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A literature of their own: from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing
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Think of this as a literature seminar with a really interesting professor who at times will read you passages of books and then tie them all back to the central theme. In addition, you'll get information about the society the books were written in, as well as lots of biographies of various writers. If you haven't read some of the literature (
Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley's Secret
, etc.) then there will be some spoilers. This however is a good thing, because the focus here is using those stories as examples, and if the author was coy with the plot (and thus not spoiled anything) we'd not be able to understand the reference. Also this is extremely helpful because some of the more obscure books referenced are not going to be easy to find, even with Gutenberg, and so you don't mind having the plot explained.
I don't know that I agree with everything Showalter has said about some of the books and authors - but I can say that almost every other page I was either writing down a quote or piece of history that interested me, or I was jotting down another name to the list of women authors I needed to look up and learn more about. The book will practically write you a To Read list, some of which I'm sure are core women's studies lit I never got around to reading.
I. The Female Tradition
II. The Feminine Novelists and The Will To Write
III. The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel
IV. Feminine Heroines: Charlote Bronte and George Eliot
V. Feminine Heroes: The Woman's Man
VI. Subverting the Feminine Novel: Sensationalism and Feminine Protest
VII. The Feminist Novelists
VIII. Women Writers and the Suffrage Movement
IX. The Female Aesthetic
X. Virginia Woolf and the Flight into Androgyny
XI. Beyond the Female Aesthetic: Contemporary Women Novelists
Biographical Appendix and Selected Bibliography
Showalter provides many examples from books and contemporary publications to support her statements, but quoting all of that in full would be even more lengthy. At the same time, I also want to save many quotes that I personally was interested in. (I really loved the Woman in White/Lady Audley comparison discussion in Ch 6.)
Acknowledgments, p vii:"In the atlas of the English novel, women's territory is usually depicted as desert bounded by mountains on four sides: the Austen peaks, the Bronte cliffs, the Eliot range, and the Woolf hills. This book is an attempt to fill in the terrain between these literary landmarks and to construct a more reliable map from which to explore the achievements of English women novelists."
Chapter 1, The Female Tradition
p 11: "...This book is an effort to describe the female literary tradition in the English novel from the generation of the Brontes to the present day, and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture."
"....what Germaine Greer calls the "phenomenon of the transcience of female literary fame"; "almost uninterruptedly since the Interregnum, a small group of women have enjoyed dazzling literary prestige during their own lifetimes, only to vanish without trace from the records of posterity."
p. 18: - "The works of Mary Wollstonecraft were not widely read by the Victorians due to the scandals surrounding her life."
p. 20: "...even the most devout women novelists, such as Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik, were aware that the "feminine" novel also stood for feebleness, ignorance, prudery, refinement, propriety, and sentimentality, while the feminine novelist was portrayed as vain, publicity-seeking, and self-assertive."
p. 21: "...The novelists publicly proclaimed, and sincerely believed, their antifeminism. By working in the home, by preaching submission and self-sacrifice, and by denouncing female self-assertiveness, they worked to atone for their own will to write.
...Victorian women were not accustomed to choosing a vocation; womanhood was a vocation in itself."
p. 25: "Coarseness" was the term Victoians readers used to rebuke unconventional language in women's literature. It could refer to the "damns" in
, the dialect in
, the slang of Rhoda Broughton's heroines, the colloquialisms in
, or more generally to the moral tone of a work, such as the "vein of perilous voluptuousness" one alert critic detected in
Chapter 2, The Feminine Novelists and The Will To Write
p. 37: "...This uniformity of social origin is true of English writers generally, but is more extreme in the case of women, who were even less likely than men to be the children of the laboring poor. Women novelists were overwhelmingly the daughters of the upper middle class, the aristocracy, and the professions. ...Tess Dubeyfield did not write fiction.Yet the comments of critics in Victorian journals give the impression that every woman in England was shouldering her pen."
p. 37-8: "...anyone who turns to the publishers' advertisements at the back of a Victorian novel will soon be aware that scores of books have disappeared along with their authors. For example my copy of Mrs. Craik's
A Noble Life
(published by Hurst & Blackett, 1866) who are Mrs. G. Gretton, author of
The Englishwoman in Italy
; Beatrice Whitby, author of five novels; who are Mabel Hart, E. Frances Poynter, and Martha Walker Freer? They have all slipped through the literary historian's net, as have half of the women writers listed month by month in the
in the 1870s."
p. 40: "...it is important to remember that "female dominance" was always in the eye of the male beholder. The Victorian illusion of enormous numbers [of female writers] came from overreaction of male competitors, the exaggerated visibility of the woman writer, the overwhelming success of a few novels in the 1840s, the conjunction of feminist themes in fiction with with feminist activism in England, and the availability of biographical information about the novelists, which made them living heroines, rather than sets of cold and inky initials."
p. 42: "The classical education was the intellectual dividing line between men and women; intelligent women aspired to study Greek and Latin with a touching faith that such knowledge would open the world of male power and wisdom to them. ...It is a commonplace for an ambitious heroine in a feminine novel to make mastery of the classics the initial goal in her search for truth."
p. 44: "...It was not until much later that women writers began to understand that the classical curriculum and the conventional schoolroom offered a very limited education, and to appreciate that their own efforts may even have given them an advantage over their brothers."
p. 47: "...Furthermore, women writers were likely to be dependent on their earnings and contributing to the support of their families, and not, as has been conjectured, indulging themselves at the expense of fathers and husbands."
p. 61: "...One of the distinguishing characteristics of the female novelists is the seriousness with which they took their domestic roles. ...But neither condescension nor indignation is warranted. Up until about 1880 feminine novelists felt a sincere wish to integrate and harmonize the responsibilities of their personal and professional lives. Moreover, they believed that such a reconciliation of opposites would enrich their art and deepen their understanding."
p. 70: "...It was not exactly that critics revered motherhood and its wisdom, but that they regarded mothers as normal women; the unmarried and the childless had already a certain sexual stigma to overcome. In the early part of the century, attacks on the barren spinster novelist were part of the common fund of humor."
Chapter 3, The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel
p. 74 -75: "...As it became apparent that Jane Austen and
were not aberrations, but the forerunners of female participation in the development of the novel, jokes about dancing dogs no longer seemed an adequate response."
p. 83: "Rather than protesting against such criticism, women writers, as we have seen, reinforced it by playing down the effort behind their writing, and trying to make their work appear as the spontaneous overflow of their womanly emotions."
p. 86: "...Women novelists might have banded together and insisted on their vocation as something that made them superior to the ordinary women, perhaps even happier. Instead they adopted defensive positions and committed themselves to conventional roles. ...The feminine writers' self-abasement backfired and caused the kind of patronizing trivialization of their works found in George Smith's obituary of Mrs. Gaskell: "She was much prouder of ruling her household well... than of all she did in those writings."
p 91: "...When the authors behind the pseudonyms [Eliot and Bronte] were revealed to be women, critics were dismayed. The main difference between the two episodes was that Charlotte Bronte had been shocked, dismayed, and hurt to discover that her realism struck others as improper; George Eliot had seen what happened to Charlotte Bronte, and was prepared."
Critics looked to find someone to blame for "coarseness" in Jane Eyre, like Bramwell, the author's brother, p. 93: "
The Quarterly Review
looked closer to home, at the influence of Bramwell, "thoroughly depraved himself, and tainting the thoughts of all within his sphere." Many readers, including Charlotte Yonge, felt that Branwell's influence on his sisters had been dastardly, but they found it comfortably in accordance with their notions of male and female temperament."
Chapter 4, Feminine Heroines: Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot
p. 102: "By 1853 Austen's name had become a byword for female literary restraint, as is demonstrated by the protest of a critic for the
: "'A writer of the school of Miss Austen' is a much-abused phrase, applied now-a-days by critics who, it is charitable to suppose, have never read Mrs. Austen's works, to any female writer who composes dull stories without incident, full of level conversation, and concerned with characters of middle life."
p. 121 "...the image of the "maniacal and destructive woman" closely parallels that of the sexually powerful woman: "Menstruation, 19th century physicians worried, could drive some women temporarily insane; menstruating women might go berserk, destroying furniture, attacking family and strangers alike... Those 'unfortunate women' subject to such excessive menstrual influence," one doctor suggested, "should for their own good and that of society be incarcerated for the length of their menstrual years."
Chapter 5, Feminine Heroes: The Woman's Man
136: "It is customary for critics of the Victorian novel to see women's heroes as fantasy lovers, daydreams of romantic suitors. Critics have been rather slow to perceive that much of the wish-fulfillment in the feminine novel comes from women wishing they were men, with the greater freedom and range masculinity confers. Their heroes are not so much their ideal lovers as their projected egos."
140: cite in Carol Norton,
Lost and Saved
: ""Ever since Jane Eyre loved Mr. Rochester, a race of novel-heroes have spring up... Brutal and selfish in their ways, and rather repulsive in person, they are, nevertheless, represented as perfectly adorable, and carrying all before them, like George Sand's galley slave." These heroes do have a decided family resemblance. They are not conventionally handsome, and often are downright ugly; they have piercing eyes; they are brusque and cynical in speech, impetuous in action. Thrilling the heroine with their rebellion and power, they simultaneously appeal to her reforming energies."
140: "...The problem with the brute hero, the reason that he was considered so much a feminine property, was not that he was an unconvincing man, but that to the conservative male Victorian mind he was unlovable."
p 142-3 "Men, it appears, saw these heroes as tyrants who took advantage of helpless heroines, but nothing could have been further from their author's intentions. At least one woman critic recognized the appeal of the rough lover. Mrs. Oliphant, who personally tended to portray the safer, blander, clerical hero, shrewdly observed that the brute flattered the heroine's spirit by treating her as an equal rather than as a sensitive, fragile fool who must be sheltered and protected. ...Like the dark heroes in Scott's novels, the descendants of Rochester represent the passionate and angry qualities in their creators."
Chapter 6, Subverting the Feminine Novel: Sensationalism and Feminine Protest
p 158: "As Kathleen Tillotson points out, "the purest type of sensation novel is the novel-with-a-secret." For the Victorian woman, secrecy was simply a way of life. The sensationalists made crime and violence domestic, modern, and suburban; but their secrets were not simply solutions to mysteries and crimes; they were the secrets of women's dislike of their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers."
p 160: "In many sensation novels, the death of a husband comes as a welcome release, and women escape from their families through illness, madness, divorce, flight, and ultimately murder. ...Dr George Black warned in 1888 that incautious perusal of such novels had a "tendency to accelerate the occurrence of menstruation.""
The Woman In White
: "Collins also creates an active, intelligent female character in Laura's stepsister, Marian Halcombe, but he takes care to make her unfeminine and ugly - she is the only Victorian heroine of my acquaintance with a mustache. ... Marian Halcombe, as her first name suggests, is an anomalous figure somewhat similar to George Eliot (Collins did not like women novelists)."
Lady Audley's Secret
: "The dangerous woman is not the rebel or the bluestocking, but the "pretty little girl" whose indoctrination in the female role has taught her secrecy and deceitfulness, almost as secondary sex characteristics. She is particularly dangerous because she looks so innocent."
p 165 Footnote 28: "Mrs Oliphant credited Braddon with setting a new fashion: "She is the inventor of the fair-haired demon of modern fiction. Wicked women used to be brunettes long ago, now they are the daintiest, softest, prettiest of blonde creatures; and this change has been wrought by Lady Audley and her influence on contemporary novels."
166: "Braddon's villain is Wilkie Collins' victim, and Braddon's satire of the conventions of
The Woman in White
extends to many other details. Throughout her novel, Braddon shows that a determined woman can liberate herself by actively applying the methods through which Collins' passive heroine is nearly destroyed."
169: Discussion of the
case, notably in
's Six to Sixteen (also in the
Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Chapter 7, The Feminist Novelists
184-5: "...This time around, women rejected the passivity and the non competitive separation of spheres basic to the feminine ideal. ...While their male contemporaries, such as Gissing, Moore, and Hardy, imagined a New Woman who fulfilled their own fantasies of sexual freedom (a heroine made notorious to feminists' disgust, by Grant Allen's 1895 best seller
The Woman Who Did
), feminist writers of the 1880s and 1890s demanded self-control for men rather than license for themselves. ...Their version of New Womanhood, though not as sensational as Allen's, was probably more pragmatic, and probably more threatening."
187: "To sheltered and sexually naive ladies, the revelations of the Contagious Diseases Acts campaigns (1864-1884) came with traumatic force. The campaign reached its full strength at just about the time that
The Subjection of Women
appeared. On December 31, 1869 the Daily News published a manifesto demanding the abolition of the Acts that was signed by 124 prominent women, including Florence Nightingale and Harriet Martineau. From then on, respectable women were confronted with an ever-escalating series of shocking stories of male brutality, profligacy, and vice. ...The policeman and the doctor became agents of the state in their forcible examinations of women accused of prostitution. ...The suicide of an innocent suspect, Mrs. Percy, in 1875, consolidated the view of a male alliance dedicated to the persecution of women."
Footnote 8, p 187: "The
Contagious Diseases Acts
, instituted during the Crimean War, attempted to control syphilis by enforced examination, detection, and treatment of prostitutes in garrison towns. Women objected because men were neither examined nor punished for their part in the transactions."
Footnote 9, p 188 "Between 1880 and 1900 about fifteen hundred infants died annually of hereditary venereal infections."
p. 191 "...[Ellis] Ethelmer's
(1893), a long poem in heroic couplets, celebrates the coming end of the menstrual cycle."
If you've actually made it this far and really want to read more:
last few chapters of quotes are here
| Sep 25, 2013 |
During a heat wave you would think I'd be reading something light and "beachy" but no, I've been reading this serious critical look at British women novelists from Bronte to Lessing from a feminist point of view. This is a revised and expanded edition of her original book published in 1977 I believe.
Those early women novelists were admirable, strong women. With all the restrictions on their education and lifestyle, they still managed to write novels that are widely read even today. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and all the other beloved novels they wrote have much of value to say to we modern women with all our freedoms. Just think, they had little or no education, were only trained to catch a man, hopefully a rich one, and had no knowledge of the life of anyone other than people just like themselves. Most of us would go stark raving mad with all their confining rules. Their fathers and then husbands had total control over them, even over what they were allowed to read.
We get a slight taste of this kind of life watching series on Masterpiece Theater, but the girls in those families are sly enough to find ways around the men in their lives. I doubt most women in 19th century English upper classes could get away with such things.
Showalter, a Princeton professor, wrote this book as a result of an academic study of all the women novelists in England and this is a book that could easily be used as a textbook. That is not to say that it is dry and boring, anything but. I found it very readable and fascinating, enough so to read it through a week of terrible heat and humidity. Now I'm going on to something very light, but this book told me not only about the writing these women did, but nearly every aspect of their lives. The addition of novelists of the modern day through Doris Lessing is a small part of the overall book.
The feminist aspects of the book are enlightening as well, and Showalter includes much about the suffragists' struggle for the vote and against war. I confess this was the least interesting part to me, but I must admit that it would be impossible to separate the feminist movement from English women's literature since each was influenced greatly by the other.
I recommend this book but not to everyone. If you are interested in women's history or the early English women novelists, you will enjoy this study. Otherwise, you'll do better to stick with the actual novels, but don't let yourself be misguided in the thought that 19th century novels will be boring. You'll miss some excellent reads.
| Jul 25, 2011 |
| Nov 6, 2006 |
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