Literary Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In her Preface, Ellen Moers notes that literature is the only intellectual field in which women over an extended period have made a major and indispensable contribution. This study is an effort to examine the nature of women’s special contribution to literature and to assess what this contribution meant for the individual women writers. The common experiences of women writers as women and their influence upon one another were crucial to the creation of a distinct literary tradition. Moers’s book is divided into two parts. The first part, History and Tradition, has five chapters: “The Literary Life: Some Representative Women,” “The Epic Age: Part of the History of Literary Women,” “Women’s Literary Traditions and the Individual Talent,” “Money, the Job, and Literary Women: Female Realism,” and “Female Gothic.” Part II is called Heroinism, a term that denotes literary feminism, the female writer’s assertion of a feminine heroic ideal, and the literary effort to tell a woman’s story from a woman’s point of view. Part II consists of the following chapters: “Heroinism: A Necessary Introduction,” “Traveling Heroinism: Gothic for Heroines,” “Loving Heroinism: Feminists in Love,” “Performing Heroinism: The Myth of Corinne,” “Educating Heroinism: Governess to Governor,” and “Metaphors: A Postlude.”

In the first chapter of Part I, the author looks at the individual lives and particular problems of three important women writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Sand. Extensive quotations from several letters by Harriet Beecher Stowe reveal her efforts to cope with domestic drudgeries and the time-consuming responsibilities of a wife and mother while at the same time trying to write. Elizabeth Barrett and George Sand were more fortunate in their births and circumstances but not entirely free of the difficulties that plagued women writers. Because of their energy and genius, they had the gift of transforming these difficulties into resources. Elizabeth Barrett was blessed with the luxury of idleness that makes possible extensive reading and study of languages. Sheltered by a tyrannical father, she nevertheless asserted a vital interest in and understanding of the world she could, prior to her marriage, only indirectly experience. Through a brief account of George Sand’s personal and professional life, the author demonstrates that no writer, male or female, has ever possessed more energy or ingenuity in reconciling the various demands upon her time.

In both England and America, the Victorian period, or the “Epic Age,” was the age of feminine protest against tyranny. Because of their enforced social and political inactivity, women’s voices and energies found expression primarily in literature. Many works by women of this period are marked by a private, brooding female resentment, but this resentment is to a considerable degree submerged in the general cause of human rights. An excellent example of the sublimation of private grief to public causes is found in the works of Mrs. Gaskell, for example,—especially in her novel Mary Barton. Gaskell, Stowe, and Sand, along with other women of the period, comprehended the power of writing to give a voice to the sex, the race, and the classes that for so long had remained silent. Charlotte Brontë is perhaps the best example of the feminine protest that was brilliantly launched by Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the eighteenth century. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), with all its concern for social causes, is also the work of a literary woman; it grew out of its author’s “rebellion against convention and family pressure, her independent career in London, her solitary journey to Italy, her rejection of marriage on the usual terms, and principally her determined, self-critical slugging away at the work a writer does.”

In the chapter “Women’s Literary Traditions and the Individual Talent,” Moers points out that both the harshest criticism (such as George Eliot’s “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”) and also the great support and inspiration for women writers have come from their peers. In their isolation, women writers read one another’s works and depended upon one another for what Gertrude Stein later called “a sounding board.” Jane Austen acknowledged the importance to her art of her correspondence with women relatives and friends. More important to her than the famous works of male writers were the works of minor women writers: Sarah Harriet Burney, Mrs. Jane West, and Anna Maria Porter, for example. The influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Sand, and Jane Austen upon George Eliot is inestimable. Crucial to an understanding of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a woman of letters is her correspondence with Mary Russell Mitford, author of the magazine sketches, Our Village. Perhaps the most significant example of admiration and indebtedness is that acknowledged by Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In a careful analysis of Dickinson’s poems and Aurora Leigh, Moers discovers that Dickinson’s verse often serves as a lyric underscoring or aria-type elaboration upon something that has happened in Aurora Leigh rather than something in Dickinson’s own life. In addition to her reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dickinson read every Anglo-American woman writer of her time and virtually ignored the famous male writers. Perhaps because of this influence, her poetry is marked strongly by the distinctly feminine experience and “female accessories,” and her metaphysical linking of the girlish and feminine with the spiritual and abstract is uniquely her own. In fact, all of the important women writers have their own distinct style—there is no such thing,...

(The entire section is 2380 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, May 12, 1976, p. 30.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, February 1, 1976, p. 175.

Library Journal. CI, March 1, 1976, p. 719.

MS. V, July, 1976, p. 44.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, April 1, 1976, p. 12.

New York Times Book Review. March 7, 1976, p. 6.

Saturday Review. LXI, Summer, 1976, p. 336.

Time. CVII, April 5, 1976, p. 76.