Jan 6, 2011

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter

Contrary to what it may appear, the title of Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own is not a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Their Own – it’s rather a response to the following passage from John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women:
If we turn from pure speculation to literature in the narrow sense of the term, and the fine arts, there is a very obvious reason why women’s literature is, in its general conception and in its main features, an imitation of men’s. Why is the Roman literature, as critics proclaim to satiety, not original, but an imitation of the Greek? Simply because the Greeks came first. If women lived in a different country from men, and had never read any of their writings, they would have had a literature of their own. As it is, they have not created one, because they found a highly advanced literature already created.
I have a lot to say about this passage, but I’ll leave it for when I host the discussion on Mill for the Year of Feminist Classics in February. In this history of British Women Writers “from Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing”, Elaine Showalter responds to Mill by suggesting that if women’s literature differs from men’s, it’s because for much of its existence it has been the literature of a subculture; of a group that existed apart from mainstream social and intellectual circles and as such could not help but respond to its own marginalisation. My fear that this book was going to be about bogus essentialist notions such as “feminine aesthetics” was thus eased as early as page 12:
I am also uncomfortable with the notion of ‘female imagination’. The theory of a female sensibility revealing itself in an imagery and form specific to women always runs dangerously close to reiterating the familiar stereotypes. It also suggests permanence, a deep, basic, and inevitable difference between male and female ways of perceiving the world. I think that, instead, the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationship between women writers and their society. (…) In this investigation of the English novel I am intentionally looking, not at an innate sexual attitude, but at the ways in which the self-awareness of the woman writer has translated itself into a literary form in a specific place and time-span, how this self-awareness has changed and developed, and where it might lead.
THANK YOU, Elaine Showalter. A Literature of Their Own is, as I was saying, a chronological history of British women writers from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Showalter divides British women’s literature into three phases: the feminine phase, lasting until the 1880’s, when women had mostly internalised sexist assumptions about themselves and tried to emulate mainstream (male) culture; the feminist phase (1880’s-1920’s), when women mostly wrote against patriarchal values; and the female phase, from the 1920’s to the present day, when women write autonomously instead of restricting themselves to either imitation or protest.

This classification is of course arguable, but as it’s not the main point of the book you don’t have to agree with it to enjoy what Showalter does here. A Literature of Their Own was, to me, an unexpected joy: I approached it with some trepidation, both because I was worried it was going to be essentialist, and because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too academic. There isn’t anything wrong with academic, of course, but I might not get much out of a strictly textual analysis of authors and works I haven’t read yet, and as such this might not be the kind of book I could read on my own for fun.

Fortunately, I had nothing to fear. Showalter’s approach is very much cultural and social, and the result is a book that is accessible and fun to read even if you haven’t read all, or even most, of the authors and texts it discusses. A Literature of Their Own is every bit as concerned with the context in which women were writing as it is with the works themselves, and as such I think anyone interested in feminism and social history (not to mention literature, but if you’re reading this blog I assume that’s a given) will get something out of it.

My favourite chapter was probably “Subverting the Feminine Novel: Sensationalism and Feminine Protest”. Showalter pays especial attention to Victorian sensation authors like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and I found myself nodding in agreement nearly the whole time. My least favourite chapter, on the other hand, was probably the one on Virginia Woolf. It had some very interesting ideas in it, namely a discussion of Woolf’s concept of androgyny (which I look forward to revisiting for the Year of Feminist Classics, with Emily’s help). But on the other hand – and this might sound ironic, considering my recent complaints about the Wilkie Collins biography I read – I found it too speculative; too concerned with Woolf’s psychological profile. This is not necessarily my favourite way of assessing her role as a novelist, so it was a bit frustrating at times. Then again, it just might be than I don’t yet know enough about Woolf’s life to be able to follow along. In any case, the chapter was a good reminder that balance is everything. And I did like this bit:
Yet to see Woolf’s suicide as a beautiful act of faith, or a philosophical gesture towards androgyny, is to betray the human pain and rage that she felt; to see the suicide as proof of her feminine neurosis is to condemn her in death to the stereotypes that imprisoned her in life.
A Literature of Their Own was originally published in 1978, but this more recent edition contains an extra chapter (which mostly discusses the work of Angela Carter) and a new preface with an overview of the book’s critical reception and impact. The preface gave me an interesting glimpse into the history of feminist literary criticism: some of the criticism aimed at Showalter seems fair (she was criticised for not having gone further back than the 1840’s, for example, and “you have to draw the line somewhere” would have convinced me more than “women didn’t see themselves as professional writers until then”); some, like the accusations that she herself is guilty of essentialism, not so much. A Literature of Their Own may not be the be-all and end-all of the history of British female writers, but it was thought-provoking and a joy to read.

As with all books about books, I came away from A Literature of Their Own with a large list of authors I think I want to try. Here it is, for the curious among you and for my own future reference:
  • George Sand (reminder)
  • Elizabeth Robins
  • Florence Wilford
  • Sarah Grand
  • Olive Schreiner (The Story of an African Farm, From Man to Man)
  • George Egerton
  • Amelia B. Edwards (I already own one of her books; now I just need to read it.)
  • Harriet Martineu
  • Dorothy Richardson
  • Mary Augusta Ward
  • Joan Smith
  • Fay Weldon (Big Water)
If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Some interesting passages:
The same complaints [about hordes of women taking over the literary scene and crowding out the men] had been made since 1771; it is important to realise that “female dominance” was always in the eye of the male beholder. The Victorian illusion of enormous numbers came from the overreaction of male competitors, the exaggerated visibility of the woman writer, the overwhelming success of a few novels in the 1840’s, the conjunction of feminist themes in fiction 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.
This kind of put me in mind of the somewhat recent hullabaloo about how the reason why boys don’t read is because there are far too many women writing YA. As they say: so much changes, so much remains the same.
With the relaxation of taboos on the open discussion of female sexual experience, and with women’s increased interest in themes of menstruation, masturbation, abortion and childbirth, there has developed a critical backlash that insists that freedom for the woman writer means a masculine range of experience and subject. There has been a revival of the Victorian idea that female experience is narrow and insignificant, and that in deliberately opting to portray it the novelist diminishes her own potential and restricts herself to a cultural ghetto.
Again, then as now. ‘Women’s fiction’, anyone?

(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book, but I haven't even heard of any of the writers in your list! :(

  2. Amy, don't feel bad! The whole point is that most of them have been mostly forgotten :P I'd only heard of 2 or 3 before this book.

  3. Elaine Showalter is amazing. I read a bunch of her essays in college and have this book on the shelf waiting for me. She recently came out with a book, and I got the chance to hear her speak about it. She's insanely great at speaking and just oozes smart. So glad you reviewed this. Whenever I read her, I just want to spend a week reading the stuff she talks about!

  4. Fay Weldon was very popular in England during the 80's. One of her most popular books - The Life and Loves of a She Devil was made into a drama series, which was extremely good and received cult status afterwards. It was all about adultery and was just fantastic. I have never read the book, but you have me intrigued now.
    The rest of the authors are unknown to me, but I might just have to look them up.
    Great post as always Ana.

  5. The quotation from Mills - argh! I'm glad you mentioned that you don't need to know many of the authors, because that's the first thing I thought. Sounds a very good book, worth looking out for.

  6. I agree - the page 12 quote is great, and expresses a difference I have been trying unsuccessfully to articulate!

  7. I went into this review with a little trepidation. From the title I was thinking this was a treatice on why women should have a separate literature for them, not addressed in a negative but positive way, but you know how anti-that-thought I am! I'm glad to hear that it's pretty much exactly the opposite. I hate when the genders are separated, no matter which gender is considered "better" or even if they are kept equal. Separate is bad in my mind...

  8. Ana, you really are a very ambitious reader, and I am amazed at how much you glean from books like this. I don't know very much about the subject, and I am afraid that having picked up this book I would have been hopelessly lost and confused. After having read your review of this one, I am no longer scared of it, and might even try to seek it out when I am in the mind for something a little more structured and intelligent!

  9. This sounds like such an important read, and I'm so glad that you shared it with all of us. It seems like gender politics have really been an issue in the book world of late, so this is definitely a timely book and one more people would likely benefit from reading. Like many others, I'm saddened to find I only recognized one author on your reading list!

  10. We know the Brontes used male pseudonyms, but I wonder if they really tried to make their writing feel “male”. Interesting thought!

    I’ve read a lot about them, but don’t remember ever coming across an analysis that confirms or disproves this. Does this book go into them a lot?

  11. True, those male writers did create a "highly advanced literature"--I don't deny it.

    But as a woman writer, I'd add that that same highly advanced literature was blind to many things.

    Compare Gaskell's North and South, which I just finished, to anything by Dickens. Wonderful as he is, he never wrote about workers or unions as she did.

  12. I often come across the name Elaine Showalter in scholarly books, so I have always shared your fears that I would not be able to get much out of this book. But you have convinced me that I could actually really enjoy it. Definitely added to my wishlist.

  13. This sounds really interesting Ana. I'm glad to hear it is so approachable, and sounds like a great addition to our project. I may just have to try to get my paws on a copy here :)

  14. Thanks for the articulate reminder about Showalter! I read most of this book & some others of her essays in college, but should really revisit her.

    The criticism you make about Showalter getting too speculative & psychological with in her Woolf chapter - that is rampant in Woolf studies, RAMPANT. It bugs the hell out of me, so thank you for pointing it out. I'm not sure what it is about Woolf that invites that kind of over-emphasis on biography (particularly her mental illness, early childhood trauma and eventual suicide), but it certainly exists. :-P

  15. I feel out of it...I've not read any of the authors you listed! I have, however, heard of Elaine Showalter, though not this particular book. When I worked at a bookstore, I sold books at an event she did for A Jury of Her Peers. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to hear her speak, but the book very much appeals to me.

  16. So I must admit, just the chapter headings on this one and your quotes make me feel that I'd be out of my depths with this one. There are a lot of big ideas that I don't know if I would really appreciate or understand.

    That said, I'm just glad this book EXISTS, if that makes any sense. It shows that people are thinking about and analyzing and having conversation around the subject matter, which I feel is a very good thing.

  17. I have a Showalter on the shelf but like so many other books, it has been sitting there waiting for me to catch up on my reading!

  18. Is Sarah Grand the one who wrote The Beth Book? I have been told that The Beth Book is better than Jane Eyre -- which I of course do not believe, but it's impressive that the claim is even being made.

    I love Elaine Showalter, although I've never read any of her books, just a whole bunch of essays or chapters or excerpts in various college classes. I have The Madwoman in the Attic, but it's back in Louisiana right now, sadly.

  19. That passage at the very beginning is very wrong. I will be waiting to hear your thoughts of course but it is so not right.

    I am not sure if this book was academic it would have been as fun as it is now. I know nothing of Virigina Woolf and that she did suicide is news to me. And I totally like that passage about that.

    Great review as always, you know you have the ability to take from a book more than anyone I have read. You reviews are so good.

    I haven't even heard of the authors you mention, I will be looking forward to what you think of them.

  20. I bought this book last year, but am yet to read it. It does seem very interesting, though.

    I'm planning on reading A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia B. Edwards for a challenge this year. Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peters' mystery series is partly inspired by Edwards.

  21. Wonderful review, Ana!

    I liked John Stuart Mill's observation - "there is a very obvious reason why women’s literature is, in its general conception and in its main features, an imitation of men’s". I think it is the very definition of 'putting one's foot in one's mouth' or 'shoot oneself in one's own foot' :)

    It was interesting to see Fay Weldon that author's list.

    I found your observation - "somewhat recent hullabaloo about how the reason why boys don’t read is because there are far too many women writing YA" - interesting. I didn't know that. Is that really true?

    One of my complaints about literary analyses of the 19th century and early 20th century is that literary superstars of that time, who made a big impact on readers are somehow excluded from the discussion. For example, I discovered a writer called Marie Corelli, about whom Wikipedia says this - "She emerged as a literary superstar from the publication of her first novel in 1886 until World War I when her popularity began to fade. Corelli's novels sold more copies than the combined sales of popular contemporaries, including Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling, despite the fact that critics often derided her work as "the favorite of the common multitude."" I am hoping to read some Corelli novels this year. But my question is why doesn't anyone talk about Corelli today?

    Thanks for the wonderful review, Ana! I am going to add 'A Literature of their Own' to my 'TBR' list.

  22. Oh, yes. I definitely, definitely want to read this. Especially since I'm all a-stir with the reading of Wollstonecraft this week!

    (That initial quote, explaining the title A Literature of Their Own raised my eyebrow...)

  23. This sounds really interesting, though am surprised she cut off at 1840 - am assuming therefore that she doesn't discuss Austen?

    As Vivienne mentions, Fay Weldon is well-known in the UK, though I've read only 'Life and Loves of a She-Devil', which I enjoyed. She's had a bit of flak lately for writing puff novels for (I think) Bulgari, and for her slightly bizarre comments about female sexuality.

    Joan Smith is a writer I've come across - she wrote a couple of detective novels, I think, but she's more of an academic feminist: I've read a book of her essays (quite some time ago), and I thought she was both sensible and enlightening.

    Showalter's book sounds interesting - thanks for the review.

  24. @Nymeth : Sorry for replying to a comment which is addressed to you, Ana. I couldn't resist it. I apologize :)

    @Ela : That is a very good point, Ela - the cutoff date of 1840 means Jane Austen won't be there in the list. How can anyone leave out Jane Austen?

  25. Oooh, this sounds fascinating! Onto my wishlist immedietly. Have you looked at Mothers of the Novel? I haven't read it yet but I gather it is from roughly the same period as Showalter and discusses women's writings earlier than 1840. They might be a good duet.

  26. Now I need to read this and its obvious (to me, at least) companion, Emma Donoghue's Inseperable: Desire Between Women in Literature. So much book geeky goodness!

  27. I have one of Fay Weldon's books and I'm excited to see her name in your list!

  28. Hallo, I gave you a prize on my blog: http://unospazioperme.iobloggo.com/tag/premio+sunshine

  29. I read Sand in high school & I have read parts of Robins Diary. I've always meant to read Dorothy Richardson & Fay Weldon. but haven't.

    I'll watch this space.

  30. TopherGL: I'd read some of her essays and introductions to things in college, but never a whole book, and now I can't believe I waited this long! That's amazing that you got to hear her speak!

    Vivienne: I think I've seen quite a few copies of Weldon's books at used bookshops and charity shops before, but I hadn't really paid attention to her name. That will surely change now!

    Charlie: I can't wait to argue with Mill next month :P (Though I'm quite curious about the context in which he said that.)

    Jill: Isn't it excellently put?

    Amanda: I completely agree! People are people are people, and that comes before anything else.

    Zibilee: I don't think you would, actually - it's honestly surprisingly accessible! Glad to hear you're not scared anymore :D

    Steph: It's amazing how almost forty years later these discussions are still so completely relevant.

    Alex: I don't think it's so much that they wanted their writing to feel "male" as it is that they're writing within the assumptions of a patriarchial society and can't break free from them completely - even when they DO move forward like Jane Eyre does. I thought this was an interesting point to keep in mind now that I've been reading Mary Wollstonecraft, for example.

    Shelley, I very much agree with you!

    Iris: You would enjoy it! I really think so.

    Amy: Yes! I found that so much of what she said helped me make sense of the context in which Wollstonecraft was writing, for example, even if she doesn't go as far back as that.

    Emily: I'm glad I'm not alone in finding that approach frustrating! I do wonder what it is about Woolf that invites it - or is it the figure of the "tragic" woman writer in general? It would be interesting to see if the same happens in Plath studies (I suspect it does).

    It's pretty late here so I'll have to finish responding to comments later, but I just wanted to tell Vishy that it's TOTALLY FINE for people to talk among themselves in my comments :D

  31. This book is a must read for me. I'm sure it will send me off in a hundred different directions to read some of the authors that it discusses.

  32. Thanks Ana :)

    I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Marie Corelli :)

  33. Erin: A Jury of Her Peers does something similar for the history of American Literature, right? I need to get my hands on it!

    Aarti: I think you might surprised about the book's accessibility, BUT there have been books I felt that exact way about, so I know what you mean :P

    Trisha: Which one? I want to read everything she's written!

    Jenny: Yep! I'm also both intrigued by and sceptical about that claim :P Showalter herself doesn't seem to think that highly of Grand as a novelist, though she appreciates what she was trying to do from a sociological perspective.

    Veens: My gut reaction to it goes in that direction as well, but I want to give Mill the benefit of the doubt and wait to read it in context. Hopefully there will be plenty to discuss when I get to him next month! And thank you so much for the kind words!

    Tiina: I remember hearing that before! One more reason to read her.

    Vishy: Sadly, it IS really true that people suggest that about YA and boys! I'm actually considering doing my MA dissertation in that area, since this is a topic that interests me so much (and in regards to which there is SO much I want to argue with :P). Your point about Corelli and other authors that have fallen out of favour is an excellent one. I think I'd seen before in one of the books about the Victorian era I've read, but you're right, she's completely disappeared from the literary landscape. And yet at the time she was huge and clearly had an impact on what was happening - how can we discount that? I've no idea how good a writer she actually was, but I believe there are many, many reasons besides literary quality why some authors become part of the cannon and others don't.

    Jillian: Somewhat to my surprise this went hand in hand with Wollstonecraft perfectly!

    Ela and Vishy: You're right about Austen, sadly - she only discusses her regarding her influence on other women writers and the ways in which she contribute to set a standard that became what was expected of a woman writer for some time.

    LifetimeReader: I haven't, but thank you for bringing it to my attention! *adds to the list*

    Cass: I actually spotted Inseparable at the library recently. I need to read it!

    Alice: I hope you'll enjoy it!

    SiMO: Aw - thank you so much :D

    Beth: I'm not sure how soon I'll get to any of them, but I'll get back to you when I do :P

    Kathleen: Yes! That's what I'm now dying to do.

  34. I wish I were more eloquent but my first reaction to the Mills passage: Grrrrr!

    Showalter is so amazing (I decided that after reading the first sentence of The Female Malady), but I think I'll try to pace myself and read max. one of her works per year (like with Waters :) ).

    I really hate this male fiction (and everything else) is simply universal and human trope and then there's the corner for women fiction, clothes etc.

  35. I think this is one book I definitely need to read at some point. I've also only heard of Georges Sand on your list (and only because she was Chopin's lover, even though she was an author in her own right). I'm always conscious of the difference between women's literature as opposed to men although I'm not sure whether this is a good thing. But I can't seem to help it;P


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.