Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women
With one notable exception, all of the essays in this collection were composed between 1972 and 1988, after Carolyn Heilbrun became an avowed feminist. The exception is the opening piece, “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” (1957), written in a rather traditional, humanistic style reminiscent of the author’s mentor and colleague at Columbia University, the famous scholar Lionel Trilling. The opening essay is crucial, however, because it establishes a kind of stage that prepares the reader for the later discussions. Heilbrun shows how Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, has been consistently misread as a weak and adulterous woman when, in fact, she is strong, clever, and unfailingly articulate. If so famous a play as HAMLET has been misread, are there not other misreadings of authors and books closer to the present-day?
Without resorting to doctrinaire or ideological positions, Heilbrun answers this question with a well-reasoned and highly accessible form of feminist criticism that will enlighten and engage anyone who cares about books. She writes clearly and passionately, offering frequent examples to buttress her most telling points. Margaret Mead, Vera Brittain, Virginia Woolf, May Sarton, and Dorothy Sayers emerge as her heroines—all “weavers” of fiction in the manner of Ariadne and Penelope. Every one of the essays provides insightful reading, but three deserve particular mention: “Marriage Perceived: English Literature, 1873-1944,” “May Sarton’s Memoirs,” and “The Detective Novel of Manners.” Like all good books of criticism, HAMLET’S MOTHER AND OTHER WOMEN not only involves the reader in a meaningful dialogue but creates an urgency to go out and read the books themselves.