Pat Rogers

  • Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers before Jane Austen by Dale Spender
    Pandora, 357 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86358 081 5
  • Scribbling Sisters by Dale Spender and Lynne Spender
    Camden Press, 188 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 948491 00 0
  • A Woman of No Character: An Autobiography of Mrs Manley by Fidelis Morgan
    Faber, 176 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 571 13934 5
  • Cecilia by Fanny Burney
    Virago, 919 pp, £6.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86068 775 9
  • Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott
    Virago, 207 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86068 780 5
  • Marriage by Susan Ferrier
    Virago, 513 pp, £4.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 86068 765 1
  • Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
    Pandora, 434 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86358 074 2
  • Self-Control by Mary Brunton
    Pandora, 437 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86358 084 X
  • The Female Quixote: The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox
    Pandora, 423 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86358 080 7

We shouldn’t need Dale Spender to remind us that the language of literary history is man-made, and the order it imposes on the past a male construct. We shouldn’t, but we probably do, and the truth remains salutary, even though Spender’s book is about as flawed in execution as it is possible to get without the pages flying apart as you read. Mothers of the Novel has a perfectly defensible, indeed defence-worthy, thesis. A very good case could be made in favour of Spender’s assertion: ‘If the laws of literary criticism were to be made explicit they would require as their first entry that the sex of the author is the single most important factor in any test of greatness and in any preservation for posterity.’ Spender fails to make this case mainly because her own criteria of greatness are so muddled and her notion of historical causation is so wobbly. But imperfect advocacy of an important argument is one of the factors which have enabled men to go on silencing female utterance, so even a book as crude, inaccurate and derivative as this one should not be allowed to prejudice the case.

Spender’s difficulties start with her struggle to locate the material. Her ‘100 good women writers before Jane Austen’ are an arbitrary bunch, many obtained from a hacker’s job on Janet Todd’s Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800. Spender calls this a ‘Dictionary of Women Novelists’ – a significant blunder. Todd covers poets, dramatists, letter-writers and essayists, whereas Spender, after a perfunctory look at such figures as the Duchess of Newcastle and Katherine Philips, concentrates entirely on novelists. This is unwise, because there were more first-rate women poets than novelists in the period, and because poetry was still the place where ideas were growing most vigorously. Spender sees the importance of letter-writing as an approved activity for girls, but doesn’t follow this up by examining the remarkable letters written by Mrs Thrale, the Elizabeth Montagu set, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the Duchess of Devonshire or Lady Elizabeth Foster; the Duchess’s novel Sylph is not treated, either. In the second half of the book, ‘Literary Achievements’, we are on firmer ground: but here the first seven chapters concern novels already partially rescued by inclusion in the Oxford English Novels/World Classics over the past twenty years.

To make a proper assessment of the extent to which women’s contribution to the novel has been undervalued, one has to draw up an accurate chart of the male contribution. Spender tells us that her ‘researches have turned up more than one hundred women novelists before Jane Austen and no more than thirty men’. Then follows a remarkable passage: ‘Among the neglected men I have found Robert Bage, Henry Brooke, John Bunyan, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Delaney [sic], Emanuel Ford, William Godwin, Richard Graves, Robert Greene, Robert Henryson, Charles Johnstone, Charles Lever, M.G. Lewis, Thomas Lodge, Henry MacKenzie [sic], Thomas Malory, Charles Maturin, Walter Scott, Philip Sidney, Horace Walpole ... twenty, plus the recognised fathers of the novel ... Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Tobias Smollett and Lawrence [sic] Sterne; generosity indeed to double the number!’ A list so nakedly daft obviates detailed scrutiny. It may be worth asking how Lever (born 1806) contrived to predate Jane Austen. If Spender wants to double her number, extensive independent research can be spared her. Five minutes in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature will give her roughly one hundred and twenty additional male novelists in the period from 1660 – this is omitting foreign authors, pseudonymous characters like ‘Captain Alexander Smith’, and others whose masculinity may be nominal. It would be rash to expect all these to qualify for Spender’s epithet ‘good’. But if Ann Emelinda Skinn and M. Peddle (two of Dale’s hundred best tunes) deserve a place in the record, it is not obvious why such names as Francis Coventry, Thomas Holcroft or Robert Paltock should be left out. (Not to mention James Boswell, author of Dorando.) The omission of John Cleland may be deliberate and provocative – it provokes me to cheerful assent – but Spender’s researches have apparently not extended to the point were she has heard of Congreve’s famous Incognita. Nor, though she quotes every stray word which has ever been said in favour of someone like Mrs Manley, does Goethe’s recommendation of its central role in his life alert this author to the existence of that obscure text, The Vicar of Wakefield.

Such haziness is an inevitable by-product of Spender’s total lack of historical grasp. A day-tripper to the 18th century, she sees certain things with clarity, but misses huge features on the skyline. Though convinced that ‘most of the early novels took the form of letters’ (not true, tout court), she does not pursue the beginnings of the epistolary novel in France or in England. Rightly observing that Walter Allen in The English Novel fails to trace the full lineage of fiction, she does not see how many of the male ancestors he omits with the women. Alive to the gaps in Ian Watt’s account as far as Aphra Behn et al are concerned, she seems oblivious of the fact that the rogue’s tale of Kirkman and Head is likewise an absentee. This enables her to insinuate the notion that the suppressed context for the founding fathers is overwhelmingly one provided by female authors, who constitute the only forgotten figures in this account.

All this has consequences for the treatment of, for example, Defoe. Spender reasonably speculates on why we don’t call him ‘the male Haywood’ and wonders whether there may be some influence in the other direction from that usually supposed. But again her point is lost through muzziness and overstatement. Against the statistical evidence, diaries are seen as being predominantly by females: many of the best are by women, but that’s not the same thing. As for Mrs Manley, we are told that ‘from Atlantis [sic], the distance to other imaginary islands was not so great, with Daniel Defoe again revealing his links with Delarivière Manley in Robinson Crusoe (1720).’ It is one of Spender’s eccentricities to call The New Atalantis ‘Atlantis’ throughout; the misdating of Crusoe is equally routine. But if simply to use an island setting is a sign of ‘influence’, there is no end to the intertextual slides made possible. To operate in this fashion is to leap straight out of the sexist into the infantile. Actually, Defoe had written about islands before Mrs Manley got going, but leave that aside. In the end, such lame critical procedures remove any confidence one might have in the book’s more challenging claims. For example: ‘If it were desirable to choose but one novel to represent the growth and development of the English novel, sex bias aside, the lot would undoubtedly fall to Eliza Haywood, whose writing encompasses all the significant innovations and enduring and exemplary achievements of the early novel.’ Possibly: but you have got to be able to define and analyse those achievements, and that is something Spender doesn’t attempt. If you want to dislodge Crusoe, there is a feminist aesthetic which would allow you to suggest the limitations of a masculinist notion of control over the environment, or you could deplore the ease with which the hero gets by without the opposite sex – though some women seem to manage. Spender apparently objects only to the biological fact of Defoe’s maleness, and the privilege this has won him in the manuals.

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[*] Milan, 1983