Women’s Lives

As a biographer of Gloria Steinem, an author of several books of powerful feminist literary criticism, and in her role as Amanda Cross, detective novelist, author Carolyn Heilbrun could not be bettered as the choice to give the annual Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. In these direct and engaging lectures readers can “hear” Heilbrun’s firm speaking voice—her pride in how much feminist criticism has contributed to literary study. As well as her recognition that women still find themselves in a state of what she calls “liminality.”

Liminality refers to women in a state of transition. Women seem constantly to be on the threshold, entering a new stage of awareness that makes them more forceful literary voices than earlier women writers could have imagined. And yet women never seem to arrive at the moment of fulfillment in Heilbrun’s account of literary history.

Heilbrun’s lectures cannot be bettered for a concise review of contemporary women’s memoirs and fiction and of the classic writers—most notably George Eliot. Occasionally, however, Heilbrun stumbles in the minefield of academic jargon and her points are weakened or almost seem a parody of themselves and of academic “discourse”—to use a term favored by academics. Thus there appear sentences that only years in the academy can prepare one to write, let alone appreciate: “Let me pause here to make a quite irrelevant and yet to me significant point about the liminality of current professional female nomenclature.” Such locutions aside, this short book remains remarkably accessible to students and scholars at all levels of academic study. Even the general reader with some tolerance for riding the liminality thesis a little too hard will be stimulated and provoked by this trenchant book.