- 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.
The case is more serious with Richardson. Spender quotes a much deeper critic, Ellen Moers, to the effect that Austen studied Fanny Burney more attentively than she did Richardson: this is a half-truth at best, and abundant testimony exists to show that Grandison lay at the centre of Austen’s sense of the novel. For most readers Clarissa was central, and innumerable women in the period acknowledge that this was the book which liberated them into independent literary expression. (A selection of the evidence is provided in my essay on ‘Richardson and the Bluestockings’, in Valerie Grosvenor Myer’s recent collection, Samuel Richardson: Passion and Prudence.) Among the novels now reprinted, several, including Cecilia and Belinda, have significant relations to Clarissa; Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, from first chapter to last, constitutes a stage in the debate over seduction which, rightly or wrongly, always came back to Clarissa. It is plain that most interested women believed that Richardson had articulated the significant issues and laid down the agenda: this doesn’t mean that they thought he was right or that they didn’t reach out in new directions, but it does mean you can’t just unwrite Richardson from the record. To do so is to undersell the nature of women’s involvement in significant ideas.
The central problem is that Spender is naively bent on finding women’s ‘views’, rather than on the more important task of rediscovering women’s artistic attainment. It is of course true (though odd) to say that ‘whilever the literary heritage is comprised almost entirely of the views of men, it is much the poorer for the omission of women’s view.’ Literature, nobody will dispute, ‘embodies but a half-truth’ if we are left with ‘only the views of men’. The literature of full humanity, we are told, ‘can only be constructed by full humanity, which means that the creations of women must be granted the same space and validity as those of men’. Equal space is a journalistic sort of concept: what matters is due recognition of equal merit. We do not read literature to get the man’s or the woman’s viewpoint: we read novels because they embody a deep, significant and coherent vision of the world. Spender is too busy rehabilitating the character of her subjects, dispelling male patronage towards them, summarising their lives (and plots), and generally chatting round the books, to have anything useful to say about their art. Gushing testimonials – ‘I do not want to suggest that The Old Manor House is a poor novel. On the contrary I must admit that having started it, I could not put it down’; ‘In spite of my hardened exterior as a seasoned feminist, I was so “involved” that I would not be surprised to know that I blushed for Laura’ – alternate with contextual remarks of crushing banality: ‘The 17th century was a most exciting time, with its shifts in political power, and with its rise and fall of kings, there was, predictably enough, a rise and fall in the fortunes of many of the subjects.’ Again: ‘While the emerging middle class was in general looking more to reading as a source of information, enlightenment and entertainment, middle-class women in particular were looking for confirmation and clarification of their own new lifestyles.’ Or: ‘When the Industrial Revolution was getting into its stride, when men were beginning to put their faith in science and to “worship” machines ... Ann Radcliffe focused attention back on nature, on the mystery and beauty, and the human capacity for experiencing them.’ Such limp propositions can’t support the claim that Mrs Radcliffe ‘was one of the founders – if not the founder – of the romantic movement’. There are so many excellent things in Radcliffe’s books that it is frivolous to waste space on assertions which are utterly untethered to any real sense of the growth of Romantic art.
Moreover, it is astonishing to find a professed student of language, and one presumably bent on elucidating artistic achievement, who is so careless in her own use of words. Spender may well think that grammar is a male device for keeping women in the linguistic kitchen: at all events, if there’s an infinitive in sight, she’ll split it, and she favours sentences such as: ‘Who changed who’s mind depends on the sources consulted.’ ‘No such monodimensional standard is applied to the early men novelists who are assessed both in their own context and against the current background, and who can therefore be congratulated on their contribution rather than simply condemned for their contemporary shortcomings.’ Perhaps it’s a good thing that Dale Spender, with an ear like that, doesn’t write much about poetry.
Scribbling Sisters gives a few of the reasons why she had trouble with the book on fiction. This is a series of letters between Dale in London and her sister Lynne in Australia, written at the time of the Falklands War. There is some life and passion on both sides, and some fair sense on contemporary sexual mores. A good deal of paranoia about reviewers goes with lurid notions as to what takes place during the banal proceedings of fellowship selection committees. The sisters have a skin less than most of humanity. After a bad review, ordinary people play a round of golf, or buy a new dress, or listen to Brahms: the Spenders ponder on the corrupt motives and inattentive reading of those who deem their work superficial. No doubt women writers do get snide and casual reviews from unsympathetic male critics, but Dale gives far too many hostages to fortune:
The only problem is that if I do keep at it five days a week I write a book a month ... there is also the sinking fear that I might run out of things to say. I’ve got six probables at gestation stage at the moment so at the present rate of progress I’m probably safe for another two years ... But I can’t do any of them while I am on holiday ... because they all need bloody reference books and articles etc. And I am blowed if I will set out for a holiday in the sun weighed down by reference books.
Elsewhere: ‘I do revise but I lack concentration. I certainly lack concentration in doing these proofs ... goddess it is a dreary job checking every word.’ Dale’s suspicion of ‘so-called rigour and scholarship’ in the PhD field is not so surprising after that: good books written after two, five, ten, twenty or thirtyyears’ sustained and meticulous scrutiny of carefully assembled evidence would be part of the male conspiracy. This is surely an insult to the female intellect and the glories of female scholarship.
The fact is that Spender could have done with her bloody reference books when she assembled Mothers of the Novel. (Or maybe she might have allowed more than a month for the job.) It is strewn with errors on virtually every page, and mistranscribes the sources, like Todd, which it pillages. Spender refers to errors in Sarah Fielding’s memorial tablet as ‘symptomatic of the “mistakes” in the documentation of women’s lives’. But is the matter remedied by calling Ellis Cornelia Knight ‘Cornelius’? Or Helen Maria Williams ‘Helena’? Or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ‘Montague’? Or Cecilia ‘Cecelia’? Or Anne Ehrenpreis ‘Ehrenpries’? Or Patricia Köster ‘Koster’? Or Margarette Smith ‘Margaret’? Or Antonia Fraser ‘Frazer’? Above all, what credence can one attach to a student of the subject who lists Charlotte Charke as ‘Clarke’, thus defacing one of the most interesting names in the entire history – and one finely turned to fictional ends in Maureen Duffy’s The Microcosm (1966)? Many of these errors are repeated several times, as are the misspellings of Sterne’s name, the misdating of Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress, the garbling of ‘Thomas Smollett’. Culpable male ignorance of women’s legacy isn’t amended by equivalent casualness.
Spender is not really very interested in other people’s scholarship. She writes as though she had personally unearthed Eliza Haywood, for example: you would not gather that Garland have reprinted her books, that Mary Anne Schofield has written a monograph on Haywood, or that no less than three items in Sheherazade in Inghilterra, edited by Patrizia Nerozzi Bellman,[*] embody detailed readings of key-novels, paying great attention to style, atmosphere, mise-en-scène, narrative and everything else which Spender skates over. This last volume explores formule narrative in such writers as Haywood, Manley, Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, and shows that analysis of textual politics can rehabilitate more successfully than the sloganising of gender politics. Again, Spender has a few shallow thrusts at Pope for his condemnation of the ‘new breed’ of upstart writers. Swift is present as a contrast to the maligned Manley: ‘If Jonathan Swift is to be granted the stature of a political commentator, why not Delarivière Manley? And if Jonathan Swift is still considered worthy of retention in the literary canon, and worthy of continued study, why not Delarivière Manley?’ The answer is the double standard, but again the literary analysis is puellile. Manley, who ‘wrote on the same topics’ as Swift, ‘often interchangeably’, has been deemed a scandalmonger: ‘the only difference is the sex of the writer.’ But did Swift ever write a chronique scandaleuse or secret history (forms from abroad also not given any background by Spender)? Is there any difference in the intellectual range of the two authors, their powers of construction, their linguistic finesse, their fund of humour, their rhetorical compass? You might get answers if you look at recent feminist scholarship, notably Ellen Pollak’s powerful study of The Poetics of Sexual Myth, which subjects Pope and Swift to tough literary scrutiny. Spender can’t make the case for Manley because she is too obsessed with the (real) denigration of women writers on absurd and irrelevant grounds to have time or energy for confronting their possible limitations as imaginative artists.
It follows that the book is at its best in cases of undeniable achievement – Behn (spirited treatment), Burney, Edgeworth, and above all Mary Wollstonecraft – where the ideas are more crucial than the fictional management. The character defences of women like Charlotte Lennox and Elizabeth Inchbald are just, and the later chapters, where Spender reaches a brand of novel that responds more effectively to the expectations of a ‘modern’ reader, are more persuasive. It is a pity in many ways that she did not place more emphasis on this later period, or even come forward into later ages. There are still plenty of underrated Victorian women writers, and it is arguable that the very greatest injustices of all occur in recent times: you can make a case for Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann as among the greatest novelists of their time, whereas you are always going to be struggling to concoct grounds for putting Haywood above Richardson. The struggle shows when Spender quotes a critic to the effect that the plot of the ‘15 realistic novels’ of Fielding, Richardson, Smollett and Sterne ‘is practically the same’. It consists of the hero’s travels, a series of adventures ‘all very much alike’, and finally a wedding to the passive heroine. It’s not clear what Sterne’s realistic novels are, but they can’t bear much relation to the plot summarised here – and the critic must have had access to a copy of Clarissa to which strange editorial things had been done. As for Tom Jones, it is a total failure of historical imagination to see Sophia as feebly passive: in her attachment to an undesirable young man, her refusal of the suitable candidate, her defiance of her father and her wild ventures on the road, she is about as undutiful a daughter as you could imagine in Hanoverian England, outside a house of correction.
Mrs Manley turns up in an ingenious ‘autobiography’ ghosted by Fidelis Morgan. She uses episodes from the published writings ‘which are widely acknowledged to be autobiographical’, and fills out the existing record on Manley in a number of places. We are told that her very name should be not Delarivière but Delarivier – better to take Morgan’s word for it. Each episode has ‘Facts’ appended afterwards, and once again the picture which emerges is considerably less hostile than that bequeathed by prejudiced male historians. The book doesn’t start very well, with a curious observation: ‘Alexander Pope, back in 1712, thought that Mrs Manley’s work would be remembered for a very long time. In “The Rape of the Lock” he used the phrase “As long as Atalantis shall be read” as a yardstick for eternity.’ Well, irony is wasted on some people. Then we move on to the author’s boost of her subject: ‘She certainly had extraordinary india-rubber qualities and, whatever got her down, whether personal tragedy or public insult, she bounced back with the swashbuckling energy of an 18th-century Joan Collins at the centre of the London literary Dynasty.’ Oh, come on, she wasn’t as bad as that.
Things perk up when Manley’s own voice takes over, and there are snatches of lively comic observation, interspersed with a kind of flyblown soft porn which is at least one notch above Cleland. Fidelis Morgan thinks it is ‘easy to see the influence Mrs Manley’s work had on Swift (particularly Gulliver’s Travels), Richardson, Sterne, Smollett and many others’. It’s not easy at all, unless you think that the island of Balnibarbi must derive from Atalantis or that Manley invited political allegory. It is altogether implausible that Sterne, not much of a novel reader, had even heard of Manley, whilst Richardson simply linked Behn, Manley and Haywood together in the usual male calumnious fashion. What Manley provides is not high literary invention, but some feeling and a high emotional temperature: the passages from Court Intrigues are not all that far from, say, the comic sections of Moll Flanders. Now that we are justifiably giving her a better character, it is to be hoped that some saving disgraces will be left unmolested in the text. Overall, the book does more for Manley as a woman than as a writer. The puzzles remain as far as the question of genre is concerned, and we still have no idea how much fictional reprocessing went on in the letters which Manley printed supposedly from the hand of Richard Steele. A worthwhile experiment, nonetheless.
Such a welcome would be too mild for the excellent novels which have been reissued by Virago and Pandora. They are all works of high intrinsic interest, whose availability is essential if we are to make any inroads into the encrusted fortifications of androcentric literary history. Cecilia is a novel of immense talent, with all sorts of historical interest which the author could scarcely have foreseen. Belinda and Marriage are both vivid and memorable in places, with a good deal of humour to leaven the proceedings. Self-Control is beautifully constructed and demonstrates the sadness of Mary Brunton’s early death. The Female Quixote and Millenium Hall are of the order of curiosities, but they, too, fully merit their place in the sun. None of them is quite an Emma or Pride and Prejudice, but then what is? To make the good the enemy of the best can easily turn into another kind of historical condescension.
Sexual ideology is not especially prominent, on the surface of these texts at any rate. Cecilia is almost denuded of her independence by variously unsuitable male guardians appointed by her short-sighted uncle. She almost loses her lover, Delvile, because of his family’s patrilineal attachment to the family name – her legacy will be preserved only if her husband adopts her surname, Beverley. Nevertheless, Burney seems altogether at ease inside a rhetoric of fiction dominated by the recent practice of male novelists (Clarissa, but also to some degree Amelia). Whether or not Richardson and Fielding really invented these situations is a question Dale Spender is entitled to raise: but the overwhelming consensus of readers at this date was in favour of their tutelary presence. One may not agree with Mrs Thrale’s reaction: ‘Burney’s Cecilia is to Richardson’s Clarissa – what a Camera Obscura in the Window of a London parlour, – is to a view of Venice by the clear Pencil of Cannaletti.’ But one can just about see why contemporaries read the influence that way. There is, of course, the beginning of a female tradition in the shape of a direct link to Jane Austen. The famous pre-echo of ‘pride and prejudice’ near the end is not the only moment when one’s ear catches an Austenian phrase: ‘Cecilia, though not slow in remarking the ease and philosophy with which every one can argue upon the calamities, and moralise upon the misconduct of others ...’ In Book Nine Cecilia’s relations with her young friend Henrietta clearly prefigure those of Emma with Harriet Smith. But the deepest intimations of the fictional worlds soon to be opened up occur in Book Six, a wonderful section at the heart of the book, which contains the finest sustained writing in all Burney’s career. The scene has moved to the country after an opening passage (well, three hundred pages, but that was the intellectual exchange rate then) set in London society. One episode in a summer-house where Delvile surprises Cecilia as she sits brooding has the air of a Schubert song, and combines sensibility with the kind of highminded sensationalism that creeps into Jane Austen.
The other novels are less easy to place. Millenium Hall is generally read as a Utopian fantasy, but there is much less emphasis on the model community itself (not much more than a framing device) than on the interpolated histories of its founding mothers. It is a useful repository of the awful things men do to women, but again its fictional mode is rather angular and schematic. You couldn’t find a female sentence here for love or money: indeed, as with Burney, the Johnsonian presence is strong in syntax and vocabulary. Belinda is more relaxed, but not especially innovatory in form or language; Self-Control goes in for epic similes comparing ‘ebullitions of rage’ with storms at sea. As for The Female Quixote, its sexual politics are complicated by the fact that almost every other woman is a threat or rival to the heroine Arabella; female friendship is not on the whole a topos of 18th-century fiction, and that is one reason for exercising caution when claiming that these novels show enlightenment on issues of gender. If we are to trace what Elaine Showalter has called ‘the evolution and laws of female literary tradition’, we obviously have to go beyond merely listing books with a female authorship or audience or ‘viewpoint’. Spender hasn’t got beyond this, and so any novel representing a woman’s situation with sympathy becomes a gynotext, regardless of its artistic means or imaginative workings. The true foremothers of fiction were surely those who bent man-made idioms to new expressive purposes, and here Edgeworth and Burney are the significant percursors of Austen.
A bit of editorial assistance is needed to make these texts fully legible today. The only one with any sort of annotation is the Virago Cecilia, which reprints a 1904 edition with dated but not useless notes by Annie Raine Ellis. One can understand the publishers’ reluctance to burden these books with a forbidding apparatus of learning. But who today will be able to make much of Chapter 18 of Belinda, which concerns the game of chance ‘E O’ (cause of the downfall of one unsuitable suitor)? In fact, Belinda is an exceedingly allusive novel: contemporary readers would immediately have picked up a reference to ‘a magnificent and elegant entertainment which had lately been given by a fashionable duchess’ as pointing in all its details to the coming-out ball which the Duchess of Devonshire had given for her daughter in June 1800. (Coming out is the theme of almost all these books, but that is another story.) There may well be some other elements of roman à clef elsewhere in the book: for example, in the comic duel fought by the villainess Harriet Freke (dressed, as usual, as a man). It is a kind of variant on Aguecheek and Viola. Spender’s comment, ‘Although I’m not partial to duels, if they are to be part of the plot it makes a pleasant change to have women duellists,’ characteristically makes a dotty little point while missing the big one. Harriet goes to the House of Commons public gallery in full drag, an escapade to be repeated by Lady Caroline Lamb within a few years of the novel’s appearance. It is a gesture of independence, repudiated by the author, but accreting some admiration from the reader.
The introductions to both reprint series can only be described as mixed in quality. Rosemary Ashton is excellent on Marriage, Judy Simons coolly precise on Cecilia, and Sara Maitland decent, if thin on Self-Control. But Eva Figes does not get very far with Belinda, and Sandra Shulman on The Female Quixote is childish and vulgar-an immense letdown from the introduction by Margaret Dalziel for the 1969 Oxford edition. The new version also suppresses Samuel Johnson’s hand in the work, apparently on a tit-for-tat basis, in response to successful efforts to suppress women’s writing. This is unworthy. If Johnson’s dedication is to be printed, its authorship should be disclosed, for women as well as men are the legatees of great writers, even if they happen to be male.
The most sensible words on this issue remain those of Virginia Woolf in 1918: ‘The work of Miss Burney, the mother of English fiction, was not inspired by any single wish redress a grievance ... To take no more thought of their sex when they [the fore-mothers] wrote than of the colour of their eyes was one of their conspicuous distinctions, and of itself a proof that they wrote at the bidding of a profound and imperious instinct ... Any emphasis, either of pride or shame, laid consciously upon the sex of a writer is not only irritating but superfluous.’ Jane Austen would still have been a supremely great novelist if you had given her testosterone shots and brought her up as a boy. She can explore women’s lives so deeply because she understands men so well. (Her rakes are all so plausible. She knows that suburban Lotharios like Wickham act, not in order to prove themselves or to do down the female sex, but out of liking, however crass, for women. It is an explanation too simple for Freudians and feminists alike, but not for a profound student of the human heart like Austen.) Her art does not transcend gender, it includes gender: but her crucial gifts are the ability to dramatise ideas and to make mere fables into significant narratives. She outdoes her predecessors, female and male, not because she has any particular point of view on sexual matters (or on any others), but because she imagines life in a more refined and coherent fashion.
The lesson of these novels, together with Mothers of the Novel, is that we must pay tribute to the scribbling sisters without turning them into a closed order. Spender’s self-contained female tradition is understandable as a polemical device in the face of male hegemony, masculinist assumptions and patriarchal syllabus-planning. But it will lead us up a blind alley if we feel deterred from pointing out that Jane Austen learnt from Richardson, just as James and Forster learnt from Austen. If that were not possible, we might as well all give up. It is, of course, open to contemporary feminists to take the separatist path, and nobody can deny others this right. But in considering the mothers of the novel, there is an additional aspect to the matter: historical truth. And it is a gratuitous act to thrust women writers into an isolation, however splendid, which they neither coveted nor experienced. There is no validity in consigning them to an imaginary ghetto, just because they have been collectively patronised in later years. The crucial fact is that they are not just a feminist discovery, though they are that, too. They are a piece of intellectual history. Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona multi; sed omnes illacrimabiles ...
[*] Milan, 1983