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.

As a sisters-under-the-skin gesture, most of the entries are about the same length. As another egalitarian gesture, as many writers as possible have been included, which reduces the length of the average entry to five hundred words or under. This ration cramps the editors, and sometimes tantalises the reader. Take the entry on Mary Kennard where the Companion records that she was the daughter of one Charles Faber ‘not Samuel Laing, as sometimes claimed’. The Laing claim is made in my Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (which also has a grotesquely wrong date of death for Kennard) and in R.L. Wolff’s Nineteenth-Century Fiction, A Bibliographical Catalogue. The correction is welcome, but it raises as many questions as it answers. The source I took was Who’s Who, where Kennard herself for over twenty years publicly claimed to be Laing’s daughter. Why? Presumably whoever wrote the Companion entry knows, but didn’t have space enough to do more than put the record straight as to paternity. Here and elsewhere it would have been welcome if the publishers could have allowed more space to the contributors.

The feminist element in the enterprise involves more than resurrecting – as the Companion does very ably – legions of unfairly forgotten, neglected or under-rated women writers. The editors work to a biographical protocol which differs significantly from other reference books. They begin by identifying their writer’s mother, rather than father. Typically, they play down, or omit, the male-centred crises by which literary women’s lives are conventionally thought to be shaped. Husbands, fathers and lovers are blanked out in droves – apparently in reprisal for the invisibility of all those mothers, wives and sweethearts in masculinist biography. Olive Schreiner’s entry is an example of how this calculated demotion of dominant males can rewrite a life. Schreiner gets into the DNB as an appendix to her lawyer brother William. William is not mentioned in the Companion entry, even as an appendix. The Companion is careful to note that Olive’s mother, ‘a brilliant, exacting Englishwoman’, ‘once beat her for using an Afrikaans word’. It omits to mention that a couple of years later, when Olive was 11, the father, ‘a pious, dreamy, ineffectual, German missionary’, was forced out of the ministry for trading and promptly went bankrupt. As Ruth First and Ann Scott tell us in their 1980 biography of Schreiner, this catastrophe ‘scattered the children and marked the end of the family home’. It seems, on the face of it, as noteworthy as the maternal spanking. The Companion is similarly silent about Olive’s engagement to, and seduction by, Julius Gau when she was 17 – an event that is conventionally thought to have provoked lifelong neurosis about sex. The Companion does not record that George Meredith was instrumental in getting The Story of an African Farm published (poor old Meredith also loses his credit for helping Ouida and Marie Corelli into print). In her later career in England, the Companion portrays Schreiner’s relationships with powerful men in such a way as to suggest that she was anything but subordinate or in thrall to them: ‘she was a close friend of Karl Pearson [and] Havelock Ellis, with whom she discussed, in person and in a vast correspondence, ideas on women’s sexual and spiritual needs and their position in a socialist state.’ It sounds very cerebral. Phyllis Grosskurth suggests something more carnal in her life of Havelock Ellis:

What is one to make of these complex relationships? Ellis was clearly deeply in love with Olive Schreiner. She loved him tenderly, but her expectations of him died when he disappointed her sexually. With Karl Pearson she fell desperately in love, although always protesting that it was a ‘pure’ feeling because she believed him too idealistic for anything as earthy as sex.

If one credits Grosskurth (and it’s hard not to, since she has read all the surviving correspondence closely), the Companion’s ‘close friendship’ and ‘discussed in person’ are tendentiously understated descriptions. This is only one of the Companion’s thousands of challenges to conventional woman’s biography and its presumptions about what is life-forming. If there is one large claim made by the venture, it is that women make themselves. They are not the products of their relationships with men.

The blanking out of dominant males runs all through the Companion and it will probably be very disturbing for some male readers. The George Eliot entry does not mention her brother Isaac, Charles Bray, Charles Hennell or John Chapman. Lewes gets just eight words (‘a married man unable to divorce his wife’). Sartre similarly gets no more than a dismissive sentence in the de Beauvoir entry. Beauvoir’s book on her mother’s death is cited, but not Adieux, her farewell to Sartre. Nelson Algren, the man she called ‘husband’ and ‘the only truly passionate love of my life’, is wholly unmentioned. Beatrice Harraden’s excessively glum romances (Ships that pass in the night was the best-known) are usually seen as a traumatic response to the fact that the great love of her life embezzled his clients’ accounts and threw himself into a Swiss crevasse. This episode is omitted from the Companion’s account of Harraden – not, I suspect, because the editors don’t know about it, but because they don’t want to read Harraden’s career that way. In its Mary Ward entry, the Companion studiously does not mention her setting up a Settlement in working-class London (it survives as the Mary Ward Centre), nor her pioneering play-centres for the children of working women, nor her successful campaign to provide schools for crippled children. These were achieved with the help of powerful and rich men like the Duke of Bedford and Passmore Edwards, and are tainted by the association. The Companion does, however, go out of its way to point to the ‘warm portrayal of the intense bonds between women’ in her fiction, with an implied Sapphic diagnosis. (That whirring you hear is Mrs Humphry Ward spinning in her grave.)

In the genre entries, the Companion is at pains to wrest priority from masculinist literary history. ‘Science Fiction as a modern form was invented by Mary Shelley,’ it declares. The Detective Novel, the Companion tells us, was pioneered by women (Metta Victor and Anna Katharine Green) ‘before Conan Doyle’. The entry on the Novel is similarly chauvinistic: ‘Recent scholarship has confirmed that women took the lead among the earliest novelists.’ One could mock this as being like preglasnost history of science, in which Russia invented everything from the flying-machine to the electric egg-whisk. But in a context where it is ubiquitously laid down that Poe invented detective fiction, that Hugo Gernsback invented SF, that the ‘rise of the novel’ is synonymous with Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, there is something usefully corrective in the Companion’s counter-claims. They are not the first to be one-sided. It is astonishing, looking back at Ian Watt’s book, for instance, to find that no woman novelist figures in his account. In Michael McKeon’s voluminous The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley and Mary Davys are disposed of in a couple of pages at the end of the ‘Stories of Virtue’ section (Jane Barker is not mentioned at all). The Companion’s insistence on genre-founding women writers supplies a valuable antidote.

Huge as the selection in the Companion is, it has its boundaries. And the exclusions trace interesting lines of predilection. Sappho gets in, but not Patience Strong; ‘John’ Radclyffe Hall, but not Jan Morris; Julia Kristeva, but not Elizabeth David (nor Jane Grigson, nor even Mrs Beeton – writing about cooking does not rate high). Betty Friedan gets in, but not Mary Douglas; Hannah Arendt, but not Barbara Wootton. In general, journalists get a raw deal. There is no entry on Katharine Whitehorn, Polly Toynbee, Nancy Spain, Helen Gurley Brown. Agony aunts get an even rawer deal: Marje Proops, Anne Landers and Dear Abby are firmly out. Pauline Réage is not given the benefit of the gender doubt. There is a noticeable favouritism towards the French experimental novel but indifference to outmoded German ‘New Objectivity’. Marguerite Duras and Hélène Cixous get in, but not Vicki Baum nor Ayn Rand (hers particularly I find an extraordinary omission). Catharine Stimpson (last year’s MLA president) gets in on the basis of some feminist literary criticism and a ‘a lesbian novel of development’. Miss Read and her un-lesbian Thrush Green novels of English country life are firmly out. In general, the editors are kind to their own – professors of literature. Q.D. Leavis, Carolyn Heilbrun and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have whole entries to themselves and Margaret Doody’s Aristotle Detective is singled out for honourable mention in the entry on Detective Fiction. Luce Irigaray is in, but not Cecil Woodham Smith.

The biggest vacancy in the Companion is where contemporary best-selling fiction ought to be. The absence is so noticeable, that one turns for explanation to the preface. There it is stated that ‘our selection gives preference to women whose works reflect awareness of their condition as women and as women writers ... present-day, middle-class white women must win their place in competition with many others, by virtue of high literary ambition, or creative excellence, or feminist perception, or energetic output, or high profile.’ Jacqueline Susann is listed in The Guinness Book of Records as author of the best-selling novel of all time – The Valley of the Dolls. This should count as high profile. And since the novel’s subject is women and drug addiction, it might also get in on the ‘condition of women’ criterion. But Susann does not have an entry, nor is she mentioned in the Popular Fiction entry. Similarly excluded are Judith Krantz, Jean Auel, Danielle Steel, Jilly Cooper, Mary Higgins Clark, V.C. Andrews, Shirley Conran, Jackie Briskin, Rosemary Rogers. All these names have figured in recent best-seller lists, lists which are dominated by women novelists of no apparent interest to the Companion.

It is instructive to look at what surrounds the areas where these best-selling women might have come in, had they been welcome. There is nothing here on Jackie Collins, who is probably better known to many readers than Jesus Christ. But there is an entry on ‘An Collins’ a 17th-century hymn writer whose dates and life are mysterious and only one tattered copy of whose Divine Songs is known to survive. There is also room for Merle Collins, a Grenadian whose poetry celebrates the achievement of E.M. Gairy, the dictator whose revolution was unluckily cut short by the US invasion of the island in 1983. There are no dates given for Merle Collins, but I think she must be younger than her namesake Jackie – as are numerous other women writers included. Contemporaneity does not explain the absence of Hollywood Wives.

The Companion has nothing against women best-sellers if they are decently historical. The atrocious Marie Corelli and Ethel M. Dell get in as does the author of The Sheik (1919), E.M. Hull. And the Popular Fiction entry is fairly full up to 1935, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the wind, when it stops dead. But there is a clear unease with current practitioners. Colleen McCullough is one of the few who does gain entry (more because she is Australian than as the author of The Thornbirds, I suspect). The entry is short and less than generous. It finishes: ‘She did not want to appear in the present volume.’ Why not? Probably because McCullough intuited, correctly, that this book, and its regiment of academic women, would disapprove of her and her vast sales. The reasons for disapproval seem to reside in the same political energies that initially gave the Companion birth. The editors want to vindicate the literary and cultural achievements of their sex. Disinterment of yesterday’s neglected writers comes into it, but so does some judicious burying alive of today’s too popular writers. Best-selling women novelists in particular are conceived as selling out and letting down their sisters by succeeding so spectacularly in the men’s world without transforming that world. One can sympathise with the judgment: all the more so as the bulk of the Companion is so sound and elsewhere so comprehensive in its coverage. But it puts a small question mark over the ‘to the Present’ claim in the title. Small question marks apart, the Companion will redraw the literary map.

Richard Altick’s latest book takes as its thesis the unfashionable view that novels reflect life. Professor Altick retired some time ago, and obviously relishes the freedom of not having to follow critical fashion. ‘After many years of criticism that has plumbed the depths of a few Victorian novels,’ he tells us, ‘it is refreshing and advantageous to return to the surface.’ Coming up for air is a nice image for the kind of enjoyably superficial reading which one looks forward to in retirement. Not that such reading is without utility. As Altick convincingly demonstrates, Victorian novels read with an attention to their ‘surfaces’ and ‘physical topicalities’ will supply a portrait of the age – if only enough of them are read with his kind of leisurely but hawk-eyed attention.

One of the pleasures of Altick’s book is its indiscriminateness. One chapter will deal with the age’s excited sense of itself and follow the ways newspapers figure in Victorian fiction. This is about as big a subject as one could choose. Another long chapter is given over wholly to ‘The Favourite Vice of the 19th Chapter’ – smoking. Small as it may seem, this too has its wider significance. ‘No other popular amusement,’ Altick claims, ‘solitary or social, appears more often in Victorian fiction than smoking; and its chief instrument was the cigar, which was seen more frequently in those pages than any other artifact that was new to the century.’ One takes his word for it. There follows an enthusiastic tobacco hunt. At the beginning of the century, the pipe is dominant. It is carefully controlled by a set of well-observed social rules. Unruly officers back from the Peninsular Wars bring with them cigars, nabobs and Indian soldiers bring back cheroots from the sub-continent. These new forms of pleasure are aggressive and often highly anti-social (something that comes up time and again in Thackeray’s fiction, for instance. Interestingly, Thackeray is Altick’s favourite source). By the 1850s ‘cigar smoking was beginning to be regarded as a habit proper to gentlemen [if] still qualified by its strong association with fast-living sportsmen’, something that Altick illustrates by reference to Surtees. In the same decade there arrived the cigarette, introduced as Altick surmises by the ‘flocks of Latin sightseers’ to the Great Exhibition. The sinister and foreign connotations of cigarettes are memorably illustrated by the villainous Count Fosco’s addiction to them in The Woman in White. (Altick makes an uncharacteristic error in putting the Napoleon of Crime into The Moonstone). Similarly Rigaud in the Marseilles prison is discovered chain-smoking cigarettes, something that, as Altick says, ‘identifies him as a potential troublemaker’. A decade later even women smoke cigarettes in novels (Bulwer-Lytton provides the text). They are now the big troublemakers.

There are 20 such chapters in The Presence of the Present, all dedicated to the tracking down of single elements through a multitude of novels. Topics range from ‘New Ways of Riding and Writing’ to ‘Speculation and Bankruptcy’ and ‘Language’. Chapters such as ‘The Way they Looked’ (which has an authoritative section on the chignon) benefit from lavish and witty pictorial illustration. The Presence of the Present is a book informed by a professional lifetime’s intimacy, accumulated expertise, and sheer love of the subject. It is as massive, wide-ranging, digressive, entertaining, and sometimes as amiably all over the place as the genre with which it deals.