[S]he argued that women's writing has evolved through historical stages: from the "feminine" to the "feminist" to the "female". Now she has added a fourth stage, which she calls "free", saying that in this brave new world of the 21st century, "American women writers ... can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose".Fascinating idea - just not sure I want to read nearly 500 pages to generate that idea.
Sarah Churchwell praises Elaine Showalter's judicious study of American women authors
- The Guardian, Saturday 16 May 2009
In contemporary census records, Emily Dickinson's occupation was listed as "keeping house". At the age of 20, she wrote to a friend satirising the emotional blackmail her family used to stop her writing: "My hands but two - not four, or five as they ought to be - and so many wants - and me so very handy - and my time of so little account - and my writing so very needless - and really I came to the conclusion that I should be a villain unparalleled if I took but an inch of time for so unholy a purpose as writing a friendly letter ... mind the house - and the food - sweep if the spirits were low." It is a justly famous letter, in which Dickinson goes on to reject being an Angel in the House in favour of the "Satanic" pursuit of lyrical beauty: "The path of duty looks very ugly indeed ... I don't wonder that the good angels weep - and bad ones sing songs."
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
400pp, Virago, £22.50
In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter has produced the first comprehensive overview of the achievement of American women writers from the Puritans to the (not quite) present. She claims to be surprised that it hasn't been done before, but she shouldn't be. It is a daunting task, and few could carry it off with such aplomb. What unites these writers, for Showalter, is less their anatomical sex than the shared pressure of gender roles upon their art; nearly all the women she surveys had to overcome not only the inherent obstacles of creative expression and commercial competition, but also cultural expectations of a life of pure domesticity. Lydia Maria Child, a popular and prolific 19th-century author of novels and verse, made a list at the end of 1864 of what she'd accomplished that year: "Cooked 360 dinners. Cooked 362 breakfasts. Swept and dusted sitting room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times ..."
In other words, the women Showalter surveys were all in need of a room of their own. In one sense, this is a familiar story, told not only by Virginia Woolf, but by Showalter herself 30 years ago, in A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, her pioneering genealogy of British women's fiction within its social, cultural and political contexts. One of the founders of feminist literary theory, Showalter has long insisted that women writers should be taken on their own terms, and joined the chorus of her peers in the 1970s and 80s arguing that many had been unjustly neglected on the basis of their sex. Rebuttals soon followed that these writers had been justly neglected on the basis of merit, and should continue to be neglected.
This debate is a vicious circle. For centuries, women writers were sweepingly dismissed on the basis of gender, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's notorious animadversion against the "damned mob of scribbling women" robbing him of the sales he felt he deserved. If they weren't bad writers, women were bad readers: F Scott Fitzgerald blamed them for failing to buy The Great Gatsby - based on the syllogistic logic that the book failed commercially and "women controll [sic] the fiction market at present". Both these examples point to another reason for the conventional dismissal of women's writing, which Showalter addresses only indirectly: its correlation with the popular (just think of the contempt with which the presumed female readers of the book clubs of Oprah or Richard and Judy are viewed). Continuing to define them as women first and writers second means that anatomy remains destiny. Pretending that their gender does not affect their readership and reputations will strike many - myself included - as wishful thinking at best, but gender by no means guarantees literary greatness, and quotations must be more important than quotas. These are complicated questions in any era; add the difficulty of contextualising them across nearly 400 years of social, political and literary history, and you get an idea of the challenge that Showalter has set herself. Bestriding these narrow worlds and petty men like a colossus, she magisterially offers (mostly) judicious assessment, adroit synopsis, and astonishing breadth and range of reference.
Showalter takes her title from Susan Glaspell's 1917 story "A Jury of Her Peers", in which a woman is arrested for murdering her husband. The sheriff and other officials search the house for evidence, bringing their wives along to pack clothes for the accused waiting in jail. The wives discover clues the men overlook, suggesting that the wife killed her husband following domestic abuse. The women tacitly agree to conceal this evidence and protect the wife from the forces of patriarchal law, thus constituting themselves a "jury of her peers" - peers because only they, Glaspell implies, truly understand the wife's frustration and rage. For Showalter, this story emblematises the struggles of women writers to be judged by their own peers, readers sympathetic to their work, and - perhaps most important to Showalter's project - willing "to demonstrate its continuing relevance to all readers". She concedes that some of these texts are of more historic than aesthetic importance; and she doesn't hesitate to declare when she thinks an empress has no clothes, as she somewhat vividly suggests is the case with Gertrude Stein's experimental prose, which she dismisses as overrated. (Gender politics persist, however; would she say the same about Finnegans Wake? Then again, she might.)
Showalter suggests that American women faced slightly different pressures from their European counterparts, which derive broadly from different conceptions of class and labour: in America, middle-class women were expected to engage full-time in domestic duties even if they could afford help. But from the revolutionary era forward, most American women were driven to write by the mundane pressures of ne'er-do-well or absent husbands: as Fanny Fern put it in her bestselling 1855 novel Ruth Hall, about a woman forced to earn a living when her husband dies: "No happy woman ever writes."
Showalter is quite right that it is past time for American women writers to be granted a book of their own, but she does sometimes overstate the originality of her enterprise, which lies in its scope, not in its interpretations. Most specialists will be familiar with both the writers and the necessarily abbreviated, even sketchy, interpretations Showalter discusses. If A Jury of Her Peers is less groundbreaking than her earlier work, it does extend its scope historically. In 1977 she argued that women's writing has evolved through historical stages: from the "feminine" to the "feminist" to the "female". Now she has added a fourth stage, which she calls "free", saying that in this brave new world of the 21st century, "American women writers ... can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose". This is her most arguable claim: one woman's freedom of choice is another woman's post-feminism. In one sense, the whole weight of her book argues against the idea that we have achieved this utopian, gender-free marketplace.
And, ironically, Showalter could be accused of neglecting her own peers. She does name-check a few key critics, but I suspect that the overall impression for those unfamiliar with the field will be that Showalter is personally excavating the less familiar writers, rather than synthesising prior research. At the same time, her dependence on existing scholarship means that she perpetuates current critical silences. If popular writers from Mrs Southworth to Margaret Mitchell to Jodi Picoult are worthy of mention, then where are Edna Ferber or Anita Loos? If only literary writers need apply, then where are Hortense Calisher or Paula Fox, and how did Alice Walker beat out Gayl Jones?
A few of her choices feel dated: writers such as Walker, Amy Tan and Annie Proulx received attention in the 1990s, but are falling out of critical favour. In particular, I missed a discussion of more recent, ambitious writing, from Marilynne Robinson's late apotheosis to Curtis Sittenfeld or Claire Messud. And these are just the novelists. Like most literary scholars, Showalter tacitly defines "writers" in conventional terms: prose fiction and poetry, with a smattering of autobiography. But in our age of proliferating non-fiction genres, a bit more attention, even if only gestural, to memoir, correspondence and journalism would have tested the field's boundaries, and helped justify Showalter's claims of innovation.
Showalter is professor emeritus at Princeton, where as a postgraduate (full disclosure) I both studied with her and taught for her - she wasn't teaching American women at the time, although I was studying them. She gave me the single most influential piece of professional advice I've ever received: "Write to get paid." Perhaps only fellow academics can appreciate how subversive was that advice, especially 10 years ago, but A Jury of Her Peers could be viewed, from one angle, as the 500-page history behind that distilled wisdom. It is destined to become not only the standard textbook in the field, but its gold standard; I will certainly be assigning it to my students, so that they have at their fingertips an admirably judicious and succinct contextualisation of almost any writer I'm likely to ask them to read - and a sympathetic history of why so many women writers, from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath, felt, in Dickinson's words, like "Vesuvius at Home".
• Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of East Anglia