Fifteen years on

Elaine Showalter

  • No Man’s Land. Vol. III: Letters from the Front by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
    Yale, 476 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 300 05631 1

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. The project they referred to as ‘Daughter of Madwoman’, or ‘Madwoman Meets the Lost Generation’, raised questions they had not had to confront in dealing with the more established writers of the Victorian Golden Age. Which writers among an enormous group would they choose to discuss in a modern canon still in flux? How could they achieve critical detachment when they themselves were so enmeshed in contemporary literary debates? How could they sort out the effects of a female literary tradition on both literary daughters and literary sons?

In the event, ‘what had been planned as a single volume split itself, in a kind of surprising intellectual mitosis, into three books,’ under the general title No Man’s Land. The first, War of the Words (1988), offered a theoretical overview of male and female writers from the 1890s to the present. It represented the battle between the sexes as a linguistic and literary struggle that generated Modernism itself. Twentieth-century woman writers, they argued, reacted to the mixed blessing of literary mothers in a Freudian ‘female affiliation complex’. In the second volume, Sexchanges (1989), they focused on changing definitions of sex and sex roles from the Fin de Siècle to the Thirties, including the emergence of a lesbian literary tradition, and the sexual impact of the Great War. Now, in Letters from the Front, they bring the project to a triumphant conclusion, covering the years from the Twenties to the Eighties, the development of a black female literary tradition, women writers’ responses to World War Two, contemporary feminism and its backlash, and the emergence of the ‘mother-writer’. Overall, as they say in the preface to Sexchanges, Gilbert and Gubar investigate ‘the relationships between feminism and Modernism, politics and poetics, gender and genre, old rules and new roles, during a period of notable cultural conflict’.

During the 15 years that this project has been underway, however, cultural conflict has been joined by ferocious critical conflict within the feminist ranks. In 1979, when they began, Gilbert and Gubar were riding the cresting wave of feminist optimism and solidarity. Their collaboration itself seemed a paradigm of sisterly fusion and intellectual power; on the lecture circuit, when they read side by side, not simultaneously, but antiphonally, audiences were impressed and inspired by a vision of female bonding that seemed uncanny in its seamless perfection. Moreover, adopting what they called ‘the Bloomian premise that literary history consists of strong action and inevitable reaction’, Gilbert and Gubar had mapped in Madwoman an anxiety-ridden literary terrain for 19th-century women writers that unconsciously seemed to describe the psychodynamics of the contemporary feminist critic: loneliness, feelings of alienation from male precursors, an urgent need for a female audience, the fear of male readers’ antagonism, dread of patriarchal authority, and internalised conflicts about theoretical invention and critical autonomy. If these Victorian anxieties of authorship mirrored contemporary anxieties of criticism, Gilbert and Gubar’s bold incursions into critical theory offered a heartening counter-example; and they were rewarded not only by academic accolades, and an avalanche of imitators, but also by the gratitude and esteem of other feminist critics.

During the Eighties, however, the feminist critical alliance shattered into a dozen quarrelling sects, and the female affiliation complex Gilbert and Gubar had described as a problem for Modernist women writers became a problem for feminist literary critics as well. As they explained in War of the Words, women of letters faced a very different trajectory in their psychosexual development from men of letters. Using Freud’s model of the family romance, they outlined three possibilities for the modern female artist: rejection of the literary mother and desire for the literary father; denial of literary ambition in a rejection of both allegiances; or a defiantly lesbian literary separatism. Overall, they argued, female artists are not only enabled but also daunted by the example of great female precursors; their admiration is ‘inexorably contaminated by mingled feelings of rivalry and anxiety’; and ‘to have a history, therefore, may not be quite so advantageous as some feminists have proposed.’

While in the past 15 years feminist criticism has flourished, expanded and succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers, and is now an accepted part of the critical repertoire, studied and practised by men as well as women, in its brief history it has been primarily a mode of women’s writing, and has been subject to the same anxieties of influence. In the theoretical Preface to Letters from the Front, Gilbert and Gubar acknowledge the ‘extraordinarily diverse chorus of voices’ that has lately been ‘raised in protest against either the political or the epistemological assumptions that shaped feminist theory and practice in the Seventies’, including their own gender gradualism and belief in literary history peopled by men and women. There are the biological backlashers, led by Camille Paglia, who called Gilbert and Gubar ‘chirpy warblers’ and ‘unreadable bores’ (Gilbert, in her turn, has called Paglia an ‘idiot savant’); the Post-Structuralists, who see ‘woman’ as merely a ‘writing-effect’; the gender radicals who imagine a future characterised by ‘escalating sex wars ... the triumph of the female principle ... or a total annihilation of gender categories’. Many contemporary women writers do not want to be included in the category of ‘woman writer’, and joined anti-canonists and old-fashioned male supremacists in denouncing Gilbert and Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Add disputes with white feminist critics by women of colour, and the inevitable, if repressed, feelings of envy, competition and resentment critical daughters feel towards towering critical mothers, and you get a ‘not-so-civil warfare’ among feminist critics. As Gilbert and Gubar ask ruefully at the end of their three-volume enterprise, ‘has this war of words, then, become a war between women?’

Despite this underlying uneasiness, Letters from the Front looks reassuringly like its predecessors, with triple or quadruple epigraphs for every chapter, a fondness for puns, internal rhymes, alliteration and chiasmus, and massive quotation from a staggering range of primary texts. Here the writers discussed at great length and in exhaustive depth as ‘representative’ of the century are Virginia Woolf, Edna St Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, H.D. and Sylvia Plath. The Harlem Renaissance novelists, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, have a collective chapter as well; and elsewhere the authors manage to work in a reference to nearly every famous, fleeting, highbrow or popular woman writer of the century.

Gilbert and Gubar define the overall theme of Letters as ‘problematisation of the traditional middle-class family plot’, especially rejection of the Great Mother figure in Victorian culture. Even in Woolf’s novels, the serene Mrs Ramsay is exposed as dominating, controlling and conventional. For adult daughters, gender becomes less a question of essential feminine traits, and more a question of masquerade, what the authors call ‘female female impersonation’, a self-conscious performance of gender via costume (Millay’s girlish frocks, Moore’s cape and tricorn hat) and metaphor. They see this phenomenon more clearly in poetry than fiction: ‘since fiction by definition entails figuring, while poets have often tended to imply the confessional sincerity of the lyric speaker, we are likely to find more surprising marks of the (female) masquerade inscribed in the lives and works of 20th-century women poets than in novels or plays.’

While the maternal subtext has been repressed in much 20th-century literature, Gilbert and Gubar maintain that it is returning in force as we come to the end of our century. Today, they feel, when women are no longer at the mercy of their biology, and can choose motherhood without sacrificing art, the old contradictions between femininity and authorship, between biological reproduction and aesthetic creativity are breaking down. In a playful conclusion, the authors offer multiple revisions of ‘Snow White’, the ‘Ur-story’ of female literary destiny with which they began Madwoman in the Attic. Now, they argue, all the sex roles are so scrambled, the family romance so open-ended, and the epistemological certainties so undermined that it is no longer possible to propose a ‘monolithic’ tale about the female imagination. Either Snow White is running off to form a lesbian commune with the Queen while the King and the Prince discover their own unspoken love, or she is confronting her black ancestry (‘What was all this jive about Snow White?’) or struggling with the free play of the signifiers (‘Everything seemed terribly indeterminate to the Queen’), or setting up organic apple stands and socialist study groups with the dwarfs.

In fiction, they believe, the new ‘mother-writer’ is emerging in works like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and A.S. Byatt’s Possession that attempt to ‘construct integrated maternal figures ... in order to examine the ways the procreative/creative mother can potentially give birth to newfoundlands and legends’. In poetry, the ‘child-poem’, in which women write about pregnancy, abortion, birth and nursing, signals what Gilbert and Gubar regard as a ‘major transformation’ in the woman writer’s situation, for ‘despite maternal hesitations and guilt, the poet who speaks to her child addresses her words to a future she can now begin to imagine shaping, as she herself has been shaped by a past she re-imagines as empowering rather than debilitating.’ Both influenced and influencing, the contemporary woman writer can conceive a cultural future ‘in which her words may endure in the minds’ of her real and literary children.

And what about the contemporary feminist critic? Gilbert and Gubar do not pose this question directly, but there are suggestive parallels throughout the book, especially in the superb chapter on Sylvia Plath. Although she died by her own hand at 30, Plath, the authors argue in a compelling analysis of her prosody, metaphors and technique, had become a mature artist, truly a colossus. Her life and literary confrontations were ‘marked by a dialectical ferocity that summarised a number of the personal, political and aesthetic struggles in which post-war women of letters were enmeshed’. Living in Yeats’s house in London, Plath found in him a poetic father who joined maternal precursors like Virginia Woolf in facilitating her ambition to become ‘a woman poet ... the world will gape at’. For Plath, Rich, Sexton and other American women poets of their generation, self-transformation was part of the role of prophecy; all internalised barriers to self-fulfilment must be overthrown. ‘Each ... struggled to become both a presiding genius of her own body – as a sexual being, as an intellectual presence, as a public performer – and a presiding genius of her own body of work.’ In their performance, and personae, their courage and determination, Gilbert and Gubar, too, have helped this generation of feminist intellectuals shape a future in which women’s words may endure. If American women critics today no longer need to stifle ambition, shroud sexuality or think small, Gilbert and Gubar deserve much credit for the transformation.

This is so although overall Letters from the Front lacks some of the excitement of Madwoman in the Attic or the first two volumes of No Man’s Land. Despite the powerfully sustained chapter on Plath, the long chapters on Millay, Moore and H.D. – poets whose place even in a disputed canon still needs to be argued – are less absorbing than earlier ones on Dickinson and Rossetti, and the need to analyse and quote many poetic texts works against the flow of the narrative. Similarly, the dense overview of women’s despairing reactions to World War Two is persuasive, but less startling than the brilliant discussion of women’s ambivalent responses to the Great War in Volume II. As we come up to the present, the deference to living women writers is more pronounced.

It’s harder, of course, to defamiliarise writing close to our own time, when criticism has not set enough to be thrillingly overturned. Moreover, the collaborative voice now seems somewhat impersonal and muffled, despite its recognisable stylistic quirks. On the platform, the antiphonal voices of Gilbert and Gubar are embodied and retain their vivid individual personalities and accents: on the page they become a third person, Gubert/Gilbar, a hybrid identity that can parody and pun but not speak of itself. Having taught Sylvia Plath’s poetry with Sandra Gilbert at Princeton, for example, and having read her essay on Plath in Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1979, also edited by Gilbert and Gubar), I could wish that she had included here her account of following in Plath’s trail as a guest editor for Mademoiselle (‘The magazine offices were pastel, intricately feminine, full of clicking spikey heels. One could almost believe that at midnight they mopped the floors with Chanel No 5’). In a book that raises important and difficult issues, questions of power and control seem oddly masked and muted in the narrative itself. Unlike other women, the reader infers, Gilbert and Gubar never disagree, and effortlessly produce families and texts.

But if Volume III of No Man’s Land has lost the crackle and edge of the preceding volumes, it is still conceived with a grandeur and carried out with an ambition, learning and eloquence that set a standard for other work in the field. Whatever the fashions in feminist literary criticism, Gilbert and Gubar remain giants. Despite the smooth, impersonal veneer of its collaborative surface, No Man’s Land has been written in the face of enormous obstacles: dislocation, illness, separation, even death. To adapt the words of Virginia Woolf on George Eliot, when we recollect what they have dared and achieved, how in the name of all writing women they have sought knowledge and freedom, but insisted upon ‘the difference of view, the difference of standard’, we must welcome this completed trilogy with what we have to bestow of laurel and rose.