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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.

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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 culture.

Showalter’s study is notable for its balance and generosity as it illuminates the lives and art of such well-known women writers as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by considering them in relation to their relatively unknown literary sisters. Such an agenda allows the author to challenge, or demystify, prevailing interpretations of these women’s lives and work. For example, she sees George Eliot as more traditional than radical, and she questions positive assumptions generally associated with Virginia Woolf’s concept of androgyny. Throughout the work, Showalter traces women writers’ efforts to accommodate, question, or move outside traditional notions of women’s domestic nature at the same time that they question the suitability of women’s experience as a preparation and basis for writing fiction.

This is a scholarly but highly readable work that not only sheds new light on familiar women writers but also introduces the reader to some of their contemporaries, who, although less well known, share the same artistic and social challenges and concerns. All the women studied take part in a dialogue that spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that shapes their self-awareness and their fiction.

The text includes a biographical appendix and a selected bibliography. The appendix, which contains information on two hundred women writers born in England after 1800, is organized chronologically in order to highlight generational changes and to show shared professional concerns. The bibliography contains publishing information on selected bibliographies, books, and articles relevant to the study of nineteenth and twentieth century women novelists.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1128 words.)

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