to Alfred Longueil, was often used ‘in connection with ignorance, cruelty, or savageness' (p 455) When attached to literary conventions, there came a shift from ‘decorum' to ‘imagination' (p 456), particularly with reference to the ‘supernatural' (p 458). Gothic conventions are therefore synonymous with the ‘grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman' (p 459), including use of images associated with death, physical and mental decay, madness and surrealist metamorphoses. Hewett's poems reflect these ‘barbarous' beginnings, but Alice in Wormland is not a horror story. The collection is not entrenched in the supernatural style of eighteenth-century Gothic fictions, yet the same tone of overarching morbidity and confusion is present. Similarly, Hewett freely invokes images of death and physical decay, which are represented with particular clarity in Alice's family members, and in Alice's own experiences. The heroine is confronted with madness, blindness, the deaths of infants, and deaths of animals. At one point, Alice too wishes for death, but this desire is quickly and sardonically dispatched. Death and madness are not her solutions. Instead, these Gothic motifs illustrate larger restrictions, imposed by patriarchal expectations of women, as well as physical mortality, while the Gothic image of bodily transformation assists in Alice's triumph over these same issues.

The persona's clashes with gender expectations are swiftly introduced in the Wormland collection. In addition to these, Hewett sets up the issues of loss of innocence, obsession with control, and preoccupation with life and death that dominate the collection. The persona's innocence and childhood are the first victims of the Gothic, as the ‘Alice' section closes with Alice's ejection from ‘the Dream Girl's Garden' (‘Alice,' 10, line 1), after leaning in to listen to ‘the spotted snake' (‘Alice,' 10, line 24). This biblical imagery foreshadows a dichotomising of good and evil, and the struggle of humanity against its own mortality. Even before ‘Alice was driven howling from the garden' (‘Alice,' 10, line 26), Gothic imagery creeps on the outskirts of the section, particularly in descriptions of the setting, to foreground issues to come. Hewett refers to ‘the magic forest dark & beckoning' that surrounds Alice's home, while the farmhouse in which she lives is inhabited by characters that are traditionally affiliated with the Gothic (‘Alice,' 10, line 10). Four mad brothers live at home: one isolated inside a silo; another in the sheepfeeder; one in the chaffhouse; while the other was ‘a blind albino building crooked fences' (‘Alice,' 4, line 19). Alice also plays with an imaginary friend named Alma,

in the wardrobe mirror who smiled
like a demon
	& always understood her. (‘Alice,' 4, lines 29-31)

Madness, a demonic, imaginary playmate, and physical ‘strangeness' manifested in all of these characters, give a morbid tone to Alice's childhood home. Maximillian Novak remarks that demons of the Gothic, whether they are ‘real, dreamed, or fabricated – represent a sudden revelation of the uncontrolled forces of the mind as they are reified in the seemingly ordered, real world' (1979: p 58). Considering that Alma is only referred to once in the entire collection, this may appear too extreme in Wormland's case. However, the overarching idea of revealing psychological ‘revelations' or developments is particularly poignant in Hewett's work. In this case, Alice's childhood is identified with a perceived lack of order and thwarted development, through her awareness of her unfortunate brothers. Her creation of a demonic playmate foregrounds her future creation, Nim, who will be discussed later, and who serves as a (semi-) physical manifestation of Alice's struggles with the real world and with her own creative energies and desires. The very act of turning inwards, and away from real children as playmates, also signposts Alice's inevitable struggles with other people, and in particular, with women and conventional expectations of women.

The reference to the wardrobe mirror, as well as Alice's name, and the collection's title, all point towards parodic elements in Hewett's Wormland. Hewett's Alice bears very few similarities to Carroll's Alice from Alice in Wonderland, or Alice's Adventures Through the Looking-Glass. While Carroll's Alice falls into a fantastical Wonderland, Hewett's persona falls out of her Edenic garden. Carroll's little-girl Alice is frustrated by the nonsensical rules of a fantasy world, finding herself unable to reason with the world's inhabitants, nor relate to their struggles. Conversely, Hewett's Alice does not remain a child, but grows to adulthood, only to still be alternately restricted or goaded into action by the societal expectations of the ‘real' world. However, Hewett and Carroll's characters are similar in their frustrated stance, as well as the sense of persecution and incomprehensibility throughout these works. Despite these similarities, it is not abundantly clear that Hewett intended to make this persona a mirror of Carroll's Alice, and indeed, the highly sexualised nature of the poems suggests more dedication to traditional Gothic heroines, rather than displaced children in Alice's construction.

It is in keeping with the fragmentary, ambiguous tone of Alice in Wormland that no one source can be cited as the inspiration for Alice. Jennifer Strauss observes that Hewett's Alice becomes ‘a grown woman with experiences that are quite beyond those of Carroll's Alice, experiences as [a] lover… show remarkable correspondence to those of Ms Hewett' (1995: p 61). Potentially autobiographical and parodic elements aside, the list of potential sources of inspiration for Alice's character does not stop there. In 1961, Hewett published the short story ‘Who's to Remember Sweet Alice?' The Alice in this version is described by Strauss as a ‘sad little nay-sayer,' (Ibid) which suggests that Alice from Wormland is a step up in the evolutionary ladder of personas' confrontation of their troubles. Far from a being a ‘nay-sayer,' the Alice in this collection is vivacious and passionate, and does not recoil from horrific images or events in her life. She escapes the impotent trappings of Gothic heroines to the extent that they were set out in The Castle of Otranto and The Mad Monk. Strauss also recognises the mythic qualities of the metamorphosed Alice, and claims that such a construction means that as a ‘romantic quester, she also has the heroic specificity of the legendary, the comical and the sad literalness of the historical individual' (Ibid) Bruce Bennett's observations on Hewett's early poetic influences also lead him to assert that in her poetry, she tends to reflect, ‘in spite of [her] professed atheism…the biblical duality of good and evil, Paradiso and Inferno, the traditional dialectics of literary representations of space' (1995: p 20-21). Alice is a fragmentary character, drawn from multiple sources and assembled, Frankenstein-like, in opposition to the Gothic-tinged, gendered, and largely hostile atmosphere of the ‘real' world.

Much of this hostility is represented in the book by the themes of maternal inheritance, conservative gender roles, and Alice's clashes with these concepts. Hewett rigorously depicts an aggressive, uncaring maternity, which leads the young Alice to seek out the company of male figures for comfort, and to reflect on the natural environment. The confronting image of

an old woman in a darned cardigan
with a carving knife mouthes
Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! (‘Alice,' 1, lines 7-9)

commences Hewett's unsympathetic portrayals of older women. Alice's grandmother is blind, ‘calling on God/her pupil turning milky,' (‘Alice,' 4, 3-4) silent and inanimate for the entirety of the collection. Conversely, Alice's mother takes decidedly hostile action towards her daughter: she ‘tacked a sign over Alice's bed / I must not tell lies against my mother,' (‘Alice,' 5, lines 14-15) complaining that ‘we can't have her / growing up like a savage' (‘Alice,' 6, lines 6-7) At no point does either woman take instructive or affectionate initiatives towards Alice. Edna Longley recognises the tendency of Hewett to represent women unfavourably in her poetry, commenting that

‘If… the great sin of coldness, of emotional parsimony, can be committed by either sex, Hewett portrays father-figures more positively than mother figures: ‘From mother to daughter the curse drops like a stone.' Greeting menstruation as indeed a curse, the mother in Hewett's poetry appears to repress her daughter's creativity along with her sexuality' (1991: p 12).

Illustrations of uncommunicative and paranoid female role-models indicate that Alice must look elsewhere for support, namely to male family members, masculine creations, while familial conflicts and personal issues are depicted in the environment around her.

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