Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction traces the presence and development of the idea of communities of women in nineteenth and twentieth century novels by both men and women writers in England and America in order to trace the expansion of women’s freedom in literature, if not in life. In her search for these communities, Nina Auerbach employs provocative and original pairings and readings of texts and authors, ranging from Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott to Henry James and George Gissing.

Auerbach notes that while initiation into society through brotherhood is a highly prized tradition, belonging to a sisterhood usually means exclusion from society. She argues that communities of women, however, exert a “subtle, unexpected power” throughout history, and it is the presence and power of women’s associations which she analyzes in the novels. These communities are self-generative and empower women by allowing them alternative patterns of conduct beyond those of wife, daughter, and mother. Because the presence of communities of women is often veiled and subtle, however, their power is not obvious and their definition is not fixed; their nature, then, will differ from text to text and from century to century. As she identifies communities of women within the novels she analyzes, Auerbach argues that they gain strength and importance from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.

In the introduction of the text, the author...

(The entire section is 435 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Communities of Women represents several significant changes in the direction of feminist criticism. First, Auerbach’s emphasis on the importance of women’s bonds makes women’s friendships visible and meaningful at the same time that it validates the importance of the idea of friendships between members of the same sex, male or female. Second, the author’s location of these communities of women within specific historical contexts represents a movement away from the ahistorical nature of some feminist literary criticism. As she fixes the texts within their historical and social framework, Auerbach also points to a tradition of women’s relationships rooted in, but with the ability to transcend, their particular historical contexts and argues for the power of such relationships.

Communities of Women is also innovative in Auerbach’s ability to locate the friendships and communities she evaluates within fiction written by male authors, rather than working solely within a female literary tradition. This breadth of scope is an important movement away from more traditional feminist studies which locate women’s power within literature by women and associate male literature with women’s victimization.

In order to develop her historical and literary analysis of female friendship, Auerbach gives highly original readings of texts which are not traditionally thought to deal with communities of women or communities of powerful women. Villette, for example, is generally read as a woman’s escape from community, and James and Gissing are thought to be, at best, ambivalent about women’s power. One might argue that Auerbach’s assertion that the concept of a community of women defies a fixed definition gives her broad powers of interpretation, but Communities of Women is representative of the author’s wide range of reading and her ability to synthesize that reading with original and sometimes provocative interpretations of the literature.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Auerbach, Nina. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. This work is representative of Auerbach’s independent readings of nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction in which she refuses to isolate women from their culture. Includes essays on Jane Austen, as well as Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, and Lewis Carroll.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This wide-ranging and groundbreaking work examines the responses of nineteenth century women writers to the male-dominated literary tradition in England. While the readings of the texts are provocative, like Auerbach’s, and emphasize the idea of a community of women writers, the emphasis is on women’s victimization rather than on power.

Newton, Judith Lowder. Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778-1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. This study combines Marxist criticism and feminist analysis of British fiction by women to argue that the novels discussed demonstrate women’s challenge to the ideology of women’s power as defined by self-sacrifice and influence.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. In this essay from her book, Rich argues for the critical necessity for women to reject traditional notions of gender in order to become artists. She uses her own poetry to show how her changing sense of self influenced the development of her art.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. This text analyzes the idea of a women’s tradition in British fiction. Showalter uses a social and literary approach as she compares women novelists to their female contemporaries in order to trace the complexity of women’s literary relationships.