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How to Be Good

Elaine Showalter: Carol Shields, 11 July 2002

Unless 
by Carol Shields.
Fourth Estate, 213 pp., £16.99, May 2002, 0 00 713770 2
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... The debate about women’s writing – is it too restricted, domestic and love-obsessed, in contrast to the more sweeping, historical, socially aware and experimental novels of men? – has been going on since Jane Austen’s day. Charlotte Brontë was one who rejected Austen’s plot, which she called ‘a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden ...

Diary

Elaine Showalter: Even Lolita must have read Nancy Drew, 7 September 1995

... In 1973, having finished a doctoral dissertation on Nabokov, Bobbie Ann Mason found herself compulsively rereading her favourite childhood books: series fiction about daring girl detectives, especially Nancy Drew. Admitting to such low tastes in the Seventies was like confessing a fondness for Hello! magazine today. Graduate schools regarded an interest in popular culture as a sign of intellectual frivolity, and demanded Leavisite vows (or appearances) of poverty and high culture ...

Meg, Jo, Beth and Me

Elaine Showalter, 23 March 1995

Little Women 
directed by Gillian Armstrong.
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... Who would have thought it? Little Women is on the American bestseller list again, with the name ‘Winona Ryder’ over the title instead of Louisa May Alcott, as if she had written the book. But maybe Ryder deserves top billing, for pulling people into the movies to see Alcott’s March sisters updated for the Nineties. Directed by Gillian Armstrong of My Brilliant Career, with Susan Sarandon as Marmee, the film has made Alcott not only relevant but even exciting for a new generation ...

Fifteen years on

Elaine Showalter, 20 October 1994

No Man’s Land. Vol. III: Letters from the Front 
by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Yale, 476 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 300 05631 1
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... Fifteen years ago, having published their monumental study of 19th-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert, poet and professor at the University of California at Davis, and Susan Gubar, professor at Indiana University, planned a sequel: a feminist history of women’s writing in the 20th century. At first, they expected to complete it in just a few years, but they soon faced enormous obstacles in the material itself ...

Diary

Elaine Showalter: At the Modern Language Association , 9 February 1995

... It’s always surreal arriving at the annual four-day meeting of the Modern Language Association. You land at a distant airport, check into a strange hotel, and there in the lobby are all the people you’ve ever known, former teachers, former students, ex-lovers, ex-spouses, old friends and (last year’s useful word) old frenemies – people you don’t like but may someday need ...

His Only Friend

Elaine Showalter, 8 September 1994

Hardy 
by Martin Seymour-Smith.
Bloomsbury, 886 pp., £25, February 1994, 0 7475 1037 7
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... In the midst of writing his biography of Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion was contacted by a spiritualist who claimed to have been speaking to Larkin in the Beyond; later Larkin sent a posthumous word of approval for the book. Could the cosmic wires have been crossed and could the spiritualist have been talking to Martin Seymour-Smith? For this massive biography of Hardy – or ‘Tom’, as Seymour-Smith chummily calls him – has the vehemence of divine revelation and the fervour of personal mission ...

Good Girl, Bad Girl

Elaine Showalter, 5 June 1997

Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment 
by Jane Gallop.
Duke, 104 pp., £28.50, June 1997, 0 8223 1918 7
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A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned 
by Jane Tompkins.
Addison-Wesley, 256 pp., $22, January 1997, 0 201 91212 0
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Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death 
by Nancy Miller.
Oxford, 208 pp., £19.50, February 1997, 0 19 509130 2
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... Call it the Zeitgeist, call it the return of the repressed, but personal memoir, intellectual autobiography, or the mixture of literary and confessional writing defined by Nancy Miller as ‘narrative criticism’ is changing the tradition of feminist academic writing. In books such as Patricia Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (1991), Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons: A Memoir (1993) and Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames (1997), a generation of American feminist university teachers use their own experience to shed light on literary, linguistic, artistic, professional, pedagogic and academic issues; and use these categories to shed light on their own experience ...

Pen Men

Elaine Showalter, 20 March 1986

Men and Feminism in Modern Literature 
by Declan Kiberd.
Macmillan, 250 pp., £13.95, September 1985, 0 333 38353 2
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Women Writing about Men 
by Jane Miller.
Virago, 256 pp., £10.95, January 1986, 0 86068 473 3
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Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and 20th-century Literature 
by Peter Schwenger.
Routledge, 172 pp., £29.50, September 1985, 0 7102 0164 8
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... One of the more useful side-effects of the widely-publicised troubles at the International PEN Congress held this January in New York may ironically have been the new timeliness which Norman Mailer’s outbursts bestowed on feminist consideration of masculinity, misogyny and writing. Mailer, president of PEN and chief organiser and fundraiser for the huge writers’ conference, shed his new persona as serene literary statesman when he was confronted with an angry protest from women PEN members about the under-representation of women on the programme (16 out of 117 panelists ...

Mr Horse and Mrs Eohippus

Elaine Showalter, 30 January 1992

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 
introduced by Ann Lane.
University of Wisconsin Press, 341 pp., £10.45, April 1991, 0 299 12740 0
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Non-Fiction Reader 
edited by Larry Ceplair.
Columbia, 345 pp., £20.50, December 1991, 0 231 07617 7
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... In 1934, knowing that she had inoperable breast cancer, the American feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins Gilman decided to finish the autobiography she had begun a decade before. Her fame as a writer and speaker had faded; she was no longer in demand on the lecture circuit, and all of her six books were out of print. In keeping with her stoic philosophy, Gilman had made the decision to end her life with chloroform ...

All I Did Was Marry Him

Elaine Showalter: Laura Bush’s Other Life, 6 November 2008

American Wife 
by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Doubleday, 558 pp., £11.99, October 2008, 978 0 385 61674 4
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... Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, American Wife, based on the life of Laura Bush, and sympathetic to her political non-choices, has been getting attention alongside the self-exonerating memoirs and withering insider analyses piling up in the final weeks of the Bush presidency. In its positive assessment of the couple’s marriage (fictionally presented as healthy, affectionate and hot), its willingness to leave ethical issues open to interpretation, and its warnings of the gap between the public and the private person, American Wife is being contrasted with the Oliver Stone movie, W ...

Das Nuffa Dat and BigGloria3

Elaine Showalter: Up and Down the Academic Ladder, 1 November 2001

Academic Instincts 
by Marjorie Garber.
Princeton, 187 pp., £11.95, February 2001, 9780691049700
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Postmodern Pooh 
by Frederick Crews.
North Point, 175 pp., $22, October 2001, 0 86547 626 8
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... What are academic instincts, and are they about more than survival? For Frederick Crews, emeritus professor of English at Berkeley, literary study in the university is a Darwinian battle for power and status, with professors ‘teaching the conflicts’ as they claw their way up the academic ladder. For Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan Jr Professor of English at Harvard, the university, if not a utopia, is nonetheless a satisfying environment where intellectual controversy reigns ...

Mexxed Missages

Elaine Showalter: A road trip through Middle America, 4 November 2004

... Be vigilant, informed and prepared,’ a sign on the Pennsylvania state highway flashes as my husband and I head out from Washington DC to Los Angeles. OK, but prepared for what? It’s the first of many signs that call us to attention on this September road trip through Bush Country. The last time we drove cross-country was in 1966, in our VW Bug, along with the baby and the cat ...

Baby-Sitter

Elaine Showalter, 14 June 1990

Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography 
by Deirdre Bair.
Cape, 718 pp., £19.95, June 1990, 9780224020480
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Lettres à Sartre. Vol I: 1930-1939 
by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.
Gallimard, 400 pp., frs 120, February 1990, 2 07 071829 8
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Lettres à Sartre. Vol II: 1940-1963 
by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.
Gallimard, 443 pp., frs 120, February 1990, 2 07 071864 6
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Journal de Guerre, Septembre 1939-Janvier 1941 
by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.
Gallimard, 371 pp., February 1990, 2 07 071809 3
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In the Shadow of Sartre 
by Liliane Siegel, translated by Barbara Wright.
182 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 9780002153362
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... Beauvoir’s writing, too, has always had a strong undercurrent of hostility and condescension. As Elaine Marks notes in her introduction to Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir, many who have written about her work present her as ‘a slightly ridiculous figure, naive in her passions, sloppy in her scholarship, inaccurate in her documentation, generally out ...

Going underground

Elaine Showalter, 12 May 1994

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes 
by Janet Malcolm.
Knopf, 208 pp., $23, April 1994, 0 679 43158 6
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... Ours is not an age in which literary events get much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New Yorker had originally published, the issue was a sell-out on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no dinner party from Hampstead to the Hamptons was complete without a discussion of it ...

Prada Queen

Elaine Showalter: Shopping, 10 August 2000

Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End 
by Erika Diane Rappaport.
Princeton, 323 pp., £21.95, January 2000, 0 691 04477 5
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... Shopping for pleasure’: is the title tautological or oxymoronic? On one side, the joys of shopping seem almost axiomatic, especially now that every newspaper and magazine offers tips on how to do it, and Zagat is about to bring out a series of retail-tourist guidebooks. In a recent poll taken in London, more than a quarter of respondents said that shopping was what they liked best about the city ...

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