Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864
Showalter asserts that women in England shared a subculture through the physical experience of the sexual life cycle, which could not be openly discussed. This situation created a close sisterly bond among women writers and between women writers and their female audiences. Although women wrote fiction before 1840, Showalter begins her study with this date because women who wrote during and after that time wrote professionally, for publication.
The feminine novelists are divided into three groups: the great innovators, such as the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot, who became role models for later women writers; their imitators, such as Charlotte Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, and Elizabeth Lynn Linton; and the sensation novelists and children’s book writers who more easily consolidated domestic and professional roles. The feminine novelists were caught in a double bind: They wanted to achieve, but they did not want to appear unwomanly in doing so. This dilemma was brought about by traditional Victorian gender roles that separated men into public life and women into domesticity. Writing was a self-centered, public act; woman’s duty was supposed to be private and other-centered. Victorian women were also denied a language with which to express themselves; traditional gender roles undermined their ability to write about sexuality or strong feelings.
The feminine novelists were predominantly upper-middle-class, were less well educated than their male counterparts, and wrote to support themselves. Feminine novelists often used pseudonyms to circumvent objections by their families and to prevent gender-biased criticism of their work. They took their domestic roles seriously and tried to integrate their personal and professional lives.
No matter how professional they tried to be, however, feminine novelists had to deal with the Victorian double critical standard that judged them as women rather than artists; women’s literature was deemed inferior to men’s literature because women were supposedly physically and biologically subordinate to men and because women’s experience, the basis for their fiction, was limited. It was believed that women’s writing was compensatory; they wrote because they could not fulfill their “natural” destinies as wives and mothers. This double critical standard caused Charlotte Brontë to publish Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot to publish Adam Bede (1857) pseudonymously.
Showalter argues that the heroines and heroes of the feminine novelists tended to reflect the writers’ desire for a merging of Victorian gender roles. Feminine novelists such as Brontë and Eliot created heroines who combined male qualities of strength and intelligence with female qualities of domesticity and sensitivity. Their heroes, who tended to be either impossibly good or improbably monstrous, projected their authors’ desire for male power and freedom.
The feminine novel was subverted by the sensation novelists, who had a better understanding of the business of publishing than their predecessors had had. In the 1860’s, for example, presses and magazines owned by women successfully competed in the male-dominated publishing industry. Sensation novels expressed their authors’ anger and desire for autonomy more overtly than did the domestic novels. They are typified by Mary E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), in which the heroine deserts her child, assumes a false identity, commits bigamy, tries to commit murder, and is ultimately incarcerated for insanity.
Showalter describes the feminist novelists as soberly and seriously assuming the duty of sisterhood. These women appropriated the Victorian myth of female influence and took their assumed spiritual superiority as a mandate for moral leadership. Yet feminist authors did not have specific goals and produced little literature. Showalter sees both their personal lives and their fictional heroines as characterized by unfulfilled promises and a turning inward. Even though the women writers of the suffrage movement produced few novels, Showalter contends that they provided an important bridge between the feminist novelists and the postwar female aesthetic.
The female novelists exchanged the militancy of the feminists for retreat. Their literature is characterized by self-hatred, self-annihilation, and evasion. Showalter examines the life and literature of one of the most famous female novelists, Virginia Woolf, to show how these characteristics emerge. Showalter calls Woolf’s solution to the problem of female identity “the flight into androgyny.” Whereas feminist critics tend to see Woolf’s ideas about androgyny as a viable response to the problem of gender, Showalter contends that it represents a denial of experience and feeling which can only lead to death. She argues that Woolf projects the negative and troubling female qualities of anger, aggression, and sexuality (qualities with which Woolf struggled in her own life) onto her male characters rather than dealing with their presence in women’s lives.
In the final chapters of the book, Showalter looks beyond the female aesthetic to contemporary British women writers who are combining feminine realism, feminist protest, and female self-analysis with political and social awareness. She looks at the impact of the women’s liberation movement on these novelists and concludes that they must find a balance between an art that links them solely to women’s emancipation and a cultural denigration of women’s experience as limited and stunting. The room of one’s own for contemporary women novelists, she believes, must be a place from which they can move out into the world of action.
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