A Literature of Their Own Critical Essays

Elaine Cottler


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 864 words.)