Out of the house

Dinah Birch

  • The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 by Janet Todd
    Virago, 328 pp, £12.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 86068 576 4
  • Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian Britain by Mary Poovey
    Virago, 282 pp, £12.99, February 1989, ISBN 1 85381 035 5
  • The Woman Question. Society and Literature In Britain and America, 1837-1883: Vols I-III edited by Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets and William Veeder
    Chicago, 146 pp, £7.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 226 32666 7
  • Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett
    Harvard, 245 pp, £15.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 674 80290 X

How can women come to a better understanding of their cultural situation? What needs to be changed, and why? The questions are as urgent as ever, despite wishful rumours to the contrary. Numerous books about women continue to appear, offering diverse models of thought to those looking for counsel. Psychoanalytical and deconstructionist critics have been among the most glamorous figures in the crowd, encouraging women to examine the complex linguistic processes that compose feminine subjectivity. These strategies give a new dimension to what has long been perceived as women’s domain: the inward life, placed in a primarily familial setting. To privilege the private over the public as such critics do may be interpreted as a feminist gesture. But it’s a self-limiting challenge, for their language often chooses to exclude the wider community, operating in terms of jokes and quarrels shared within a closely-knit intellectual family. The repressive fathers are simply shut out, excluded by language.

Feminist historians have taken a different line. Their argument has been that in order to analyse the identity of women as it is constructed now, we need to know how it has been constructed in the past. In literary terms, at least, this has sometimes been seen as a misplaced ambition – at best unsophisticated, at worst a collusion with the powers of oppression. Knowledge of the past was indicted as no more than an illusion in the sceptical light of new theoretical practices, and the women who wrote before Freud seemed so hopelessly implicated in patriarchal cultures that they were scarcely worth studying. When set beside the knowingly intricate patterns of signification which characterised the stylish theorists taking apart the bricks and mortar of patriarchal principles, the pursuit of a feminist history could look naive.

There was some justice in such thinking. The first feminist literary historians were prone to see what they wanted to see – simple patterns of dissent and resistance, right and wrong, heroism and villainy. Every woman writer was acclaimed as a doughty rebel; all others were tyrants. Such campaigns proved hard to sustain. Could Jane Austen really be read as a feminist insurgent? Were Aphra Behn’s royalist politics simply a disguise for radical feminism? It became clear that more cogent and complete ways of understanding the literary past were called for. Janet Todd was among the first to recognise this need, and her developing work has made a substantial contribution towards fulfilling it. One of the most valuable things she has to offer her readers is information. Her studies of women’s writing in the 18th century have greatly enlarged our sense of its richness, variety and scope. The Sign of Angellica is an ambitious survey of her chosen period, juxtaposing an account of the literary culture as a whole with specific analyses of individual authors. The focus is on what women achieved in the period, particularly in the field of fiction. But men are neither absent nor routinely vilified. Janet Todd recognises that ‘the novel as a genre has both fathers and mothers.’

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