Marcia Landy (review date winter 1977-1978)

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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 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.


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