Self-Made Women

John Sutherland

  • The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present edited by Virginia Blain, Isobel Grundy and Patricia Clements
    Batsford, 1231 pp, £35.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 7134 5848 8
  • The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel by Richard Altick
    Ohio State, 854 pp, $45.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 8142 0518 6

The Feminist Companion to Literature in English is itself the product of impressive feminist companionship. Listed in the preamble are three editors, four consulting editors, 12 contributing editors, and 54 ‘contributors’ – all women, all university teachers. Academic addresses range over three continents (Asia and Africa are missing, although women writers from those corners of the world are generously represented). Vigorous give and take formed the book, which has no obvious predecessor and had to work out its own shape. ‘We have argued, laughed, fought, forgiven, and feasted together at one another’s tables,’ the editors record. A particularly sharp fight must have been fought on the nature of the entries. The editors settled on a conservative dictionary of biography format with a leavening of category entries on such topics as ‘Pseudonyms’, ‘Black Feminist Criticism’, ‘Science Fiction’. There are no plot summaries, no entries on works or on principal characters in works, no cross-reference one-liners. The gaze is unblinkingly on women’s lives as the ground from which women’s writing springs.

The basic idea of the Companion is controversial, although common enough in feminist criticism. Women, it is assumed, are united across all gulfs of time, nationality, space, race, class, profession, religion, language, academic discipline, age group and intellectual ability. Lauretta Ngcobo (a contemporary South African novelist) has as much in common with Anne Bradstreet as with Athol Fugard – if not more. And Anne Bradstreet has as much in common with Ifeoma Okoye (a Nigerian writer of children’s stories) as with Cotton Mather, or more. Riding alongside is the assumption that women write primarily to and for other women – including women of whose situations in future time or remote place they can have not the slightest inkling. Lurking unstated, but strongly implied by the enterprise, is the contention that women understand women writers better than men do. Other things being equal, readers of the same sex will be closer to the meaning of Jane Austen, for instance, than their male counterparts. Where there is a choice, women’s commentary is given priority in the attached bibliographical notes. They know best.

This Companion is at least two things. Primarily it is a reference book, a convenient source of ready information. It also composes an aggressive definition of what ‘women’s writing’ is. As a reference book, it scores extremely high. The coverage is massive: over 2700 literary lives summarised, many if not most for the first time. Time will tell, but the biographical information strikes one as unusually reliable, and it often tacitly corrects previous reference sources. The bulk of the entries, apparently, were principally written by the three executive editors (Isobel Grundy taking responsibility for the early period, Virginia Blain for the Victorian and Edwardian periods, Patricia Clements for the 20th century). The supporting mass of scholars, one gathers, was used for the more exotic writers and for fact-checking. As a result of its extensively deployed woman power, the Companion is commendably strong on such things as dates of birth and death (fiendishly hard to come by for minor writers). All reference books contain error, but the level here must be among the lowest. It is clear, too, that a large amount of women’s writing has been freshly read. The preface actually claims that ‘one or other of the writers of entries has read or at least examined almost every book written by the women included here,’ but this is surely something of an exaggeration: one can’t credit that for the 150-word entry on L.T. Meade – which mentions just two works of fiction – all her 280 novels were ploughed through.

As someone whose own reference book is corrected more often than I would like by entries in the Companion, it is a relief to discover that they, too, occasionally err. Daphne du Maurier’s story ‘Don’t look now’ was filmed not by Hitchcock, but by Nicolas Roeg. In the entry on Mrs Warre-Cornish the Companion attributes to the author two novels actually written by her husband. At the age of 17, Florence Warden was taught by finishing governesses – she was not employed as one. Elizabeth Linington writes her Vic Varallo (not ‘Vatallo’) novels as Lesley Egan, not in her own name. There are two hands at work in the Alice Perrin entry, one of whom thinks the author published her first book in 1901 (wrong), another who thinks it was 1894 (right). Marie Corelli’s The Master Christian is oddly transformed into The Masterful Christian (a feminist-Freudian slip?). The contents of books are sometimes botched, though whether through hurry, error, or delicacy is not clear. Gertrude Atherton’s Black Oxen, for instance, is described as a novel ‘which questions the lasting significance of even happy love’. This seems well off-target for a wacky story in which the ageing heroine has her ovaries X-rayed, and is thereby transformed into a sex fiend.

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