The fuss about gender continues. Feminist criticism has gone off in several odd directions lately, resorting more and more to jargon of the gynocentric, phallogocentric variety, and positing a peculiarly feminine way of looking at things, a mode consistently belittled in the patriarchal conditions that have always prevailed. What started as a legitimate scrutiny of past mistreatment of women, in life and in books, seems to have turned into an assertion of some intangible feminine principle. True, a similar principle was being evoked in the early Thirties by John Cowper Powys, when he commended Dorothy Richardson for having dredged up her novels ‘out of the abyss of feminine consciousness’; and there’s Virginia Woolf’s famous comment on the same set of novels, when she noted their author’s mastery over what she termed ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. However, we should bear in mind another remark of Virginia Woolf’s: that ‘a woman’s writing is always feminine ... the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine.’ What we don’t mean, surely, is a special way with words. ‘If anatomy is not destiny,’ says Mary Jacobus in her rigorous, scholarly collection of essays, Reading Woman, ‘still less can it be language.’
A woman’s writing is always feminine, and it isn’t necessary to make anything of this. A man’s is always masculine, for that matter. The fact that Dorothy Richardson’s discursive and thoroughgoing Pilgrimage attracted expressions of admiration like John Cowper Powys’s tells us more about current social than literary procedures. The type of ‘realism’ she repudiated was mostly the product of male authors, so it was perhaps inevitable that her alternative brand should be dubbed feminine. It was in fact sexless subjective realism, as opposed to the objective sort. It has often been pointed out that Dorothy Richardson’s experiments with prose style had something in common with those of James Joyce; you don’t, however, catch anyone applauding Joyce for having written out of the abyss of masculine consciousness, though it might have been said of him with equal pertinence.
Most of the studies under review here are concerned to see justice done to the body of women’s writing which (they claim) exists and has always existed as a kind of adjunct or undertow to the mainstream of English literature. Some critics would wish to dissociate themselves altogether from ‘masculine systems of representation’ (the continuous use of the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is a worry and an irritation: can a system of representation be either one or the other?) and also from traditional aesthetic criteria, along with other suspect standards. But it is (for example) far harder to refute literary than psychoanalytic requirements with regard to women, since the latter were openly designed to generate socially unexceptionable behaviour, while women, like everyone else, have always been free to write submissively or subversively, in accordance with their natural abilities and inclinations. Of course there are social factors involved in the business of women’s writing, but it’s with the end-result, and that alone, that literary judgments are concerned. It’s dispiriting, given the vast field of women’s literature and all the distinguished work it contains, to be told – as Alicia Ostriker tells us in the essay she contributes to The New Feminist Criticism – that language itself is the property of one half of the population, and available to the other only through acts of larceny. So that’s what writing women have been doing through the ages – turning themselves into master thieves.
Thieves and impostors: those who prospered, by and large (so a feminist denunciation goes), did so by ‘imitating’ men and their modes, even to the extent of calling themselves George Eliot, or Currer, Ellis or Acton Bell. (Odd that the imitators should be inimitable.) No applause for authors laying claim to a tradition, and working within it: just a demand that gender should proclaim itself all over the prose. (Try applying this argument to writing by men, and you will provoke an outcry.) A more productive kind of feminist criticism is that in which misogynist attitudes, past and present, are subjected to salutary ridicule – as in Mary Ellman’s classic Thinking about Women, which shows to the fullest extent the part played by wit in the business of effective reappraisal. Germaine Greer, too, in her first book, had enormous fun with the niceties prescribed for girls and purveyed in the pages of romantic fiction. These, and other timely studies like Eva Figes’s Patriarchal Attitudes, set out to demonstrate the insecure basis of some social axioms. They were followed by two key books from America, Ellen Moers’s Literary Women and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, both of which undertook a valuable adjustment of emphasis when it came to the discussion of works by women writers.
One of the most stimulating kinds of literary speculation involves the reading of past works in the light of present-day preoccupations. What has it meant to be female, at various not-too-distant historical periods all brimful of constricting – and in some cases conflicting – social expectations? For the sharpest illumination of this matter it’s necessary to turn to a certain kind of fiction – ‘the serious woman’s novel’, as Anthea Zeman called it in her pointed and vivacious examination of the genre, Presumptuous Girls. The serious woman’s novel has always contained reports, overt or covert, on the part assigned to females in the workings of society, and the extent to which this part is flexible or otherwise. Anthea Zeman continually puts her finger on issues denoting women’s responsibility for their own lives: she cites, for example, the stand on sexual integrity taken by Jane Eyre and Anne Elliott, as much as Doris Lessing’s Ella. She is a mettlesome commentator.
Rosalind Miles’s The Female Form is a work of criticism in the same engaging mode: that is, it’s vigorously and straightforwardly written; it is sometimes funny; it makes large claims for the woman’s novel – ‘from its foundation the novel has been and remains the female form’ – and backs them up with judicious exposition; and it assembles its material under a number of pungent headings – ‘Lady Novelists and Honorary Men’, ‘The Sex War’, and so on. This author is knowledgable and persuasive on the topic of the outlet literature affords certain perennial aversions: we have Ivy Compton Burnett, for example, ‘with her attacks upon male institutions’; and Jean Rhys displaying a lacerating insight into the bad behaviour of men towards women. In the end, however, Rosalind Miles comes down on the side of the separatists, referring with approval to the concept of ‘a female culture acting as an intellectual centre and emotional base for all women writers to draw on and come home to at need’ (imagine instituting an equivalent resource for men!); and on the way to this conclusion, a wrong evaluation or two creeps in. The unrelenting ‘femininity’ of the Pilgrimage sequence is once again mooted, when Rosalind Miles reminds us: ‘there is no effort to present the man’s side of events.’ What she doesn’t add is that Dorothy Richardson, in a novel sequence crammed with characters of both sexes, made no effort to present any other person’s side of events; the literary experiment entailed a continuous viewpoint, which happened to be that of a woman.
Then there’s the case of Elizabeth Bowen, whose flair for social comedy and its concomitant, oblique social criticism, the author of The Female Form seems to disregard. Bowen, whose characteristic tone is amiably sardonic, is more or less lumped together with the unironic, heart-searching Rosamond Lehmann, and both are taxed, unfairly, with incorporating ‘unexamined social assumptions’ into their novels. The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, is similarly misread and its grimly playful quality not taken into account. It isn’t, despite Rosalind Miles’s assertion to the contrary, a depressing illustration of the female’s ‘masochistic search for the man who will dominate’. The heroine of this Spark novel is no more representative than Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus: she’s an outrageous and eccentric victim, very much in control (as the title indicates) of her own bad end. And when Rosalind Miles laments the continuing emphasis on personal relationships, even in the serious woman’s novel, we might wonder why she doesn’t single out one inspiriting exception: Muriel Spark’s Loitering with intent, which conveys more lucidly than anything else I know the exhilaration of getting to grips with one’s proper work (in this case, writing).
Two more small blemishes to be noted in The Female Form (which is more to be relished for its perceptiveness than blamed for what it overlooks) – an admiration for Michele Roberts’s overwriting, and an accolade for one of the worst novels of the 20th century, The Well of Loneliness (‘the flaws of the style’ notwithstanding). ‘Compulsively readable’ is a surprising verdict on this impossible book. Rosalind Miles’s pronouncements on the things she takes exception to are generally more inspired – D.H. Lawrence’s ‘pseudognomic and would-be reverberant obscurities’ is an example.
In Feminism and Poetry, Jan Montefiore discusses some separatist ideologies and their effects on contemporary women’s poetry; if full approval is withheld from these ideologies and their exponents, it’s with a certain amount of doubt and reluctance. ‘Although I do not wholly agree ... the feminist mythology seems to me ... an important way of imagining – and therefore creating – the possibility of a woman-centred discourse.’ Jan Montefiore seems to feel that she ought to be whole-heartedly in favour of such figments as a woman-centred discourse, but she can’t quite bring herself to it. ‘It will be apparent ... that I have disagreements with all these versions of a woman’s tradition ...’; ‘A poetry of purely female identity is not ... a really viable possibility.’ The book is oddly full of caveats and qualifying comments, since its primary standpoint is one of applause for the extreme poetic departures it enumerates. (One woman poet, we learn, was so overcome by reading the work of another that she promptly went down with symptoms of flu, thereby giving a new twist to the phrase ‘infectious enthusiasm’.) We get a lot about women feeling effaced, alienated, lumbered with a language at odds with their psychic identities, and all the rest of it, and the reactions to these disagreeable states of mind. Both the feelings and the reactions are exaggerated, as is the coverage they get here: however, Jan Montefiore is right to feel affronted when she looks at the standard critical accounts of the Thirties and has to report the virtual exclusion of women writers from all of them. This is indeed an egregious absence.
It’s starting to look as though the feminist/anti-feminist opposition is doomed to go round in circles for all eternity. Women used to be held to be different and inferior, though perfectly efficient while going about their natural duties. Then came a reasonable plea for equality between the sexes, equality of treatment and evaluation. Then the champions of women divided into the egalitarians, and those who liked to think of the whole sex as different and superior. Nowadays we don’t hear any talk about superiority, but the idea of difference is paraded for all it’s worth. (‘The defining experience of the woman writer is ... her consciousness of solidarity, of an identity shared with other women’: this is Jan Montefiore’s understanding of the position taken by Adrienne Rich.) It’s a tenet upheld by both radical feminists and anti-feminists, this matter of ‘indifference’. The Anti lot aren’t averse to turning the arguments of the others to their own invidious ends. Ivan Illich, in his book Gender, can claim, tongue in cheek, to be merely repeating a feminist dictum when he makes a great to-do about the ‘difference’ of women, a difference that may gain its happiest expression in the kitchen. Gender, according to the authors of Nostalgia and Sexual Difference, is among the pointers to a worrying backlash against the Women’s Movement in America, with feminists (rechristened ‘Amazons’) held to blame for the present-day malaise, and a hankering after a time when men were men, and women women, as they might be envisaged in the pages of Hemingway or Louisa May Alcott.
Janice Doane and Devon Hodges are concerned and conscientious critics, and their grasp of social issues is impressive: however, their book is chiefly memorable for its plot summaries of some very peculiar novels in the new anti-feminist mode, including one about a bookshop manager who tangles with several unruly females, one of these a pig. Victor Grant (as the hero of this work is called) conceives an ambition to slaughter the entire editorial staff of a feminist publication known as Ms Chief, and effects this end (and their ends) in a variety of colourful ways, including impaling and strangulation. Victor then goes off and lives happily in the country in an old-fashioned style, with a fecund wife who writes articles upholding domesticity for the local newspaper. Paradise regained.
Neither Mary Jacobus nor Elaine Showalter is among those feminists who would wish to substitute hysteric for phallic criticism (the one just about as valid a procedure as the other). The Jacobus collection, Reading Woman, surveys feminist and psychoanalytic analyses of some celebrated works of fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ among them. This story, about a young woman already in the grip of some psychological disorder, driven right round the bend by her husband’s obtuseness (‘I am a doctor, dear, and I know’), and desperately seeking a pattern in her bedroom wallpaper to match her own fraught condition, offers scope for a number of potent interpretations, not all of them exactly geared to the events of the plot. One feminist reading, says Mary Jacobus, claims simultaneously that women are not mad, and that it isn’t their fault if they are. She has in mind Annette Kolodny’s ‘A Map for Rereading’ (a feminist riposte to Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading), which Elaine Showalter includes in her The New Feminist Criticism, an assembly of essays exemplifying topical approaches to women’s writing. This book is sufficiently forbearing to extend its hospitality to a critic with a grievance against the editor and nearly all her fellow contributors: Bonnie Zimmerman has looked carefully at feminist exegesis and judged the bulk of it ‘homophobic as well as heterosexist’. Is there no end to the prejudices needing to be rooted out of literary criticism?
The authors of Reviewing the reviews (eight in all) are out to detect an ordinary anti-feminist bias in literary journals and the book pages of national newspapers, and go about their task armed with measuring tape (59.37 square inches of reviewing space for a woman’s book in LRB, they note, while a man’s gets 72.07), magnifying-glass, and whistle to blow at moments of indignation: ‘Overall, the most reviewed books are male non-fiction followed by male fiction.’ The most questionable of the implied solutions to this sorry state is the call for discrimination on behalf of literary women. Reversing the balance isn’t the same as redressing it.