- The Female Form by Rosalind Miles
Routledge, 227 pp, £15.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 7102 1008 6
- Feminism and Poetry by Jan Montefiore
Pandora, 210 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 86358 162 5
- Nostalgia and Sexual Difference by Janice Doane and Devon Hodges
Methuen, 169 pp, £20.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 416 01531 X
- Reading Woman by Mary Jacobus
Methuen, 316 pp, £8.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 416 92460 3
- The New Feminist Criticism edited by Elaine Showalter
Virago, 403 pp, £11.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 86068 722 8
- Reviewing the Reviews
Journeyman, 104 pp, £4.50, June 1987, ISBN 1 85172 007 3
The fuss about gender continues. Feminist criticism has gone off in several odd directions lately, resorting more and more to jargon of the gynocentric, phallogocentric variety, and positing a peculiarly feminine way of looking at things, a mode consistently belittled in the patriarchal conditions that have always prevailed. What started as a legitimate scrutiny of past mistreatment of women, in life and in books, seems to have turned into an assertion of some intangible feminine principle. True, a similar principle was being evoked in the early Thirties by John Cowper Powys, when he commended Dorothy Richardson for having dredged up her novels ‘out of the abyss of feminine consciousness’; and there’s Virginia Woolf’s famous comment on the same set of novels, when she noted their author’s mastery over what she termed ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. However, we should bear in mind another remark of Virginia Woolf’s: that ‘a woman’s writing is always feminine ... the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine.’ What we don’t mean, surely, is a special way with words. ‘If anatomy is not destiny,’ says Mary Jacobus in her rigorous, scholarly collection of essays, Reading Woman, ‘still less can it be language.’
A woman’s writing is always feminine, and it isn’t necessary to make anything of this. A man’s is always masculine, for that matter. The fact that Dorothy Richardson’s discursive and thoroughgoing Pilgrimage attracted expressions of admiration like John Cowper Powys’s tells us more about current social than literary procedures. The type of ‘realism’ she repudiated was mostly the product of male authors, so it was perhaps inevitable that her alternative brand should be dubbed feminine. It was in fact sexless subjective realism, as opposed to the objective sort. It has often been pointed out that Dorothy Richardson’s experiments with prose style had something in common with those of James Joyce; you don’t, however, catch anyone applauding Joyce for having written out of the abyss of masculine consciousness, though it might have been said of him with equal pertinence.
Most of the studies under review here are concerned to see justice done to the body of women’s writing which (they claim) exists and has always existed as a kind of adjunct or undertow to the mainstream of English literature. Some critics would wish to dissociate themselves altogether from ‘masculine systems of representation’ (the continuous use of the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is a worry and an irritation: can a system of representation be either one or the other?) and also from traditional aesthetic criteria, along with other suspect standards. But it is (for example) far harder to refute literary than psychoanalytic requirements with regard to women, since the latter were openly designed to generate socially unexceptionable behaviour, while women, like everyone else, have always been free to write submissively or subversively, in accordance with their natural abilities and inclinations. Of course there are social factors involved in the business of women’s writing, but it’s with the end-result, and that alone, that literary judgments are concerned. It’s dispiriting, given the vast field of women’s literature and all the distinguished work it contains, to be told – as Alicia Ostriker tells us in the essay she contributes to The New Feminist Criticism – that language itself is the property of one half of the population, and available to the other only through acts of larceny. So that’s what writing women have been doing through the ages – turning themselves into master thieves.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.