SOURCE: Landy, Marcia. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Fiction Studies 23, no. 4 (winter 1977-1978): 637-45.
[In the following excerpt, Landy praises Showalter's broad historical analysis of female authors in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes her tendency to offer unsympathetic, overly negative judgments of individual writers.]
Two of the four books reviewed here are distinguished by new and challenging critical methodologies, and two are not. Gabriel Josipovici's edited collection of essays on the modern novel reveals a primarily structuralist and linguistic orientation and Elaine Showalter's work, A Literature of Their Own, presents an exploration in feminist criticism. The third book, Lisa Ruddick's essay, is a reading of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and the fourth, Ronald Hayman's British Council pamphlet, while raising some critical issues, makes little pretense to critical analysis. The latter is restricted to a discussion of fifty English and Commonwealth novelists and their works. …
The second book, Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own has a more overt concern for the immediate social context of the writers she discusses than do the essays in The Modern English Novel [by Josipovici]. Showalter attempts to provide the reader with critical categories for understanding and evaluating women's writing. She shares with The Modern English Novel the desire to identify a literary tradition, in this case a woman's literary history. Showalter describes her project thus: “This book is an effort to describe the female literary tradition in the English novel from the generation of the Brontës to the present day, and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture” (p. 11). Showalter charts three phases in this tradition which she identifies as feminine, feminist, and female. These stages reflect similar movements in other literary subcultures such as black, Jewish, Anglo-Indian (often described as imitation, protest and advocacy, and self-discovery).
The book sets itself a large and comprehensive task: to chart history, to discuss representative writers and their work from the three literary phases, to reconstruct a sense for the reader of the literary context, and to utilize both major and minor writers: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot—but Sarah Grand and Diana Craik, too. The book also tests generalizations about women writers. For example, Showalter affirms the high percentage of women writers drawn from the middle class, though she explodes the idea, propounded by male writers like Wilkie Collins, that women were invading and overwhelming the literary market in the nineteenth century. Not every woman undertook writing novels, even less found her way into print. Women writers, in short, were in a minority. Because of inferior education or little formal schooling, women like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë sought to overcompensate and set very high standards for themselves. Furthermore, women writers were more dependent on writing for income than men, because so few professions were available to them. Women had to grapple also with guilt over the “sinfulness” of taking time away from the family to indulge in writing.
Showalter balances her observations and generalizations: she does not merely detail negative instances of women's role and failures of the woman writer; she also cites instances where women succeed. For example, while noting the role father-daughter conflicts play from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Virginia Woolf, she also notes that identification with the father can be linked to high achievement. Furthermore, “the subordination of self to filial duty gave these women confidence in their own abilities to love” (p. 64).
Showalter describes the prevailing double standard for...
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women's fiction; she also describes how from the. 1840's to the 1870's there was some serious criticism of women's contribution to the novel. Women's novels were considered inferior to men's. Because reproduction and motherhood were thought to affect brain size and intelligence, women's artistic abilities were considered inferior. Women's limited experiences were also considered to create circumscribed and lesser artistic productions. Women were believed to excel in emotion rather than in the recreation of actual experiences. This criticism was dealt with sympathetically by George Eliot and by Mrs. Oliphant who, though they “criticized the overemphasis on love and passion in feminine fiction, … understood that lack of education, isolation, and boredom had distorted women's values and channeled creative energy into romantic fantasy and emotional self-dramatization” (p. 80).
Breaking down these literary stereotypes was not easy. A common game of the period was deciphering the sex of the author behind the pseudonym. For example, Blackmore was thought in Clara Vaughan to be a female author because he utilized a female narrator. George Eliot was considered to be a man because of the superiority of her work. When it became known that the author of Adam Bede was a woman, criticism changed markedly to a negative and stereotypical attack. Eliot herself had directed her attention to the question of women's contribution to the novel. She was impatient with most feminine fiction, but she did anticipate that women's “maternal affections would lead to ‘distinctive forms and combinations’ in the novel” (p. 97).
The mid-nineteenth century was characterized by a quest for heroines as “both professional role-models and fictional ideals” (p. 100). By 1860, the dominant role-models were Jane Austen and George Sand, on the one hand, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, on the other. These writers exerted a tremendous influence on other women writers. Eliot and Brontë myths continued even into the twentieth century to influence styles of writing and attitudes toward the woman writer's role. Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Muriel Spark were touched by that “tradition.” Showalter compares Jane Eyre and The Mill on the Floss. Both are “classic feminine novels” and present “powerful descriptions of growing up a female in Victorian England” (p. 112), but Jane Eyre is fulfilled, while Maggie Tulliver is not. Both novels explore female sexuality and utilize folklore to convey negative myths about sexuality. Both heroines experience the conflict between passion and duty, but Jane escapes toward independence while Maggie chooses self-sacrifice. Both “solutions” are representative of women's novels.
Another outlet for women writers' fantasies, struggles, and imagination was the “woman's man,” a common phenomenon in fiction: “It is customary for critics of the Victorian novel to see women's heroes as fantasy lovers, daydreams of romantic suitors. Critics have been rather slow to perceive that much of the wish-fulfillment in the feminine novel comes from women wishing they were men with the greater freedom and range masculinity confers” (p. 136). Showalter catalogues and describes some of the characteristics of the woman's man. He is master of guilt (Guy Morville in The Heir of Radclyff, 1853). Self-sacrifice and masochism are common, too. Another type of woman's man is the brute, the heir to Byron's Corsair and Brontës Rochester. Such men are rough, mysterious, and impulsive. The clergyman hero was yet another common figure. Of intermediate or neutral sex, he was considered by critics of the time to be the male figure most appropriate for the woman writer to use. In many of these novels, men are wounded or they experience illness which reflects the woman writer's sense that men must be initiated into dependency through coercion.
In the late 1860's, changes in women's novels became obvious. New opportunities for women writers appeared through the growth of women's presses. Reviews and serialization also became possible outlets for creativity. One begins to see women in fiction in different and more daring roles. The sensation novel was a genre which was compatible with these new roles; it was also a vehicle for articulating discontent. One finds a new kind of heroine who “expressed female anger, frustration, and sexual energy more directly than had been done previously” (p. 160). The themes were more social than sexual and often reversed traditional stereotypes as in the novels of Mary Braddon. In Lady Audley's Secret, the “frail blond angel” is the threat. The novel explores bigamy, violence, and madness. The “real secret” is that “Lady Audley … is sane and, moreover, representative” (p. 167). The sensation novels tackled divorce, domestic discontent, and sexual conflict. Yet Showalter finds these novels “limited explorations of women's consciousness” (p. 180), for they did not pursue a genuine examination and radical critique of women's social roles.
The 80's and 90's saw the rise of the feminist novelists who “had a highly developed sense of belonging to a sisterhood of women writers” (p. 182). These writers maintained the Victorian ideal of the sacred influence of women, but they transferred the feminine ideal into politics. They attacked male violence, male sexuality, and even syphilis. They envisioned worlds without men. Showalter reveals writers like Olive Schreiner as presenting in their lives and in their writing the painful and problematic situation of women. Schreiner's ambivalent attitudes toward women, her psychological struggles, are reflected in her meager output. Sarah Grand and George Egerton represent “a turning point in the female tradition, and they turn inward” (p. 215). They begin with high hopes for women and end in their own private experiences. Indulging in what seems to be a judgment, Showalter says that “it is a pity that the feminists, showing the limits of their world in their writing, also elevated their restricted view into a sacred vision” (p. 215). Showalter finds the consequences of the suffrage movement equally disappointing, though she does note Elizabeth Robins' and Cecily Hamilton's critical explorations of the future for women's literature and criticism. Many opposed the feminists. Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who was a supporter of women's roles as philanthropists and moral uplifters and was an advocate of education for women, was not a supporter of feminism. The suffragists were also opposed by socialists who were against separatism and saw women's liberation in broad sexual, psychological, and social terms. In general, Showalter does not find the suffrage movement a “happy stimulus to women writers” (p. 236), and she credits the movement with many women's retreat from active social involvement into the cultivation of sensibility.
The pre-World War I and war-generation of women writers developed a “female aesthetic” which was characterized by the abandonment of realism, the cultivation of spirituality, and a rejection of “objectivity” as too representative of the dominant male culture. The heroines of this fiction find themselves trapped and exploited by both marriage and free love, and by self-consciousness. For example, self-awareness in Katherine Mansfield is self-betrayal. The literature reflects negative attitudes toward men. The novels of Dorothy Richardson exemplify the “female aesthetic.” Though often compared to Proust, Richardson is best understood as belonging to the female tradition in literature. Her life reveals familial conflict and instability culminating in the suicide of her mother. Her personal struggles and her struggles with feminism are reflected in her commitment to the novel of consciousness. Her idea that women's language differs from men's and her use of stream-of-consciousness, of fragmented language, and of loose formal structures also reveal her feelings of estrangement, her turning away from traditional forms of literature and from dominant values. Showalter ends her chapter on the “female aesthetic” with the wish that Richardson and other female writers of the period could have “forgiven themselves … could have faced the anger instead of denying it … could have translated the consciousness of their own darkness into confrontation instead of struggling to transcend it” (p. 262).
Showalter's examination of Virginia Woolf is, above all, a critique of Woolf as an androgynous writer. “I think it is important to demystify the legend of Virginia Woolf,” she says (p. 265). Instead of androgyny, Showalter sees sexual polarity. She prods the reader to examine Woolf' relationship to her parents and to Leonard Woolf. She raises questions about Woolf's suicide in the context of her relationship to her husband, her history of depression, her childlessness, and to her experience of menopause. Woolf's advocacy of a room of one's own is “a symbol of psychic withdrawal,” which Showalter interprets as “an escape from the demands of other people” (p. 286). Identifying Woolf with the tradition of female aestheticism, she sees “Woolf's vision of womanhood … as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one's own is the grave” (p. 297). In this evaluation of Woolf, as in the evaluation of the writers of the sensation novel, the suffragists, and Dorothy Richardson, Showalter reveals an inability to empathize with and identify the heroic and positive dimensions of the struggles of these writers. In her quest for demystification, she falls, perhaps unwittingly, into a one-sided analysis.
The final chapter, “Beyond the Female Aesthetic: Contemporary Women Novelists,” explores the phase of self-discovery in women's novels. Showalter finds a new frankness, a greater flexibility of boundaries between men's and women's roles. These writers—Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark—confront class issues, the relationship between tradition and change, and the meaning of personal and cultural liberation. According to Showalter, their attitudes represent the significant distance between the tomb, a room of one's own, and acting and creating in the world.
The strengths of Showalter's study are obvious. She provides the reader with an historical and social context, a tradition, from which to examine the writings of women novelists. She creates a methodology which critics must now debate and test. She treats major and minor writers and places different modes of writing into a comprehensible framework. But the strengths of the book also reveal certain weaknesses. In her desire for coherence, pattern, and meaning, Showalter minimizes the struggles and the positive contributions of writers like Richardson and Woolf. At times, she also simplifies the forces which have molded these writers. For example, Richardson's indebtedness to modernism can be interpreted also as a response to complex social and historical conditions of which the woman's question is only one important factor.
SOURCE: Cahill, Daniel J. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. World Literature Today 52, no. 1 (winter 1978): 114-15.
[In the following review, Cahill praises the range and the scope of material in A Literature of Their Own, noting that the work “change the content and perspective of literary history as it is currently taught in our colleges and universities.”]
The truly significant accomplishment of A Literature of Their Own is the creation of a new perceptual framework, an accurate and systematic literary history for women writers in the British tradition. In the most comprehensive and convincing study to date, Showalter has extended a radically new awareness of the evolution of a female literary tradition. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that if women lived in a different country from men and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own. To many observers—past and present—it seemed that the besetting sin of women was to write as men write. In contradiction to Mill, Showalter argues that many readers of the novel over the past two centuries have had the indistinct but persistent impression of a unifying voice in women's literature. This distinctive female identity in art has been obscured by a “residual Great Traditionalism,” which has reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women writers to a tiny band of the “great”: Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Through the focus upon these happy few, the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next have been lost.
The purpose of A Literature of Their Own is an effort to describe the female literary tradition in the English novel from the generation of the Brontës to the present day and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture. In constructing the thesis, Showalter views the process of the female subculture as evolving in three phases: imitation, protest and self-discovery—a final turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity. Showalter calls her stages Feminine, Feminist and Female. These categories are not rigid periods with distinct shifts in values, and the author is respectful of the many overlapping elements. Feminine, feminist or female, the woman's novel has always had to struggle against the cultural and historical forces that relegated women's experience to the second rank; but despite prejudice, despite guilt, despite inhibition, women began to write. Through the power of accurate scholarship and detail Showalter gives the reader a new and informed sense of the strength of purpose which possessed the female writer. She has dramatically rendered the sense of continuity which sustained a unique tradition and which produced a powerful segment of literary awareness.
In the most original chapters of the book—“The Female Aesthetic” and “Flight into Androgyny”—Showalter explores the distinction between consciousness and experience, an important determinant of the direction of modernist women's writing. In this analysis her critical judgment of Virginia Woolf may be severely contested, since she ultimately sees Woolf as elevating passivity into a creed: “Refined to its essences, abstracted from its physicality and anger, denied any action, Woolf's vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied.”
Obviously, no brief review can be just to the complexity and significance of this excellent study of the female tradition. One of its immediate effects will be to change the content and perspective of literary history as it is currently taught in our colleges and universities. A Literature of Their Own begins to record new choices in a new literary history.
SOURCE: Krouse, Agate Nesaule. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Criticism 20, no. 2 (spring 1978): 216-18.
[In the following excerpt, Krouse compliments Showalter's examination of “the female literary tradition” in A Literature of Their Own, but finds fault with Showalter's treatment of twentieth-century writers, including Virginia Woolf.]
Only recently have critics become fully aware that knowledge about women writers and therefore literary history itself is fragmentary and biased. Innumerable articles and some books from a feminist perspective have reinterpreted the achievements of well known women writers, reassessed the work of neglected ones, exposed the shortcomings of “phallic” criticism, and developed concepts useful for the theory and practice of feminist criticism. Meanwhile extensive and diverse new research about women in other disciplines has contributed to the need for intelligent synthesis of information about the work and experience of women writers.
Professor Showalter's A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing provides such a synthesis and more. Unlike Ellen Moers's Literary Women (Doubleday, 1976), the earlier widely discussed study which took the implications of the gender of writers seriously, Showalter's book is an orderly, balanced, and highly readable account unmarred by awkward coinage (e.g., Moers's “Heroinism”), impressionistic organization, contradictions, and inadequate distinctions. Showalter's book can thus serve as a model for critics examining the work of women in other genres and historical periods. In addition, A Literature of Their Own is informative enough to be useful as a reference work, yet imaginative enough to invite continued reexamination and considerable controversy.
Professor Showalter rejects the notion of “a sense of collective identity of women writers” which might have produced a literary movement; she also dismisses the concept of a specifically female sensibility or imagination. Instead, she chooses “to describe a female literary tradition in the English novel and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture.”
Showalter identifies three distinct stages in “the female literary tradition [which] comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society.” Imitation and internalization of the dominant male traditions produced the Feminine stage (1840-80); protest and advocacy of women's rights resulted in the Feminist phase (1880-1920); the search for and discovery of self is evident in the Female phase (1920-present).
One of the major strengths of this study is the order Showalter brings to a vast and complex body of material without oversimplification or contradiction. She provides informative discussion of innumerable writers besides Brontë, Eliot, Woolf, and Lessing. She makes further distinctions within the three major stages, so that neither common elements nor differences between writers and generations are slighted. She shows that the easy generalizations (e.g., women writers suffered from sexism; women writers opposing the suffrage were unsympathetic to women) can be considerably refined by research and analysis to yield more complex yet more vividly convincing conclusions. Thus, for example, the chapters on “The Feminine Novelists and the Will to Write” and “The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel” indirectly create sympathy and respect for those women who wrote for publication in spite of the critical standards used by both male and female reviewers, by both attackers and defenders. Even trends seemingly contrary to prevailing literary and social conventions are acknowledged and explicated as in the chapter on “Subverting the Feminine Novel: Sensationalism and Feminine Protest.” In addition, Showalter often notes revealing continuities in the fiction of women: her striking comments on the function of the forcibly confined mad wife in Jane Eyre versus that of the mad wife who helps the protagonist gain essential knowledge in The Four-Gated City are just one example. The perceptive and tactful use Showalter makes of research from other disciplines to explicate the fiction and lives of writers constitutes another major strength.
Although A Literature of Their Own is clearly the best of recent studies dealing with several women writers, it is by no means the last word. Novels published in the first half of the roughly one-hundred and thirty years encompassed by the study receive proportionately fuller and more sympathetic treatment. Twentieth century novelists are dealt with in less than a hundred pages; of these about one-fifth are devoted to the writing from the suffrage movement which Showalter accurately evaluates as being historically interesting but aesthetically undistinguished. Many contemporary novelists whose achievements deserve more detailed examination (e.g., Rhys, Spark, O'Brien, Murdock) are passed over in a sentence or omitted altogether. Lessing and Drabble are rightfully treated at greater length, though even here one does not have the comfortable sense that Professor Showalter is as thoroughly familiar with the canon of modern women writers or as perceptive about their relationships to each other, to modern critical standards, or to current concepts of femininity as she is with the literature and society of nineteenth century.
The chapter “Virginia Woolf and the Flight into Androgyny” is likely to be the most controversial. It is undeniably appropriate to reexamine stringently the work and influence of a writer elevated to near-sainthood by feminists and feminist critics. Harriet Rosenstein similarly questioned the irrational admiration accorded to Plath, another suicide, by exposing the shortcomings of The Bell Jar and reaffirming the achievements of the poetry (“Reconsidering Sylvia Plath,” Ms. 1, September, 1972, pp. 44-51). Her essay did much to begin more balanced discussion by feminists of Plath's work. Showalter's refusal to see Woolf's “suicide as a beautiful act of faith, or a philosophical gesture toward androgyny” is a healthy corrective. Less convincing, however, is the ascription of Woolf's major breakdowns to “crises in female identity”: menstruation, frigidity, childlessness, and menopause. While Professor Showalter says she has “no wish to substitute one magical explanation of her [Woolf's] anguish for another,” she nevertheless does so implicitly by the full discussion of these crises and the reliance on Helen Deutsch's highly questionable analysis of female psychology.
While it is refreshing to see Orlando characterized by a particularly apt phrase (“tedious high camp”), it is more difficult to accept Showalter's argument that Woolf's “vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied.” This is especially true since A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas rather than the fiction are used as evidence more extensively. Even in these Showalter finds an unacceptable suppression of anger and withdrawal from life—“the ultimate room of one's own is the grave”—rather than a vision of the privacy and economic freedom essential to the woman writer. Woolf's work is thus too quickly once again dismissed as politically uninvolved, a label feminist critics have only recently begun to remove.
Even the suicidal, destructive, deadly influence Professor Showalter isolates needs further discussion. For example, the suicidal young man is by no means restricted to Mrs. Dalloway. As a contrast to the female protagonist he appears in other major modern novels: e.g., Lessing's The Golden Notebook and Drabble's The Realms of Gold. It can be argued that these novels echo an entirely different positive pattern evident in Woolf's work: an affirmation of life and triumphant survival by women rather than the attractiveness of death.
A Literature of Their Own is an impressive work that fully engages the attention of the reader. Any disagreements or reservations attest to its vitality and importance. …
Hopefully the continued interest in women writers will encourage additional analyses of Lessing's art and thought. Singleton and Showalter are absolutely right in seeing Lessing as a major contemporary writer.
SOURCE: Paulin, Tom. “Fugitive Spirits.” New Statesman 96, no. 2470 (21 July 1978): 94.
[In the following excerpt, Paulin offers a negative assessment of A Literature of Their Own, arguing that the work makes a “snobbish mockery of Women's Liberation.”]
Those Victorian photographs of bearded patriarchs flanked by their unsmiling families may seem merely quaint to us nowadays, but it's important to remember how they were once the agents of hideously formidable cultural tyranny. As Gloria Fromm shows in her long, loving biography of Dorothy Richardson, the effort to escape the domination of ‘masculine culture’ involved an intense struggle against a series of possessive father-figures. Dorothy Richardson's father was a cultivated, eventually bankrupt despot who made her mother feel both damned and stupid, and finally drove her to commit suicide. Stricken by guilt, Dorothy left home to become a dentist's receptionist in London. She wrote reviews, attended Fabian meetings and had an affair with H. G. Wells. She came to realise that Wells was a tyrant who preached freedom, and throughout her life she remained a shrewdly critical friend of the man who appears as ‘Hypo Wilson’ in her now neglected novel-sequence Pilgrimage. Wells put her in his novel The Passionate Friends as a minor character called Stella Summersby Satchel, who is ‘blonde, erect, huffy-mannered’. …
Unfortunately, Dorothy Richardson is dismissed by Elaine Showalter [in A Literature of Their Own], who complains that she ‘risked self-destruction through psychic overload, ego death from that state of pure receptivity that George Eliot had described as the roar on the other side of silence’. This modish piece of jargon distorts what George Eliot meant in that famous passage in Middlemarch, and it wrongly attributes the passivity of Richardson's impressionism to the fact that she lived ‘at the perilous borders of egolessness, in the female country of multiple receptivity’. What this simply means is that she wrote in the way she did because she was a woman—a bit of critical melodrama which is sexist in its implications.
So, too, is this remark about Olive Schreiner's supposedly ‘nagging’ narrative voice: ‘that voice, soft, heavy, continuous, is a genuine accent of womanhood, one of the chorus of secret voices speaking out of our bones, dreadful and irritating but instantly recognisable’. Change the ‘our’ to ‘their’ and this sentence could have been written by any old buffer who wanted to put Olive Schreiner down with a convenient stereotype. Similarly, when Ms Showalter comments that a passage in A Room of One's Own ‘certainly sounds like a feline swipe at Cantabridgian impotence’ we are meant to notice that because Virginia Woolf was a woman her wit must be ‘feline’.
Ms Showalter believes that there is such a thing as ‘feminised language’—it is ‘delicate’ and ‘fastidious’—and she supports her belief by quoting one Ernest Baker, who stated that ‘the woman of letters has peculiarities that mark her off from the other sex as distinctly as peculiarities of race or of ancestral tradition’. She is very willing to be patronised by this racial analogy because she believes that ‘British women novelists have always, in a sense, lived in a different country from men—and have a literature of their own’. This assumption is literally chauvinist, and not only is it defensive and exclusive but it also merges over 200 very varying talents into a mute sorority where George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë are treated on the same level as Lady Georgiana Chatterton, Julia Pardoe and others now forgotten.
The trouble with these novelists, she suggests, is that they didn't ‘band together’ and insist that their vocation ‘made them superior to the ordinary woman, and perhaps happier’. By this argument, all women ought to aspire to be women novelists, and if they don't then they are merely ‘ordinary’. This makes a snobbish mockery of Women's Liberation, which is concerned with equality, not superiority. And because of its central assumption that women writers inhabit an imaginary sub-culture ‘within the frame-work of a larger society’, A Literature of Their Own has very little to do with feminism.
This emerges most noticeably in the remark that ‘the tender and adoring friendship of women for women’ in one of Mrs Humphry Ward's novels reflects ‘the intense bonds of the female subculture’. What this essentially represents is a wish to secede from the territory we all live in. Women must seek solidarity in order to cultivate tender relationships with each other, and not for the sake of challenging sexual injustice and exploitation. As a message this is clearly defeatist, and it's very much to be hoped that no one listens to it.
SOURCE: Colby, Vineta. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Philology 77, no. 3 (February 1980): 357-60.
[In the following review, Colby praises the range of material covered in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes Showalter's assertions about Victorian feminism and her analysis of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot.]
A Literature of Their Own is by far the best account yet published of the emergence of the feminine sensibility in the English novel. It documents with sound research and reasoned, if sometimes controversial, theory a subject that too many writers in recent years have exploited irresponsibly, with too little reading and too much hasty prejudgment. Elaine Showalter rides no hobbyhorses after fashionable trends in psychology or sociology, and it is refreshing to find in her index no entry for Herbert Marcuse or Norman O. Brown, and only passing references to Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, and R. D. Laing. This is not to suggest that she is anything but aware of and sensitive to studies in feminine psychology and sexuality. Her reading in these areas is extensive, ranging from too often neglected contemporary Victorian sources—journals, memoirs and periodicals—to the latest (1976) scholarly books and articles. Her bibliography and biographical appendix, which lists 213 prominent English literary women, will be invaluable to every student in the field. But mainly and most impressively, Professor Showalter has read the novels themselves, a staggering number of them, good, bad, and indifferent. She has assembled the results of her reading in a coherent and cogent book that has a fair chance of being the definitive work on the subject.
In tracing the emergence of this literary “subculture,” Showalter identifies three stages and looks toward the emergence of a fourth. These are the Feminine, roughly from 1840 to 1880 (with the death of George Eliot), defined by imitation of the traditional forms of the novel and acceptance of the prevailing social and moral values of the period, but also reflecting implicit protest against these; the Feminist, from 1880 to the winning of the suffrage in 1920, expressing outright protest and advocacy of minority rights; and the Female, from the 1920s to about 1970, when the woman writer's search for self-identification produced an aesthetic if not a real autonomy. In all three stages, Showalter detects an ultimate internalization, a withdrawal in one form or another that constitutes “at heart evasions of reality” (p. 318). Only, and she is cautiously optimistic here, in the increasing openness of the contemporary English woman novelist, in writers like A. S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, and Doris Lessing, is the female voice beginning to speak for itself, without guilt or self-consciousness.
As a framework for literary history, Showalter's categories are useful. They are not rigidly applied. Indeed, in showing the interrelationships and the continuity of influence, especially as these are reflected in the minor fiction of each period, she enriches our appreciation not only of the “liberation” of women writers but of the novel itself as a mirror of its total culture and context. As a framework for literary criticism, however, they become constricting. They fail to recognize, for example, that in struggling to identify themselves as novelists (as the subtitle of this book reminds us, the range of the study is the novel, not other art forms) these women were fighting much the same battle as men, though granted under additional handicaps of prejudice and patronizing tolerance. There was, and there lingers, a critical double standard for men and women writers: “To their contemporaries,” she writers of the Victorians, “women writers were women first, artists second” (p. 73). But also among the Victorians there was a double standard for the novel. The problem was not simply to establish the respectability and worth of novels by women but of the novel itself. The struggle was aesthetic primarily and sexist only secondarily. Dickens and Trollope, for all their enormous popularity, fought a losing battle to be received as more than entertainers, conveyors of “useful” social and moral truths delivered in the palatable form of fiction. Only Thackeray and, significantly, George Eliot achieved the stature of serious artists that was so readily granted to poets. A Literature of Their Own therefore has more bearing on the history of the novel than on the history of women's literature. When, for example, Showalter writes that at the close of the Feminine phase, around 1880, “a kind of richness was lost; a sense of intimacy and shared understanding between novelists and readers disappeared” (p. 181), she is making an important observation on the history of the popular novel. With the demise of the three-decker, monthly part serialization, and family reading (traced by Richard Altick, Guinevere Griest, and others) that intimacy and its rewarding richness did in fact disappear—a phenomenon of technology and sociology rather than a retreat on the part of the women novelists of the period.
Similarly, Showalter's fascinating survey of the sensation novel of the 1860s and 1870s, identifying women's remarkable contribution to this genre as an expression of Feminine protest (her chapter is called “Subverting the Feminine Novel”), shifts the balances arbitrarily. To be sure, the female characters of these “sexually provocative” novels show extraordinary capacity for evil and are strikingly different from the passive victim-heroines of the earlier Gothic novels (many of these also written by women). But are they, as she suggests, deliberate feminist challenges to traditional Victorian sex roles? The stereotypes of feminine docility and submissiveness were indeed coming under serious challenge, not in the conventional calculated violence of the sensation novel but in the growing realism of much mid- and late-Victorian fiction. The bold and “shocking” Jane Eyre fostered a generation of independent-spirited women in the work of men as well as women novelists—Meredith, Gissing, Moore. I am not convinced, even by Showalter's penetrating analysis of Lady Audley's Secret, that clever, industrious, but hardly subtle M. E. Braddon was subliminally undermining Victorian sexism. That she and Mrs. Henry Wood had “a large and desperate audience” (p. 173) of trapped, unhappily married women is probable (though not provable), but it was much the same audience that Dickens addressed with Louisa Bounderby and Edith Dombey; Thackeray with Clara, Barnes Newcome's wretched wife; Hardy with Eustacia Vye, or even, more lightly, Meredith with Clara Middleton running away from arranged marriage to the insufferable Willoughby Patterne. Nor were all the women characters in sensation novels by men “conventional in terms of their social and sexual attitudes” (p. 162). True, Collins made brave, gallant Marian Halcombe unfeminine and ugly and Laura Fairlie sweet and blonde, but he also created the glamorous and lethal Miss Gwilt of Armadale and the beautiful but unscrupulous Magdalene Vanstone of No Name. And to stretch the point a bit, Thackeray's actually murderous Catherine and potentially murderous Becky Sharp are striking departures from Victorian stereotypes. The genre, I suspect, not the author's sex, dictated the terms.
The real value of A Literature of Their Own is its broad survey of the achievements of the neglected, so-called minor women novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—M. E. Braddon, Sarah Grand, George Egerton, May Sinclair, Olive Schreiner, Dorothy Richardson. Showalter's recognition of their seriousness and importance, without undue inflation of their talents, is a real contribution to a critical history of the English novel. She is far less sound, however, with major figures like Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. Her reading of Jane Eyre as a courageous but in the end compromising novel, with Jane achieving “as full and healthy a womanhood as the feminine novelists could have imagined” (p. 112), emphasizes “female sexual fantasy and eroticism” (p. 115), reducing Jane's stature from spiritual heroine to physiological woman. At ten, little rebel Jane is undergoing “emotional menarche” (p. 113) and flagellation. In her young womanhood, she is a divided soul, one half of her the submissive feminine spirit of Helen Burns, the other the bestial madwoman Bertha Mason. At best Jane can only make do with marriage to a mutilated and chastened Rochester because “in feminine fiction men and women become equals by submitting to mutual limitation, not by allowing each other mutual growth” (p. 124). Such a reading ignores the profound discoveries Jane makes in the course of the novel about herself and her relationship to her God, in her renunciation of Rochester (“I care for myself … I will keep the law given by God … I will hold to the principles received by me. …”), producing perhaps the most stirring affirmation of female autonomy in all literature. It also ignores Brontë's later Villette in which a man and woman fall in love precisely because they respect and cultivate each other's mutual growth.
Even more questionable is her dismissal of The Mill on the Floss as a novel that “elevates suffering into a female career” (p. 125). To read Maggie as a neurotic perversely returning home in search of punishment for her impulsive flight is to ignore the major theme of the novel—the powerful human instinct to return to the family. As weak Mrs. Tulliver, out of biological-maternal instinct, and narrow-minded Aunt Glegg, driven by a sense of family loyalty, rise to Maggie's defense when society (mainly male, including her own brother) repudiates her, George Eliot affirms a feminine solidarity that transcends sexism.
Psychology serves Showalter better when she turns from art to life. Her assessment of Virginia Woolf is original and convincing because it is based on the twentieth-century candor and self-exposure of the letters and memoirs of Woolf and her circle. She makes a strong case that Woolf's idealized conception of female aestheticism and androgyny was “a rationalization of her own fears” (p. 289) and sexual repression that produced, in her work, an enervated prose and an unreal vision. Woolf's “flight into androgyny,” in Showalter's opinion, was a retreat: “The ultimate room of one's own is the grave” (p. 297).
In identifying woman's literature as a subculture, Elaine Showalter has cast much light on the shared experiences of their sex to which women writers necessarily respond differently from men, and some light on that literature itself. Women are only now beginning to realize their potential as novelists—not as crusaders, polemicists, literary breadwinners or self-conscious aesthetes. Yet the woman novelist today is at loose ends. Having defined a feminist sensibility in literature, she finds herself beyond protest and radical experiment. She is now a novelist and confronts problems imposed not by her sex but by the form itself. It is no longer a question of the survival of a feminine literary subculture, now that it has been identified and its status affirmed, but of the survival of the culture itself.
SOURCE: Belsey, Catherine. “The Work of Womankind.” New Statesman 111, no. 2870 (28 March 1986): 24-5.
[In the following review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, Belsey examines the differences between American and British feminist criticism and asserts that more attention should be paid to the social construction of women's reality rather than to promoting a gender-inclusive “populist” canon.]
Feminist criticism has come of age. Eighteen years on from Mary Ellman's Thinking about Women, these two collections of essays are elegant, accomplished and quite free from the (tomboyish?) high spirits that antagonised some women and electrified others in the early years. Feminist criticism is now ready to assume adult responsibilities. Confidently, fluently, readably, both Making a Difference [edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn] and The New Feminist Criticism [edited by Showalter] reiterate the case for reading as a woman, point to the work that has already been done and define a series of projects for the future.
Both these volumes are predominantly American. Taken together, they give the impression that before the advent of feminism literary criticism was even more misogynistic there than it was here. Elaine Showalter reprints Nina Baym's witty analysis of the American literary canon as a series of ‘melodramas of beset manhood’. In the Great American Novel man (and the sexist term is the appropriate one) seeks the freedom that comes from escaping the constraints of the social. In the end real men always light out, like Huckleberry Finn, for the Territory. Women, as agents of domestication and socialisation, try to hold them back. Meanwhile, however, the Territory too is identified as feminine—but this time in the right way. The wilderness invites conquest and once subdued it becomes compliant, nurturing, supportive.
Repeatedly these feminist critics insist that the American equivalent of the Great Tradition does not include a single woman author. British values have not been quite so overtly virile. Since the Thirties at least Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot have been taken seriously. Of F. R. Leavis's four great English novelists two were women.
And yet courses on women's writing and feminist criticism are now much more common, more acceptable in the United States than they are here. Perhaps in the Home of Human Rights things were easier for the feminists? It was not hard to demonstrate that women writers had been systematically excluded from equal access to the pursuit of happiness. Harriet Beecher Stowe was not taken seriously; Kate Chopin was reviled; lesbians and black women had no voice at all. Among the feminist critics of the Seventies Showalter herself was one of the pioneers in giving back to women a literature of their own. Both these new volumes reaffirm and develop that project.
Was there, however, a price to pay for the success of feminist criticism in the States? The emphasis has been on reinstating writing by women, broadening the canon to include what has been repressed. Women's writing, varying with race, class and sexual orientation, is held to emanate from women's culture and is seen as expressive of women's experience. But, as Lilian Robinson points out in the Showalter collection, this project of inclusive pluralism doesn't go much beyond a new kind of populism and in a programme for the reorganisation of social relations populism doesn't go very far at all.
In this instance it leaves in place what seem to me some very dubious assumptions about literary criticism. One of these is the belief that fiction is a transcription of the author's experience of real life. Another is that the purpose of criticism is to evaluate the fiction and thus the experience. And yet another is that readers will in some not very clearly specified way derive benefit from the works of fiction prescribed by critics. These commonplaces have not proved very progressive in the past.
British feminist criticism, developing in a different cultural context, has tended to move in another direction. In Britain the sexist assumptions of conventional criticism, though no less powerful, have been at first glance less glaring. Women were included in the Great Tradition. But this was always on the unspoken condition that they were not treated as women. Similarly, the fact that Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke were women also conventionally went unmentioned and their struggles for identity and independence in a patriarchal society were represented as the necessary process of learning to bring their unruly dispositions under moral control.
Obviously the sexism of the reading process was not to be transformed simply by putting more women authors on the syllabus and British feminism consequently took a rather different turn. The only one of these essays which I know to be British is Rosalind Coward's ‘Are Women's Novels Feminist Novels?’ in the Showalter collection. As the title indicates, Coward raises questions about the difference between being a female and being a feminist (between anatomy and politics) and between telling it (like it is, or otherwise) and intervening in it in order to change things. An essay about the politics of form, Coward's stands out from most of the others in its attention to writing itself, to the ways in which fiction addresses readers.
Ann Rosalind Jones, who writes in both volumes about French feminism, also displays the kind of political edge more familiar to feminists on this side of the Atlantic. ‘We need,’ she argues in the Showalter collection, ‘to know how women have come to be who they are through history … and only then will we discover what women are or can be.’
And that perhaps is the point for a feminism which wants to move beyond populism towards a politics of change. In this context what women can be matters as much as what they have experienced. But what we take to be possible depends on how we understand both what we are and what history has made us.
Women's experience, at least as far back as it is documented, has been experience of or within patriarchal societies. To that extent it needs to be analysed as an effect of culture, not its origin. If women are better at personal relationships (and we are), if women are more caring and more compassionate (and we may be), we are so not only in the context of a patriarchal culture but also as a consequence of it. In the liberal West the place that has been allotted to women is precisely private, emotional, supportive and nurturing.
What more we can be is to some extent conjectural, but we can best discuss it on the basis of an analysis which firmly frees both women and men from the determinism of the natural. It is because experience is culturally produced that experience itself can change.
Feminism needs to recover women's writing. But it also needs to produce a historical and cultural analysis of the system of differences which has held women in place. Nelly Furman in the Greene and Kahn volume draws on new developments in critical theory to move in this direction. She argues that the institution of marriage, which depends on the affirmation of a polarity between men and women, serves as an analogy for a feminist criticism which finally reaffirms the position of women as the opposite sex. ‘Women's writing’ is always what is not men's writing, is always the transcription of an experience which is identified as inevitably other. This is not just ‘making a difference’: it's freezing it into place. Neither marriage nor the reinstatement of women's writing quite makes the break that will release us from the constraints of the stereotype.
SOURCE: Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Crazy Ladies?” New Republic 194, no. 17 (28 April 1986): 34-6.
[In the following review, Spacks commends Showalter's extensive knowledge and detailed accounts of psychiatric abuses in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, but finds shortcomings in Showalter's myopic thesis and oversimplified interpretations.]
Uncovering the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Elaine Showalter tells an often lurid, sometimes blackly comic, usually surprising story [in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] that raises disturbing questions. England has a distinctive association with madness. In the early 18th century, Showalter reports, George Cheyne, a medical doctor, lent official sanction to popular belief by writing a book on insanity called The English Malady. Because of their climate (according to many Europeans) or their natural sensitivity (as Cheyne argued) the English were considered especially susceptible to mental disorders. The most vulnerable portion of this vulnerable population allegedly consisted of women, whose physical and psychic makeup presumably increased the likelihood of their descending into madness. From Ophelia to Sir Walter Scott's Lucy of Lammermoor (who murdered her bridegroom on their wedding night) to Doris Lessing's Lynda Coldridge (in The Four-Gated City), literary embodiments of female mania helped to solidify a mythology that both records and elucidates cultural attitudes toward Freud's “Dark Continent” of womanhood.
Showalter sets out to write “both a feminist history of psychiatry and a cultural history of madness as a female malady.” A simple but plausible classification scheme allows her to organize a mass of social data into a coherent record of what might somewhat dubiously be called psychiatric progress. She sets this account of changing medical treatment in a context of literary and pictorial renditions of madness over a century and a half. Her story speaks to the well-nigh universal human fascination with those mysterious forms of otherness we have defined as madness; it also sheds light on a persistent pattern of unconscious abuse of women.
The last 150 years of psychiatric history, in Showalter's view, divide into three stages: psychiatric Victorianism, psychiatric Darwinism, and psychiatric modernism. The “Victorian” period in psychiatry (1830-1870) brought a new emphasis on possibilities of curing psychic illness by a kind of pseudo-domestic confinement: asylums aimed to “manage” madness, which was understood to originate in moral defect, by providing moral instruction. More obviously rigid in approach, the practitioners of “Darwinism” (1870-1920) saw lunacy as degeneracy stemming from “organic defect, poor heredity, and an evil environment.” They offered stern prescriptions to protect society and to dictate proper behavior; women were their principal targets. The “modernist” phase arrived not immediately with Freud but with the First World War and its thousands of “shell-shocked” soldiers: male hysterics manifesting behavior often perceived as “feminine.” Schizophrenia succeeded hysteria as the most frequent form of female disturbance, and the talking treatments sometimes seen as appropriate for soldiers yielded to more strictly medical remedies: psychosurgery, shock therapy, and drugs, all used heavily on women.
Showalter focuses her accounts of the three periods on individual medical practitioners of powerful influence, “symptoms of the times,” as R. D. Laing described himself. John Conolly, who presided over the superficially benign manifestations of Victorian psychiatry, attempted to make the madhouse a place of harmony. He eliminated the use of physical restraints in favor of moral suasion. Under his governance, such phenomena as the “lunatic's ball,” during which inmates danced under the gaze of many spectators, flourished. Only slowly did the coercive aspects of Conolly's methods become apparent, as he himself increasingly revealed his reliance on “paternal authority.”
The Victorian ideological setting encouraged paternalism. Women were thought delicate creatures, particularly susceptible at puberty and after child-birth, but always at emotional risk, endangered by biology and by their weak wills and dangerous impulses. Florence Nightingale's Cassandra, an account of Victorian women's confinement in “the prison which is called a family,” indicates the high cost for women of their social deprivation as a result of society's assumptions about their natures; psychic disturbance, Nightingale suggests, was among those costs. “The rise of the Victorian madwoman,” Showalter concludes, “was one of history's self-fulfilling prophecies.”
With the advent of “Darwinism,” psychiatrists sought to apply strict scientific method to the diagnosis and treatment of insanity. Henry Maudsley, Conolly's son-in-law (who explicitly and rather brutally repudiated his precursor), exemplifies the new way, harsh in its distinctions and fixed in its certainties. Showalter cites many instances of the new scientism, with its stress on physical signs of moral weakness. Certain women, one commentator concluded, “had the unfortunate hereditary combination of delicate skin, thin eyebrows, convex spine, and sharp tongue that made men unable to resist hitting them.” Should the reader giggle or shudder? For a Victorian woman, shudders would be appropriate: this extreme example accurately suggests the misuses of allegedly objective research at the end of the 19th century. Meanwhile, “nervous women” proliferated: seeking education or political rights, unaccountably starving themselves, manifesting hysteria. Some doctors recommended enforced rest and milk drinking. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous story “The Yellow Wallpaper” belongs to this period.) Others advocated ridicule, threats, and personal chastisement. Showalter, citing testimony by Virginia Woolf and Alice James as well as Gilman, concludes that “The nervous women of the fin de siècle were ravenous for a fuller life than their society offered them, famished for the freedom to act and to make real choices.” The repressive tactics of physicians could not silence the voices of a generation of unhappy women.
Male hysteria became a social problem in the aftermath of the Great War. Officers and enlisted men alike suffered the psychic effects of combat. Psychiatric diagnosis, however, differentiated between them, finding that the hysterical soldier (“simple, emotional, unthinking, passive, suggestible, dependent, and weak”) resembled his female counterpart, whereas the more complex officer better conformed to a heroic ideal. (Showalter accounts for the differentiation by suggesting that the enlisted man's actual situation of oppression corresponded to that of women.) Diverse methods of treatment developed. Dr. Lewis Yealland epitomized the punitive approach. The Female Malady provides a detailed and horrifying account of his procedures. Superficially far more benevolent was Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon. Showalter demonstrates that he too “reprogrammed” his patients, using less obviously sinister methods.
The final section of this study dwells on the 20th-century situation of the female schizophrenic, whom Showalter sees as the symbolic figure of her age. R. D. Laing—whose career, personality, and ideology Showalter presents in considerable detail—emerges as the representative of a mid-20th-century therapy that proclaimed itself concerned with the dignity and rights of its recipients. Laing seems a benign successor to those who treated female mania with electric shocks, insulin shock, and lobotomies, but Showalter demonstrates the persistence in his language and his proceedings of a powerful “male mythology,” potentially damaging to female psyches. Not until women speak for themselves, she believes, will psychiatric therapies truly answer women's needs. The vagueness of this formulation belongs to Showalter herself. She does not define the form women's “speaking” might take, although she alludes to new feminist theories based on the mother-daughter relationship. The book ends by insisting that
the best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement. … Until women break them for themselves, the chains that connect madness with the feminine, like Blake's “mind-forg'd manacles,” will simply forge themselves anew.
This work lives most vividly in its specific detail; not even elaborate summary can convey the energy of its accumulated descriptive evidence. A full sense of Laing's “male mythology” requires his actual “metaphors of heroic adventure and conquest,” his actual routine of presiding “sacerdotally” over dinner and dancing at his therapeutic community, Kingsley Hall. Showalter tells us exactly how women protesters were force-fed (and provides a photograph), how much weight women gained from insulin treatments, what biological results Victorian conservatives anticipated as a consequence of female demands for higher education. She writes with the authority of both conviction and knowledge. Her study profits by its multiplicity of data and by its singleness of thesis: the same message, about the endless, protean, inescapable social oppression of women, repeatedly and ingeniously hammered home.
Yet, like many single-minded works, it perhaps raises more questions than it answers. The monolithic thesis of persecution does not adequately account for the data. To say that “schizophrenic symptoms of passivity, depersonalization, disembodiment, and fragmentation have parallels in the social situation of women” in fact says little: one might observe with equal cogency that these symptoms have parallels in the social situation of factory workers. To observe that “the schizophrenic woman has become as central a cultural figure for the twentieth century as the hysteric was for the nineteenth” blurs together phenomena of very different sorts. If, as Showalter goes on to say, “psychotic women [in the 20th century] … speak for a revolutionary potential repressed in the society at large,” the female psychotic as symbol might be seen as empowering for women instead of as one more vague emblem of appropriation and mistreatment.
To conclude that the feminist therapy movement offers hope for solving the problems of female madness is to ignore both physiological components and the possibility of causality relatively unrelated to a woman's social situation. The etiologies of madness that Showalter provides are simplistic in the extreme—less shocking to modern sensibilities than the Victorian physician's diagnosis of insanity for a woman who wished to leave her husband, but equally blinkered. Women go mad, this writer believes, because society leaves them so little room. But surely one must acknowledge other—many other—possibilities.
One of the most striking of the many remarkable photographs Showalter prints depicts a Victorian woman from the West Riding Asylum whom the medical director (also, in this instance, the photographer) characterizes as suffering from “Intense Vanity.” Bedecked with flowers, ruffles, and a locket, she gazes fiercely at a point above the lens, her mouth compressed into a grimace of what looks like desperate rage. Showalter comments on her inappropriate garb, but not on the ferocity of her expression, which makes the frivolity of her costume and curls seem a futile attempt to disguise impermissibly violent feeling. The complex implications of her appearance suggest a range of interpretations unsanctioned and unacknowledged by the text; and the same may be said about others among the photographs. At least Showalter makes her readers aware of a politics of interpretation—and hence, perhaps inevitably, of the interpretive limitations of her own political commitment.
SOURCE: Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. Women's Studies 13, no. 4 (1987): 390-96.
[In the following review, Scheper-Hughes praises the “original and exciting” subject material in The Female Malady, despite citing flaws in Showalter's analysis of schizophrenia.]
Foucault's brilliant social history of western madness [Madness and Civilization, 1967] opens with a compelling image, Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff, the “ship of fools”, in order to fix in the reader's mind a picture of madness as it was prior to the “Enlightenment” when the insane still circulated freely through society on land and sea, their incessant babbling forming the backdrop of everyday language and experience. Similarly, Elaine Showalter opens her daring account of the recent history of English madness [The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980] with Tony Robert-Fleury's painting of Philippe Pinel's freeing the insane at the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière. The historical moment that Showalter wishes to fix in the minds of her readers is the late 18th century (the Age of Reason) when, she argues, the cultural representation of madness is transformed from a violently male to a sickly female condition.
Prior to the 19th century the dominant cultural image of lunacy is male—raving, violent, bestial, dangerous, something to be fettered and punished. Following the revolutionary ethos of the late 18th century and in the wake of the great mental health reformers like Philippe Pinel in France and John Connolly in England, the madman becomes viewed as less a criminal to be punished than as a pityful, wayward, and sick individual to be disciplined and treated. Correspondingly the prototypical madman became the prototypical madwoman. Hence the famous painting in which Pinel and his associates, all sober, rational gentleman, dain to liberate the mournful, disheveled, but also lovely and seductive female lunatics of Bicêtre, turning them at one stroke from common criminals dangerous to the State into common mental patients dangerous mostly to themselves. In short, Professor Showalter gives us a history of the origins of modern psychiatry as a variety of discursive theories and practices with a single unifying theme: the medicalization of human misery, the suppression of one form of human resistance, and the negative representation of one sex: the female.
Although the social history of madness has been told many times, Showalter retells it through a feminist lens as a history of internal colonization in which the object of subjugation is women, both in cultural representation and in actual practice. This is not the first such account—a more passionate account appears earlier in Phyllis Chesler's Women and Madness (1972) and in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's more purely literary treatment of the subject in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). The particular value of this book lies in the author's skillful blending of cultural history, literary criticism, and social science into a book that makes for absorbing, fascinating, very good reading indeed. My criticisms should not detract from the overall importance of this highly original, beautifully illustrated, and elegantly written work.
Showalter divides the history of modern psychiatry into three somewhat arbitrary and overlapping phases: “Psychiatric Victorianism” (1830-1870), roughly the period of “moral treatment” when “benevolent” forms of asylum confinement and work therapies pre-dominated as treatment models; “Psychiatric Darwinism” (1870-1920), the period when organicist and bio-evolutionary theories and treatment models achieved pre-eminence in England and the United States; “Psychiatric Modernism” (1920-1980), the period corresponding to the rise (and fall) of Freudian psychoanalysis up through R. D. Laing's anti-psychiatry revolution. Unfortunately the author leaves out the return to organicist models and treatment with the discovery of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s and the consequent deinstitutionalization and community psychiatry movements beginning in the 1960s up through the present.
Showalter's argument concerning the “feminization” of madness in the 19th and 20th centuries is perhaps strongest and her evidence (statistical and iconographic) most compelling in her treatment of the first period. The public asylums of Victorian England indeed housed an excess of female patients, and the prevailing theories and treatment of madness evidenced a strongly patriarchal and androcentric bias. Model institutions were designed to instill in the hearts of unruly women female virtue and in their bodies a docile industriousness. “Moral Treatment” as it was practiced in the Victorian asylums became exemplary of the values and behaviors expected of women in the society at large. Hence, we readily see the origins of modern psychiatry as an institution of social control, and of psychiatrists as willing agents of the social consensus in the service of male hegemony.
With the spread of social Darwinism at the turn of the 19th century madness was recast as a problem in biological (rather than social) control requiring preventive measures (such as selective breeding) on the one hand, and social policing (such as the containment of physical and moral “degenerates” from the rest of society) on the other. Showalter argues that immigrants of tainted, lowly or uncertain stock, the disorderly lower classes, common criminals, and women were the primary targets of Psychiatric Darwinism. The inclusion of women in this context is rather forced and unconvincing. Certainly psychiatric hospital censuses from the United States, England, and Italy during this period would indicate that while the poor, disruptive, and disreputable social classes do crowd the back wards of public mental hospitals, these are in roughly equal distribution by sex, and in some instances male patients are in great “excess”. As for the dominant cultural representation of madness under the organicist models of psychiatric Darwinism, it is most certainly male. The model of organic psychiatry during the period was the male tertiary syphilitic whose delirium, ataxia, and dementia were finally linked to a demonstrable, “true”, organic cause. It is really only with respect to the psychiatric “treatment” of suffragette women during the first feminist revolution that we can see any link between psychiatric Darwinism and gender. While the psychiatric treatment of these angry female dissidents is an important case, the actual numbers of women affected by psychiatry in this way were, of course, rather small.
At the turn of the century the female malady par excellence was hysteria around which Freud developed his psychoanalytic psychiatry and his career. Showalter is on sure (if somewhat well-tred) ground here in asserting that for psychoanalysis at least the malady in question (i.e. the neurosis) was decidedly female, a response to the pathogenic physical and social circumstances of women's lives. However, it is unclear why the Freudian revolution is chronologically placed under the heading of “psychiatric Darwinism” rather than at the forefront of psychiatric Modernism (unless it was to bolster the argument for that earlier period for which the data are otherwise very weak in support of the “female malady” thesis).
By far the most original and exciting discussion in this book is to be found in the chapter on male hysteria with which the author opens the treatment of “Psychiatric Modernism”. Showalter argues that Freud's discovery of the psychogenic origins of female hysteria was insufficient to reverse the tide of organicist thinking in psychiatry. To do so it would take World War I and the appearance of a new psychiatric phenomenon when tens of thousands of previously healthy and able-bodied soldiers were stricken with a neurotic malady that was first labeled “shell shock”. When the search for an organic etiology failed, military psychiatrists were forced to conclude that what they had on their hands was more than 80,000 cases of a male neurosis that looked suspiciously similar to the more classic forms of female hysteria. The theories and treatments that followed demonstrated the great dismay that the medical profession experienced upon discovering that males were as prone as females to neurotic forms of mental breakdown. Insofar as their illness emasculated them, shell shock victims were treated by their psychiatrists as discredited men, as moral invalids and as latent homosexuals. Undoubtedly, contact with male hysteria brought out latent anxieties in some psychiatrists who, like Lewis Yelland tried to forceably inject the germ of masculinity back into their shell shock patients with the aid of electro-convulsive therapy. Perhaps this “treatment” was a remnant of an earlier homeopathic medical logic—shocks for the shell shocked! More “civilized” but equally compromising was the psychoanalytically-informed brainwashing engaged in by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers [incidentally a hero and founding father of my own sub-discipline of medical anthropology!] who sought to reprograme war resistors and conscientious objectors by convincing them, first of all, of their unstable mental condition. This chapter demonstrates, above all perhaps, the crucial significance of gender in psychiatric definitions of the normative. What is continuous throughout the history of modern psychiatry is an obsession with sexual and gender outlaws, whether male or female.
During the postwar years psychiatric interest turns away from female hysterics and male war neurotics toward the advancing problem of public mental health enemy #1: schizophrenia. Here Showalter's argument for a female representation of the disorder is weakest. Although stating that most epidemiological studies indicate a roughly equal incidence of the malady by sex, she nonetheless maintains that “schizophrenia offers a remarkable example of the cultural conflation of femininity and insanity” (p. 204) and she further asserts that “schizophrenia does carry gender-specific meanings” (ibid.) The author supports her assertions by reference to the “feminizing” treatments of schizophrenia: shock treatments, insulin coma therapy, lobotomy, all of them designed to render the disorderly, irrational schizophrenic quiet, docile, passive, in short, safely “female”, as it were. Then, drawing on highly selective examples from modern literature, art and film (much of it American) Showalter argues that female insanity is the modern metaphor of all female experiences of claustrophobia, confinement, passivity, and control and of modern women's growing resistance to the conditions of, and constraints on, their lives.
The case for the “femaleness” of schizophrenia—indeed a master illness of our times—falters on several grounds. Statistically speaking there are pockets of western Europe and the British Isles (rural Ireland, for example) where male schizophrenics outnumber female schizophrenics in hospital two to one, and where consequently the popular cultural image of the malady is tied up with that of the inadequate male (see Scheper-Hughes, 1982). Moreover, the classic profile of the schizophrenic patient in the postwar psychiatric literature is that of the harried, dominated, or “double-binded” son persecuted by his “schizophrenogenic” mother. It is the men (or the boys) who get schizophrenia, and the females (especially the mothers) who give it according to this particular psychiatric morality tale. It is too bad that Dr. Showalter did not focus her astute and penetrating analytic skills on this gender-linked psychiatric and cultural myth of our times.
Moving to the representations of schizophrenia in the popular media one need only think, for example, of “Indian” in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest or the beleagured paranoid schizophrenic son in Alfred Hitchcock's film, Psycho, to recall that male images of the malady have been as potent in the media as female images. And, in today's media reporting on the problem of the homeless mentally ill the plight of “grate gentleman” is as commonly portrayed as that of the proverbial “shopping bag lady”. In all, Dr. Showalter's argument for the particularly female character of modern schizophrenia is less convincing and less intuitively true than R. D. Laing's argument for schizophrenia as metaphor of the “divided self” (male or female) in the post-modern, ego-dystonic, and nihilistic nuclear age.
Finally, I would also take issue with the author's brief epilogue in which she suggests that “the best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement” (p. 249). Here Showalter falls prey to the very problem that she so compellingly describes at the start of her book—the “medicalization” of social distress and of resistance to that same distress. If the “female malady” is anything at all in the late 20th century it is most certainly that devil, depression which so many epidemiological studies indicate fills a particular female space—that of the young, poor or working class woman, without a job and confined at home with pre-school aged children and saddled to an emotionally immature and inadequate husband. The social and economic origins of the female malady—whether we are referring to Freud's upper middle class hysterics or to the 20th century female depressives—cannot be resolved by chemotherapy or by psychotherapy, feminist or otherwise. Only when private troubles are recognized for what they often are—social and historical ills—can appropriate, collective action be taken to remedy them.
The Female Malady is, nonetheless, an extraordinary tour de force of trans-disciplinary scholarship, a model of the great insights that literary criticism can bring to bear on the understanding and cultural analysis of a most vexing social problem.
The writing of this review followed fast on the heels of a lively evening study group discussion of the book in question with my colleagues Aihwa Ong, Judith Stacey, Debbi Rosenfelt and Estelle Freedman to whom I am indebted for pricking my conscience and stimulating these thoughts.
Chesler, Phyllis, Women and Madness (Garden City, New York; Doubleday, 1972).
Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization (New York: American Library, 1967).
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
SOURCE: Kauffman, Linda. Review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 12, no. 2 (winter 1987): 405-09.
[In the following excerpt, Kauffman offers a positive assessment of The New Feminist Criticism, but notes that the collection lacks any substantial analysis of film and French feminism.]
The great danger to avoid is the self-isolating nature of critical discourse.
“Literature” is what gets taught.
These four collections evoke distinct stages in the recent history of feminism: Women's Personal Narratives recalls the remarkable efficacy of grass-roots consciousness-raising in the early 1970s, and Elaine Showalter's introduction to The New Feminist Criticism reminds us that a female literary tradition was one of the hallmarks of feminist criticism in the late 1970s. Showalter argues that literary theory has always been a “zealously guarded bastion of male intellectual endeavor,” whereas “the success of feminist criticism has opened a space for the authority of the woman critic” (3). In the 1980s, however, that approach has come to seem as insular as New Criticism was in its day. But, to Showalter's credit, some of the essays she selects reveal the enormous influence of theories of linguistics, semiotics, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and reader response. It is not a matter of merely appending feminism to an already existing body of theory. Rather the opposite: deconstruction and reader-response criticism have often been criticized for ignoring the historical and material aspects of lived existence, for a too-consuming preoccupation with language and signification at the expense of political change. Feminist theory, conversely, has long been praised for offering ways to combine analyses of language and politics, signifiers and referents. As Patrocinio P. Schweickart explains in Gender and Reading: “Reader-response criticism … overlook[s] the issues of race, class, and sex, and give[s] no hint of the conflict, sufferings, and passions that attend these realities. … To put the matter plainly, reader-response criticism needs feminist criticism. The two have yet to engage each other in a sustained and serious way, but if the promise of the former is to be fulfilled, such an encounter must soon occur” (35-36).
Thus, in the mid-1980s, dialogic and dialectical theoretical models are flourishing in feminist literary criticism, and a number of surprising encounters occur in these collections. Rewriting English, for instance, is thoroughly grounded in the British tradition of socialism and Marxist criticism, but it criticizes socialism's traditional exclusion of women and Marxist literary criticism's unexamined assumptions about the relation of literature to life. Women's Personal Narratives could analyze those assumptions more vigorously than it does, but it nevertheless includes some interesting exercises in demystifying literature and the writing process and in giving the silent, the powerless, the disenfranchised a voice.
All four collections, indeed, share a common commitment to empowering through discourse: we hear the voices of freshmen, graduate men and women, older women in adult education, and modern teenage schoolgirls in England. They all tell us much about the struggle for and the power that comes from discourse. What emerges is a remarkable polyphony: far from pluralistic, yet committed to certain shared political goals of feminism.
Two dominant issues unite the four books. The first is dismantling the objectivist illusion. By this I mean that distinctions between “high” literature and “low” literature have (mercifully) disappeared. The pedestal for Literature was never as suffocating or as inaccessible as the one that used to confine Woman, but it was still a sterile, isolated place. In Women's Personal Narratives, Leonore Hoffman notes, “As texts become more than objects of aesthetic interest, the forms of discourse appropriate for study become more various” (2). In all four of these collections, that infinite variety is everywhere apparent: in the actual letters, diaries, and journals, as well as the oral testimonies, of everyday women who are the subjects and authors of personal narratives; in the analyses of childhood reading, gothic romances, and recent women's bestsellers in Gender and Reading; in the analyses of male as well as female romances in Rewriting English; and in the analyses of black women's literature, lesbian fiction, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American bestsellers in The New Feminist Criticism. The aesthetic object is no longer a fetish; verbal icons have been shattered and Literature must now be studied as one among many discursive practices worthy of sustained intellectual analysis: that is the first result of dismantling the objectivist illusion.
Another result concerns interpretation: academic criticism traditionally claimed to transcend ideology, to be disinterested, apolitical, rationally objective. Feminist theory put the nails in the coffin; with poststructuralism, with the fusion in France of linguistics and psychoanalysis, and with reader-response criticism, the corpse began to stink. We now recognize that the most dangerous ideologues are those who refuse to recognize their own ideological biases.
The second issue uniting these four collections is reading as a political act. All four texts discuss how reading, rather than transcending ideology, is in fact a major weapon in its dissemination. Rewriting English offers the most comprehensive (and the most theoretical) historical overview of this phenomenon. The interrelations between the growth of literacy and the rise of empire reveal that “‘English literature’ was born, as a school and college subject, not in England but in the mission schools and training colleges of Africa and India” (23). From the eighteenth century onward, Literature—not history, not science, not technical training, but a proper explication of English literary classics—was the tool of indoctrination into “culture,” the only way to stave off the inevitable “anarchy” of interests based on class, race, or sex.
Is the canon a pragmatic instrument or an abstract concept? All four of these texts demonstrate that it is both: such powerful abstractions as “universality” and “humanism”—as well as “femininity”—are the foundations upon which pragmatic strategies of oppression are built. The New Feminist Criticism is particularly valuable for its multivalent response to such issues. Many of the essays are now classics in their own right, and it is a pleasure to have them collected in one volume: Sandra M. Gilbert's “What Do Feminist Critics Want? A Postcard from the Volcano”; Nina Baym's “Melodramas of Beset Manhood”; Jane P. Tompkins's “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History”; and Lillian S. Robinson's “Treason Our Text” all challenge the contingencies of value upon which the canon rested and the academy slumbered. Part 2, on “Feminist Criticisms and Women's Cultures,” includes Deborah E. McDowell's essay on black feminist criticism and Bonnie Zimmerman's overview of lesbian feminist criticism. Rosalind Coward's superb theoretical essay on women's bestsellers makes one yearn for an essay that would incorporate her research interests on language, materialism, and visual communication. (The absence of any work on feminist film studies is a pity.) Part 3, on “Women's Writing and Feminist Critical Theories,” includes work by Susan Gubar, Nancy K. Miller, and Alicia Ostriker. French feminisms, however, are underrepresented; Ann Rosalind Jones's essay on “Writing the Body” could have been supplemented by a post-structuralist analysis of the canon and the academy, such as Peggy Kamuf's “Replacing Feminist Criticism” (Diacritics 12 [Summer 1982]: 42-47). …
Who speaks, and by what authority? The dialogic and dialectical models of feminist theory in the 1980s confront these complex questions. Strategies to empower numerous speaking subjects, to instill a “powerful literacy,” are outlined in these four texts. The capacity for self-critique (for which feminist criticism is justly renowned) is as vital as ever in these four volumes. Dismantling the objectivist illusion, reconstructing literary history, and rereading and rewriting English all ensure that neither the canon nor the academy will ever rest again.
SOURCE: Tomes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. American Historical Review 92, no. 1 (February 1987): 131-32.
[In the following review of The Female Malady, Tomes commends Showalter's provocative cultural analysis, but finds shortcomings in her exaggerated premise and flawed historical interpretation of women's psychiatric treatment.]
[In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] Elaine Showalter, a feminist literary critic, has set out to write a “feminist history of psychiatry and a cultural history of madness as a female malady” (p. 5). Analyzing medical and literary texts as well as photographs and paintings, she traces the conception and treatment of women's insanity through three phases of English psychiatry: psychiatric Victorianism (1830-70), psychiatric Darwinism (1870-1920), and psychiatric modernism (1920-80). Showalter's central premise is that a “feminization” of madness took place in the nineteenth century; women not only became the primary recipients of psychiatric treatment but also served as the cultural exemplars of madness. She also argues that, until very recently, psychiatrists treated female patients within the context of a restrictive femininity that was itself the origin of their psychological demoralization. Showalter concludes that women have begun to break “the chains that make madness a female malady” only in the past few decades, with the rise of a feminist therapy movement (p. 350).
The book makes a powerful case for the influence of gender on psychiatric conceptions and treatment of female patients. But Showalter pushes her argument too far in according the madwoman such an exclusive hold on the psychiatric imagination. Her perspective greatly exaggerates the extent to which psychiatrists have viewed insanity as a peculiarly female complaint or regarded women as their primary clientele. (One suspects she is projecting backward the relatively recent tendency for women to seek psychotherapy in far greater numbers than men.) Given the numerical predominance of women over men in the general population and the tendency of women to live longer, the slight majority of women in nineteenth-century English asylums—54 percent in 1872, according to her own data—hardly seems to constitute a “feminization” of the asylum. Further, nineteenth-century psychiatrists differed considerably more over the relative liability of the sexes to insanity than Showalter's analysis implies.
Ironically, in a book about women and madness, the best chapter focuses on male “shell-shock” victims in World War I and the female novelists who appropriated the soldiers' experience as a symbol of their own psychic helplessness and repression. But Showalter's assertion that “the Great War was the first, and, so far, the last time in the twentieth century that men and the wrongs of men occupied a central position in the history of madness” suggests a highly selective and ultimately inaccurate reading of the sources (p. 194).
Showalter's considerable skills as a literary critic are simply unequal to the complexity of her topic. She is at her best when treating the cultural representations of female madness, such as the Ophelia convention in psychiatric literature, Hugh Diamond's highly stylized photographs of female asylum inmates, and women's fictional accounts of madness. When she moves from cultural representations to the reality of psychiatric institutions, her analysis falters. Still, Showalter's work raises valuable questions about the power of gender as a determinant of psychiatric treatment. However much one may disagree with some of her conclusions, Showalter's book should provoke a fresh examination of this significant but neglected topic.
SOURCE: Bair, Dierdre. “End-of-the-Century Birth Throes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 September 1990): 12.
[In the following review, Bair praises Showalter's amusing and informative discussions in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Elaine Showalter is a distinguished feminist critic whose new book, Sexual Anarchy, is a provocative comparison of the last years of the 19th Century (the fin de siècle) with the final decade of our own. Her view is optimistic, as she chooses to view the 1990s as “the embryonic stirrings of a new order, a future that is utopian rather than apocalyptic.” She soundly rejects the idea that our century's “terminal decade” is in “the death throes of a diseased society and the winding down of an exhausted culture.”
In effect, she is agreeing that history is indeed doomed to repeat itself, and even though we have begun the 1990s describing the decade with words like exhaustion, malaise, epidemic and violence, (pretty much the same terms as were used in the 1890s), we can cheer ourselves up if only by thinking back to the early years of this century and the renewal and change inspired by modernism and all that the term has come to mean.
Showalter, chairperson of the department of English at Princeton and a specialist in Victorian literature, has written what might well be called a “crossover” book; that is, one that is solidly grounded in a vast range of scholarship but also informative and appealing to a general audience. She describes the book she has written as being about the “myths, metaphors and images of sexual crises and apocalypse that marked both the late 19th Century and our own … and its representations in English and American literature, art and film.”
Her book is primarily a study of the great writers of the 19th Century (and this is where it most satisfies), but her stated aim is to treat the “images rather than issues” and to show how fiction reflects the historical development of sexuality through comparisons with contemporary novels and films. A quick glance at some of her chapters will give an idea of how she goes about this.
To discuss women's options, for example, she uses George Gissing's The Odd Women (published in 1891) to represent those who for whatever reason could not or would not marry, who “undermined the comfortable binary system of Victorian sexuality and gender roles.” Comparing this to Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman (1975), she makes the point that “representations of the single woman do not seem to have changed much since the fin de siècle.”
Showalter reinforces her view by contrasting Henry James' 1886 novel about the condition of women, The Bostonians, with the 1984 Merchant & Ivory film version that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve. Although she finds James' view of unmarried women harsh, she views the film as “even less optimistic about the prospects of the modern odd woman,” and from that she glides gracefully into a discussion ranging from articles in the New York Times Magazine (“Why Wed? The Ambivalent American Bachelor”) to serious feminist studies such as Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse, which states flatly that “sexual intercourse is the basis and symbol of women's oppression.” Throughout this chapter, Showalter roams authoritatively through British, American and even Continental history and culture, citing examples from Punch to Havelock Ellis and Freud to sustain her views.
Showalter both amuses and informs in her discussion of how the realism of “Queen George” (Eliot) led naturally to the great male “King Romance” writers: Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson. Again, she makes some nice ironic points by contrasting Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King with John Huston's 1975 film of the same name starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.
This allows her to glide into an explication of one of the most important novels of the turn of the century, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which she rightly sees as “an exposé of imperialism and an allegory of male bonding and the flight from women.” Then she contrasts Conrad's novel with Francis Ford Coppola's film version, Apocalypse Now, much of which is filtered through the perceptions of Eleanor Coppola's journal about how the film was made on location in the Philippines.
Showalter also buttresses her literary musings with examples from her own experience. She relates the fussing, fuming and foibles of academic conferences with a light, ironic touch, and her account of participating in a New York City “porn tour” with the group Women Against Pornography is harrowing simply because much of what she saw is on the one hand so ordinary and banal, on the other so upsetting.
She makes serious comparisons of the great fear syphilis inspired in the 19th Century and the terror that AIDS has produced in our own, but she ends her discussion with a fine note of optimism. If we consider the history of syphilis, she argues, we can be confident that some medical miracle will come along to end the AIDS epidemic as well. Showalter shares the British feminist critic Lynn Segal's belief that fighting this disease (and by extension, all other social injustices and afflictions) will do away with “evasion and hypocrisy around sex,” and thus will lead naturally to “more equal sexual relations between women and men and the recognition of sexual diversity.” Then and then only, Showalter agrees, can “the sexual revolution begin in earnest.”
She begins and ends her book with a paragraph about the Génitron, the huge time machine that hangs above the entrance to the Musée Beaubourg in Paris, counting down the final years, minutes and seconds of our century. To stand in front of the Génitron is both awe-inspiring and frightening. Most viewers describe themselves as being almost paralyzed in the face of time's swift and relentless ticking away, but Showalter, as she does throughout the book, chooses to regard the inexorable passage of time positively.
Just as time cannot be stopped or turned back, neither in her analogy should we “legislate or intimidate men and women into the shame and repression of the past.” Fear, she argues, should not “push us into a cruel homophobia, make us abandon our commitment to women's sexual autonomy.”
Although some may view our present-day society as a kind of “frightening sexual anarchy,” for her, it is “the birth throes of a new sexual democracy.”
SOURCE: Wheelwright, Julie. “Odd Women.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 144 (29 March 1991): 29-30.
[In the following review, Wheelwright lauds the “fundamental questions” raised by Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, but notes that the work focuses too heavily on the Victorian era.]
The final decades of a century often spawn apocalyptic fantasies, doom-sayers and outlandish prophets. Like the anti-nuclear scientists' vision of the world at “two minutes to mid-night”, we fear that time, for our species, is not only finite, but rapidly running out. If death by chemical warfare or terrorist sabotage during the Gulf war wasn't enough to worry about, mad cow disease, burning oil wells, the greenhouse effect and homelessness continue to haunt us. As Angela Carter recently noted, “the fin is coming a little early this siècle.”
For many social critics, sexual anxieties are masked as end-of-the-century worries. Tory party pundits decry the breakdown of the family, laying the blame for falling education standards and rising Aids statistics on the permissive society. The American right condemns the women's movement and gay rights, drug epidemics, satanism and the decline of religion for causing the nation's ills.
None of this future-fear is new. George Gissing once described the 1880s and 1890s as decades of “sexual anarchy”, when the laws governing sexual identity and behaviour were in tatters. “In periods of cultural insecurity, when there are fears of regression and degeneration,” writes Princeton literary critic Elaine Showalter in Sexual Anarchy, “the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender, as well as race, class and nationality, becomes especially intense.”
Tackling the neuroses of two generations across continents is a dauntingly ambitious project. But Showalter has produced a triumph; a highly readable volume on the myths, metaphors, and images of sexual crises and apocalypse that shaped both the late 19th-century, and our own, nightmares. The book gleams with wit and wry insight as Showalter unravels the constructs of late-Victorian and late-Thatcherian morality.
Drawing on literary sources, she reveals how the metaphors of death and rebirth are projected onto a century's final decades. In revolutionary periods, argues Showalter, the fear of social and political equality between the sexes generates opponents bent on establishing scientific proof for the absolute mental and physical differences between the sexes. To the Victorians, sexual anarchy began with the Odd Woman who disrupted the neat binary system of Victorian sexuality and gender roles by refusing to marry.
These maligned women (Punch cartoonists revelled in portraits of po-faced spinsters in trousers and tie) were constructed as a new political and social group. Emerging definitions of female sexuality revealed that women had desires equal to men; abstinence would result in the “evil” of masturbation or, worse, lesbianism. Victorian women, raised to believe in spiritual and physical passivity, found these scientific and social views difficult to reconcile. Newly publicised traumas of sexual abuse furthered feminists' view that sex was not just male-defined, but male, prompting women to claim the high moral ground as asexual crusaders.
The mannish female orator, whose repressed sexuality finds devious outlets in manipulating a younger, passionate disciple, became a popular satiric figure in novels. According to Showalter, Gissing's The Odd Women (1891) was typical in its exploration of feminist celibacy, “womanliness” and sexual repression, while submerging a male agenda about competition with women for power and speech. His archly named character Rhoda Nunn, a self-proclaimed Odd Woman, fiercely opposes marriage as an institution and believes her celibacy gives her power.
Rhoda, however, succumbed to the charms of a cynical ex-radical Everad Barfoot, allowing Gissing to hint that sexuality and loss were necessary for a compassionate social movement. Showalter's insistence that the gender crisis affected both men and women, resulting not in a battle between the sexes but a battle within the sexes, allows for a sophisticated reading of the period. Even social writers such as Gissing embodied the contradictions of a “woman-worshipping misogynist with an interest in female emancipation”.
The New Woman, who insisted on sexual independence and rejected marriage, was threatening even to the Victorian radicals. To the world, she was “an anarchic figure who threatened to turn the world upside down and to be on top in a wild carnival of social and sexual misrule”. In reality, the New Women such as Eleanor Marx and the South African Oliver Schreiner were cruelly disappointed in attempts to live out their ideals for a more equal relationship.
Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, established her own sexual rules with her lover Edward Aveling, with whom she wrote The Woman Question (1886). Their union was to be the model for a future of free men and women, but when Marx discovered Aveling's secret marriage to a younger woman, she killed herself. She was only 43. Oliver Schreiner, the South African writer and close friend of Marx, fared little better. After a series of self-destructive relationships with radical men, including Havelock Ellis and Karl Pearson, she concluded that, until New Man was educated to appreciate the love of free women, she was doomed to celibacy and loneliness.
While women of all political persuasions were left to fight their battles without much support, men could escape to Clubland. Showalter skillfully analyses 19th-century male romance writers whose fiction, like their clubs, offered a haven from bourgeois domestic life. While clubland supported respectable bachelorhood, perpetuating endless boyhood for some, the novels embraced the hearty male bonding that thinly distinguished “manly misogyny from disgusting homoeroticism”.
Rudyard Kipling, G H Henty, Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson created adventures that enabled Victorian gentlemen safely to explore homoeroticism. These writers quickly occupied the vacuum George Eliot left for women novelists, who had dominated the literary scene until her death in 1880. Symbolically, the boys got their own back at Queen/Mother/George. “One defence against the mother's reign is to appropriate her power by repressing the maternal role in procreation and creation,” writes Showalter, “and replacing it with a fantasy of self-fathering.”
So doubling, cloning, reproduction and self-replication provided a focus for best-selling male romances. Rider Haggard's sensational success She, which sold more than 300,000 copies, featured a mysterious African kingdom ruled by an immortal white queen, Ayesha. Holly, a Cambridge don whose hatred of women endows him with intellectual prestige, raises his widowed friend's son, Leo (hence the theme of male reproduction). When Leo reaches adulthood, they venture to Kor, the heart of Africa, in search of his real mother, the reincarnated priest of Isis or She.
Written in 1881, the year that women were first admitted to Cambridge exams, the story is a quest for the mythical Mother who holds the secret of life, with the goal of appropriating her power. Tricked into entering a pillar of fire, Ayesha ages 2,000 years in two minutes. Leo and Holly make their escape to experience their “joint life” somewhere in Tibet, where no women will find them.
Showalter often compares such loaded literary figures with their Hollywood counterparts. Although the film analysis is intriguing, the 19th-century novelists' replacement by (mostly male) film producers raises fundamental questions about how popular culture is packaged and received. The book also seems lop-sided at times, with the Victorians given the lion's share of analysis.
The final chapter returns neatly to the image of the Genitron at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, ticking away our—final—hours. Showalter ends on a powerful, optimistic note; a reminder that psychologically imposed endings are merely part of a mutable reality. But will our fin-de-siècle, wracked with pain, blossom onto Showalter's vision of a new sexual equality?
SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “The Way They Were Then, Too.” Spectator 266, no. 8491 (6 April 1991): 28.
[In the following review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, Maitland finds shortcomings in Showalter's emphasis on popular male, rather than female, writers and her premature effort to draw parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s.]
I am a fan of Elaine Showalter's, and have been since A Literature of Their Own—a study of women writers, particularly novelists, through the 19th century up until the creation of the present phase of the Women's Liberation Movement. I am a fan because she seems to have read everything and her readings are solid responses to actual novels based within feminist theory and within a historical social reality. Moreover, she writes about books so that you want to read them too.
In all these senses Sexual Anarchy does not disappoint. Showalter suggests a neatly packaged set of parallels between the 1880s and 1980s and the 1990s and … well that is a problem. We have not had a lot of the 1990s yet; and though we doubtless will, the book has an awkward shift to make between reportage and prophesy. Nonetheless, given that inevitable constriction, the parallels are there—‘feminism’ and ‘homosexuality,’ as words, were invented in the 1880s. They were created to meet a social need: a radical attempt to redefine the concepts of masculinity and femininity, of which women's suffrage and Oscar Wilde's trial were memorable moments. Then, as now, challenges to these quite abstract concepts were seen as a dangerous threat to ‘the family’. Syphilis, like Aids now, was seen as both punishment for vice, and a danger to the nation. The ‘art for art's sake’, or ‘decadent’ movement has close connections with post-modernist practice, and establishment responses show remarkably little change.
What Showalter does best is place really very careful analyses of individual texts within an accessible historical narrative. Her reading of Rider Haggard's She, for example, is not radically different from other feminist readings (e.g. Gilbert and Gubar), but the book and the author are so well located within the literary and social history of their time that the analysis (briefly, that the male Boy's Own adventure stories of the time recount homophile desires to escape from the threat of the female) actually makes much better sense.
This sort of handling works particularly impressively with middle-brow popular books: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,Dracula, and She, where some nerve of common feeling is touched and there is continuing evidence of a mass response—in imitations, repetitions, films, etc. And this may explain why, despite Showalter's best efforts, her book often seems to deal more with male writers and the male responses to the challenges of gender meaning than it does with women and their work. After the death of George Eliot—as Showalter is at pains to point out—male writers were liberated but many women seem to have lost their way. Earlier in the 19th century, novel writing was deemed to offer chances of equality for women in terms of prestige and readership, and long-term influence (Frankenstein, for example, very much a woman's fantasy, has created a sub-literature as strong as Dracula). But in this period—although we are offered many glimpses of serious and engaged women novelists, there seems no enduring female equivalents to Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling, and Wilde. (Male manipulation or female deficiency?) And, of course, when looking at contemporary work, it is difficult to tell yet which novelists of the last ten years will have that sort of effect on cultural production.
Perhaps Showalter might have strengthened her case by delving lower down the scale of popular culture. Surely there are interesting parallels to be found in the rise of the female music-hall comedienne in the 1880s and 90s, (many of whom, like Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley, either attacked or satirised gender roles and expectations in complex and subtle ways), and the popular women TV comics of today—Roseanne Barr, Victoria Wood, and Bette Midler. Comparative studies of male uses of performance in drag and camp, outside the gay community, would also seem worth exploring. On the other side, religious revival in the form of millennialist sects and puritan Christianity, also suggest cultural similarities between the 1890s and 1990s.
It is never quite fair to criticise a book for not being about what it isn't about, but there is an ethical sub-text to this volume which is interesting. Showalter, despite being open about the profound conflict between New Women and what might be called new men during the last fin de siècle, nonetheless wants to suggest that this time, this siècle, we might get it right, forge a new alliance, break the boundaries of past failure. She ends her book on a high rhetorical note:
What seem today like apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.
Indeed, I hope she may be right. But I fear we are going to need to move beyond the confines of the middle-class novel if we want either to prove it is happening, or (given that we have nine-and-a-half years) to make it happen.
SOURCE: Young, Pamela. “A New Sexual Order.” Maclean's 104, no. 20 (20 May 1991): 68.
[In the following review, Young praises Showalter's central arguments in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, calling the work “provocative” and “eloquent.”]
The twilight of the 20th century is deepening beneath an overcast sky. In the current era of AIDS, economic decline and environmental decay, it is perhaps natural to wonder whether the world is plunging into unending night. In an intriguing new book, Elaine Showalter, head of English at Princeton University, points out that the same dire speculation shadowed the last two decades of the 19th century—for some of the same reasons. In Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, the feminist author focuses on late-19th- and late-20th-century responses to such issues as women's rights, homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. And she concludes that, on the sex-and-gender front at least, there is room for cautious optimism. “What seems today like the apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy,” she writes, “may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.”
Showalter argues that fin-de-siècle periods seem especially portentous because societies tend to graft metaphors of death and rebirth onto the years at the end of centuries. She notes that, like the present, the last 20 years of the 19th century struck many observers as a time when “all the laws that governed sexual identity and behavior seemed to be breaking down.” The period saw the rise of educated, sexually independent females known as New Women, and of the so-called Decadents, homosexual writers and artists who included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Syphilis, meanwhile, was the sexual scourge of the day, spreading death and fear. Then, as now, Showalter writes, there was a backlash of “social purity campaigns” and “demands, often successful, for restrictive legislation and censorship.”
Sexual Anarchy is a wide-ranging book, one that interweaves social history and the portrayal of the sexes in literature and other art forms. Early chapters deal with the public unease generated by the emergence of feminists and New Women. Showalter quotes the British journalist William R. Greg, who was alarmed by the increasing number of unmarried women in the early 1870s. Writing in the Westminster Review, Greg observed that the statistics were “indicative of an unwholesome social state.” In the late 20th century, Showalter observes, single women have gained greater acceptance—but, in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they are still being warned against competing with men. She cites as an example the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, a cautionary tale that “makes its psychotic villain an elegant woman editor, while the ‘good’ woman is a nonworking wife and mother in jeans.”
Showalter's book is as much about relations within the sexes as between the sexes. Some of its most provocative ideas pertain to relationships among men in the late 19th century. In Victorian times, a network of men's clubs provided husbands, fathers and bachelors from various social classes with alternatives to domestic life. “Fin-de-siècle Clubland,” Showalter writes, “existed on the fragile borderline that separated male bonding from homosexuality.”
The author makes a fascinating case for interpreting Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) as “a fable of fin-de-siècle homosexual panic, the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self.” Unable to form a romantic attachment with a woman or another man, Henry Jekyll “divides himself, and finds his only mate in his double, Edward Hyde.” Jekyll's eventual suicide, Showalter argues, was “the only form of narrative closure thought appropriate to the Gay Gothic, where the protagonist's death is both martyrdom and retribution.”
Above all else, Sexual Anarchy is an eloquent plea to respond to the sexual crises of the late 20th century with clear-headedness rather than panic, and with tolerance rather than repression. Showalter points out that while mainstream 19th-century society feared both New Women and the homosexual Decadents, the two minorities also tended to fear and mistrust each other. Even in the late 20th century, she adds, relations between feminists and lesbians on one hand and gay men on the other have often been strained. But with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, the groups appear to be learning how to “fight against the disease and not each other.”
Showalter's book has its faults. In particular, she occasionally falls prey to the academic's vice of reading excessively elaborate symbolism into literary passages. But on the whole, Sexual Anarchy is a fine piece of work—and even an uplifting one. “If we can learn something from the fears and myths of the past,” she writes, “it is that they are so often exaggerated and unreal, that what looks like sexual anarchy in the context of fin-de-siècle anxieties may be the embryonic stirrings of a new order.” In other words, centuries end, life goes on, and change can actually be for the better.
SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “Patchwork Quilt.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 170 (27 September 1991): 54.
[In the following review, Carr compliments Showalter's research and analysis in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, but faults Showalter's romanticized notion of female community and virtue.]
Sister's Choice is, so to speak, the American sister of Elaine Showalter's first book, A Literature of Their Own, which traced a distinctive literary tradition through British women writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her argument then was that women formed a subculture, and their writing had to be interpreted like that of other literary subcultures. It was not the story of the classics alone: the rediscovery of forgotten and disparaged female writing was an essential part of drawing the historical line.
A Literature of Their Own was a landmark of feminist criticism. Yet, as Showalter says at the beginning of Sister's Choice, although critics took issue with her feminist arguments, nobody commented on the oddity of an American writing about British women novelists as if she shared their culture. Now, 14 years later, she has turned to her native land, but it has not been “an easy reclamation”. She wants to extend the practice of what she has since named “gynocriticism”—the study of women's writing—to American literature. Yet terms that would have seemed simple unities 14 years ago—like “women” and “American”—have broken into fragments before her eyes.
The earlier book had a clear historical outline. Women's writing, Showalter argued, followed the three stages of other subliteratures: imitation of the dominant culture, protest against it, and self-discovery—which she named feminine, feminist, and female.
The structure of this new book is very different. A postmodernist gale has played havoc with the terrain. But postmodernism is not a concept Showalter invokes: the book perhaps is best described through the metaphor she uses for American women's writing, that of the patchwork quilt, to which Sister's Choice, a quilt pattern, refers. In her first chapter she lays out the ripped up pieces and scraps that she must work with. In those following, she tries out different patterns in which these hybrid pieces can be sewn together.
Showalter doesn't abandon her idea of the subculture, but knows it must become a much more complex one. Issues of race and class have splintered the notion of “woman” and of “the American”: the writing of history has become a deeply problematic kind of fiction. She describes Americans as the possessors of the first postcolonial literature, following that same trajectory of imitation, protest, and self-discovery. Further sub-groups (women, black women) within America infinitely repeat the process. In some chapters, using Homi Bhabha's description of cultures as “symbol-forming” practices, she explores recurring symbols in women's writing—Miranda, the quilt, Gothic horror: in others, she traces out a more tentative but specifically American history of women's writing, from the celebration of the “women's sphere” in the pre-Civil War years to the contemporary international influence of writers like Alice Walker.
Once again she has uncovered an extraordinary range of little-known writing, and little-known shades to those better known. Louisa May Alcott takes on a new light when you discover she could write to a reader, “Though I do not enjoy writing moral tales for the young … I do it because it pays well.”
Perhaps necessarily at this moment, this book suggests ideas rather than developing them, or, as in the chapter on quilting, produces a dazzling, virtuoso cornucopia of examples that finally just lie side by side. Metaphors can be traps as well as maps, and the images of quilt-making tempts Showalter into an over-romantic evocation of the sharing and communal nature of women's creativity. Certainly she is no essentialist, as she wryly complains some poststructuralist feminists have stigmatised her. Women's culture, for her, is always the product of specific historical and local circumstances. But perhaps she has too rosy a notion of the moral virtues of the culture those circumstances have produced. Yet in that she shows her links with those early American celebrants of the women's sphere.
SOURCE: Boos, Florence. “The Anatomy of Culture.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 2 (November 1991): 26-7.
[In the following excerpt, Boos lauds Showalter's “eclectic virtuosity” in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle but finds shortcomings in her ambiguous use of the term “anarchy” and her treatment of class issues and AIDS.]
Each of these three books treats late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century attitudes towards women's sexuality, health and physical capacities. All three focus on men's more than women's actions and beliefs, document repellent forms of sexist and gynophobic regimentation with horrific examples and note ways in which the constrictive patterns they describe remain with us Patricia Vertinsky and Ornella Moscucci modulate and focus their outrage with the aid of careful historical method, Elaine Showalter with irrepressibly eclectic virtuosity of arrangement and presentation. …
The style of Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle contrasts markedly with Vertinsky and Moscucci's scrupulously anatomized world of medical control over women's bodies. Showalter surveys the literary, cinematographic and cultural effect of debates about gender and sexuality in two societies—Great Britain of the 1890s and late twentieth-century United States—in an impressive 240 page tour de force.
New-historicist protocol dictates that one alternate discussions of a period's texts with free-associated interpretation of contemporary or later writings or films, and Showalter's chapters follow this pattern. In the chapter on “Odd Women,” for example, she Juxtaposes an account of late Victorian attitudes toward single women with a description of the constraints imposed on single professional women in late twentieth-century North America. In another, neutrally entitled “The Woman's Case,” she assimilates nineteenth-century physicians' clitoridectomies to late twentieth-century acts of criminal mutilation. In still another, she segues from Rider Haggard's She and Conrad's Heart of Darkness to an analysis of several versions of Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
The fin de siècle cultural world tolerates such leaps rather well, for it was a period of great variety and ferment, in which women debated and fought repressive restrictions in every area of their lives, a few men allied with them, and most mounted counteroffensives of fictional and editorial backlash. Showalter has a marked gift for dissection of Victorian plots, as her capsule interpretations of She, Olive Schreiner's “Dreams,” Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula make clear.
At her best, she applies the methodology of recent academic gender studies in a vigorous, jargon-free manner, and deftly interprets an impressive range of recondite and intriguing facts in her discussions of 1890s sexual debates. She also moves freely across the current spectrum of gender studies in her discussions of late nineteenth-century feminism, male phobias and sexual violence directed against women, male homosexuality and homoerotic subcultures, and recent literary responses to AIDS. Showalter's tacit claim is that all the phenomena she observes are related, as she fast-forwards from sexual debates in 1890s culture to their 1990s counterparts, and shakes in her kaleidoscope hundreds of fragmented and crystallized mentalités.
But why the “anarchy” in her title? Within the book, the word has ambiguous connotations. Attempts at reform seem “anarchic” to their enemies, for example, but fantasies of violence and repression are also “anarchic.” Such dialectical ambiguities reflect something of the work's method and tone; unfortunately, Showalter's treatment of 1890s culture and “anarchy” gives little or no attention to the anarchist movement's significant political history and feminist associations. Nineteenth-century political anarchism was noted for its prominent women activists, among them Louise Michel and Charlotte Wilson, and these women and other writers and speakers such as Emma Goldman and Crystal Eastman contributed radical critiques of the family and sexual coercion.
The book's subtitle is “Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle.” Everything is now “culture,” of course; but Showalter's “culture” is that of literature, polemic, film and performance, not art, music, history, or folk legend. Her implicit assumptions about “gender” categories also seem more pervasively psychological than economic or political. She makes no systematic attempt, for example, to apply her ideas of “sexual anarchy” to members of the turn-of-the-century working class, or consider what the writings of poor women might have revealed about their conformity to and rebellion against sexual norms. A brief discussion of fin de siècle prostitution (largely a poor woman's occupation), for example, might have balanced well the book's account of the prevalence of male syphilis. Are there also no late twentieth-century forms of women's economic or political activism which Showalter might have used to balance the work's grimly extended accounts of the mentalités of the radical right?
Anyone looking for a sympathetic brief introduction to British fin de siècle literature and social issues might well begin with this book. I am somewhat less certain whether Showalter has points of comparable insight and authority to make about contemporary gay literature, or about AIDS, now a catastrophic Third World pandemic. The author and editor of four important books of feminist criticism may have decided to turn her attention briefly but resolutely to one form of “the Other,” and registers sincere horror at the destruction this disease has wrought, but her tone in these sections is pontificatory, at once grieving and helplessly detached.
In fairness, Showalter's decision to end her book with a discussion of the Anglo-American literature associated with AIDS does give Sexual Anarchy a sense of open-ended mordant discomfort—a quasi-postmodern reality-check and source of (literal) malaise which is balanced in part by her final reminder of familiar hopes and ideals: “What seems today like the apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy [‘frightening’ to whom?] may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.”
All three of these books—historicist and new-historicist—present some of the somber and obsessive realities of a continuing history of male control, lightened by impressive acts of judgment and resistance. Vertinsky's and Moscucci's scrupulous reconstruction of the heavy burdens of an evolving patriarchal past seem animated, in part at least, by an implicit conviction that we may yet overcome the diktat of male control over women's lives and bodies. Showalter's virtuoso leaps seem in the end markedly less hopeful and meliorist, for their achronological cross-cuts suggest a grim vision of a sexually troubled world, one in which the competing forms of struggle have partially neutralized each other.
Despite her many humanist calls for enlightened tolerance (“If we can learn something from the fears and myths of the past, it is that they are so often exaggerated and unreal, that what looks like sexual anarchy in the context of fin-de-siècle anxieties may be the embryonic stirrings of a new order”), I put down her book with a sense of lingering anxiety that the “new order” she invokes may be indefinitely postponed. Only the finest of spectral lines may separate breadth of vision from the “helpless detachment” I spoke of above; Showalter's eloquent but cautious overview of sexual malaise suggests that this is a line we have not yet learned to cross.
SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Separate Spheres and Common Threads.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4624 (15 November 1991): 8.
[In the following review, Lee offers a negative assessment of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing.]
This is a friendly title, [Sister's Choice,] and it comes in a positive red colour, with a bold quilt-pattern design, because “Sister's Choice” is the name of the quilt made by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and the quilt is an emblem, Elaine Showalter says, of “a universalist, interracial, and intertextual tradition”. In deliberately selecting a title from a non-literary and non-white context, Showalter makes her main point: that American women's writing does not, or “must” no longer, belong to a “separate sphere”, but belongs, or “must” belong, to a common, pluralistic heritage of races, genders and cultures. These are rousing sentiments, and this short book (based on her Clarendon Lectures of 1989) is lavishly bolstered with a utopian rhetoric which makes “sister's choice” into a bravely hopeful prescription for “a new map of a changing America”. But one sister's choice may be another sister's anathema.
Showalter is no newcomer to anathematizing: she has been “dancing in the minefield” (in Annette Kolodny's famously perilous phrase) of feminist literary criticism for a long time. The controversy over her treatment of A Room of One's Own provides a good example. In her important book on the emergence of a “female tradition” in English fiction, A Literature of Their Own (1977), Showalter reproached Virginia Woolf for evasiveness and denial of feeling. She read androgyny as an unsatisfactorily impersonal retreat from women's problems, and the room of one's own as, ultimately, a tomb. By contrast with the phrase which inspired her title, Showalter suggested that “a literature of their own” for women should not, as Woolf recommended, transcend sexual identity, but should derive strength from confrontation and interaction, from “an understanding of what it means, in every respect, to be a woman”. The central belief, here as in Showalter's later work, is that writing by women constitutes a direct record of their experience and that what she calls “gynocriticism” can make a feminist analysis of such writing by paying attention to it as a record of experience.
The word “experience” is a red rag to a critic such as Toril Moi, whose feminist readings, derived from Derrida and Kristeva, are made via psychology and linguistics and not “bourgeois realism” or “traditional humanism”. (This kind of opposition is often used to sum up the standard split between French and Anglo-American feminist schools, though in Sister's Choice Showalter is impatient with this sort of monolithic and undifferentiated account of “American feminist criticism”). Woolf's inauthenticity for Showalter comes, says Moi (in Sexual/Textual Politics, 1985), from her assumption that “feminist writers should want to use realist fictional forms in the first place”. But this, according to Moi, is just an inheritance from that patriarchal ideology which had the humanist creator as the author in control of “his” text. A feminist reading of Woolf should rather attend to the scepticism and playfulness of her literary strategies, the endless deferral of meaning in her text, her refusal to commit herself to “a so-called rational or logical form of writing”. By this reading, evasiveness becomes, not a retreat from, but an essential of, feminist writing.
The trouble with this is that it makes it sound as if A Room of One's Own could be about anything at all: political content, whether truthful or not, gets the boot. But Moi isn't alone in her impatience with Showalter's imperviousness to irony and play of language. The point is made, very differently, by Edmund White, writing recently in these pages on the clodhopping Freudianism, “brutal rejection of authorial intention” and insensitivity to nuance, of Showalter's book on fin de siècle fiction, Sexual Anarchy. Wildly different though they are, both White and Moi have it in for Showalter for what they perceive as an inability to read: “What's puzzling”, says White, with his devastating levity, “is why literature should play a role at all in this book. … fiction is notoriously a poor vehicle for ideas”. These are serious challenges to a critic whose whole work is based on the belief that fiction is a fine vehicle for ideas, and that historical and cultural developments can be deduced from it.
Showalter is aware that in applying her belief, this time, to American rather than British women writers, she is facing more complicated difficulties than accusations of naivety or unsubtlety. Her first essay, “American Questions”, describes the perils of trying to write an American feminist literary history at a time of “dissensus”, when the acceptance of an established, traditional American literary canon is bursting apart, in reading lists and anthologies and faculty appointments and publishers' investments, into “diversity, division and discord”. In this context, a feminist literary history
must be critical of any single paradigm of American women's history or culture; attentive to the articulation of gender, race and class; and aware that women's writing is produced within a complex intertextual network. It cannot be defined by biological essences, stereotypes of femininity, or nationalist myths. It must avoid both over-feminization, the insistence that everything in women's writing can be explained by gender; and under-feminization, or the neglect of gender inscriptions in women's texts.
Well, that should please everybody, you can feel her thinking. There is a careful political correctness about all this which made my heart sink. But what follows, as she takes the opportunity to suggest one possible tradition of American women's writing, is often interesting.
She starts well, in the fathers' libraries, where many of the great American women writers (and others too, of course, from Woolf to de Beauvoir) began their literary journeys. Margaret Fuller was kept from novels, plays and poetry and drilled in Latin and logic. Like Miranda (whose appropriation in American literature Showalter describes in useful detail), Fuller was in thrall to her father's “language and power”, and could never escape the magic dominion of Emerson-as-Prospero. Others broke out of the library more successfully. Louisa Alcott, whose transcendentalist-philosopher father, Bronson, used to leave forbidden apples around the house to test his children's obedience, always used to eat the apple (“Me must have it!”). She tried out forbidden fruit in her secret, pseudonymous sensation writing, and found her own voice, domestic, colloquial and direct, in Little Women (even if she did later give in to her male publishers' bowdlerizing demands). Charlotte Perkins Gilman (more famous now for her Gothic fantasy of female incarceration than for her rational feminist Utopias), whose father was a distinguished librarian, couldn't bear to look at an index after her breakdown. A brilliant quotation from Alice James expresses one daughter's “waves of violent inclination” in the library, imagining “throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table”.
Showalter makes a trajectory from the thwarted resistance of the daughters to the open community of the sisters. Just as in A Literature of Their Own, where she described the evolutionary stages of women's writing from the nineteenth to the twentieth century as “feminine”, “feminist” and “female”, so now she traces a progression from Fuller's and Alcott's struggle with patriarchy, via Kate Chopin's and Edith Wharton's painfully transitional tragedies of solitary women, through the anxieties of modernism and the challenges to American feminism in the 1920s and 30s, and on towards “the honest exploration of female experience and female lives”. She concludes with the post-1960s process of reclamation (of silenced authors, uncanonized texts, neglected domestic arts) as crucial to the making of an American feminist aesthetic. That this aesthetic is no longer confined to “separate spheres” is demonstrated by her account of the AIDS quilt (a giant memorial to those who have died of the disease, made of over 11,000 pieces and exhibited in the late 1980s in twenty-five American cities), which shows the transition for “traditions of women's culture” from private to public symbols, from “separate spheres” to “common threads”.
Though this historical survey is always readable and informative, I found its relentlessly progressive view of literary history—whereby Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Walker are bound to be more fulfilled and liberated writers than Edith Wharton or Kate Chopin—sentimental and tyrannical. I noticed that Showalter bypassed those awkward American women writers who cannot easily be read as “precursors of a literary history of female mastery and growth”: so Willa Cather's distaste for Kate Chopin's emotional “Bovaryisme”, so alien to her own more impersonal and tougher aims, is passed over with some bewilderment, and Flannery O'Connor is put where she most hated to be put, along with Carson McCullers under “American Gothic”, with no room here for her savagely ironic metaphysics, which have nothing at all to do with sisterhood.
The word I most distrusted in this book was “must”, and it is often used. “We must make its myths together or not at all”; the AIDS quilt “must be read in its own new terms”; “the work of exploration must be carried on”. This orthodoxy of sisterhood can be as domineering as the old rule of the fathers. Showalter recommends plurality, interconnectedness, true democracy: no more rooms of one's own. But books go on being written alone, and read alone, as well as together, by writers who may want to say “Me must have it!” in quite other ways to those recommended here. Novels, after all, are not the same things as giant memorial quilts.
SOURCE: Shannon, Elizabeth. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Commonweal 118, no. 21 (6 December 1991): 728.
[In the following review, Shannon offers high praise for Showalter's scholarly examination of “social, sexual, and political attitudes” in Sexual Anarchy.]
There is one book I especially want to recommend this year, Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. Showalter is both engaging and scholarly in comparing social, sexual, and political attitudes prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century to our own fin de siècle. The parallels she discusses are fascinating in their similarities, but depressing in their recurrence.
She discusses literature, art, and film, both American and English, and finds that the fin de siècle brings with it an earthquake of social and sexual upheavals, and that this occurs cyclically, perhaps caused by a “sense of an ending.” She quotes Frank Kermode, who suggests that “we project our existential anxieties onto history; there is a real correlation between the ends of centuries and the peculiarity of our imagination, that it [increased anxiety] chooses always to be at the end of an era.”
Public dialogue at the end of the nineteenth century created the use of the words “feminism” and “homosexuality.” Attempts to redefine gender, to explore sexual and psychological borders, and to understand the meaning of feminine liberation filled the art and literature of the day. Reaction to this “sexual anarchy” was typically reactionary: worries about sexually transmitted disease (particularly syphilis, which had reached epidemic proportions by 1900), concern that the liberation of women would erode family life, and efforts to impose codes of Victorian morality on the whole population.
Late nineteenth-century concern with the horrors of an imminent feminist takeover were fed by fantasy, not fact, and yet “the nineteenth century had cherished a belief in the separate spheres of femininity and masculinity that amounted almost to religious faith … post-Darwinian ‘sexual science’ offered … testimony on the evolutionary differences between men and women,” finding, of course, that “women's nurturant domestic capabilities fitted them for home and hearth … while men's aggressive, competitive abilities fitted them for public life.”
While women looked for a new feminist order at the turn of the last century, men too searched for new definitions of masculinity. In the world of male “Clubland,” and in the literature of “quest romances,” written especially for boys (“little boys who read will become big boys who rule”), the need for male superiority and exclusiveness became a virulent theme. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in 1886 that “the begetting of one's thoughts on paper … is a kind of male gift,” and writers of the period fantasized about alternate forms of male reproduction, such as “splitting or cloning, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; reincarnation, as in Rider Haggard's She; transfusion, as in Dracula; aesthetic duplication, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. …”
All have a familiar echo as the last decade of our century draws to a close. AIDS has taken the place of syphilis, the right-wing movement in America still tries to impose cultural and artistic censorship on our population, the senators who sought to degrade Anita Hill could have quoted Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century: “There is no place in the world for nations who have … lost their fiber of vigorous hardness and masculinity.”
The parallels in Ms. Showalter's book are not only in the sexual arena; the last two decades of the nineteenth century in England were a time of severe economic depression, and the expression “unemployment” was coined, an expression used with frightening and relentless repetition in America today. The homeless population of America's cities, camped out on hot air vents, must be reminiscent of London in the 1890s, where hordes of people made a home in Trafalgar Square and the city's parks.
Ms. Showalter's writing is crisp, full of verve, anecdotes, and wit; though well-researched, the book avoids the pitfalls of academic dryness. She has no ax to grind; her book is not a political statement nor a sociological scaremonger. She detaches herself by her humor and scholarship. Most of her facts are annotated and the view-points provided in quotations from acknowledged and usually witty sources.
Her picture of the dreary past makes a return to it impossible, and she is optimistic about the future. As she describes the Genitron, an electric clock above the Pompidou Center in Paris, flashing the remaining seconds and minutes of the decade, time cannot be stopped or turned back … “nor can we legislate or intimidate men and women into shame and repression of the past. We must not allow fear to push us into cruel homophobia, make us abandon our commitment to women's sexual autonomy, or lead us to repudiate the fin-de-siècle vision of a future in which sexuality is a source of pleasure, comfort, and joy. … What seems today like the apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.”
I wish I could give copies of her book as Christmas presents to members of the United States Senate.
SOURCE: Baym, Nina. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. American Literature 64, no. 3 (spring 1992): 629-30.
[In the following review, Baym compliments the structure and subject material of Sister's Choice.]
From its dust jacket illustration of a quilt block to a final chapter on quilting, this book takes “piecing”—women's creation of patterned art from snips of available fabric—as the metaphor for American women's writing. The book itself is artfully pieced, inserting four previously published essays between two each of four Clarendon Lectures delivered in 1989. This elegant congruence of content and form forestalls (though it cannot entirely eliminate) concern about completeness; the book presents itself not as master narrative but as scrap-bag assemblage. The first chapter uses postcolonialist theory to deny the aptness of master narratives for histories of muted or minority discourses; piecing becomes, implicitly, the most responsible way to generalize about women's writing.
As readers familiar with Showalter's influential work in feminist theory and English literature might expect, her overview is immensely perceptive and wonderfully accomplished. Oscillating between close reading and survey, merging biography with textual analysis, and enacting the sisterliness of its title in generous footnotes and quotations of other feminists' scholarship, Sister's Choice moves chronologically from Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott (chapters 2 and 3), to turn-of-the-century writing represented by Kate Chopin's Awakening and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (chapters 4 and 5), to surveys of women's interwar writings and of contemporary female Gothic (chapters 6 and 7). Showalter shows how texts in each era register historically specific conflicts between women's creativity and their relationship to literary traditions, as well as between their fantasies and cultural reality. In Showalter's view, antebellum female culture, dominated by a homosocial woman's sphere, gave way in the 1880s to the semi-independent New Women, followed by a heterosexual modernist synthesis (73, 86)—a surprising assertion in view of the significant lesbian component in female modernism—a synthesis which has now given way to postmodernity. She finds that in every era social conditions have frustrated literary women's fantasies of “lives that successfully balanced love and work” (107).
The essays are eminently readable and jargon-free, studded with quotable insights. The significance of Fuller's Miranda image and the trajectory of that image in later women's writing; Alcott's preference, in Little Women, for the “dearly cherished sister of us all” over the “unattainable genius, Shakespeare's American sister” (64); Chopin's mapping of her heroine's imaginative failings; Wharton's implicit rejection, in Lily Bart, of the debilitating constraints on “lady” writers; women's struggles in the 1920s and 1930s to celebrate women in an antifeminist era; the recent resurgence of female Gothic in response to ubiquitous physical violence against women—“Female Gothic looks more and more like a realist mode” (144)—are the main topics in this remarkably efficient study.
The index names approximately 72 American women writers, a huge number for a book of under 200 pages. Still, thousands are missing, guaranteeing that Sister's Choice by no means exhausts its subject. Indeed, whereas quilting originated as the art of using every scrap, the accumulated scraps of American women's writing far exceed the capacity of any quilter, even one so inspired and dedicated as Showalter, to contain them.
SOURCE: Lyons, Brenda Foglio. “American Patchwork.” Essays in Criticism 42, no. 4 (October 1992): 338-44.
[In the following review, Lyons argues that Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing is an inconsistent and incomplete, though entertaining, literary history of American women's writing.]
The notion of being simultaneously inside and outside patriarchy and its institutional processes is a feminist ideological construct that has achieved the status of mainstream cliché. Titles by French writers have surfaced which name this borderline as a discursive subject: Inside by Hélène Cixous, which won the Prix Medicis in 1969, is a fictive elaboration of l'écriture feminine; Outside: Selected Writings (1984) by Marguerite Duras, released in an English translation by Carol Barko in 1986, is a diverse collection of short pieces that comment on social and political injustices. Elaine Showalter's book, Sister's Choice, asks questions that concern boundary disputes on a remapped topography of English studies—for example, how and where to position a literary history of American women's writing: is it inside or outside British or masculine traditions, an American canon, national borders, European influences? The terrain has been complicated, readers are informed in the first chapter, ‘American Questions’, by the difficulties of defining ‘American’. How do the politics of language and literature interconnect with those of race, class, and gender to determine canon and curriculum selections? To what extent does a national(ist) literature covertly reinforce its own politics?
Showalter's texts have become a tradition in Anglo-American feminist discourse; she has produced seven volumes of literary/cultural criticism, two of which are now included on most contemporary English reading lists. It is not surprising that the patterns of tradition and change are of recurring interest in her work, as they identify links between her position within a new tradition of American women's writing and the problem of locating a female literary history in relation to a ‘feminist’ and ‘American’ ethos. The New Feminist Criticism (1985, Virago 1986) was a pluralist landmark, which she introduced as part of a ‘critical revolution’ emerging from the changed assumptions of the Sixties, but distanced from structuralism, Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxism, and deconstructive approaches. An earlier anthology by Mary Jacobus, Women Writing and Writing about Women (1979) had, however, included Showalter's own essay, ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’.
Her work has often traced metaphorical patterns in search of continuities; she forms orderly narratives out of the gaps and chaos of female and, more recently, African American works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English fiction, historically and culturally contextualised. Louisa May Alcott's ambidexterity was identified as a metaphor of creativity in Alternative Alcott, keyed to doubling efficiency as a ‘writing machine’. In Sexual Anarchy ‘civilisation’ is a racial metaphor for colonial oppression, demonstrated by Dan's imposition of imperialism in the coronation episode of John Huston's film of the Kipling tale, The Man Who Would Be King (1888); and the veil is a mysterious metaphorical link to ‘feminine’ definition and difference. Her critique of Virginia Woolf's ‘room of one's own’ as an isolationist tomb continues more than a decade later to spark Anglo-European controversy over whether or not women's writing may be interpreted as directly recorded experience. The infamous chapter in A Literature of Their Own, ‘Virginia Woolf and the Flight into Androgyny’, was mentioned by Hermione Lee in the Times Literary Supplement (November 15, 1991) as engendering a debate that represents the standard split between Anglo-American and French feminisms—between, that is, Toril Moi's defence of Woolf's concept of androgyny, based on psycholinguistic readings, and Showalter's bourgeois, traditional-humanist accusations of Woolf's purported insensitivity and withdrawal.
Most critics would probably agree at least that Showalter has imbued a once-diminished body of women's writings with renewed significance. Her reputation rests on A Literature of Their Own: From Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing, sensitive to metaphors of landscape, temporal and spatial; it set the scene of the English novel in a trans-Atlantic context distinguished by Austen peaks, Brontë cliffs, the Eliot range, and Woolf hills. She clarified a teleology of ‘the female tradition’, catalogued monumental and briefly momentary texts of more than two hundred women writers, and traced a pattern from ‘feminine’ subcultural ideology to a female aesthetic that applied an evolved ‘feminist ideology’ to language.
In Sister's Choice the metaphor of another country as the ground of literary critical differences is fertile soil from which Showalter embarks on her personal tale of the difficulties of travel and homecoming. She begins with a first person narrative of her return to America and its literature after experiencing English Culture, an uncomfortable arrival after adventurous wanderings, albeit on well-trodden public footpaths, through Yorkshire and bibliophile temptations of London and Southeast England. A provocatively distanced interest in male classicism is piqued with the quotation from William Carlos Williams's letter to Robert Lowell that called Europe a Circe, wishing him well on the occasion of his homecoming to Penelope/America. Sister's Choice is also a return to the primary metaphor of A Literature of Their Own, in which women's writing becomes a different, subcultural country within English fiction and the basis of a cultural opposition; America is England's ‘other’. She emphasises the inverted way in which American women's writing now influences its historically dominant cultural readership and that of an international audience; a self-consciousness is suggested, and the sensibility of self-critical consciousness.
Sister's Choice entertains anecdotally, as befits an American tradition of story-telling. Eight chapters are purposefully patched together and unified by the metaphor of quilting, which Showalter explicates as quintessentially female and American. The title is from a passage in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which transforms the metaphor into an icon of black liberalism. Celie and Sophia fashion a quilt called ‘sister's choice’ from torn curtains and a yellow dress; the choice is either to remain in their local black Southern community or to enter a multicoloured international world. For Showalter this is a ‘womanist novel’ because it exercises a ‘sister's choice’. In her final chapter, she returns to the metaphor of the patchwork quilt to describe populist American heterogeneity. Having replaced the ‘melting pot’ in twentieth-century ideological iconography, American quilting for Showalter represents an ingenious woman's art of conservation: it crosses boundaries of race, region, and class; is historically central to women's writing in America; and corresponds to the actual process of writing seen in a variety of fictional texts. Its multi-textured fabric suggests associations with radical, conservative, and middle-of-the-road sexual politics; aesthetically, it has been revered for anti-establishment originality and beauty, reviled as feminine and trivial; a double-sided product is also the historical in-process artefact that lends significance to its representational value in American storytelling.
The metaphors of piecing and patchwork as threads common to a female aesthetic for sisterhood and for a politics of feminist survival are offered in the hope of cultural cohesion. In the first chapter a density of interconnected questions may unsettle a reader ill prepared for complications by an engagingly straightforward title. There is no central question, but rather many contextually related ones, which overlap in an intricate enquiry into the cultural, geographical, ethnological, and gendered texture of female literary Americana. Showalter declares the project another exercise of ‘gynocriticism’, her neologism for identifying what is ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ by reading women's texts, in this case also seeking a uniquely American tradition in two vicissitudinous centuries of women's writings in the United States. Inspiringly appropriate though the metaphor appears, it dramatically covers its own questions: instead of digging into the theoretical materials, Showalter skirts most of the ‘American questions’, leaving readers to ponder such interesting asides as Sacvan Berkovich's notion of exceptionalism as a critical ideology that may alter what ‘American’ means in ‘a time of dissensus’. Many introductory questions end up as digressions. Denying her status as ‘American feminist critic’, Showalter asks what these terms mean, but then shies away from theory, returning instead to a less rigorous form of gynocritical activity. But the questions are well worth repeating. Does a muted culture have a literature of its own? Can there be an ‘authentic’ language in a heterogeneous culture? What is the relationship between literary theory and non-canonised literatures?
The book is designed as a patchwork of nineteenth- and twentieth-century pieces of literature about and by women, mostly plot summaries and biographical sketches, but the scope and weight of the subject are too vast for such selectivity. The structure does not hold its subject; it wavers between the attempt to represent an incomplete female American literary history, and a clever patching together of cultural parts as a post-colonial response to male, European intellectual oppression. There are missing patches, and loose threads, when pulled, unravel to destroy the design, which operates by an association of pieces. More than a third of the book comprises readings of only three novels—Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton—the stuff of which has more to do with the authors' creative practices than either ‘American questions’ or quilts. The patches hang together by a few ‘common threads’, while more significant issues that Virginia Woolf raised—economic and sexual independence and theories of language that are not exclusive of European intrication—are more relevant to all these than quilting is to any of them.
What Showalter calls ‘Miranda's Story’ in Chapter Two is an intriguing transposition of father/daughter relations in The Tempest to a series of revisionary texts by American women. Margaret Fuller, Susan Sontag's predecessor as Manhattan Dark Lady, a privileged position to which Showalter had aspired, called herself Miranda, metaphorical Daughter of Prospero, archetypal Literary Father. In the wake of a failed ‘Prospero-Caliban trope’ of the Eighties, inadequate because of its exclusion of women, Showalter gives accounts of Miranda as a woman artist or intellectual in fiction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Katherine Ann Porter, Sylvia Plath, and Gloria Naylor. Miranda's changed forms in American fiction begin with Fuller's autobiographical self-identification, embodying a ‘feminist ideal’ fraught with external and internalized contradictions peculiar to cross-gendered hybrids. South of the Canadian border, the ‘Miranda story’ is that of revolutionary women's replays of knowledge, while to the north a conservative tale of political power has cast Miranda as ‘dutiful daughter’ to her national father. This archaelogical projection of a Shakespearean metaphor merits attention for exposing differing cultural strata in the politics of language, but Showalter's story would benefit from leaving it at that. An enquiry into questions raised by the dramatic closure of her ‘Miranda story’, its oppositional syntagm of American and Canadian Miranda's, would have usefully gone beyond figurative appropriations to a developed argument. Gloria Naylor's novel Mama Day has transformed the figure of the Republican Miranda's sedate, white Northern sister to the matriarchal, androgynous Mama Day of Willow Springs, who prospers from her father's knowledge and enacts his magic. Here the metaphor is alive with contemporary struggles for the survival of American island cultures. In the relations of female cultures and writings and in swatches of questions and tropes, Showalter reveals knottily visible seams that may enhance our understanding of American female literature, but the study becomes trapped in its own metaphors, sewing up American literature, regardless of gender, into a single monolithic quilted image.
A feminist/modernist sixth chapter, ‘The Other Lost Generation’, details the bleak underside of a male preserve of Twenties and Thirties radicalism. Female modernism was marked by confinement, reticence, and silence; there was a crisis in the divided female consciousness; women poets suffered relegation to minority status; and the New Woman was systematically silenced by exclusion and poverty. Chapter Seven marks a shift from negation and poverty to the Sixties renaissance of hermeneutical innovation, and emphasizes the notion of an ‘American female gothic’. A few missed stitches from the nineteenth century are picked up here, to include Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and at least a mention of Alice James; there is a nod to Native American and immigrant cultures as part of the American patchwork. However, much is left out, from Abigail Adams's letters to the fiction, diaries, and other writings of, for example, Gwendolyn Brooks, Djuna Barnes, Maxine Kumin, Anais Nin, Mary Oliver, Carolyn Kizer, Pearl Buck, May Sarton, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Maya Angelou.
The nature of American literature, female or male, is much more ambiguous and dynamic than any single metaphor can imaginatively contain; if Sister's Choice is approached as a decorative Gestalt, rather than the literary historical account of American women's fiction it ambitiously and interrogatively attempts, the reader may enjoy a good read. The complexities raised in Chapter One are only superficially attached to an expanse of layered materials, which are more violently tattered than Sister's Choice presents: too many pieces have disintegrated with time, in witch hunts, censorship battles, wars, Native American genocide. In Showalter's rewritten catalogue, a poetics of American women's writing has been sacrificed to metaphorical rhetoric. Theoretical rigour is lacking, and female literary history, uneasily balanced between aesthetics and political history, ends up as inconsistent critical practice.
SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-22.
[In the following excerpt, Fraiman praises Sexual Anarchy for its “gripping” examination of such works as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ann Ardis's New Women, New Novels.]
At the center of Elaine Showalter's gripping study of the fin de siècle is a reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I cannot help appropriating this duo to figure the relation between Ann Ardis's upbeat, brightly lit New Women, New Novels and Showalter's own darker and more disconcerting work. True that, in their attention to proto-modern texts by men as well as women and in their historicizing ways, both books represent a second phase of American feminist criticism, beyond its earliest thematic readings of nineteenth-century women's fiction; indeed Sexual Anarchy, treating books and plays alongside films and crimes, actresses and autopsies, is an exhilarating example of the newest, thickest kind of cultural description. Nevertheless, in their different emotional emphases these two works remind me of the old, axiomatic distinction (worded most famously by Showalter herself) between one feminist approach that celebrates writings by women and another that exposes the bias in writings by men. Whereas Ardis typically travels the utopian terrain of Jane Hume Clapperton's Margaret Dunmore; or, A Socialist Home (1888) and Florence Dixie's Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 (1890), Showalter takes us to the misogynist heart of darkness in Rider Haggard's She (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, New Women, New Novels and Sexual Anarchy are in some schematic sense doubles, and reading them in tandem suggests that the fin de siècle was itself a divided personality. …
Though Showalter opens with chapters on “Odd Women” and “New Women” (the former's plight elected by the latter as a badge of independence), its general movement is away from women toward the disordered masculine imagination. In this Mr. Hyde-version of the fin de siècle, Ardis's innovative women writers are few and far between. They are represented most prominently by Olive Schreiner and Eleanor Marx, whose lives are offered as examples of paralyzed creativity and personal tragedy. Caird, Grand, and Cholmondeley are discussed as daughters of George Eliot, rewriting her for feminism; but Showalter concludes that “on the whole … both the novels and the careers of the novelists ended in defeat and despair” (p. 66). So while each scholar notes the demise in this period of the three-volume form, what Ardis views as an opportunity for women writers—“the democratization/feminization of the literary marketplace” (p. 41)—Showalter regards as a shift “away from subjects, themes, and forms associated with femininity and maternity” (p. 17). Invoking Patricia Stubbs and Terry Lovell, Showalter argues that the century closed with “the striking, although temporary, eclipse of women writers” (p. 16).
This said, Sexual Anarchy proceeds along more or less Sedgwickian lines to unveil the violence against women and denied desire for men in, for example, Rudyard Kipling's “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1893), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), and the many spin-offs generated by these texts. Showalter's genealogies of figures such as Salomé and narratives such as Conrad's, ending with filmic variations by Ken Russell and Francis Ford Coppola in our own fin de siècle, stand out among the many fascinations of her study. Sexual Anarchy's dramatic sweep—taking in everything from clitoridectomies to Courbet—along with the brilliant readings we have come to expect from this author, makes for a rich and readable cultural history indeed. I have associated its mode of interrogating masculinity with what Showalter once called “feminist critique”; in fact, retooled by scholars in gay and cultural studies, this approach has been geared up to a power and sophistication only intimated by Kate Millett. Sexual Anarchy places Showalter at the forefront of the new “gender studies,” completing a turn away from A Literature of Their Own (1977), implicit in The Female Malady (1985), and announced by Speaking of Gender (1989). For feminists the risks as well as rewards of her venture are, I suggest, those intrinsic to the rubric itself.
There are obvious advantages to making masculinity the object of a feminist anatomy. As Showalter demonstrates in her chapter “The Woman's Case,” men from Jack the Ripper to Freud have opened up and peered into the female body with a serial vengeance. To analyze and, in doing so, reverse this gendered pattern of penetration and witnessing is no small triumph. Moreover to explore the closet of same-sex love—which hovers, for instance, between a gaunt Robert Louis Stevenson and his spectral wife in a portrait by John Singer Sargent (pp. 107-08)—is to further a project of major critical and political import. What concerns me, however, is that this project threatens at times to privilege the same sex (men), leaving women once again the second sex. Thus even such a strongly feminist work as Showalter's, while taking every opportunity to ask “Can there be a woman in Dr. Jekyll's closet?” (p. 118), ends up with “lesbianism” as a see also, subordinate to a “homosexuality” defined as male. Nor can the marginal status of women writers as well as lesbianism in Sexual Anarchy be attributed solely to the failure of the one and discursive vagueness of the other during the period under consideration; Ardis demonstrates too thoroughly that such an account has been biased by high modernist assumptions.
I return, then, to the usefulness of placing Ardis and Showalter in dialogue with one another, both for cultural historians in search of the fin de siècle and for feminist critics seeking a methodology. It is a point I would make, finally, by juxtaposing the cover illustrations of their books. New Women, New Novels features two women reading, side by side on a bench, and perhaps their tranquil sisterhood understates the sexual turmoil of the early modern era. Sexual Anarchy needs these two women, however, to comment on its own Beardsleyesque cover, whose figures, however breasted and winged, slip in the direction of the phallic—angels of a sexual order less promisingly anarchic after all.
SOURCE: Stuart, Andrea. “Missing Links.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 257 (18 June 1993): 38.
[In the following review, Stuart offers a generally positive assessment of Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Elaine Showalter has made something of a literary cottage industry out of the angst and alienation of the fin-de-siècle. In her book The Female Malady, she turned the tables on the men of knowledge who spent so long dissecting “the woman problem” in lieu of confronting their own anxieties. And in Sexual Anarchy, she explored the fears that stalked the psyches of those nervy Wildean decadents and their brittle female counterparts, the “New Women”, as they made their uneasy journey into the 20th century.
So it was no great surprise to see her edit this collection of short stories by women writers of the period [Daughters of Decadence]. But as spin-off books go, this is quite a creditable offering. In the introduction, for example, Showalter, steers clear of the gratuitous hermeticism that plagues most academic writers and manages to be both informative and pithy. And she really works her choice of stories, making them reveal as much about the present as about the past.
“Endism”, the fear of the end of the century, seems to have gripped our collective consciousnesses in much the same way then as now. In the twilight of the last century—just as on the pages of today's Cosmo—miscommunication and romantic disillusion shadow these characters' lives. A careless young man discovers only after a farewell kiss that it is his best friend, a “far too” independent woman, he really loves; another that the woman he wants cannot be his because she is simply too desirable.
It is the original battle of the sexes and the combatants are bemused and battered. Men are lost in a haze of frustration or narcissism; women suffer in silence, suppressing, as one puts it, “a restless craving for sun and love and motion”. Their aspirations to be creative, sexually ambiguous or even active fester beneath their virtue.
Some of the stories are whimsical, like Kate Chopin's “An Egyptian Cigarette”, in which a woman transforms herself into androgyny via an opium-induced fantasy. Others are simply terrifying, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman is pushed to the edges of insanity by the stifling inertia of marriage.
In many ways, this enormously varied collection of female writers, whose names are now largely forgotten, is an old-fashioned job of feminist reclaiming. And certainly reading these women is like finding the lost piece of a cultural jigsaw. They are the bridge, the “missing link” between the Victorian giants such as George Eliot and the modernist brigade led by Woolf and Stein.
But did they deserve to be forgotten? The answer is yes and no. Showalter certainly presents these women writers as an unequivocal antidote to the male literary dominance of the period, and some are undoubtedly rare excavations. But the truth is that the short story is a notoriously difficult route to literary immortality; and some of these feel as transitional and amorphous as the nervy and restless “New Women” who penned them.
SOURCE: Baldick, Chris. “Secular Variations.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4718 (3 September 1993): 20-1.
[In the following excerpt, Baldick praises Showalter's exploration of the fin-de-siècle in Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Like the widow in Wilde's play whose hair has turned gold with grief, the study of the last century's Nineties sports an unseemly glow of prosperity. Nothing flourishes quite like decadence, and productivity is booming in the languor industry. The shiny new conference centre at Warwick University accommodates symposia on world-weariness, while publishers look forward to issuing fresh volumes on cultural exhaustion. The calendar has, of course, something to do with it, but unlike the Nineties of Mary Wollstonecraft or of Christopher Marlowe, no less deserving of resurrection by rote, the Yellow Nineties or Naughty Nineties seem to address us with the additional sinister allure of the hypochondriac, superstitiously mesmerized by his self-assigned curse of decadence, degeneracy and the knelling phrase fin de siècle.
Our unfinished business with this fin has much to do with its confounding of ends with beginnings, under the presidency of Janus Bifrons. Blink again at this twilit decade of pessimism—or simply substitute Shaw and Morris for Beardsley and Dowson—and it transforms itself into the dawn of Utopian promise, preoccupied with the New Woman, the New Drama, the New Fiction and the New Journalism, not to mention the Golden Dawn of the Theosophists. For this self-consciously paradoxical decade, in which materialists by day became spiritualists by night, terminus appears as threshold, or, more bewildering still, the boundary itself evaporates into a haze of uncertainties. Rebecca Stott, who has a keen eye for the telling quotation, cites the English version of the notorious work Degeneration (1895) by the quack cultural analyst Max Nordau:
Over the earth the shadows creep with deepening gloom, wrapping all objects in a mysterious dimness, in which all certainty is destroyed and any guess seems plausible. Forms lose their outlines and are dissolved in floating mist.
Alongside this impression of the contemporary mood, she produces, in The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale, a letter from Joseph Conrad, writing in 1899 about the irresolutions of writing: “Every image floats vaguely in a sea of doubt—and the doubt itself is lost in an unexplored universe of incertitudes.”
The modern writer who sets out to explore the cultural contradictions of the fin de siècle moment has a choice of two possible strategies by which to resolve the incertitudes into some kind of narrative order: the first is to emphasize the recurring pattern of anxiety or dread in the cultural products of the period, yoking them under the dominant myth of degeneration; the second is to repudiate all the talk of decline and to reconstruct the grave of Victorian confidence as the cradle of modernist innovation. If you take the first path, you will speak of the period in terms of decadence and the fin de siècle, and tend to conjure up a Phobic Nineties, a decade if not yellow then at least running scared from the otherness of women, “inverts”, slum-dwellers and foreigners. If you take the second, you will prefer to speak of Symbolism instead of decadence, and to present Shaw, Wilde, Symons and their associates less as late Victorians than as pioneers of twentieth-century artistic liberty, engaged in a dress rehearsal for the modern movements. Each of these lines of approach brings with it its own selective omissions and its risks of condescension or of anachronism, along with certain rewards.
The phobic model of the fin de siècle is adopted, although by no means unthinkingly, in Stott's study of femmes fatales, and in several contributions to John Stokes's collection, Fin de Siècle/Fin du Globe, a gathering of conference papers given at Warwick in 1990. The subtitle of Stokes's volume—Fears and Fantasies of the Late Nineteenth Century—is itself indicative of the currently favoured resort to dread as the key to the period's culture. The collection is substantially better than one usually expects from the proceedings of academic conferences, carrying contributions from several of the period's foremost interpreters. Some of the essays are detailed analyses of particular works (John Lucas on the urban poor in poems by Hopkins and Symons, Chris Snodgrass on the sexual mischief of Beardsley's illustrations), others range more widely across the intellectual currents of the time (William Greenslade on social Darwinism and degeneration theories, J. E. Chamberlin on aesthetics and science), but in either case fears come to the fore: Elaine Showalter writes on gynophobia in Wells, while Patrick Parrinder sifts through accounts of African devil-worship and cannibalism. The most adventurous essay here is Chamberlin's “Whose Spirit Is This?”, which swerves back from Ramon Fernandez (the “pale Ramon” curiously immortalized by Wallace Stevens) through Crocean aesthetics and Machian physics to the problems of fin de siècle mathematics; even here, though, the invocation of anxiety runs the risk of becoming self-parodic:
The number “e”, which is the base of the natural system of logarithms (or, expressed differently, the limit of (1 + 1/n) to the nth power as n increases without limit) was confirmed as an irrational in 1873; and pi in 1882. Both were also proved to be transcendentals. This was disturbing stuff.
Other commentators, like Showalter in her recent book, Sexual Anarchy (1990), have held to the safer claim that the most disturbing stuff of late Victorian culture (at least for innumerates) was clustered around notions of sexuality and gender. This line of investigation has already yielded a number of valuable works, among them Bram Dijkstra's startling Idols of Perversity (1986), a lavishly illustrated compendium of femmes fatales and other productions of decadent misogyny in the visual arts. Stott's Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale does not attempt to match the range of Dijkstra's or Showalter's work, but settles instead to the detailed investigation of a small group of prose fictions: Stoker's Dracula, Haggard's She, Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and the early novels of Conrad. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Edward Said and contemporary feminist critics for their theories of the cultural “Other”, she shows how the figure of the fatal woman in these works is compounded from overlapping fearsome associations of foreignness, darkness, degeneracy and atavism; and she establishes some valuable connections between her adopted texts, tracing, for instance, the recurring pattern in which teams of male vigilantes surround and contain the threatening female monster in both She and Dracula, forcing her back into the shadow-world of which she is the imagined agent. Moving on to Conrad and Hardy, Stott sets herself a harder test, made more intriguing by her choice of Tess Durbeyfield rather than the more obvious Sue Bridehead as the femme fatale figure; this Stott passes convincingly, scanning the novels not just for evidences of the misogynist “framing” of women characters, but for the complications and ironies of these subtler narratives, in which the framing process itself is called into question. This is an impressively intelligent work of investigation, which makes good use of late Victorian imperial history and criminology. …
Introducing her anthology, Daughters of Decadence, Elaine Showalter also invokes the Nineties as the gateway to modernism, presenting the authors of her chosen short stories as “the missing links between the great women writers of the Victorian novel and the modern fiction of Mansfield, Woolf, and Stein”. There are, of course, other links between these generations, which, for better or for worse, involve the influence of male writers like James and Chekhov; but the stories Showalter selects can in any case justify their reappearance without resort to genealogies. The anthology provides, at the very least, a welcome corrective to the varieties of male narcissism that dominate our picture of the age. Despite its title, it is actually a gathering of feminist or otherwise “advanced” fiction, whether “decadent” or not. (As Ruth Robbins observes in her essay on Vernon Lee in Stokes's collection, there are problems in attaching the label “decadent” to women writers, since the pejorative use of the term was designed for men who lapsed from a masculine standard deemed unattainable to their sisters.) Two of the best stories collected here—“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Muse's Tragedy” by Edith Wharton—are easily available elsewhere, but there are forgotten treasures exhumed, too, notably Charlotte Mew's controlled and sinister tale, “A White Night”, and Vernon Lee's mischievous novella, “Lady Tal”, which infuriated Henry James by using him as a character. Alongside these, are less sophisticated parables and sketches by Ada Leverson, “George Fleming”, Mabel E. Wotton, Olive Schreiner and others, most of which add something to our sense of the New Woman and her times.
SOURCE: Hedges, Elaine. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 19, no. 2 (winter 1994): 507-11.
[In the following excerpt, Hedges criticizes Sister's Choice, drawing attention to Showalter's historically inaccurate understanding of quiltmaking.]
Of the three authors whose books are reviewed here, Cheryl Walker and Elaine Showalter bring to their material familiar feminist critical approaches. Lev Raphael, in contrast, offers a new critical methodology—one, he argues, that will provide “revolutionary insights into human motivation” (322), but that feminists concerned with issues of gender may find questionable. Although Showalter's book also raises serious questions—of fact and historical accuracy—the problems with Raphael's are more apparent. …
In Sister's Choice, Showalter also sees Walker's poets as “casualties” of their time (108). The tenor of her book, however, is better represented by her interpretation of Wharton, whom she views, unlike Raphael, as overcoming her emotional conflicts to become a precursor of a literature of “female mastery and growth” (103). Sister's Choice reads American women's literary history expansively: once comprising a separate tradition, its texts, genres, and metaphors now have entered the literary and cultural mainstream.
A loosely connected set of essays, Sister's Choice includes chapters on three novels (Alcott's Little Women, Chopin's The Awakening, and Wharton's The House of Mirth) and on the use of Shakespeare's Miranda figure by writers from Margaret Fuller to Gloria Naylor, on the genre of the female gothic, and on women writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the essays cover familiar material, but they deftly synthesize current scholarship while often adding fresh insights, as in the discussion of music in The Awakening. The essays on the female gothic and the Miranda figure provide informative overviews while also advancing Showalter's argument that women's writings today no longer comprise a separate tradition but are part of broad national, and even international, contexts.
Tying these assorted items together is the metaphor of the quilt, addressed in the book's title (taken from a quilt pattern in Alice Walker's The Color Purple) and in a final essay, “Common Threads.” The quilt is Showalter's controlling metaphor for her interpretation of American women's literary history, first advanced in her 1986 essay “Piecing and Writing,” to explain the themes, structures, and genres of nineteenth-century women's fiction.1 In “Common Threads,” Showalter discusses the AIDS quilt and recent uses of the quilt as a metaphor to explore the current broad cultural appropriation of women's quilt tradition, arguing that the quilt has become the “central metaphor of American cultural identity” (169). She also again presents her earlier argument for the quilt as a paradigm for nineteenth-century women's writing.
That paradigm, however, needs to be seriously questioned. Given research (including my own) into the relationship of quilts to women's writing that has appeared since 1986, Showalter has modified part of her earlier argument.2 Nevertheless, what remains is still crucially—even irretrievably—flawed. Briefly put, Showalter posits a trajectory for nineteenth-century women's writing that (to select only a few of its key points) moves from Harriet Beecher Stowe's use of “the most popular” midcentury quilt pattern, the log cabin (153), as structuring principle for Uncle Tom's Cabin, to an Ann Stephens story about a quilting party that is used to demonstrate “women's culture at its ripest and most romantic,” to an 1887 story by Marietta Holley that, Showalter argues, registers the decline of that culture through a quilting bee where slander has replaced sisterhood. Unfortunately, each proposition in this argument is invalidated by the historical and factual inaccuracies on which it is based. The earliest evidence we have of log cabin quilts dates from ten years after Stowe's novel was published; Stephens's full story (Showalter has carelessly relied on an excerpt with a different title and date) is actually a debunking of “women's culture”; and satires of quilting bees such as Holley's (whose story was first published in 1868) are part of a literary tradition dating back at least to the 1840s—and to which Stephens's story also belongs.
These are not Showalter's only errors. Her account of the history of quiltmaking contains other mistakes that further invalidate the narrative she constructs. Meanwhile, those cited should serve as caveats. The unprecedented valorization of quilts, by feminists and others, since their rediscovery in the 1960s has too often relied on long-prevalent myths and misinformation that current quilt scholarship is correcting. Any use of the quilt as explanatory model for women's literary history—if indeed it can be so used—must take this scholarship more carefully into account, just as it must more scrupulously research the quilt-related texts that women actually wrote.
Elaine Showalter, “Piecing and Writing,” in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Elaine Hedges, “The Needle or the Pen: The Literary Rediscovery of Women's Needlework,” in Tradition and the Talents of Women, ed. Florence Howe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
SOURCE: Gitlin, Todd. “Millennial Mumbo Jumbo.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 April 1997): 8.
[In the following excerpt, Gitlin commends Showalter's cultural analysis of texts and fads in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but finds shortcomings in her selective approach and tendency toward “ultra-Freudian logic.”]
Headlong passion was always said to be female, while men, even as they lost their heads, were supposed to be cool. Throughout history, men have been the accusers, diagnosticians and judges, women the witches, patients and victims. Today, allegations of satanic abuse, extraterrestrial abduction, multiple personality and chronic fatigue tend to come from women too. What is new is that, curiously, many of these charges come from feminists apparently more committed to unearthing evidence of their own frailty than to claiming their human powers.
Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation professor of the humanities and a professor of English at Princeton University, a historian of medicine and one of America's distinguished feminist literary critics, will have none of what she calls today's “psychological plagues.” “As we approach our own millennium,” she writes [in Hystories], “the epidemic of hysterical disorders, imaginary illnesses, and hypnotically induced pseudo-memories that have flooded the media seem to be reaching a high-water mark.”
Such delusions merge with the conspiracy theories, religious revivals and mass paranoia traditional in America, especially at century's close, when Heaven's Gate swings open for many of the credulous. As the mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe shows, such fads are not harmless: “The hysterical epidemics of the 1990s,” Showalter writes, “… do damage: in distracting us from the real problems and crises of modern society, in undermining a respect for evidence and truth, and in helping support an atmosphere of conspiracy and suspicion. They prevent us from claiming our full humanity as free and responsible beings.”
For criticizing the literature of recovered memory to an audience of other feminists, Showalter writes that she has been accused of washing “our dirty linen, so to speak, in front of men.” Just so, the feminist psychologist Carol Tavris, who has written comparable criticism, was accused in three full pages in the New York Times of joining “the side of the molesters, rapists, pedophiles and other misogynists.” Such love-it-or-leave-it Manichaeism of cultivators of victimhood is a sign of shoddy thinking and panic, not of clearheadedness and confidence. Showalter writes boldly and valuably when she points out that to believe in women's equality, you are required to believe that huge proportions of women have been routinely and systematically subjected to sexual abuse.
Showalter displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of her profession. She is adept at scrutinizing texts, “cultural narratives of hysteria,” which, with academia's penchant for labored puns and neologisms, she calls “hystories.” Drawing on philosopher Ian Hacking's critique of multiple personality and on various journalists' critiques of Gulf War syndrome, chronic fatigue and other “hystories,” she amasses many good reasons to cast a skeptical eye on them.
She is less thorough, though, in accounting for them or tracing their origins. She does not systematically compare American paranoias with French, Italian or Latin American. She writes interestingly on the case histories of Charcot, Freud and Lacan and the dramas of Ibsen and others, but these anatomies are only loosely connected to an analysis of social trends.
As for the dating of these uproars, is it as clear as she suggests that the final decades in various centuries (the 1690s and Salem witches, the 1890s and the original hysteria diagnosis and the 1990s and Satanism, recovered memory, chronic fatigue, multiple personality and Gulf War syndrome) are peculiarly prone to binges of wild paranoia? This conclusion is warranted only if we compare those decades with others. But then what of the 1750s' anti-Indian panic, the 1850s' anti-immigrant nativism and the 1950s' McCarthyism and alarms over fluoridation and horror comics? If hysteria is “a cultural symptom of anxiety and stress,” when would it ever be out of fashion?
Showalter is also prone at times to a sort of ultra-Freudian logic, in which the eruption of a symptom is taken to be evidence that its preconditions were present or is explained by the previous nonexistence of its symptoms. The British are unflappable, but “the furor over mad cow disease in 1996 owed some of its intensity to British fear and denial of anything mad.” Heads you're nuts; tails you're really nuts.
Showalter is on stronger ground when she draws on a considerable body of refutations in dissecting today's fads. She points out that between 1922 and 1972, according to the standard psychological literature, only 50 cases of multiple personality disorder were diagnosed in America; between 1973 and 1990, about 20,000 were diagnosed. What might be going on? Waves of hysteria—or the circulation of unwarranted “hystories,” to use Showalter's ungainly neologism—reflect the return of the repressed. But why in the United States? Today's cults involve “the projection of sexual fantasy and real or imagined guilt.” Puritan heritage lives! Abstractly, she hopes feminism can “resist regression into victimization, infantilization or revenge.” Most of all, and rightly, she regards with favor the much-scorned Enlightenment, knowing that to cede reason to those who reason badly is always mistaken.
SOURCE: Crews, Frederick. “Keeping Us In Hysterics.” New Republic 216, no. 19 (12 May 1997): 35-8, 40-3.
[In the following review, Crews argues that Showalter “builds no conceptual bridge” between her topics in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, noting that Showalter's arguments are weak and poorly supported.]
For over a decade now, the object of keenest interest within American interdisciplinary scholarship has been a disease, and a possibly nonexistent one. As Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, puts it near the outset of her own latest contribution to the field [Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture]:
While physicians and psychiatrists have long been writing obituaries for hysteria, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have given it new life. Social historians, philosophers, anthropologists, literary critics, and art historians have taken up the subject of hysteria because it cuts across historical periods and national boundaries, poses fundamental questions about gender and culture, and offers insights into language, narrative, and representation.
This statement is certainly right about the disillusionment of the medical authorities. By now it is reasonably clear that hysteria, which was once thought to cause nervous women and some men to experience paralyses, seizures, tics, linguistic impediments and hallucinations, is not a stable disorder with characteristics that occur independently of social expectations. As a relatively fixed cluster of symptoms, it evaporated after the Victorian heyday of its chief theoreticians, Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, Josef Breuer and the early Sigmund Freud—a likely sign that the syndrome was not only psychogenic but artifactual, coaxed into approved forms largely by the therapeutic interventions that were meant to cure it. Hysteria was probably an umbrella term that described a diverse phenomenon; it included symptoms of organic disorders, some outright malingering, and psychogenic suffering of a kind that suited the temper of the age.
Strictly speaking, of course, an ailment cannot “pose questions about gender and culture” and “offer insights into language, narrative, and representation.” That is the work of the academics, who would have graced us with their thoughts on those matters with or without hysteria as a pretext. But their enthusiasm for this particular syndrome is understandable. In the nineteenth century, hysteria served as a magnet for masculinist and racialist notions that are now often assumed to have occupied the inmost layer of the smug Victorian mind. Indeed, one common way of regarding the disease, amply developed in Showalter's influential study The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, which appeared in 1985, is to say that its diagnosis and its treatment were a medicalization of misogyny itself.
As we recently learned from Approaching Hysteria, Marc Micale's comprehensive survey of hysteria studies, that idea of Showalter's has been variously assessed as fertile and regrettably one-dimensional. But Showalter herself is sure that she occupies the cutting edge of research in this field. She, Micale and a few others, she declares in Hystories, constitute “the New Hysterians,” who understand that hysteria has always been “a body language for people who otherwise might not be able to speak or even to admit what they feel.” And her group is in touch with findings in all of the disciplines that matter. The New Hysterians have established themselves, she proudly reports, “at the busy crossroad [sic] where psychoanalytic theory, narratology, feminist criticism, and the history of medicine intersect. …”
In the academy as it is currently constituted, that methodological lineup appears thoroughly unproblematic. Showalter sees nothing here requiring further explanation. Yet it may not be immediately obvious to an outsider why two fields of study, medical history and the structure of narrative, are being matched with two vortexes of controversy, psychoanalysis and feminism. Is this intellectual-ideological hybrid really the best available equipment for making sense of hysteria? And don't rival allegiances within the contentious Freudian and feminist traditions dictate very different apprehensions of the social past?
This latter point is especially pertinent to “hysterical” women, whom Freud either cured or persecuted, depending on one's perspective. If, like Showalter, one is inclined to settle for “equity feminism” as opposed to the “gender feminism” that feeds on rage against men, one will be sympathetic to misdiagnosed “hysterics” but wary of glamorizing their helplessness and histrionics. And that tendency will be reinforced if, again like Showalter, one feels more comfortable with classical Freudian notions than with the radical view (common among gender feminists) that psychoanalysis needs to be purged of its oppressive patriarchal features. Showalter's theoretical affinities, never cogently defended, thus press her continually toward a middle-of-the-road outlook that could pass for sheer reasonableness. But it is, I am afraid, more a matter of dodging trouble and taking refuge in received ideas.
Until now, the clearest instance of this weakness has been Showalter's inability to be consistent about whether she regards hysteria as an authentic malady. She has supported both sides without appearing to notice that she is contradicting herself. Her usual view is that hysteria was less an affliction than a somatic idiom for otherwise silenced people—an attractive hypothesis that is somewhat incommoded by the managerial style of such wealthy and manipulative hysterics as Breuer's “Anna O.” (Bertha Pappenheim) and Freud's “Frau Cäcilie M.” (Anna von Lieben). Yet in The Female Malady Showalter also upheld Charcot's opposite judgment—it was briefly influential but fiercely contested—that hysteria was a true disease whose manifestations were visited upon, not suggested to or invented by, the sufferer. “Through careful observation, physical examination, and the use of hypnosis,” she wrote, “Charcot was able to prove that hysterical symptoms, while produced by emotions rather than by physical injury, were genuine, and not under the conscious control of the patient.”
That last claim was already out of step with informed opinion when it appeared in 1985. To be sure, Charcot did regard hypnosis as crucial to an understanding of hysteria, whose symptoms, he believed, were produced when a trauma sent the organism into a quasi-hypnotic state. By “rehypnotizing” his resident hysterics and putting them through their symptomatic paces, supposedly without their conscious awareness of obeying an instruction, Charcot imagined that he was demonstrating the integrity of hysteria and its isolation from conscious will. But in truth he had proved little more than his own gullibility. His critics and later students were able to show that coaching and suggestibility, not to mention dissimulation, amply account for all of Charcot's hypnotic results.
Why does this matter? The point is, in fact, momentous. For the young Freud sat reverently at Charcot's feet in 1885-86, enthralled by what he would eventually regard as hypnotic evidence of “split consciousness.” It was on that basis that he would begin his fateful quest for unconscious mental causes of neuroses. In 1888, in the preface to his translation of Hippolyte Bernheim's book Suggestion, he explicitly rejected the idea that Charcot could have obtained his findings through suggestion, since otherwise “[w]e should not learn from the study of major hypnotism what alterations in excitability succeed one another in the nervous system of hysterical patients … ; we should merely learn what intentions Charcot suggested (in a manner of which he himself was unconscious) to the subjects of his experiments—a thing entirely irrelevant to our understanding alike of hypnosis and of hysteria.” Here is Freud as Quixote, taking the measure of his first windmill.
The more clearly we realize that Showalter in 1985 was quite justified in regarding hysteria as jointly “constructed” by doctors and patients, the more ludicrous it seems that Freud could have dismissed the threat of suggestion not just in Charcot's case but throughout his own career. The joke, however, was lost on Showalter, who has always displayed a novitiate's piety toward the founding legend of psychoanalysis. Like Breuer, whose Anna O. case she badly misrepresented in The Female Malady, Charcot is an indispensable “precursor” in that legend, and Showalter was therefore unable to adopt a sufficiently critical view of his mistakes.
In Hystories, Showalter finally takes a harder line toward Charcot and hysteria. But now she is able to keep the hysterical ball in play by deliberately blurring the line between hysteria as a mental illness of individuals and the popular notion of “mass hysteria,” or waves of fear, morbidity, and physical unease that ripple through collectivities in the grip of shared delusions. Her central claim is that hysteria recurs in more or less regular cycles—and that we today, like the Victorians, are living through a peak phase of the phenomenon. The chief hysterias of our time, for Showalter, are chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse, multiple personality disorder, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction, all of them resulting from a contagion of erroneous ideas.
Showalter does a creditable journalistic job of marshaling informed opinion about each of her six American “hysterias.” Even so, misgivings arise from the outset. For one thing, she builds no conceptual bridge from individual pathology to the social dynamics of rumor-formation. Is it hysterical to pick up a faddish idea about UFOs, or about one's feeling of listlessness? Do we gain anything by labeling as hysterical the serene self-cancelers of Heaven's Gate? The desired linkage of such instances with hysteria à la Charcot, Janet, Breuer and Freud is little more than semantic. And even within her modern instances, Showalter has yoked together vastly disparate phenomena. She sees no significant difference, for her analysis, between mistaken, correctable beliefs on the part of normal people and paranoid phantasms and lasting physical debility. She is even willing to count as hysterical the panic of Japanese subway riders in the wake of a poison gas attack, as if there were no distinction to be drawn between well-founded fear and pure delusion.
There is something peremptory about Showalter's list of recent hysterias. She has married two items on which the medical jury is still out—chronic fatigue syndrome and Gulf War syndrome—to four others whose iatrogenic (doctor-induced) and hallucinatory basis is by now evident to most observers. Malingerers and copycats are always with us, but it seems especially early, while investigations into possible toxic exposure are still underway, for Showalter to be asserting so categorically that Gulf War syndrome “does not exist.”
By casting the hysterical net as widely as possible, Showalter is apparently seeking to gain certain tactical advantages. She wants us to believe, for example, that our hysteria-plagued society urgently needs the ministrations of literary critics, without whom the “story” of hysteria would be indecipherable or vulnerable to ingenuous literal interpretation. We must turn to fiction, she maintains, if we are to fortify ourselves against present and future hysterical outbreaks, for novels “can tell us a lot more about the causes and cures of hysteria than most of the self-help books on the market.” And it is critics, naturally, with their keen attunement to genre conventions, who can save us from the fallacy of thinking that similarities among “hystories” (reports of abduction, etc.) are a warrant of their truth.
Showalter is right to emphasize that popular narratives in our time have transmitted destructive misapprehensions about the mind. Think of Sybil,Michelle Remembers and The Three Faces of Eve, which have variously primed Americans to believe in satanism, multiple personality, and repressed memories of sexual abuse. Understanding the conventions and the structure of those books, however, is of negligible utility. What we chiefly need to know about them is that their stories are false. These texts call not for formal analysis, but for research into their suspect origins. A literary critic could conduct such research as well as the next person, but Showalter has not even perceived its value, so bent is she upon commentary of a more usual but irrelevant kind.
On its face, Hystories seems to be saying that we Americans are living through one of the most perilous junctures of our history. Showalter points out that we are approaching the year 2000, a perfect witching hour for mass hysteria. Millennial panic is drawing us inexorably toward an Armageddon in which “traumatists and ufologists, experiencers and abductees, survivors and survivalists” will all join forces against public sanity. This “coming hysterical plague” may yet be averted, but only if we mobilize all our resources of prevention. As a sample of such preparedness, Showalter walks us through the hysterical and paranoid themes of Batman Forever, one of many cultural products that are allegedly laying the groundwork for a new Salem on a nationwide scale.
The reader who finds all this hard to swallow needn't feel apologetic. Showalter doesn't really believe it herself. On the penultimate page of her book, she admits that
[t]he hysterical witch-hunts of our own time may be waning. … People accused of abuse on the basis of recovered memory are being acquitted. Convictions have been overturned. Retractors are taking back their accusations of satanic ritual or childhood abuse. Journalists in Britain and the United States have taken up the cause of those falsely accused. Books and TV documentaries have helped turn the tide of credibility. …
Thus Showalter's own attempt to whip up a little hysteria, if only to lend urgency to her discourse, eventually comes to naught.
Watching Showalter's argument self-destruct, one has to wonder whether she doesn't have some other end in view. There are grounds for inferring that Hystories was conceived in mindfulness not of millennial frenzy but of something quite opposite: the turning of the tide against recovered memory, acknowledged here as a seeming afterthought. Showalter has perceived that the therapeutic craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s, whereby patients have been encouraged to concoct images of early sexual violation and then to suppose that those images must be memories, is rapidly becoming a liability, both intellectually and ethically. Sensing the movement's imminent collapse, Showalter wants to assure us that she never meant to endorse it.
I single out recovered memory as the core “hysteria” in Showalter's list for two reasons. The first is that recovered memory is the common denominator of all four of her syndromes that involve delusions and not just physical symptoms. Belatedly “recalled” childhood sexual abuse, multiple personality, satanic ritual abuse and interplanetary abduction all tend to blossom on the same branch, namely, suggestive prompting by therapists who use hypnosis and/or related techniques to bring the client's perceived history into alignment with a favorite diagnosis. Indeed, the “memory” of satanic rites and the emergence of “dissociated alters” are simply later stages of the search for more and more grisly instances of sexual abuse. And it is only in therapy, typically, that the lost souls who suspect that they may have been wafted into hovering spaceships succeed in “remembering” for certain that it was so.
Second, Showalter tells us, in a commendable act of self-criticism, that she must now reconsider her declaration at the end of The Female Malady that “the best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement,” including “women's self-help groups.” She now recognizes that just such groups, at the very time that she was exalting them, were crucially responsible for launching the recovered memory movement; and she sees that even today they remain a breeding ground of false sexual accusations. Hystories is Showalter's vehicle not only for correcting her mistake, but also for challenging the whole conception of “women's ways of knowing”—a conception that, for many radical feminists and distraught women under their influence, has turned the suspicion of early sexual violation into a foregone conclusion.
This is a worthwhile purpose on Showalter's part, but it immediately comes up against a delicate point of diplomacy. Just how much recantation can she afford without jeopardizing her stature within the fiercely politicized field of women's studies? Feminists, she asserts, owe a primary obligation to the truth. Yet she also knows that the very concept of truth has taken a pummeling from some of her sisters as an oppressive phallocentric ideal. Showalter is not about to walk the plank on behalf of truth-for-its-own-sake. Instead, she adopts a politic stance of more feminist than thou. Feminism itself, she points out, possesses its own “strong enlightenment, rationalist tradition,” and so she will “ask feminist questions” about the conspiratorial illusions of our time. And with less fanfare, she will backpedal and equivocate whenever her challenge to radical feminism threatens to become a permanent estrangement.
Note, for example, how Showalter professes to be scandalized that Lynne Cheney
draws a sinister analogy between women's studies discussions and therapeutic coercion: “Indeed, there are many parallels between the recovered memory movement and feminism as it has come to be practiced on campuses. The encouragement—even the requirement—in feminist classrooms to confess personal views and traumas establishes an environment very much like the one that exists in victim recovery groups.” Feminist activists are understandably angry about these attacks. …
Now, Showalter knows perfectly well that the “recovery group” approach to pedagogy is practiced and openly advocated by some feminist academics, and she also knows that many women students, with little or no assistance from therapists, have disastrously acquired “memories” of sexual abuse when their seminar leaders and classmates effectively demanded that they do so. For Showalter to make that charge, however, would be a virtual declaration of academic civil war. Instead, she rounds up the usual suspect, the impenitently conservative Cheney, and offers her as a hostage to the militants.
Showalter's distaste for factional strife may also account for the emphasis that she now places on male hysteria. As she uneasily remarks, hysteria is “a term that particularly enrages some feminists because for centuries it has been used to ridicule and trivialize women's medical and political complaints.” But if the recovered memory movement is hysterical, and Showalter insists that it is, then she herself is bestowing the h-word on the feminist mainstays of that movement. Only by stipulating that men, too, fall victim to hysteria—including “our war veterans” who “had to deal with frightening gossip” in the Persian Gulf—can Showalter acquire some insurance against the accusation of having betrayed her sex.
Once that insurance has been purchased, Showalter feels confident enough to dissent not only from recovered memory theory but also from a peculiarly defeatist, victim-minded style of feminist thought that fed into it. This is the 1970s modified-Lacanian doctrine of Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Catherine Clément and Luce Irigaray, according to which the whole realm of rational knowledge was ceded to men while “absence” and “lack” were celebrated as innately feminine. Those voluble champions of muteness elevated the hysterical woman of the nineteenth century to heroic status. They proclaimed that “the discourse of the hysteric” was the true speech of womankind, to be cherished in defiance of such patriarchal straitjackets as grammar and syntax. Not so, objects Showalter, joining what has by now become a chorus of protest against “essentialist” stereotyping of the incoherent female mind.
Again, however, the thinness of Showalter's critique becomes painfully apparent. In her view, it was only a lapse of prudence for Parisian feminists to chant, in 1972, “Nous sommes toutes des hystériques!” In doing so, “they came dangerously close to acting like hysterical divas,” and those among them who were psychoanalysts accordingly found themselves penalized by their Freudian or Lacanian establishments. For Showalter, playing Dear Abby for the moment, the lesson is clear: “Claiming hysteria is not the wisest strategy for professional success.” But what about the Freudian/Lacanian premises of French feminism? Shouldn't they be reviewed and judged?
If Showalter were to undertake such an inquiry, however, it could lead to awkward questions about her own unexamined psychoanalytic assumptions. Discretion is therefore preferable. Thus, when she relates that Cixous and company located the origin of hysterical female discourse in “the pre-Oedipal phase of feminine development, when the baby daughter takes the mother as her primary object of desire,” Showalter observes only that the idea possessed “tremendous intellectual and emotional appeal.” Evidently, her professed allegiance to Enlightenment standards does not extend to a concern for the empirical basis of theories about the mind.
Here we return to a source of confusion in Showalter's work that is even more consequential than her bending to every feminist breeze. I mean her unreflective loyalty to the broad outlines of the psychoanalytic revelation. That loyalty appears to be tested at various moments in her book, partly in response to cited objections that I myself have posed. But the Freudian unconscious remains Showalter's master key not just to psychological sophistication, but to the alleviation of mental woe everywhere. As she puts it, “Freud's message never got through to millions of people, who still distrust and fear the unconscious and its power over us. As a result, they suffer needlessly.”
I would like to say that Showalter and I disagree about psychoanalysis and leave it at that, but something more symptomatic of “humanistic” complacency is on display here: a bland refusal to think consecutively. Remarkably, Showalter concedes the truth of nearly every negative observation about Freud and psychoanalysis that comes to her notice. Yet those concessions leave her argument completely unaffected, as if she were just going through the motions of acknowledging a distant, boring debate. Her faith in Freud has about it a dreaminess that cannot be penetrated by mundane considerations of evidence and logic.
Showalter grants that Freud was a self-publicizing “showman” who was less interested in curing his patients than in turning them into exhibits of his pet notions. More significantly, he was a “stubborn, bullying interrogator” who “pressured his patients to produce narratives congruent with his theories.” And she further admits that, when Freud adopted his Oedipal explanation of the psychoneuroses, his system of thought became (in Richard Webster's quoted words) “almost completely freed from the constraints of empirical reality.” Does it not follow that we should hesitate to adopt that system as our own lens upon reality? But the issue is never raised.
In this respect Showalter proves to be typical of her fellow New Hysterians, who are uniformly partial to psychoanalysis though often stern toward its creator. Take Sander L. Gilman, an eminent cultural historian and a recent president of the Modern Language Association, whose blurb for Hystories calls it “the standard for all future studies of mental illness and culture.” In learned and provocative books such as Freud, Race, and Gender and The Case of Sigmund Freud, Gilman goes further than any accused Freud-basher toward reducing psychoanalysis to a manifestation of one madcap improviser's eccentricity. In Gilman's account, Freud's universal castration complex was his attempt to pin on the human race what Germanic anti-Semites were saying about the circumcised Jews; and again, his psychology of women is presented as yet another deflection of racist slanders. These charges saddle Freud with a craven furtiveness that sits ill with the Promethean legend he took such pains to promote. Yet Gilman's startling indictment never causes him to reconsider his own Freudianism. Some commitments, I suppose, are just too deep for thought.
Showalter herself is far more protective of Freud the man. Indeed, when she has to decide which movements to approve and which to shun, she applies a simple litmus test: Do these people show sufficient respect for the discoverer of the unconscious? Thus the French feminists, despite their “appealing” manipulation of Freudian developmental notions, placed themselves beyond the reach of her forgiveness when they depicted Freud as the male oppressor par excellence and characterized his female patients as martyrs to a sexist institutional practice.
Preeminent among those rehabilitated “stars” and “supermodels,” as Showalter scornfully calls them, stands the teenage “Dora” (Ida Bauer), whose brief treatment at Freud's hands ended rancorously when she refused to accede to his view of her as an Oedipally fixated bisexual whose symptoms had been prompted not by her gruesome family predicament, but by early masturbation and a desire to suck her father's penis. Showalter is uncomfortable with that diagnosis, but her outrage is reserved for those feminists who have called Freud, not Dora, the real hysteric in the case. “They made Freud the fall guy, pinning the blame for Dora's symptoms onto him. …” And again: “Dramatizing the psychoanalyst's hysteria, reducing his theories to performance or farce, is another way of fending off the specter of the unconscious.” It is time, decrees Showalter, to forsake the perverse outlook that prizes “women's stories” over “doctors' studies,” the latter presumably being trustworthy because doctors know best, especially if their name is Freud.
Yet the doctor in Dora's case was not just wrong, he was also relentlessly cruel, and his cruelty was fed by the theory of mental conflict that Showalter sentimentally misconstrues. Freud's harrying of Dora rested on his Charcot-inspired conviction that hysteria was as regular in its laws of operation as epilepsy or syphilis, and on his utterly mechanical view of its causation. That is why he could write to Wilhelm Fliess, soon after beginning his attempt to break Dora's will, that the case had “smoothly opened to the existing collection of picklocks.” Freud was sure that he could force to the surface an admission of a specific early practice, event, or fantasy (masturbation, the primal scene, an incest-wish) to match each symptom. The contrast with Showalter's empathetic, socially aware, symptom-as-protest conception of hysteria could hardly be greater—but she draws no conclusion from that fact.
On the crucial topic of recovered memory, finally, Showalter's psychoanalytic partisanship once again requires her to don blinders and give out useless advice. She is eager to believe that the alleged link between Freudianism and recovered memory is merely a defamation by “one-sided” and “vitriolic” extremists such as myself. As she mentions in passing, however, therapeutic epidemics can only get going if they possess a theoretical superstructure. And though Showalter won't come near to admitting it, nothing could be more obvious than that the theory behind recovered memory was drawn almost entirely from the Freudian picture of the mind.
It was Freud who gave us the idea of repression, and of the vivid, accurate retrieval of derepressed material after a lapse of decades. It was Freud who arbitrarily singled out sexual trauma as uniquely pathogenic and refused to allow for normal infantile amnesia, instead invoking the repression of sexual vicissitudes. And it was Freud who taught us that symptoms are really disguised memories, that the interpretation of dreams can lead to accurate knowledge of the distant past, that permanent psychological relief can come only from revisiting that past, and that a patient's agitated behavior during therapy can be safely ascribed to torment by the repressed. Where would recovered memory therapy be without all those unsubstantiated tenets?
For Showalter, predictably, the key to halting outbreaks such as the recovered memory madness is to “defend Freud's insights and try to restore confidence in serious psychotherapy,” mainly psychoanalysis. But psychoanalysis evolved from a recovered memory inquisition—Freud's “seduction theory” of the mid-1890s—and it contains a built-in potential to revert to that state. When disheartened analysts, sensing public resistance, tire of ascribing murderous and incestuous designs to small children and of telling real victims of early molestation that they are suffering only from illusory “screen memories,” the hunt for Oedipal fantasies can get swiftly replaced by a hunt for repressed sexual abuse and its “perpetrators.”
Just such a turn was taken around 1930, when Freud's anguished disciple Sándor Ferenczi, chafing against the master's icy and controlling ways, decided that his women patients deserved sympathy as probable survivors of early molestation. And, since about 1990, it has been happening again. As C. Brooks Brenneis documents in a new book, Recovered Memories of Trauma: Transferring the Present to the Past (International Universities Press), considerable numbers of certified analysts, many of them radical feminists, have themselves been adapting psychoanalytic technique to recovered memory practice.
When Showalter at last awakens to this appalling phenomenon, she will doubtless say that the analysts in question have not chosen the best style of feminism or Freudianism and are behaving badly—in fact, just like a pack of hysterics. A more effective response might be to call into question the whole unproven idea that colloquy between a therapist and a patient can reliably unlock repressed secrets from the patient's early childhood. And to that end, a truly skeptical history of “dynamic” psychotherapy and its favorite diseases might be an important source of illumination. Unfortunately, it isn't likely to be forthcoming from any of Showalter's New Hysterians.
SOURCE: Micale, Mark S. “Strange Signs of the Times.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4911 (16 May 1997): 6-7.
[In the following review, Micale praises Showalter's examination of feminine hysteria in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.]
The ritualized self-immolation of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect near San Diego, California, late last March could almost be seen as a promotional event for Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Elaine Showalter's provocative and immensely readable new book. Showalter examines a series of large-scale functional psychopathologies, originating in the United States but now metastasizing, that she reads as the pandemic hysterias, or “psychological plagues”, of the late twentieth century. That emotional distress can emerge through bodily symptoms, and that styles of psychosomatic suffering vary among cultures and periods, is an accepted insight of modern medicine. On the eve of the millennium, Showalter's book suggests, the dominant psychogenic sicknesses have taken especially florid and dramatic forms.
Hysteria has had many past meanings. In Hippocratic times, physicians believed that the uterus, or hystera, moved mischievously through the female body cavity, causing dizziness, loss of sensation and laboured breathing (including the sensation of a ball lodged in the throat, or globus hysterious) as well as extravagant emotional behaviours. During the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, hysteria was viewed as a sign of possession by the devil; witch-hysteries developed anaesthetic spots and patches, or stigmata diaboli, on their bodies. In Enlightenment Europe, “vaporous” Salon women swooned from noxious uterine emanations to the heart and head. And in fin-de-siècle Paris and Vienna, the disorder achieved its golden age; Jean-Martin Charcot, the “Napoleon of the Neuroses”, observed rampant motor paralyses and stylized, epileptiform attacks in his hospital patients. Freud confronted the complex and idiosyncratic neurotica of his affluent clientele, which he interpreted as the symbolically coded manifestations of repressed sexual desires, anxieties and fantasies. A generation later, the great neurosis metamorphosed again: confronted with the intolerable realities of trench warfare, masses of British, French, German and Italian infantry soldiers broke down with hysterical tremors, blindness and stuttering.
Strikingly, present-day Western medicine is rapidly abandoning the concept of hysteria. Over the past several decades, the major textbooks and diagnostic manuals of psychiatry have replaced hysteria with a more scientific-sounding vocabulary of “undifferentiated somatoform disorder”, “psychogenic pain disorder”, “histrionic personality type” and “factitious illness disorder”. In addition to this repackaging, some observers say that the liberalization of social and sexual norms has permitted greater self-expression for women and, therefore, led to the decline of a classically Victorian neurotic disorder. Others maintain that, as the psychodynamics of repression became widely understood, hysterical symptom-formation was unconsciously discarded in favour of more inward-looking neuroses, like depression and narcissism. Equally, hysteria's associations with Freud, who used it as the founding neurosis of psychoanalysis, have become a liability; in an age of ascendant bio-psychiatry, the categories of classic psycho-analysis are out of favour. Whatever the causes, hysteria as a single, unified diagnosis is becoming increasingly obsolete in medical theory and practice. Our own fin de siècle, it appears, has brought the fin d'hystérie.
Ironically, the very period that has witnessed the progressive clinical dismantling of hysteria within Anglo-American psychiatry has brought a burst of interest among scholars in social and cultural history, literary theory and criticism, the history of science, women's and gender studies, art history and film studies. Several factors explain the new academic interest in hysteria. At a time when the ideology of the avant-garde has penetrated the university, the study of hysteria, with its mixture of science, sexuality and sensationalism, is irresistible. Likewise, hysteria occupies a prominent position in the mythology of women. Studying its past, when it often provided theoretical ammunition for female sub-ordination, is part of the great metacritique of gender that will doubtless be judged one of the defining features of late twentieth-century society. In addition, the very disappearance of hysteria from the medical field seems to have freed the concept for appropriation by other disciplines.
There's a reason, too, I suspect, why literary critics in particular are drawn to the topic as the metaphor of choice for behaviour deemed extreme, emotional, or irrational. In modern medicine, hysteria is a “neuromimetic” affliction. It is the illness that has no essence, but rather emerges, chameleon-like, by aping the symptomatological form of other, organic, usually neurological, pathologies. This makes it perfect for literary academics in a relativist climate pre-occupied with crises of representation. Hysteria is the postmodernist malady par excellence, a signifier without a signified which represents the limits of representation within the medical sciences and which therefore has been quietly abandoned as an object of positivist investigation.
Whatever the causes, no author has contributed more importantly to the new literature in this area than Elaine Showalter. Arguably the leading Anglo-American feminist historian of psychiatry, Showalter has, in the past decade, given us a series of sensitive and probing studies of gender, medicine and culture (beginning with The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 in 1985). Showalter's gift is for lively, literate and interpretative synthesis of specialized academic scholarship, in language that bridges the popular and scholarly worlds.
So what are the major transmutations of hysteria today? According to Showalter, the rolling eyes, arched backs and writhing convulsions of earlier times have given way to a set of individual hysterias connected with modern social movements and amplified by technological communications to produce full-scale psychological epidemics. She calls the public, cultural narratives these movements produce “hystories”. The provocative part of her book gives examples of what she considers to be contemporary psychogenic diseases, placed in order of increasing irrationality: chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), recovered memory, multiple personality syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction. The mere sequential listing of these items in a single table of contents is likely to infuriate those who have experienced any of these—or believe they have.
CFS, dubbed “the yuppie flu” during the 1980s, is a mishmash of symptoms, including a mysterious and debilitating malaise, that affects primarily white middle-class men and women, and that many sufferers believe is caused by an unidentified environmental pathogene. The subject of intensive media coverage, GWS now allegedly affects thousands of veterans who have developed a rush of crippling symptoms, from insomnia and impotence to cancer and birth defects. In the recovered memory movement, survivors of rape, domestic battery and incest dredge up previously repressed recollections of past traumas under the hypnotic inducement of specially trained therapists. Linked to this is multiple personality syndrome, in which a portion of an individual's psyche splits off and develops a separate identity as a coping strategy in the face of severely painful experience—often childhood sexual abuse. Believers in satanic ritual abuse hold that secret groups of devil-worshippers seize people to perform ghoulish and sadistic rituals on them. And adherents to the idea of alien abduction believe that extra-terrestrial beings regularly visit the earth, where they have slowly infiltrated the human population and are conducting experiments, including invasive sexual procedures, on inhabitants.
Showalter demonstrates in alarming detail that tens, even hundreds, of thousands of people, many educated and informed, share such beliefs and participate in these well-organized movements. Her notes brim with references to book-length studies of each category, many published by well known presses. Sixty thousand veterans have reported post-Gulf War symptoms. The United States Government now makes disability payments to many claimants, and huge institutional resources are being deployed in its investigation. Similarly, by 1994 over 300 court cases involving recovered memory testimony had been heard in the USA; many proceedings led to prosecution and internment, some of which have since been overturned. In the past two decades, the FBI has investigated hundreds of instances of alleged satanic abuse. Not only the victims, but lawyers, academics, the media, pharmaceutical companies and mental-health professionals of all stripes are increasingly endorsing these beliefs. Furthermore, respectable journals, institutions and authorities—indeed, sometimes prestigious academics—support each of these movements. The most visible American proponent of extra-terrestrial visitation is John E. Mack, author of Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994). Mack, whose 1977 biography of Lawrence of Arabia received a Pulitzer Prize, teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital. (Efforts by the Harvard administration to muzzle Mack have thus far failed.)
Showalter, it should clearly be stated, responsibly qualifies her critique. She does not consider these behaviours fake or fraudulent. She accepts the reality of the symptoms and acknowledges that many cases involve intense suffering. She also grants that individual cases designated as chronic fatigue, GWS and multiple personality may well include an organic component of some sort. What is more, she repeatedly cites widespread sexualized violence against women. “The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children”, she adds, “is a terrible reality.” It is less the individual cases, then, that Showalter objects to than the retrospective constructions of these experiences—the illness ideologies, therapy cults and patient campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, with their vested social, political and economic interests.
Overwhelmingly, Showalter reads these movements as expressions of personal stress and cultural anxiety in late twentieth-century life. In men and women alike, psychogenic symptoms should entail no stigma. On the contrary, in the author's analysis, hysteria is part of the human condition; it is a universal capacity for the conversion of emotional pain and conflict into the camouflaged but culturally acceptable language of body illness. The current equation of psychogenesis with weakness, especially in adult men, effectively forbids the direct expression of these anxieties. Consequently,
culture forces people to deny the psychological and emotional sources of their symptoms and to insist that they must be biological and beyond their control in order for them to view themselves as legitimately ill and entitled to the privileges of the sick role.
Members of these movements will be enraged by Showalter's book. Despite her credentials in the field, some academic feminists may also feel betrayed by her presentation of recovered memory and multiple personality syndrome, which draw on recent feminist thought. Similarly, clinicians will most likely have trouble with Showalter's elastic usage of the term “hysteria”, alternately a disease, a reaction, a metaphor and a description. Historians of medicine may find the scholarship in the opening historical chapters thin. And I was irritated by the author's integration of widely incongruous sources, ranging from the fiction of Flaubert, Conrad and James, to the neurological case histories of Charcot, to contemporary films such as The Piano and Batman Forever, all of which contain characters breezily pronounced hysterical. The power and importance of the book, however, lie in its cultural-critical analysis. Showalter has brought together a series of the more outré socio-scientific phenomena of our time that may very profitably be considered together. She provides, moreover, a shrewd and unrelenting analysis of the structural elements these movements share.
Typically, individuals who are unhappy or unfulfilled in their lives develop diffuse and evolving nervous complaints and eventually seek help. A physician, or some other scientific authority figure, concocts “a unified field theory providing a clear and coherent explanation for the confusing symptoms”, as well as a new and memorable name for the syndrome. This explanation draws on contemporary disease theory, usually viral and immunological ideas. An individual case or two, often involving a well-known public personality, provides a popular paradigm for the new synthesis of symptoms. A best-selling novel (Three Faces of Eve,Sybil,Rosemary's Baby,Communion, for instance), soon to become a major motion picture, first advertises the syndrome to a large audience. Magazine stories and television documentaries further publicize the symptoms. High-profile books for persons seeking information appear, as do patients' autobiographies. Most recently, daily talk-shows, those agencies of mass pop psychotherapy, unite sufferers and therapists in order to dramatize their life stories and to explain the meaning of their disorder for millions; in the process, participants cite enormous projected numbers of the afflicted and encourage others to come forward.
These are acutely communicable diseases. As a result, vulnerable and impressionable viewers exposed to the illness model engage in a kind of psychogenic self-fashioning. The mental-health establishment, responding to what it sees as a new psychopathology (and an emerging patient population), adds the diagnosis to its list of official diagnoses, which lends further credence to the idea and makes health insurance coverage easier to obtain. In the mean time, the original diagnostician has earned widespread recognition, and a new psychotherapeutic subspeciality, sometimes with specialized clinics, emerges. Journals, newsletters and international societies crop up. Eventually, patients themselves join together to hold seminars and workshops and form, “survivors sessions” and self-help groups. The Internet instantaneously disseminates information across the world. (The World Wide Web lists dozens of on-line publications and organizations for survivors of psychological traumata.) In this way, Showalter's six phenomena have gone from virtual non-existence a generation ago to epidemic proportions with large patient-therapist movements in the late 1990s.
What, then, lies behind today's proliferating hysterias? Showalter emphasizes a cluster of causes: unrealistic expectations of fulfilment, happiness and productivity in life; a series of recent disease scares (AIDS, foremost); religious fundamentalism; the medical market-place; the pervasive presence of the media and their immense powers of popularization; alarmist and sensationalist medical journalism; the gratification of believing that vague emotional and physical complaints express a (nonfatal) bodily disorder; and the companionship of like-minded sufferers. To these factors she adds the role of “American millenarian paranoia”. She notes, too, that a suspicious number of scenarios in each category include a sexual component, which is often displaced on to some external source.
Combined with this concatenation are assuredly deeper cultural preconditions: with secularization comes the inevitable search for alternative messages of meaning and sources of hope, solace and confession. Furthermore, ages of high scientism have typically spawned counter-cultures: mesmerism during the late Enlightenment, faith-healing and hypnosis at the turn of the last century, our own New Age psychologies and alternative medicines. Along similar lines, improvements in public hygiene and the lengthening of life expectancy have had the odd effect of making health a universal, all-consuming concern.
In all of this, modern science, and particularly the sciences of the mind, occupy an ambiguous position. According to standard historical accounts, scientific naturalism and experimental rationalism progressively supplant superstition and irrationality in the professional and popular mind. Yet, these six syndromes are cast precisely in the languages of contemporary science. CFS, GWS and multiple personality disorder are medical representations of human distress. Their victims have read deeply in the technical writings about their condition. Members of the mental health professions fuel the multiple-personality and recovered-memory movements. The prestige of psychiatry today issues partly from advances in understanding the physiology and chemistry of the brain. The most recent technologies of communication spread these pseudo-pathologies. Even the brouhaha about alien abduction is spurred by the latest scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The interface between scientific research and the life of the individual is formed, of course, by psychotherapy. For better or worse, we turn today to the psychosciences to improve our moods, raise our children, try our criminals, interpret our works of art and energize our sex lives. But, in this case, is more better? In Showalter's exposition, there is good psychotherapy and bad psychotherapy. We need an enlightened psychology (including Freud) to understand these new syndromes, especially to elucidate the interconnection between mind and body, and the operations of emotional anxiety, physical somatization and sexual suppression. It is psychological illiteracy that underlays these subcultures of sickness in the first place. And serious, responsible psychotherapy, she argues, can do much to alleviate the anxieties and discontents of many of their adherents.
Fair enough. Yet surely these pages also establish that the place of psychotherapy in Western society has become exceedingly complex and qualified and that, to adapt Karl Kraus's formulation, psychotherapy has to a degree become the illness it purports to cure. In the 1990s, psychological medicine provides the very intellectual technologies that create and sustain these epidemics. With the secularization of suffering and the subsequent spread of psychiatry into our everyday emotional lives, a disorder, a diagnosis, a therapist and a support group become sources of existential identity. In our advanced psychiatric society, as the French critic Robert Castel called it, to get a life is to get an illness.
One response to the new acronymic illnesses of the age is to dismiss them as pathologies of self and society peculiar to America. Victorian medics, after all, believed that male hysteria in particular was un-English, limited by and large to the volatile Latin races on the Continent. But there is a good deal of evidence that these contemporary hysterias are now dispersing globally, and that includes Britain. Showalter's opening cases of chronic fatigue hail from England and Scotland. Medical Britons contribute mightily to the debate about CFS, here styled “ME”, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, so as to sound somatic. Hundreds of sympathetic reports of GWS have appeared in the British press. Courses in the dissociative disorders are increasing. British feminist theorists have taken up the issue of satanic abuse more energetically than their counterparts elsewhere, and the most effective proponent of its reality is a child psychotherapist at London's Tavistock Clinic. In the past decade, the British Isles have been second only to the US in the number of reported UFO sightings. Public media discourse in the UK and US becomes more uniform by the day, and the causes outlined above are spreading widely.
I should acknowledge that on first reading I felt by turns informed, entertained and astounded by Showalter's story, while dismissing most of it as the antics of obscure and minuscule minorities. However, the day after I finished the book, in Boston, I picked up the New York Times to read about the San Diego suicides. (Apparently the world-view of sect members was a blend of Christian utopianism, sci-fi mythology and astrological divination, popularized through cyberspace. Their immediate motive was the belief that they were about to be saved by alien beings travelling in spacecraft in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet.) Later that day, The X-Files, an award-winning television show with a huge and obsessive following, about aliens, cults and cover-ups, was broadcast. And the following evening, an hour-long, prime-time television documentary reported with equanimity on both sides of the alien abduction issue. The following week, in the lead story of the evening network news, jury selection began for the trial of Timothy McVeigh, indicted in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 136 people. The “hystory” of McVeigh's paramilitary movement, with its ideas of governmental conspiracies to destroy civil liberties, shares many of the features discussed by Showalter.
Strange signs—or, rather, symptoms of the times. There may be hope, however. A number of these scourges are now generating counter-literatures. Also, uncovering the modus operandi of past psychological plagues has often contributed to their remission. In a good Enlightenment topos, knowledge is cure. Moreover, earlier contagions have tended to spread during the terminal years of centuries (and millennia) and then quickly to pass. If we can endure for three more years, we may survive, although, in light of the recent news, I fear things will worsen before they improve. In the mean time, we can be thankful for a commentator as sane, courageous and clear-headed as Elaine Showalter.
SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “Out of Control?” New Statesman 126, no. 4338 (13 June 1997): 48.
[In the following review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Benn commends the “impressive clarity” of Showalter's discussion, but finds flaws in her presumptuous assertions about the nature of mysterious new afflictions.]
It is rare for a book of cultural criticism to make so much real world trouble. But Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton University and a television critic, has provoked outraged reactions in the US with [Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture,] even to the point of death threats. A male friend and I bickered for hours over its central thesis. So why this hysteria about hysteria?
The problem is, in part, etymological. In common usage hysteria means making a fuss over nothing. Showalter returns it to its 19th-century meaning: the bodily expression of unspeakable distress. There is even a group of academics called the New Hysterians who are rediscovering its many manifestations, as Peter Melville Logan's rather opaque book [Nerves and Narrative] on hysteria and the early 19th century British novel demonstrates. Logan argues that this period was not only the point where hysteria passed from being the province of the aristocracy to the new middle class but that “nervous narratives”, such as De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, became a useful, if complex, tool for the criticism of wider social conditions.
Showalter picks up the story from the late 19th century, with Charcot's famous experiments on female hysterics that so impressed and influenced Freud, and, later, shell-shock in the first world war, a clear example of male hysteria. Far from disappearing, hysteria has, says Showalter, returned with a vengeance in the mass psychogenic epidemics of the 1990s, such as chronic fatigue, Gulf war syndrome, recovered memory of sexual abuse and alien abduction.
What characterises modern hysteria, however, is the making of “hystories”, the role not only of medicine but of the media in constructing and distorting symptoms and stories. In her account of chronic fatigue Showalter shows that reports of isolated outbreaks in the mid-1980s snowballed until millions of people claimed similar clusters of symptoms. The same has happened with recovered memory, which might explain why so many families find themselves trapped in such bizarrely similar narratives.
Showalter marshals her argument with impressive clarity but she is, in places, too sure of herself. Yes, there have been press distortions and misinformation about aspects of Gulf war syndrome, but can she really be so certain that it is entirely psychosomatic? The use of chemicals, drugs and vaccinations provides an organic basis, at least, for depressive illness. No single virus has been found for ME sufferers, but the syndrome is often triggered by identifiable conditions such as labyrinthitis (a disorder of the inner ear). Is Showalter not contributing to a false duality in insisting there is no organic element in these diseases? And are the manifestly ridiculous stories of alien abduction really on par with either Gulf war syndrome or recovered memory claims?
True hysteria is aphasia, wrote Hélène Cixous. Yet what's so striking about these modern manifestations of “hysteria” is not the muteness of the sufferers, but their militance, their loud presence in the public sphere. Recovered memory has spawned dozens of books and meetings and workshops; so has ME. These are quasi-political movements, demanding their right to be heard about their claim that they are not being heard. And yet, if Showalter is right, their grounds for complaint are more diffuse, more difficult to pin down than even they know.
For instance, it is striking how many middle-class young-ish women are struck by ME or make accusations of long-ago abuse by fathers or babysitters. Whatever the justice of their terrible claims, it suggests that something has gone particularly wrong in women's lives. It would be too simple to read off disappointment from illness; but I do wonder if these women are “acting out” something both individually and for the culture as a whole. Like the mad ugly sister or the mad woman in the attic, their bitter, out-of-control and yet oddly passive stories offer a perverse mirror image to those of contemporary female high achievement.
I have lost count of the magazines and newspapers that have listed the “top” 50 women, in terms of beauty or business acumen, brain or bosom power. With their Alpha personalities and high expectations, many ME sufferers seem to share with “top” women an allergy to ordinary life. Except that, in their case, the allergy expresses itself as disabling distress or illness rather than high-fevered success. And does our “culture of feelings” (the rise of therapy, talk shows) allow them to express distress and yet, at the same time, somehow bury themselves in it?
This is also, still, a strangely non-political time. The American writer Louise Armstrong (whom Showalter quotes approvingly) has written about how the politics of incest—analysing and organising against male power—was transformed into a politics of personal victimisation. Gulf war syndrome reconfigured horror at war into the personal suffering of victorious combatants. Discussion of mysterious sores and sick babies has taken the place of discussion of what even Showalter uncritically calls a “just war”. Iraq was a despotic state, but the killing of thousands of civilians is another story. Where is that horror expressed?
At the end of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, fury and righteousness drain away from the once-possessed participants. Showalter wants fury and righteousness to drain away from those who choose “hystories” as their personal crucible for unconscious fears and fantasies. It may be too late: last month it was reported that ME is the biggest single reason given by parents for children's long-term absence from school. Showalter wants people to have the courage of their own afflictions. Why, in our supposed culture of feelings, that remains so difficult is a Hystery to me.
SOURCE: Sailer, Steve. “Hysteria, His and Hers.” National Review 49, no. 16 (1 September 1997): 48-50.
[In the following review, Sailer contends that Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture is a “sensible but limited book” as a result of Showalter's rationalist feminist perspective.]
Sometimes you get what you ask for. Back in 1985 Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor specializing in the social history of mental health, concluded her critique of the traditional psychotherapy profession by proclaiming: “The best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement.” By 1997, the mental-health industry has become thoroughly feminized, but Professor Showalter has had second thoughts: “The therapist's role is more and more to affirm, support, and endorse the patient's narrative, … and not to challenge the truth or historical reality of the patient's assertions.” This credulous atmosphere, she believes, has helped unleash “hysterical epidemics,” such as the disgraceful witchhunts for satanic cults running day-care centers. Mrs. Showalter cites five other “hysterical” outbreaks: the booms in recovered memory of incestuous abuse, multiple-personality disorders, alien abductions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome. For an academic treatise with a first printing of only 7,500 copies, Hystories has already generated quite a backlash. In hounding the author, Chronic Fatigue sufferers have proved especially energetic.
Mrs. Showalter's strongest chapters are on epidemics like the satanic-abuse and alien-abduction scares, whose alleged causes are wholly imaginary; and on Gulf War Syndrome, whose primary cause is real but not specific to that conflict: “war makes people sick.” While it may turn out that chemical weapons or sand fleas really did afflict some minority of the sufferers, on the whole GWS appears to be the latest version of what other eras labeled “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” America must realize that one of the costs of going to war is later paying fully for treatment and disability leaves for a substantial number of psychologically injured soldiers, although treating mental traumas as honorable wounds will no doubt let some hypochondriacs and malingerers slip through.
Unfortunately, Miss Showalter's literary world view is too black-and-white for those epidemics where some but not all of the patients' stories are true, e.g., incestuous abuse. The acrimony of these debates stems in part from both sides' thinking about all patients as Platonic abstractions (“incest victims” v. “hysterics”). In reality, mental health is more like an unsettlingly random pachinko game. The classic case study of how psychological debates tend toward dogmatism has been running for a full century since Sigmund Freud analyzed 18 unhappy young women. After much bullying by Freud, they all produced stories of childhood sexual abuse. First announcing an epidemic of incest, Freud then publicly changed his mind and blamed all the women for repressing Oedipal fantasies. Millions of words have since been written about this controversy. Most feminists contend that all 18 really were incest victims. In contrast, after a decade of listening to the nonsensical narratives that present-day therapists can elicit, Professor Showalter thinks Freud was right to recant.
Few, however, seem to have remarked how unlikely it is that any single diagnosis was right for all 18. In truth, some of the troubled women probably were child-abuse victims, while some others may have been repressing guilty fantasies. Probably a large proportion were suffering from other root problems that weren't understood back then, such as chemical imbalances in the brain that strike largely at random. Serotonin, for instance, acts rather like motor oil for your emotional engine, keeping your mental gears from grinding. It can run low—often, it appears, just from wear and tear. Since the cause of the emotional illnesses stemming from serotonin shortages is commonly not apparent, victims are susceptible to whatever tall tales (a/k/a hysterical epidemics) their therapists or the media happen to be spreading at the moment. Thankfully, we now have drugs like Prozac, and a new, more pragmatic school of psychiatrists who no longer set out on ideologically motivated searches for the root causes of your unhappiness, but instead concentrate on rebalancing your brain chemistry.
A beneficial side effect of a more realistic conception of hysterical epidemics allows this useful concept to be profitably applied to other current brouhahas where facts and feelings get hopelessly entangled, e.g., date rape and sexual harassment.
This sensible but limited book illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of what has recently become a lonely rump of feminism: “equity” or “rationalist” feminism. Appalled by the flapdoodle peddled by most feminists today, Mrs. Showalter wearily protests, “Feminism has a strong Enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism, whose memory I attempt to recover and reassert.” She bravely points out that the great majority of these epidemics' self-proclaimed victims are women, even the alien abductees. (Gulf War Syndrome, of course, is the exception, but the number of soldiers' wives who have also come down with GWS is striking.)
Unfortunately, rationalist feminism is itself founded on a death-defying leap of faith: the assumption that there are no biological bases for differences in behavior between the sexes. Thus, equity feminism was much to blame for the imprisoning of so many young women day-care workers on absurd charges of raping children and eating babies. If we know anything about sex abuse, we know it's a solitary male crime, not something women do, especially not in groups. But equity feminism has made such stereotypes unacceptable, so all those young women, whose only crime was that they loved little kids so much they'd work with them for ＄5 an hour, had to go to jail.
Further, rationalist feminism's fundamental dogma of sexual uniformity prevents Miss Showalter from grasping why feminist movements are so vulnerable to the irrationalism she despises. It's not because women aren't as smart as men. Although the sexes do differ on average in mathematical skills, women may well be superior in verbal logic. (Try eavesdropping on two teenage girls analyzing the endless possibilities of what some boy really meant when he said, “Maybe, like, I'll see you around sometime, you know?”) So why, in practice, are the terms “feminist theory” and “scientific theory” mutually exclusive?
The particular form of rationality that originated in the Enlightenment requires more than just the ability to construct castles of logical conjecture in the air. Galileo wasn't any more ingenious at conceiving interlocking celestial spheres than his ancient rival Ptolemy. What distinguished Galileo, and the Enlightenment in general, was that masculine competitive delight in risking the destruction of your own hypotheses in order to smash the other guy's beautiful celestial spheres of theory. The Enlightenment turned reason into a contact sport. Feminist movements careen into gullibility because women, especially when talking mostly to other women, find it more emotionally difficult than men to treat intellectual debate as a game. Women tend to take it much more personally, closing their minds to opponents and pulling their punches with friends.
SOURCE: Edis, Taner, and Amy Sue Bix. “Tales of Hysteria.” Skeptical Inquirer 21, no. 5 (September-October 1997): 52-3.
[In the following review, Edis and Bix offer a positive assessment of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but note flaws in Showalter's exaggeration of medieval millennial panic, her defense of psychoanalysis, and her premature dismissal of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]
We skeptics do more these days than shake our heads at psychics or roll our eyes at UFO-abduction tales. Because postmodern humanities scholars seem out to drag science down, the Skeptical Inquirer keeps tabs on relativist philosophers, literary critics, Freudian psychoanalysts, and feminist critics of science, as well as the usual suspects. So when a feminist literary critic with a soft spot for psychoanalysis writes a book about topics like alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse, we might expect some gobbledygook about validating the experiences of those people dismissed by the scientific elite and so on. Elaine Showalter—president-elect of the Modern Language Association, no less—would make us think again. Hystories is not only a skeptical book, but an important book many skeptics can benefit from.
Showalter is not interested in defending the truth of recovered memories or alien-abduction tales; in fact, she thinks they're obviously false. She does, however, want to explain why such beliefs are so common. Her central idea is that these beliefs are part of hysterical epidemics. She describes America as “a hot zone of psychogenic diseases, new and mutating forms of hysteria amplified by modern communications and fin de siècle anxiety.” Modern media and rapid electronic communications make it possible for “microtales of individual affliction” to explode into “panics fueled by rumors about medical, familial, community, or governmental conspiracy.” Our culture creates plenty of opportunity for psychological trouble and then provides fantastic tales for people to grasp at to make sense of their condition. Especially when troubled people connect to support networks and authority figures like therapists, stories with no basis in reality take on a life of their own.
No surprises so far. In an alien-abduction report, for example, we can easily see a stereotyped, media-spread tale that helps people make sense of sexual conflicts and strange experiences like sleep paralysis. We also notice therapists who collaborate not so much in revealing what happened as in creating the story in the first place. Showalter, however, uses her background as an English professor to explore the stories and the cultural and political landscape in which these stories come to life. She also looks at the history of psychology and contagious delusions and puts it in a context of gender politics, cultural anxieties, even literary inspiration. The result is a portrait of hysteria that gives no quarter to false beliefs yet is also aware of how the label “hysteria” has long been employed “to ridicule and trivialize women's medical and political complaints.” Showalter leads us to see hysteria as a way, sometimes the only way, suffering people can express themselves.
What, then, are the hysterical epidemics of our day? Showalter talks about recovered memories, multiple personalities, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction. More controversially, she adds chronic fatigue illness and Gulf War syndrome. These, she argues, are all troubles for which no convincing medical or external explanation can be found, and all follow the typical pattern of a hysterical epidemic. Showalter's treatment of subjects like recovered memories, ritual abuse, and alien abductions reflects sources and themes from the skeptical literature, and her direct and sympathetic style of writing makes her account attractive. Humor also helps, as when she skewers Harvard psychiatrist John Mack for his support of UFO abductions by coining “Showalter's Law: As the hystories get more bizarre, the experts get more impressive.”
Hystories is a good book, but it also has its dubious points. For example, Showalter overemphasizes end-of-century panics. She treats claims of extraordinary apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 as fact, while most historians think no unusual panic occurred at the time. Skeptics are not likely to share Showalter's favorable view of psychoanalysis either. She mostly agrees with recent critics of Freud, such as Frederick Crews, but believes we have no alternative as yet to modern psychoanalysis as a way of thinking about ourselves and our stories.
Showalter is also overly hasty in calling chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome hysterias. New information is still emerging about operations in the Gulf War, and researchers have just begun exploring how different medicines, chemicals, and environmental exposure may interact in complex, unanticipated ways. Certainly, veterans' affairs have become politicized, and psychological factors and communication of rumors have spread questionable beliefs. But Showalter should also have underlined more explicitly the uncertainty, incompleteness, and mistakes in emerging science. A physical ailment with unconventional, complex causes is not as outlandish a hypothesis as an alien abduction. Showalter should also have done more to acknowledge the non-paranoid reasons some women can be suspicious of our medical system. Medical science has produced real disasters like the Dalkon Shield and DES, and it has a history of neglecting women as research subjects. This is no excuse to support hysterias or alternative medicine, but skeptics should be more aware of the problematic historical relationship between women and medical science.
Though not without flaws, Hystories is especially important for showing how skeptics can build bridges to communities that seem indifferent and sometimes even hostile to skepticism. For example, skeptics have an ambiguous relationship with feminism. Hysteria is largely a female affliction, and too many feminists have supported movements like recovered memory and satanic ritual abuse. Showalter describes hysteria as a desperate expression of pains and fears that cannot find any other socially acceptable voice, and she challenges us to find ways to meet our genuine emotional and sexual needs without endorsing hysterical stories. She declares, “Feminists have an ethical as well as an intellectual responsibility to ask tough questions about the current narratives of illness, trauma, accusation, and conspiracy,” adding that, “[T]oday's feminists need models rather than martyrs … courage to think as well as the courage to heal.” Those people to whose stories Showalter denies truth will not see her as a sympathetic critic, but she is unapologetic about her skepticism: “Feminism has a strong enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism. … Our primary obligation must always be to the truth.” On the flip side, skeptics who are tempted to think of feminism only as a shrill political movement out to corrupt science have much to learn from Showalter as well. Hystories raises important questions for skeptics, feminists, and those who consider themselves members of both communities.
Showalter also shows us that skepticism has roots in the humanities as well as in natural science. UFOlogists like to argue that the similarity among alien-abduction narratives indicates their truth; skeptics explain these by common psychological and social factors and stories spread by the media. A literary critic like Showalter also tends to explain such similarities as resulting from a common background story-template. Indeed, postmodern relativists are, in a sense, extreme skeptics: they claim even the theories of natural science are but stories with social and psychological roots. It is perhaps obvious to us that science is not just a story. But literary critics can help skeptics sort out when we can appropriately say common narrative features are not good evidence for the truth of a story. To be properly skeptical, we need to strike a balance, and the humanities, as well as science, can help us achieve this balance.
Hystories gets us thinking: about how skeptics might understand real emotional problems without making believers into demented loonies, about how much attention we should pay to our culture when trying to explain false beliefs, and, not the least, about how we can find allies in unexpected places.
SOURCE: Bemis, Virginia T. Review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, by Elaine Showalter. NWSA Journal 10, no. 1 (spring 1998): 172-73.
[In the following review of Hystories, Bemis commends Showalter's historical overview of psychoanalytic theory, but objects to her “Eurocentric” view of millennial panic and her generalized, dismissive treatment of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]
Controversial books relating to Women's Studies reach the shelves fairly regularly. Some are picked up by the mass media, land their authors on the talk-show circuit, and occasion much debate outside the standard academic circles. In the past few years, we have seen Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers follow this path, and their work has been used as ammunition by a wide variety of pundits. The latest book to follow along this road is Hystories, Elaine Showalter's study of hysterical epidemics.
Showalter has a distinguished record of literary scholarship from a feminist perspective, including such standards as A Literature of Their Own (1977), The Female Malady (1986) and Sexual Anarchy (1990). In Hystories, she seems to take up where she left off in The Female Malady, with a discussion of labeling, how mental illness has been defined and its “rules” set by the medical profession, and that women's mental illness is a protest against a system which silences women.
Starting from her discussion of Charcot and Freud in the earlier book, Showalter here focuses on hysteria, its prevalence in the past, and its recurrence in various forms in the present day. Part One of Hystories forms a useful recapitulation of Charcot and Freud, adding in the theoretical insights Lacan provides. Here her documentation is convincing, and her portrayal of how Charcot, in particular, manipulated his patients and constructed their illnesses is truly horrifying.
In Part Two, Showalter uses her background as a Victorianist and her regular studies at Britain's Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine to examine hysteria as a literary subject and as a narrative mode. The hysterical narrative, or “Hystory,” becomes a way of communicating fears and anger in nonverbal ways, “saying” what cannot be said, and at the same time removing responsibility from the patient. These culturally fashionable narratives interact with the culture until they reach epidemic proportions, particularly at the end of a century or millennium.
This Eurocentric insistence on the approaching millennium and its encouragement of such hysterical phenomena as alien abductions, multiple personality disorder, satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory syndrome is perplexing, since hysterical epidemics happen in a variety of times and places, and in cultures that care little or nothing about common era dating or the possible Second Coming of Christ.
More problematic still is the content of Part Three, and it is this content that has sparked the most controversy. Here she takes her theory of the “hysterical narrative,” constructed by patients, doctors, and a sympathetic culture, and applies it to the contemporary phenomena above, to argue that they have no concrete existence, and are but psychological constructs. So far, many would agree with at least parts of her analysis. Having seen a “Satanic Panic,” in which false accusations of abuse tore a community apart, it is possible for me to appreciate the showing of how such things grow and take on a life of their own.
Where one cannot follow wholeheartedly along her Freudo-literary analytical path is in the chapters on Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), where the jury is very much still out. Here, her theory becomes a bed of Procrustes, as she stretches parts and lops off others, to make the facts fit the frame. Ignoring or dismissing medical evidence of concrete conditions, often in a flip and abrasive tone, she argues that both GWS and CFS are simply stress-reactions, ways of dealing with uncomfortable reality. Her tendency to overgeneralize leads to arguing that because some cases are hysterical, all are hysterical.
Further, one wonders whether narrative theory is the best way of looking at disability. And if a disability is a story, does that mean that all the stories are the same? Sociologists and scholars of disability dispute her assigning of narrative categories. So does the larger disability community, where the disabled insist on having their experience recognized as part of the story.
Showalter's admirable insistence that hysteria is real, to be respected and treated, is marred by her less laudable insistence that everything is hysteria.
SOURCE: English, Deirdre. “Wollstonecraft to Lady Di.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 44-9.
[In the following review, English lauds the central themes of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, complimenting the unlikely parallels that Showalter creates between the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Diana, Princess of Wales.]
Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University. Showalter is the erudite author of some classic feminist literary texts and a founder of women's studies, yet she has a light and deft hand on the wheel. It's only that—there aren't a lot of signposts that tell us where we're going as we start out, and Showalter breezily informs us that whether women participated in the organized women's movements of their day or thought of themselves as intellectuals or not, “I am most interested in the risk-takers and adventurers” of the past.
She illustrates what she means with the book's [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage] very first paragraph, in a way that seems perplexing—by equating Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Princess Diana, of all people, as examples of the sort of feminists—or “icons,” she calls them—she is looking for.
A bit of a further worry is her flippant reassurance, “Life stories retain their power when theories fade.” This comes off as defiant, or defensive. Feminist literary theory, which she helped initiate, has been producing a lot of heat in the English departments for some twenty or thirty years now, and some women outside academia, including myself, have wondered if the whole theory thing was going to produce any light to guide the women's movement by. Otherwise, what are all those feminist professors doing in there?
We can guess that Showalter hasn't lived immersed in literature and theory without picking up a few tricks about how to spin a story, so her deflection seems to be a broad hint that she will be expressing her opinions indirectly, speaking through the biographies she picks. Because if she says she's staking a claim to the feminist intellectual heritage, she must have an argument to make about what's important, and who's in and who's out. That means it will be up to us, as readers, to absorb the moral of her stories, or to play the literary critic ourselves, and try to pry the meanings out.
The book is pitched away from potential critics, though. It's a book most ordinary readers will love—I loved it myself the first time through, as a popularly written ode to great women in history, sort of an Intellectual Feminists for Dummies. Showalter is a good writer, very Modern Language Association (of which she is a past president) meets People magazine (where she took a yearlong joy ride as a media critic). Her central theme, as it emerges in the telling, is as delicious and guiltily indulgent as a box of Godiva chocolates: the educated woman's timeless quest for identity, especially the reconciliation of love and ambition. It could be an alumni seminar at Reunion Week.
“Biography, as a genre,” writes Carol Brightman, in “Character in Biography,” “has undergone a fundamental shift in recent decades … to what the market in its infinite wisdom calls ‘Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous.’ Especially among women writing about women for women.” Showalter proposes that we see ourselves, today, in the courageous lives of heroines who refused to “accept limits … on the basis of sex” and so were “ahead of [their] time.” They are a mirror of us.
A perhaps unsettling mirror. Settling down with the book, one is amazed to read how many of our feminist foremothers had unhappy love affairs, with some real bounders, too, and how many died tragically! Look at Mary Wollstonecraft, first on the “in” list. Her brief biography reveals the themes that Showalter is interested in. We read little about Wollstonecraft's breakthrough feminist political philosophy. What she calls our attention to is Wollstonecraft's life—and her struggle to be both a thinker, when that was forbidden, and a woman.
Wollstonecraft spun from rejecting romance, intellectually, to being romantically rejected by a man with whom, against her principles, she had fallen passionately in love and had an out-of-wedlock baby, and over whom she tried to commit suicide. Her story almost had a happy ending: She found harmony at last in a marriage to the philosopher William Godwin and gave birth to their daughter, who became the writer Mary Shelley. But Wollstonecraft died in that childbirth.
Wollstonecraft's story sets the goal of the inquiry—can a woman ever find satisfaction in both work and love? Men face this problem, but not as a self-negating paradox. Traditionally, a man who has the drive to be successful will be loved for it, but a woman who is ambitious for success may be deprived of love for that very reason. She is asked to choose, or suffer the consequences.
The daisy chain of brief biographies that follow are all variations on this theme, set out as interconnected parables from which feminist instruction may be deduced. Here is Margaret Fuller, the great transcendentalist writer, who pined, “a man's ambition with a woman's heart—'tis an accursed lot.” Abandoning the cold Yankees who had rejected her sexually, she overthrew her own Puritan ideas and embraced love in Italy, emerging as her “radiant sovereign self” at last. But Fuller died tragically in a shipwreck.
The powerful South African figure Olive Schreiner, was one of the fin de siècle New Women who, Showalter writes, “came to see themselves as a tragic generation, compelled to sacrifice love or motherhood or both in the interests of women's future freedom.”
Eleanor Marx, Karl's daughter and Schreiner's friend and a committed socialist activist, committed suicide in despair over her husband's betrayal. According to Showalter, the New Women of the nineteenth century never found happiness because they were unable to “suppress guilt for behaving in ‘unfeminine’ ways.”
But with the twentieth century, Showalter promises, newer women would imagine a fuller life. The American author of Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Work first—love next”), was a member of Heterodoxy, a feminist women's club that flourished in New York from 1912 to 1920. We meet the wonderful tribe of feminist anthropologists: Elsie Clews Parsons; the incredible Ruth Benedict, who was the mentor of Margaret Mead; and Zora Neale Hurston, who had to surmount the tribulations of race as well as sex, and whose “presence at Columbia was almost miraculous.”
There is a section on Mary McCarthy, never a feminist but rather the first twentieth-century “dark lady” of letters, selected to be one of the boys by the New York intellectuals at Partisan Review. McCarthy had a long correspondence with her friend, the German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, who came to this country imbued with the ideas of Martin Heidegger, her philosopher ideal, lover and, in very real ways, her enemy. We meet again the incomparable Simone de Beauvoir, and hear about her love affair with the tough-guy Chicagoan Nelson Algren, and her lifelong sexual-intellectual relationship with her philosopher-lover, Sartre. Then on to Susan Sontag, who first read Beauvoir when she was 18 and pregnant, vowed to live the life of an independent woman and, according to the rites of the male intellectual tribe of her day, was initiated as the successor “dark lady,” picked to replace the aging McCarthy. One declining diva to the upcoming one, McCarthy is said to have hissed, on meeting Sontag, “Oh, you're the imitation me.” As Sontag displaced McCarthy in the iconography of the intellectuals, so Camille Paglia tried desperately to replace Sontag (and Showalter ruefully admits that she at one time tried, too, to succeed Sontag as America's singular woman of letters). Paglia is skewered as a brilliant madwoman and fool, and on the jacket copy are the words of Showalter's friend Joyce Carol Oates: Paglia's comical pursuit of Susan Sontag … is worth the price of the book alone.” It's true, and there are tons of similarly gossipy tales of women's sexual peccadilloes and the embarrassments of ambition. But we have lost the thread of feminism.
Instead, one gets the feeling of a picaresque tale of trial and error, with plenty of tragic pitfalls in the past yielding to more humorous pratfalls as women continued their epic struggle with their two bête-noires: intellectual and sexual frustration, and the confounding connection between them. Showalter's decision to focus on the psychobiographies of female intellectuals, then, while hardly constituting an intellectual history of feminism, is illuminating in its own right—but more depressing than she wants to acknowledge.
Showalter yearns for more upbeat spin in a tale of progress and success for women who choose both love and freedom. Perhaps not finding any other, she portrays her own story, uniquely, as one that has reconciled love, marriage, feminism, ambition and success. Her autobiography is interwoven with the emergence of the second wave of feminism, represented primarily as an “I was there” memoir of Showalter and her own close friends and colleagues in women's studies and literature, especially at Douglass College, set against the background of the distant outbursts of radical women all over the country.
“I have tried to write about my heroines of the past as if they were my friends and contemporaries, and to write about my friends and contemporaries as if they were historical figures,” she explains, which seems just the tiniest bit narcissistic, especially at the expense of influential feminist figures representing such disparate streams as Gloria Steinem, Florynce Kennedy, Alice Paul, Eleanor Smeal, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Kate Millett, Maxine Hong Kingston, Betty Friedan or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Since Showalter does not portray herself as a romantic adventurer, she substitutes food imagery for sexual escapades as metaphors for risk. Thus we hear of her first cheeseburger, the intimidations of brie and camembert served at Bryn Mawr, heaping platters of food passed at a black church, dysentery on a honeymoon in Mexico. Mostly, though, she looks back nostalgically at the 1970s as a golden age of solidarity among women that we may not see again.
When Showalter finally leaves the 1970s and zooms in on the present day, we're in for a shock, though it was foreshadowed from the very first paragraph. We might have expected that the problems that educated women have always had reconciling love and work might now, after the successes of the second wave, be re-examined as the more widespread and familiar problems of most educated women. To do so would have required that Showalter expand her discussion of love from romance to the questions of combining work with motherhood, family and childcare. She might have had to ask, as Arlie Hochschild and many other imaginative feminists are doing, whether the ethics of love and care can migrate from being women's sole, private and familial responsibility to a place more shared with men and also closer to the center of society. But, incredibly, the question of children and their welfare never comes up for discussion in this book. Only romantic love matters to intellectuals?
Veering away from the modern woman's dilemmas, Showalter praises celebrities—Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Princess Diana, as the three prime role models for “the way we live now.” Turns out that Showalter has a wicked case of Dianamania, and here in the book's triumphalist finale, she is really driving us straight to the Princess's shrine, which she describes in loving detail, complete with women on the grounds weeping.
“I realized that Diana Spencer, like Mary Wollstonecraft, had become a role model of her time. She too had evolved an ideal of the fullest, most meaningful life she might dare to live as a woman in her historical circumstances, and then courageously tried to live it.” This comparison is bizarre, but by this point Showalter has completely lost control of her own vehicle, declaring, “By the time of her death, she had achieved independence against enormous odds and seemed to be on the brink of realizing Freud's formula for adult psychological health: love and work.”
Love? With an immature, though aging, rich man's heir, unremarked for any achievement but notorious for his playboy lifestyle and compulsive infidelities? Work—what work? Independence? Was her death, in a car chase fueled even more by multiple testosterone sources than by alcohol and gasoline, really the last act of a woman in charge of her life—or even trying to be?
Elaine Showalter couldn't really mean it, could she, putting this forth as the trajectory of feminism, intellectual feminism no less! From thinker to celebrity, from social outcast to star, from iconoclast to icon? Could she?
This was the mystery I found myself confronting as I reeled from the sight of the smoking, intellectual wreck that is the conclusion of what is sure to be Elaine Showalter's most marketable crossover book to date. What would lead a self-respecting academic intellectual to an unabashed celebration of celebrity? Was Showalter shamelessly mercenary, academically suicidal … or, the victim of a deadly theoretical error?
To get some perspective on Showalter I had to go back—way back—to 1985, the year she received a famous shellacking at the hands of postmodern feminist critical literary theory's elite wing, personified by one bright, blonde Norwegian dame named Toril Moi. My impression that Showalter was fending off an unspecified critique had not been wrong.
It seems that there is still no better book to read against Inventing Herself than Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics—the book that started these particular culture wars by first applying critical theory to Showalter's 1970s feminist classic A Literature of Their Own and attacking Anglo-American literary feminism in general as dull-witted and un-revolutionary. Although Showalter has published several books and many other writings since then, her new book is her clearest, and in some ways cleverest, riposte to Moi. I found a used copy of Moi in a Berkeley bookstore, black covered and thin as a stiletto to slip between an aging mother's ribs. And sure enough, there is a story here, too—of Showalter, a pioneer of feminist theory, and of the next generation of critical theory stepdaughters who deny that there can ever be an unsuspicious “woman's point of view” and so, it was sometimes feared by the jargon-phobic feminists, were going to “deconstruct” the feminist baby in its crib.
For her part, Moi had predicted back then that Showalter would come to no good end if she did not mend her ways. Moi complained, “Showalter's aim, in effect, is to create a separate canon of women's writing, not to abolish all canons.”
Showalter had argued that women's literature could be divided into three phases, which she labeled the feminine, followed by the feminist and finally the female. In the first, prefeminist stage, women imitated the dominant tradition to win acceptance. The second was a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, after enough protest, followed presumably by a goodly measure of vindication and success, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.
Moi had a lot of problems with phase three, and its notions of a woman's singular “autonomy” and searching inward for identity. How could she not, informed as she was by poststructuralist theories that meaning is contextual and historical, and that identity is socially, and linguistically, constructed? If the European avant-garde that Moi was speaking for got it right, then the last place feminists would find a road map to liberation would be from a bunch of educated women searching within themselves. A woman might be a woman, and she might be an intellectual, but the meaning of these “situations” could never be her autonomous creation. She would have to contend with the construction of meanings that she had not agreed to. The friction encountered there (and embedded in language, and internalized in the psyche) is where the pressures of patriarchal power come into play.
Moi's critique, and her introduction of French feminist thinking to the US cultural studies scene, hit a big nerve. In ultra-serious circles in the humanities, the perpetuation of an “essentialist” conception of woman (where there was some un compromised inner female to discover and give freedom to, a la Showalter) received a giant thumbs-down (in the biological sciences, it was a different story, but not one we have room for here). What is a woman? Philosophically speaking, no one can be sure.
Showalter's essentialist theorizing, and the search for a “woman's literature” with special characteristics, put her in bed with the wrong people. According to Moi,
[there is a] fundamental complicity between this empiricist and humanist variety of feminist criticism and the male academic hierarchy it rightly resists. … The humanist believes in literature as an excellent instrument of education: by reading “great works” the student will become a finer human being. … The literary canon of “great literature” ensures that it is this “representative experience” (one selected by male bourgeois critics) that is transmitted to future generations, rather than those deviant, unrepresentative experiences discoverable in much female, ethnic and working class writing. Anglo-American feminist criticism has waged war on this self-sufficient canonization of middle-class male values. But they have rarely challenged the very notion of such a canon. … But a new canon would not be intrinsically less oppressive than the old.
As the poststructuralist critique of identity politics took hold over the following decade and more, it became unfashionable, in ideas and in dress, it seemed, for the avant-garde of the female professoriate to identify with either men or women, which must have made it harder than ever to figure out what to wear to teach a class (unless, luckily, you were a public cross-dresser or male to female gender-bender, armed with queer theory—the only ones allowed, in a sort of campy way, to have fun with frippery). Basic black might be the obvious answer, but some confident women rejected that straitjacket and had the chutzpah to break the taboos.
Elaine Showalter was one of them, enjoying fashion and even flaunting her “political incorrectness” in Vogue in 1997, when she was president of the MLA. In a feature for Lingua Franca (“Who's Afraid of Elaine Showalter?”) Emily Eakin wrote,
few colleagues were taken in by the piece's lighthearted, gamely self-mocking tone. Here, masquerading as a paean to lipstick and Loehman's, was nothing less than a political manifesto. “From Mary Wollstonecraft to Naomi Wolf, feminism has often taken a hard line on fashion, shopping, and the whole beauty Monty,” Showalter wrote [in Vogue]. “But for those of us sisters hiding Welcome to Your Facelift inside The Second Sex, a passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life. … I think it's time I came out of the closet.”
That took some admirable nerve, and Eakin's article (which first led me back to Moi) reports that the backlash was fierce in academic circles. “What did it mean for a leading academic feminist to come out in favor of … symbols … of consumer capitalism and traditional femininity?” Eakin says that at Cornell University, feminists raged for a month in online debates.
Incisive as Moi's critique was at the time, one has to have sympathy, too, with what Showalter was rebelling against later, especially to the degree that it became another form of timid conformity. Moi and Showalter could each accuse the other of political correctness of different kinds. A feminism that is insufficiently self-critical and requires a reverent attitude toward women, without even being able to give an adequate definition of “women,” must be shallow and doctrinaire, and that is the charge against Showalter. Moi had predicted that her lack of critical thinking would put Showalter in the “painful position” of colluding with the “patriarchal elite” she thought she was resisting. This would mean that Showalter privileged a “pro-woman” perspective at the cost of excluding other points of view, and remained willfully ignorant of the flaws in her theory.
On the other hand, a feminism that loses sight of real women who come to it with a sense of their needs and desires, and occupies itself instead with nervous philosophical hairsplitting, could be a charge leveled against the postmoderns. Moi, with her egalitarian Norwegian background, could probably not appreciate what it was like for American feminists to take on the educational establishment. Showalter scolds her critics: “We needn't fall into postmodern apocalyptic despair about the futility of political action or the impossibility of theoretical correctness as a pre-condition for action.” (It's good to remember, as these feminists face off, that in the current climate, a conservative antifeminist like Lynne Cheney would lash them together and toss them both overboard.)
Still, this book leaves us at the scene of the shrine where Showalter intones her eulogy to Princess Diana: “Her elegance, taste and style were truly exceptional even in a beauty-conscious age,” writes Showalter. “She was a feminist who championed feminine values.” The question for us is, has Showalter's frustration with the (say it slow) po-mo-fem/lit/crit hellhounds on her trail driven her around the bend? Or, had Toril Moi's old prediction proved true? Moi had predicted that, as the reader also produces the text, eventually feminist critics would give “irreverent scrutiny” to the work of women writers, and cast doubt on Showalter's essentialist biases. Curious thought—could it be that I, a feminist critic, with my unflattering opinion that Showalter's veneration of Princess Di represents an intellectual crack-up, am partially the author of that crackup and hence an unwitting agent helping to make Moi's 1985 prediction come true? Such are the headachy ideas that wandering among lit/cit texts can give you.
Perhaps it would be foolish to dwell too long in that arcane world of academic feminism which, in the words of Katha Pollitt, “absorbs vast amounts of female brain power and probably does less to liberate real women than Brandi Chastain's picture on a cereal box.”
The skepticism of a woman in search of common sense comes as welcome relief. Unimpressed by all sides of the canon wars, in an essay called “Canon to the Right of Me …” Pollitt went so far as to defend (gasp) even the dead white males of the conservatives—meaning Homer, Shakespeare, etc. Yet Pollitt admits, just like a feminist, that finding poetry written by women (even very bad poetry) had been vitally important to inspiring her when she was a girl, and she goes on to argue, like a postmodernist, for a much broader and more inclusive syllabus when it comes to our reading. And right she was, in all these perspectives, too, and her undogmatic freedom to pick and choose among them.
So what, if anything, do these pomo critiques of feminist canons, shrines, lists, essentialist ideas or concepts of gender-identity mean from the point of view—dear to readers of The Nation—of politically engaged, activist feminism? What is that called these days, anyway? Liberal, or bourgeois, feminism are the terms one used to have for people with the politics of Elaine Showalter—where the goal is empowering women while somehow keeping their identity as women intact. In this posture, they are expected to enter the professional and intellectual classes without disarranging the furniture too much, or bringing in too much of a cool breeze relating to other aspects of the status quo. To such a woman, the conventional terms of success—making money, being beautiful, strong, a celebrity—are all seen as identical with the markers of feminist success. Today, with the disappearance of the left and the dismantling of liberalism, this is garden variety feminism, and it is this paralyzing expectation of individual achievement that young women have inherited and bravely but foolishly accepted as their mission. What were once socialist feminists, radical feminists, cultural feminists or women's liberationists had different points of view, but shared ideas of more sweeping social changes, to put it mildly. The vitality of feminism came not merely from women's integrationist demands but from this insistent and radical questioning of everything about the way the world was structured.
If the liberal, assimilationist idea of feminism has really won the day, and claims, as in this book's subtitle, the “intellectual heritage” of feminism, one still wishes that Showalter would have a more inclusive concept of what made up feminism in the first place. As Pollitt writes in the introduction to her recent book of columns from The Nation, “feminism is not a single, independent, all-powerful force, but is connected in complicated and even contradictory ways with other historical forces—egalitarianism and individualism, hedonism and puritanism, capitalism and the critique of capitalism.” Showalter has the individualist, hedonist and capitalist parts down, but shows little interest in the other dimensions.
If this is her perspective, it's fair enough for her to uphold it. But it's hard to believe that Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Margaret Mead, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt and others in her pantheon would feel comfortable being force-marched down a path that leads to such a worldview, especially once they catch sight of Diana coming down the pike.
Woman's struggles with her splintered psyche, her often-failing attempts to live fully, are only one part of the story. The other part of feminism is woman's struggles to reimagine and to change society, her political fight (also often failing) not just for herself but for all the generations to come—and that is a transcendent and romantic quest, too. If Showalter thought so, she would have included such heroines as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt and others who were more socially minded thinkers than some of her pure intellectuals. In this light, Moi's critical theory descends from past radical critics of society, feminists and others, and its contribution serves to reinvigorate the arguments of a less established feminism, without a doctrinaire heroizing of women.
In contrast, Showalter's film criticism in The American Prospect proves what a confused place you can land in following the I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar line. In her recent column, “The Film Critic,” Showalter liked Charlie's Angels, though it is “lite, or low” feminism, because “I think it would have made a real impact on me if I had seen this on-screen when I was a girl, in addition to my trusty Wonder Woman comics.” OK, fine, this is like the updraft from Pollitt's very bad women poets. But she bashes the plump and plucky Bridget Jones, chastising her as “incompetent in every area of her life—work, cooking, dating, drinking,” and sternly states that the film, though it was made by a woman writer and woman director, has “no feminist consciousness whatsoever.” Bridget Jones's Diary may be lite feminism too, but it's sad that Showalter doesn't appreciate a story about a woman who does stand for up herself (she tells off the rotter who is her boss and bedmate in front of cheering female office workers—that would have done a lot for me as a girl!), who can laugh at her own sorry messes and who, by the way, walks off at the end with a good looking, politically conscious barrister who loves her “just as she is.” Like Charlie's Angels, the apotheosis of Princess Di may serve as escapist fare, but today's younger American scene seems full of complicated, doubting, ironic Bridget Joneses who can't be—and as their feminist consciousness continuously grows, don't want to try to be—anybody's perfectionist fantasy.
SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Holding the Middle Ground.” New Statesman 130, no. 4542 (18 June 2001): 52-3.
[In the following review of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, Hughes praises Showalter's accessible writing style, but criticizes her methodology and diluted analysis.]
When Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Their Own in 1977, it was a revelation and a celebration all in one. In her characteristically fluent prose, she suggested that British women's writing in the 19th and 20th centuries (her bookends were the Brontës and Doris Lessing) had been systematically sidelined, obscured and trivialised. Now here was Showalter, an American academic at the forefront of the new wave of “women's studies”, showing us not only why those muffled voices mattered, but how they connected to one another to create, if not exactly a lineage, certainly a web of influence and sympathy.
It was perhaps inevitable that Showalter's work would lose some of its glamour after that high point. In the 1980s, the intellectual beacon in women's studies passed from the Americans with their biographical bias to the intricate linguistic and psychoanalytical teasings of French feminists such as Julia Kristeva.
Increasingly, the work of Anglo-American academic feminists seemed naive, dull and slightly beside the point. In The Female Malady (1985), for instance, Showalter was more interested in showing how historical circumstances had consistently conspired to label intelligent or independent women as mad than she was in trying to understand how Lacan was once again making Freud respectable.
Inventing Herself continues in what has now become recognisably the Showalter way of writing about women: low on theory, high on history. Her aim is to recover and realign the life and works of those women writers who have proved an inspiration during her 40-year career as a feminist academic. In this sense, she is offering a necessary corrective to the pervasive effects off F R Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948), which was responsible for so many good women dropping out of sight. Thus Inventing Herself starts with the mother of all feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft; works its way through Margaret Fuller and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; swerves back to the UK for Vera Brittain and Germaine Greer; and then nips over to France for Simone de Beauvoir.
Why Showalter has decided to choose some women and leave out others is never quite clear. She suggests in her introduction, in a phrase that would not sound out of place in Cosmopolitan magazine, that this is a book “about women with a passionate attitude to living”; she then lists a whole range of people, including Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher, who are automatically disqualified. Confusingly, however, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana are all judged to demonstrate the right degree of passion, and are rewarded with a place in the “feminist intellectual heritage” of the book's subtitle.
Inventing Herself is constructed as a series of mini-biographies. Some subjects, such as Margaret Fuller, get a whole chapter to themselves. Others, such as Naomi Wolf, are given only three pages. But the themes stay the same. What comes up again and again is the old problem that stymies women still: how to live an autonomous creative and intellectual life without giving up the satisfactions of sexual love and motherhood. The outcomes that emerge are quirky and sometimes full of pain. There is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's proposal of the kitchenless flat (apartments would he built around a central restaurant in order to spare women the chore of cooking, an idea that has recently taken off in New York City). And then there is Eleanor Marx, who killed herself in 1898 because, despite all the progressive talk at the Men's and Women's Club, she never found a way of having an equal relationship with her husband, the appalling Edward Aveling.
Showalter has necessarily depended on secondary sources, biographies mostly, to put this book together. Her method is to take what she wants from a life—the emblematic conflicts, the occasional happy solutions—and to make them repeat or amplify the experience of her other subjects (she is, after all, trying to build up a “heritage”). As a result, the whole enterprise has a synthetic feel, as if the grit and gumption of all those different lives had been thrown away, leaving homogenised pap of the lowest common order. Despite Showalter insisting in her introduction that she was not going to include Marie Curie, Inventing Herself none the less reads like one of those “Heroines of History” books that used to be given out as prizes to serious-minded little girls.
This is a shame, because Showalter continues to write with a fluency that puts virtually every other American academic to shame. And her prose style is not merely a matter of incidental pleasure. For nearly 25 years, she has provided a pathway between the dense discourses of academic feminist studies and the commercial market, which supplies the reading needs of Everywoman. During the 1980s and 1990s, these two markets became increasingly separated, with the result that writing by and about women has been either parochially intense or journalistically banal. Showalter's example shows that it is still possible to hold a middle, and higher, ground.
SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Oprah Winfrey Joins Diana, Princess of Wales.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 44.
[In the following review, Maitland argues that Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage suffers from a lack of thematic focus and overall “trivial” subject material.]
Something has gone wildly awry with [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage]. I am bemused. I am especially bemused because I am an Elaine Showalter fan. Over many years and generous books she has opened up aspects of feminist ‘critical theory’ (both literary and cultural) to a wider audience by the elegance and readability of her writing and the good sense of her opinions. But in the first place the book cannot decide what it is about.
From the subtitle you might anticipate a history of feminist ideas, but more probably, knowing Showalter, a history of women who had intellectual ideas. We might be encouraged to explore the way these ideas shaped the experiences of the women who held them. And indeed there is quite a lot of that here—although, however much one may admire her, it is difficult to pin down the exact part in my ‘intellectual heritage’ that I have gained from Oprah Winfrey.
Even with women whose claim on our attention is genuinely intellectual, Showalter offers only ‘gossip’. Hannah Arendt, for example, is little known in the UK. I know virtually nothing about her life, except that she was the student and mistress of Heidegger, and nothing at all about her philosophy. I can hardly claim her for my ‘intellectual heritage’ just because I now know that, in addition to this, she smoked a lot, was a close friend of Mary McCarthy's and wore brown dresses at Heidegger's behest. What her contribution to Western philosophy or to women's intellectual development may have been is not revealed.
Yes, the living out of ideas is important and particularly important for feminist intellectuals because so many of their ideas were about how to live the ‘good’ life, against the grain of convention and expectation. But the expressed ideas that inform their choices are precisely what distinguish these women from all the rest of us who would also like to find ‘good enough lives’.
Not that this matters too much, because Showalter actually abandons this aspect of the book, apparently without noticing, and goes shambling off on a completely different trip. Instead of the feminist intellectual heritage of the subtitle we are now in pursuit of the ‘feminist icon’. Showalter defines an ‘icon’ as a ‘revered symbol’, but I cannot escape the historical knowledge that an icon is necessarily a ‘representation’. An icon is not a role model and it is, I suspect, not helpful to the development of feminist thought to elide the two.
Even within these dodgy definitions Showalter's choices of such ‘icons’ feels odd. This may be because a US tradition will be different from a British one, but some acknowledgment of that would be encouraging. A list which has no socialists other than Eleanor Marx, no suffragists, no psychoanalysts, and Rebecca West as the only British novelist feels a little eccentric, to put it mildly. Josephine Butler? Sylvia Pankhurst? George Eliot? Virginia Woolf? The three latter, at least, provide material for the speculative gossip about their sex lives that Showalter seems so concerned with.
The whole thing feels rather trivial. At one point Showalter makes the interesting suggestion that British feminists around the beginning of the 20th century were not buttressed intellectually, as their US sisters were, by an engagement with anthropology. She does not, however, note that in the UK socialist thought may have provided an alternative. This might explain the rather different feminisms that emerged in Europe and in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. (Feminism beyond Europe and the US is not even touched on.) It is from such differences and histories that feminists must reclaim our intellectual heritage if the continuing global gender inequalities are to be challenged.
One of the problems, perhaps, is that nearly a third of Showalter's subjects are still alive. I do not see how anyone can be a living ‘icon’. I certainly do not see how such women can—as the blurb assures us—‘have been rediscovered and reinvented by successive generations … of daughters’. The book leaps suddenly into describing the dress sense of certain of the more flamboyant contemporary feminist academics, some of whom (e.g. Paglia) Showalter makes clear she does not even like much, let alone ‘revere’.
And finally the only individual woman in the book who could possibly be said to have ‘iconic’ status, the late Princess of Wales, does not and cannot form part of my feminist intellectual heritage. Frankly most of us would do better to stick with the Virgin Mary (redefined family structures, wrote a great poem, had an unusual sex life, and has attracted the veneration of ‘successive generations’ of daughters).
SOURCE: Wineapple, Brenda. “Unparalleled Lives.” Women's Review of Books 18, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 34-5.
[In the following review, Wineapple offers a generally favorable assessment of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]
Everybody's doing it: in the fourteenth century Boccaccio did it in tales of 106 famous women that extol their dominion and inventiveness—as well as some more predictable virtues, like long-suffering patience. (They've just been freshly translated by Virginia Brown and republished by Harvard.) More recently Phyllis Rose did it in her slim collection, Writing of Women (1985), and Susan Ware did it in her ambitious Letter to the World (1997), celebrating seven women who, as she put it, shaped the American century. Sylvia Brownrigg did it too, though in her Ten Women Who Shook the World (1997), the women, though not their ability to shake, are fictional. And just last year, Claudia Roth Pierpont's women did it in a best-selling volume of essays, Passionate Minds, a trenchant exploration of twelve female pioneers, unlikely bedfellows who include Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Ayn Rand, Marina Tsvetaeva and Margaret Mitchell.
Now Elaine Showalter's new book chronologically sketches the lives of a motley collection of writers, thinkers, politicians, celebrities and superstars “who would not accept limits to a woman's life on the basis of sex.” Of course, Showalter is no stranger to eclectic, inclusive compendia of women's lives and work. Her excellent first book, the ground-breaking A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), implicitly called for a reconsideration—really, the development—of a female literary tradition in the English novel through a consideration of Katherine Mansfield, George Eliot and many a lesser known—read: many an obscure—writer, like Mary Braddon and Mary Chavelita Dunne.
In Inventing Herself, Showalter is still concerned with iconoclastic canon-making, or to use her current phrase, “feminist icons,” women from whom we do not demand perfection because “their fallibility and humanity make them real to us and even their tragedies are instructive and inspiring for women today who try to combine independence, adventure, and love.” True, Showalter rounds up many of the usual suspects—Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt—all of whom have been anatomized by critics and biographers (including Susan Ware and Claudia Pierpont). Regardless, according to Showalter “we still lack a sense of a feminist past.” Though their faces may decorate postage stamps, “women have no national holidays, no days of celebration for their births or deaths,” Showalter reminds us, and only a handful of monuments commemorate their existence.
In writing about women who have “a passionate attitude toward living,” Showalter (with implicit reference to Pierpont) includes in her roster several less predictable, more controversial names: Eleanor Marx, Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, Oprah Winfrey, Camille Paglia—and Elaine Showalter. Her intent is to write an energetic, upbeat and popular history of “the risk-takers and adventurers” who have intersected with her life, whether in fantasy, in a coffee shop or at a feminist symposium, because, she says, “as I've studied the lives of my heroines, of course I've also asked whether these patterns describe and help explain phases in my own life.”
Eschewing neat formulations, Showalter prefers instead to outline some of the coincidences she has discovered in the lives of all her subjects. Armed with the work of critic Lorna Sage, she finds a tendency among feminist icons to rebel against their mothers, to form romantic or life-long friendships with other women and, in their relationships with men, develop some kind of “erotico-theoretical transference relations” with their male lovers. What's more, as a literary critic in step with the autobiographical, critical and pop-cultural penchant of today's academy, Showalter feels free to draw from her own personal experience, relishing cavalier comparisons that are doubtless intended to startle: Margaret Fuller's shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island is the nineteenth-century equivalent of John Kennedy, Jr.'s befogged flight to Martha's Vineyard, and poor Frida Kirchwey (past owner, editor and publisher of The Nation) is the Tina Brown of her day.
Showalter begins Inventing Herself with an exuberant prank. In the summer of’97, a famous young Englishwoman, a mother of two who some years before had tried to commit suicide but who had, more recently, seemed to find a measure of stability and happiness in her life, dies suddenly despite heroic attempts to save her. The joke is that the woman is Mary Wollstonecraft, not Diana Spencer, even though Showalter considers both of them iconic—the latter because of her gritty determination to lead an independent, meaningful existence not typical of her class or kind. To Showalter, critics of the Princess—as well as those of us who find her finally uninteresting—display the kind of snobbishness once reserved for the academic elite. Academics today, to the contrary, are busily “placing Diana in context,” Showalter cheerfully reports, offering lectures, monographs and conferences on her life and death.
The changing state of academe is actually one of the subtexts of Inventing Herself. Showalter has spent her adulthood within its sacred grove, where, as the last third of the book documents, she and her friends have nudged, irritated, defied and often capsized the male academic establishment since the 1970s. But because Showalter has devoted her life to upending the academic status quo, her discussion of contemporary women generally takes place, if not exactly under the scholar's lamp, at least never too far from its ivory light. We learn, for example, that Juliet Mitchell read The Second Sex at Oxford (and Showalter read it in high school); that before Sexual Politics, Kate Millett was brought to Douglass College in 1970 (by Showalter) to help launch a feminist, non-coeducational experiment; that Showalter delivered her first professional paper, “Women and the Literary Curriculum,” at the Women's Caucus of the Modern Language Association in 1970, alongside Adrienne Rich and Tillie Olsen; and that in America, “feminists were more active in academia than in the counterculture.”
Perhaps so; perhaps not. In either case, after ten chapters on the lives of a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century women, Inventing Herself metamorphoses into a history of academic feminism. Many readers are likely to find Showalter's own memoir here far more appealing than the thumbnail portraits of what she calls the “divas” (Jane Gallop, Eve Sedgwick) and the “young, streetwise, glamorous women writers outside of academia” (Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, Susan Faludi). When Showalter documents her own coming-of-feminist-age less in terms of academic accomplishments (B.A. from Bryn Mawr, Ph.D. from the University of California-Davis, up the ranks at Rutgers, job offer from Princeton, where her husband teaches) than in terms of foods forbidden and coveted, her story takes on a real warmth. Isaac Asimov bought Showalter her first cheeseburger; at the formal teas of Bryn Mawr, she tasted Camembert and panettone; the Father Divine community served chocolate ice cream piled in petals; and in Paris, while she was married, raising a daughter and trying to finish a dissertation, she learned to cook for the hordes of friends dropping in and out of her family's Left Bank apartment. Nuggets of real experience save the Showalter story from dry triumphalism.
So does her persistent, outspoken and unswerving commitment to women. Even though she says that in 1989 she stopped writing essays in feminist criticism—“they outlived their usefulness, like the cat we got for the children, who hung on, hungry, demanding, and querulous, long after the children had grown up and left home. The stage was being cleared for the next act”—Inventing Herself is a kind of feminist criticism of an earlier or gentler sort: anecdotal stories about our sisters, intended to console and inspire. “Life stories retain their power when theories fade,” Showalter declares at the outset of her book, as if to say she's grown bit weary of the academy she loves. As a good sister, Showalter refuses to cannibalize the work of other toilers in the field. She generously credits her sources, which include Elizabeth Hardwick, Victoria Glendinning, Susan Sontag and Carolyn Heilbrun. And though the life of, say, Mary Wollstonecraft has been told many times before (most perceptively by Claire Tomalin, whom Showalter quotes to excellent effect), Showalter's portraits make one want to turn both to Wollstonecraft and her biographer.
Not so with the charismatic Margaret Fuller. Showalter considers her major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, muddy and long-winded. However, she isn't concerned much with Fuller's ideas, or those of any of her subjects, so we learn less about Fuller's politics, her newspaper journalism and the revolutions of 1848 to which she was fiercely committed than about her being “swept away” by one man and only putatively married to another, who happened to be the father of her child. Showalter admits that she is less concerned with the women “frequently prescribed to us as role models” than with independent-minded women who lived boldly and loved bravely, who dared and defied and suffered consequences.
Margaret Fuller is a touchstone in Inventing Herself. Friend of Giuseppe Mazzini and Adam Mickiewicz, she was cast as the exotic feminist Zenobia in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. In a chapter called “Zenobia on the Hudson,” Showalter recapitulates the arguments of Philip Rahv's “The Dark Lady of Salem,” transforming Zenobia into Mary McCarthy, the sexy intellectual woman of the 1930s and 1940s whom men, particularly the Partisan Review crowd, wished to destroy. In the chapter “Talkin‘’Bout My Generation: The 1970s,” Showalter includes a subsection called “Fullerites,” arguing that “women breaking the academic rules and flying too close to the sun in the 1970s risked crashing and burning.” She cites Gail Parker, former president of Bennington, and critic Ann Douglas, not just because her Feminization of American Culture contains an excellent chapter on Fuller, but because Douglas is somehow “Fuller reincarnated, only beautiful as well.”
Beauty, ambition, adventure, academia, good clothes and a dash of celebrity, if only of the fifteen-minute variety: such qualities mainly fill the bill for Showalter's feminist icons. As she says, they faced difficult choices with guts and defined, or redefined, themselves with panache. Evidently, it is women like them who will tread the boards of feminism's next stage.
SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Rule-breakers Rule.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5132 (10 August 2001): 22.
[In the following review, Lee commends Showalter's “energetic and opinionated” arguments in Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]
“Life stories retain their power when theories fade.” So Elaine Showalter claims at the start of her book of energetic and opinionated “claiming”, [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage,] turning her back on feminist literary criticism and social history in favour of a collection of potted biographies of notable women. These are not, as she explains, the standard high-achieving, exemplary success stories (her examples of that would be Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher). Nor are they necessarily women who defined themselves as feminists. The intention is to broaden the definition of feminism, to claim for it (whatever “it” is, under this rubric) a much more inclusive membership. These are women who, as Showalter puts it, have refused to be constrained in their ambitions by the fact of being female. They are “risk takers and adventurers”, “trouble makers and rule breakers”. They struggle to combine independence with personal happiness, often to no avail. Their lives are flawed, even tragic. Such lives, she says, have been unduly neglected.
Yet the argument about neglect includes, in its pantheon of preponderantly white, Anglo-American names, some extremely high-profile women. She starts with Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and then goes on to Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain and Simone de Beauvoir. Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt lead on to Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia and an assortment of late twentieth-century feminists. She ends with Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, as examples of women who “succeeded in an epic life of resonant action”. So a book which sets out to widen the claims to fame of neglected heroines ends by claiming feminist status for celebrities. This blurring of distinctions is deliberate Showalter's aim is to be inclusive, encouraging and life-enhancing. But by broadening the definition of feminism to the point where it seems to apply to any famous, ambitious or notorious woman whose life story arouses public interest, it risks throwing away the whole concept. By the end of Inventing Herself Showalter's subtitle looks very strange.
Along the way, there are some good stories of eccentricity, audacity and determination. Some of these are well known, and read like résumés filleted from the available biographies. Here's the painful tale of Olive Schreiner's attempts to combine feminist writing with love and marriage, or of Eleanor Marx's hopeless relationship and her suicide, or the story, so moving and rational, of Mary Wollstonecraft's arrangement with William Godwin in the last two years of her life, in 1796 and 97, to live in separate houses, write all day and meet in the evening. But there are some less well-known stories, too, like the admiring accounts of Margaret Fuller teaching adult-education classes in Boston in 1839. Or of the anthropologist Elsie Parsons, in the 1900s, determined not to behave in the expected ways, wearing tennis shoes with evening gowns, refusing honours and full-time jobs and never saying hello, goodbye, or Merry Christmas.
There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal gossip. So we learn that Mary McCarthy didn't shave her legs, that Hélène Cixous was an “eyeliner queen” and that Hannah Arendt chain-smoked. When we get to Simone de Beauvoir, we hear quite as much about her “trademark” turban (the only time she was ever seen with it coming undone was at Sartre's burial) and her affairs (in 1947 de Beauvoir “fell passionately in love with a sexually competent man … who looked like a young Sylvester Stallone”) as we do about the argument of The Second Sex.
One of the life stories is that of Elaine Showalter who puts herself in here in order to explain how these heroines affected or intersected with her own career. So at the heart of the book is the story of a Jewish American academic feminist coming into her own in the 1950s and 60s, an interesting story which I would have preferred, as the main subject, to this second-hand procession of iconic names. Describing herself reading everything she could lay her hands on in the Brookline Public Library in the Boston suburbs in the 1940s, eating her first Gentile cheeseburger at sixteen while doing an interview with Isaac Asimov, getting away to Bryn Mawr and finding nothing but snobbery and puritanism, breaking off a youthful engagement for a graduate place at intellectual Brandeis, becoming politicized (and getting married to a Southern Episcopalian) in the early 1960s, working on what would become A Literature of Their Own in Paris in 1968, surrounded by English anarchists and French revolutionary students, turning herself into a feminist teacher and activist through the 1960s and 70s, and setting up the new discipline of women's studies (first at Douglas College, then at Rutgers and at Princeton), she is always candid, vigorous and full of enjoyment at having “made up her life as she went along”.
Showalter is generous, too, to all the women (dead and alive, on paper and in person) who helped her shape this life: Kate Millett, Ann Douglas, Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, among many others. One of the book's main narratives is of a chain of female influences, friendships and working relationships. The audacious Elsie Parsons taught a course on “Sex in Ethnology” to a young American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, who started work in 1914 on a book on Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller and Oliver Schreiner—“new women of three centuries”—as a way of investigating the perpetual “restlessness and groping inherent in the nature of women”. Benedict in turn was a great influence on Margaret Mead. Such links are everywhere, in the anti-apartheid activist Ruth First's writing on Olive Schreiner, in Sontag's debt to de Beauvois, who turned her into a feminist, in the friendship between Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, or between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, or in McCarthy's galvanizing effect on a whole generation of American women. Elizabeth Hardwick praised her difficult subversive career of “candour and dissent”; Alison Lurie said that she invented herself as a “totally new type of woman who stood for both sense and sensibility”. This is all very encouraging, even if Showalter is content to celebrate these lines of connection rather than investigate them in any critical depth, and even if she conflates the past with the present rather too easily. So Mary Wollstonecraft is described as feeling “comfortable” with motherhood; Freda Kirchway, the socialist Editor of the Nation in the 1920s, is called the “Tina Brown” of her day (since when was Tina Brown a radical feminist?), and it is said of the 1890s feminist lecturer and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman that “having a daughter intensified her desire to become a role model”. A cosy likeness with the past, not a sense of otherness, strangeness, or difference, is what is sought for here: these are “our heroines, our sisters, our contemporaries”.
But not all these connections are supportive. Some of the most virulent opposition to the women's movement came, “of course,” from other women. Many of the outstanding “feminist heroines”, such as Arendt, disliked the feminist movement, and thought that women should not write like women, but should “adapt to masculine standards of intellectual style”. There are many stories of rivalry, some told with an energy that suggests the settling of scores. “Oh, you're the imitation me”, McCarthy said to Sontag when she first met her in the late 1960s. When Camille Paglia, in turn, invited Sontag to give a guest reading at Bennington in 1973, and was rebuffed by her (“Sontag asked: ‘What is it you want from me?’, to which Paglia wanted to reply, ‘I'm your successor, dammit, and you don't have the wit to realize it’”), Paglia's torching of all possible “female mentors”, and of every feminist American academic in her path (including Showalter), was under way.
There is a great deal of vigour and enthusiasm in this book. All the same, it is depressing. For those women readers and teachers who derived so much from A Literature of Their Own (1977), and who have admired Showalter's analysis of the gendered attitudes to mental illness in The Female Malady (1987) and of the fin-de-siècle in Sexual Anarchy (1990), it is disheartening to hear her saying that she stopped writing feminist essays in 1989 because they had “outlived their usefulness”. And her description of the lives of these women almost entirely in terms of their personal relationships, and, at least in the last part of this book, in terms of media attention and celebrity status, makes for a dubious redefinition of feminism.
Surely there is a difference between women who have changed the way we think and live by their imaginations, their mental rigour, their knowledge and intellect—as well as or in spite of their “life stories”—and women who have achieved celebrity by other means—political ambition, marriage, glamour and wealth, the confessional culture of television? Showalter doesn't think so, placing Wollstonecraft and Arendt alongside “Celebrity First Ladies” such as Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey or Diana Spencer. There will be some support for Clinton and Winfrey as feminist icons, but less, I would have thought, for Diana. Showalter has complained that her last few (extremely emotional) pages about the dead princess have overshadowed the rest of her book, especially in Britain. But to argue that narcissism, self-promotion, deep personal confusion played out for media attention, exploitation of looks and social position, a battle for revenge against an unpleasant husband, and a struggle for survival in an institution that remained entirely unchallenged, constitute the exemplary life story of a “courageous activist”, is questionable. It is as if Showalter, at this point in her book, has decided to unhook the word feminism from any kind of political agenda, or from any idea of working for, or with, other women.
This is disappointing, because, before it gets on to divas and prima donnas, Inventing Herself invokes a long history of feminist polemics, key manifestos that have developed or altered the perception of women's lives, from Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women to de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. One writer of feminist polemics who is conspicuously passed over, however, is Virginia Woolf. In A Literature of Their Own, Showalter was critical of A Room of One's Own, for what she saw as its private, isolationist argument, withdrawing from political commitment into the idea of androgyny. “If a room of one's own becomes the destination, a feminine secession from the political world … it is a tomb, like Clarissa Dalloway's attic bedroom.” Yet Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own is somewhat echoed here. Woolf says that women can move and have moved forward, but must also always keep their mothers' pasts—of oppression, silencing, exclusion, poverty—in mind. Showalter too presents a progressive model of women's self-invention: “In the next wave of rule-breakers [after the New Women], newer women would imagine a fuller life.” Her insistence on influence and “heritage” calls to mind Woolf's famous example of Shakespeare's sister, the woman of genius destroyed by the fact of her sex, whom the women of the future have to bring back to life through their work. Though she gives little space to Woolf, Showalter echoes her when she says “we need a sense of our feminist past”.
But there is another argument raised by Woolf, in Three Guineas, which might also be set alongside Showalter's book. In the late 1930s, writing in the shadow of the impending war and of fascism, Woolf says that now that women have much greater educational and professional opportunities, they should think hard about how they are going to enter the male-dominated world, and should form what she calls a “Society of Outsiders”, taking a critical, adversarial stance. This tricky, utopian idea is essentially a communal one, and it is also rather quiet: her Society of Outsiders might even be a secret society. Showalter's American celebration of glitzy feminist icons—individualist, glamorous, egocentric—is the opposite of that obscure English concept of outsiders, which she utterly repudiates. Her book argues that feminism must take the form of celebrity in order to have any life at all. And perhaps she is right; when we debated this recently in public, the strong reactions of the audience (who mostly wanted to talk admiringly about Oprah Winfrey) proved her point. But I miss the Elaine Showalter who wrote, not so long ago, in Hystories, that “feminism has a strong enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism. … We betray our tradition if we succumb to easy answers. Our primary obligation must always be to the truth.”
SOURCE: Nokes, David. “Classics in the Classroom.” Spectator 291, no. 9103 (25 January 2003): 48-9.
[In the following review, Nokes criticizes Teaching Literature, arguing that Showalter fails to present “any serious or settled argument about the nature of teaching English.”]
There comes a time when all professors of literature think of writing a book like this [Teaching Literature]. Elaine Showalter has been professing it for 40 years, and after such a long and varied career what could be more apposite or timely than to share the wisdom of such experience with her younger colleagues? The answer, I fear, is much. She should have been gently dissuaded from writing a book which ranges from the tendentious (‘methods can be overrated’) to the banal (“the main difference between lectures and seminars was that in seminars the tutor sat down.’). One says ‘writing’, but the word is misapplied; ‘compiling’ would be a better term to register the very many practices which are commented upon, both by the teachers and the taught, throughout this book. There are about three citations per page, thrown in without discernible order, to give the book the appearance of variety; but pretty soon that appearance breaks down into a welter of frantic asides (‘it does not have to be original to be good’) or fussy advice (‘wear a different suit every day of the week’).
It hardly seems to matter that some of these references are meant ironically; for example the last, given to Norman Maclean when ‘he couldn't afford that many suits’ so wore ‘a different necktie every day instead’. This scattergun technique has the effect of weakening any serious or settled argument about the nature of teaching English. There is a tendency to go uncomplainingly along with Isobel Armstrong when she states that ‘students don't have the time to go deeply into any one author’ and to sympathise with Peter V. Conroy on his ‘struggle’ though the ‘discouraging’ early weeks of term when his students, informed that they ‘must read’ Pamela, suggested to him that it ‘somehow be made shorter’. Steven Axelrod confesses that ‘one class memorably hissed me’ when he announced, on the first day of a course on Moby-Dick, ‘that they would have to read the whole book’. Jeff Nunowka bewails ‘the sheer length of Victorian novels’ and Showalter (I believe it's the author, but can't swear to it) much applauds the ‘recent shift of academic interest’ to the shorter fiction of the 1880s and 1890s. ‘It is much easier,’ she writes, to plan a course on Stoker, Stevenson and Wilde than to tackle the ‘loose baggy monsters’ of the mid-Victorians. One looks in vain for some definition of ‘academic’ or ‘interest’ or both.
This is not a book to engage in such debates; it far prefers or feels the need to impart such helpful hints as, ‘The classroom offers the rudiments of a stage’ or ‘I compare lecturing to narration in the novel.’ This last remark stands out because of the personal pronoun that introduces it. Just occasionally Showalter allows herself a paragraph or two of personal didactic commentary and the result, if not electrifying, is at least interesting. More of these observations, lengthened to make an argument, might have been quite readable; but they are set aside in favour of endless anecdotes. Towards the end of this book there is a section entitled ‘Suicide’ of which the first sentence is, ‘The most dangerous of the dangerous subjects is suicide.’ Lest anyone should become interested in the topic and concerned at how to tackle it, they should be immediately warned off. The section is less than two pages long and, without the handout Professor Showalter offers when tackling Plath's The Bell Jar, there is the danger of turning theory into practice. The other topic mentioned in this extremely brief chapter on ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ is ‘Explicit Sexual Language’ which, apart from sniggering at the Literary Review's Bad Sex Prize, backs away from mentioning anything tendentious. Faced with a difficult issue such as rape, it advises, if the topic cannot be ducked, maintaining a ‘sensitive atmosphere in the classroom’ and not feeling ‘like wimps’ for doing so. I was hoping for some advice on tackling the issue in Clarissa, but Showalter is silent on the subject and anyway that novel (twice the length of Pamela or Moby-Dick) is far too long to be included.