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.

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