Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine C. Showalter traces a tradition of women’s literature in England by examining the works and lives of women novelists from 1840 to the present. Her analysis, which includes both great and minor novelists, juxtaposes these writers’ lives and work against the social, political, and cultural realities of the lives of “ordinary” women of their time, while tracing the similarities of this female literary subculture to other literary subcultures.

Showalter asserts that she is not concerned with delineating a female imagination, which runs the risk of being defined in stereotypes, but is looking for repeated themes, patterns, and images in literature by women. Therefore, her study considers only women who write for pay and publication.

The author divides women’s literary subculture into three stages—the feminine, the feminist, and the female—and traces shifts in perspective toward literature and women’s place in it across these stages as women writers struggle to form and maintain a sense of identity in a male-controlled profession. In the feminine stage (1840-1880), women imitate the dominant culture and internalize its ideas about art and society. In the feminist state (1880-1920), women protest against these ideas and advocate their own thoughts about society and art. In the female stage (1920 onward), women search for self-identity by looking inside themselves and away from the dominant...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Literature of Their Own is Showalter’s response to Virginia Woolf’s call for a history of women writers in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Showalter’s analysis of a woman’s tradition in fiction is an important contribution to the field of feminist literary criticism because it gives a sense of solidity and continuity to the content of women’s literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at the same time that it verifies relationships among these women as models and influences. These relationships and continuity are frequently lacking in traditional canonical literary studies, in which women writers tend to be isolated, although some critics contend that placing women writers into a separate literary tradition further isolates them from a literary culture in which they are already marginalized because of their gender. Nevertheless, Showalter’s focus on both famous and less-than-famous women novelists introduces the reader to unfamiliar but important women writers, particularly of the nineteenth century, whose work bears reinspection and, in some cases, reevaluation. This focus also allows her to challenge the myths associated with some of these authors and their lives, myths that have arisen in part because of the women’s critical isolation from their contemporaries.

Showalter’s study is also notable for its emphasis on the social and cultural conditions under which the women she discusses wrote; this concentration allows her to avoid the charge of ahistoricity that has been leveled at some American feminist critics and demonstrates the complexity and direction of the feminine literary tradition in England. Some critics contend that Showalter’s text is typical of American feminists’ tendency to gloss over class differences; the women writers she studies are mostly middle class, because more of the book is devoted to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century, but Showalter does express the hope that the contemporary feminist movement in England will eventually allow the voices of working-class women to be heard.

Showalter has also written The Female Malady: Women Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985) and Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin De Siècle (1990), and she has edited two collections of feminist literary criticism, The New Feminist Criticism (1985) and Speaking of Gender (1989).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This important work of feminist literary criticism examines the responses of nineteenth century women writers in England and America to the male-dominated literary tradition. The readings of the texts are original and provocative, but the study is psychologically rather than socially oriented.

Newton, Judith Lowder. Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778-1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. This study combines Marxist criticism and feminist analysis of British fiction by women to argue that the novels discussed demonstrate women’s response to the ideology of female power as defined by self-sacrifice and influence.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. In this humorous but important study, Russ investigates the ways in which women’s writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in England and America has been suppressed, discouraged, and marginalized. Like Showalter’s work, its focus is primarily social and cultural.

Spender, Dale, ed. Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992. This collection of essays on eighteenth and early nineteenth century women writers attempts to correct the idea that they were literary dilettantes and argues that they wrote for publication in order to support themselves and their families.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929. In this text, Woolf initiates the idea of a woman’s tradition in literature to which Showalter’s work responds. Like Showalter, Woolf calls attention to forgotten women writers while arguing their importance as literary models for future women artists.