Janet Todd

Janet Todd a fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is the author of a very lively Feminist Literary History (162 pp., £22.50 and £7.50, 0 7445 0513 3), which was published by Polity in April.

Pioneering

Janet Todd, 21 December 1989

‘Catherised’ was how Ernest Hemingway described the portrayal of the Great War in One of Ours by Willa Cather. Despite lifting scenes from the movie Birth of a Nation, it made Cather rich and won her the Pulitzer Prize. H.L. Mencken was as dismissive as Hemingway, finding in it a ‘lyrical nonsensicality’ that ‘often glows half pathetic’; its setting was that of ‘a Hollywood movielot’. Fitzgerald mocked the bucolic Cather and her intervention in the absurd history of the idealised inarticulate farmer: Cather ‘turns him Swede’, he wrote. Edmund Wilson accused her of failing at characterisation and storytelling: she may be a ‘good craftsman’ but she has ‘an anemia of the imagination’ and is given ‘to terrible lapses into feminine melodrama’. Discussing ‘the subtle failure of her admirable art’, Lionel Trilling saw Cather’s emphatic nostalgia as a rejection of the modern, an enrolment in the ranks of ‘the backward’ with no shadow of awareness that this movement must make her talent irrelevant not only to her own time but to any time. He mocked her ‘mystical concern with pots and pans’, which he glossed as an oblique defence of gentility and domesticity; he accused her of caste and culture snobbery.

Cross-Dressers

Janet Todd, 8 December 1988

Fighting women have had a long and legendary history. A troop of Roman soldiers could be ousted by a single Gaul if aided by his wife, who, ‘swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing sallow arms of enormous size … delivers blows and kicks like missiles from a catapult’. But however massive their arms and however swollen their necks, openly aggressive Amazons were in the end almost invariably defeated by their sexuality: left seduced, raped, abandoned or married. It is not the ‘she-soldiers’ who especially titillate the public – only the most severely blinkered could ever have doubted that women are capable of martial courage – but, rather, those women who dressed themselves up in male clothes and joined armies or societies as men. This masquerading to carry out unconventional roles seems to have fascinated the 18th and late 19th centuries in particular.’

The Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen is a production on the most monumental scale, involving nine beautiful but heavy volumes and something like a dozen editors, with a powerful editorial board...

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Forget that I exist: Mary Wollstonecraft

Susan Eilenberg, 30 November 2000

Mary Wollstonecraft’s defenders have always found their task difficult. Writing her life to disastrous effect in 1798, intent on establishing her as one of those beings ‘endowed with...

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Shee Spy

Michael Dobson, 8 May 1997

Twenty years ago, when Maureen Duffy first published The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89, Behn was still known principally as the celebrated but largely unread founder of...

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Benevolent Mr Godwin

E.P. Thompson, 8 July 1993

A feast for the Godwinians. First comes the handsome facsimile of the quarto first edition of Political Justice (1793) in the series edited by Jonathan Wordsworth for Woodstock Books. This series...

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Very very she

Margaret Anne Doody, 22 April 1993

‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ Virginia Woolf asserted. Aphra Behn (c....

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Narcissus and Cain

David Bromwich, 6 August 1992

‘Sensibility’ was the name of a faculty before it was the name of a style. On the divide of the physical and mental, it suggested a power to receive life’s pleasures and pains,...

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Out of the house

Dinah Birch, 30 August 1990

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...

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The Sage of Polygon Road

Claire Tomalin, 28 September 1989

Mary who? was the person I mostly seemed to be dealing with in the early Seventies, when I wrote a biography of the extraordinary woman whose works have now been collected for the first time,...

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