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In a time when books seem to go out of print faster than they are published, the fact that this hefty 1979 volume (at over 700 pages paperback) has been reprinted in a new 2000 edition is an advance notice to the reader that it's more than just a worthwhile read; it's a bonafide feminist classic. Mind you, readers who associate "classic" status with drudgery and boredom can put their fears to rest with this one. It is not often that an author or authors undertake a task as demanding as recovering "not only a major (and neglected) female literature, but a whole (neglected) female history," so it is all the more impressive that Gilbert and Gubar succeed in doing both with passionate interest, detail, and writing skill.
Faced with reading a book that began as a 1974 course in literature by women and has been widely used as a textbook since, I confess that I began reading with the unenthusiastic attitude one brings to an assignment, or rather, to medicine that one "should" take. This feeling vanished almost immediately, as, in the short original preface and longer introduction to the new edition, it became immediately evident that I was in the hands of two excellent scholars who knew how to write well, lay out their arguments concisely, and not waste any time in cutting to the chase. As to the latter strength, neither do the authors leap to conclusions, but they flesh out their arguments with persuasive connections drawn from history, literature, and myth, adding considerable depth and interest. For any readers new to feminist literary criticism, there is ample time given to drawing out the history of patriarchal thought and its impact on women, so that such readers should feel sufficiently informed. However, the book is confidently rooted in an unapologetic feminist stance that does not waste time persuading any readers who are unsympathetic to the notion that there was, in fact, "a clearly defined female literary subculture" in the Nineteenth Century.
The preface to the new edition is interesting, especially as it gives some history of the evolution of the book, the history of its reception and criticism and, fittingly, how writing it was transformative in the lives of the authors. It seems an appropriate, if not very compelling, most of all because it adds another page to the history of women as writers and, more particularly, the experience of women in academia in what was such pivotal time for the women's movement in the US. Some faults of the book are acknowledged up front in this new section in a reference to critics' accusations of "essentialism, racism, heterosexism, phallogocentrism." These, Gilbert writes, were "intellectual crimes whose lineaments most of us would never have recognized in that blissfully naïve dawn of the 1970's." Such criticisms now only emphasize the progress made in feminist criticism since this early attempt to begin defining a (if not the) female literary tradition. Without denying imperfections of this text, I am inclined to agree with Gilbert's assertion that, at the time, "it was enough to see that there could be a new way of seeing."
The entire first section of the book, entitled "Toward a Feminist Poetics," has no trouble standing on its own as a brilliant assessment of "female creativity, male images of women, and the metaphor of literary paternity" as well as "the woman writer and the anxiety of authorship." Here the authors lay out the core arguments that will be elucidated further in parts two through six, in which specific 19th century authors are examined in depth. Once one has launched into the richness of the original text with the question, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" the critique of male authority associated with exclusive male creativity (via theology, among other things) exposes both the exclusion of women from literary paternity and their silence, passivity, and death as the ciphers of male texts. Women were not able to assert themselves on the page because they could not define themselves and they could not define themselves because they had no stories of their own. As the Victorian angel in the house, women were kept ill both literally and figuratively by the dis-ease of their enforced passivity. The only option to being an "angel" was to become "the madwoman in the attic" of the book's title (alluding to Bronte's Jane Eyre)- the monstrous, creative shadow side of the silenced, selfless, cipher. In order to overcome the anxiety of authorship and begin the express her story and the double bind of her situation, a Victorian woman had to fight against male authors' reading of her, not her predecessor's view of the world. This book's account of women writers, then, is "a story of the woman writer's quest for her own story; it is the story, in other words, or the woman's quest for self definition."
In order to begin that quest, women writers had to develop strategies to overcome their anxiety and to be successful in the public world. Some of these strategies identified by Gilbert and Gubar include mimicry, revision, and hiding. The duplicity and submerged content that were often used to cope with the tension between self-expression and propriety are examined in much more depth in the book's subsequent sections. The authors examined at length are Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Emily Dickenson.
It is the authors' stated task to recover this body of female literature as well as the neglected female history reflected in it. While I expected to find the former goal met by the book, and it was, I was far more impressed and effected by Gilbert and Gubar's forceful and moving attention to the latter. In fact, what seemed at first to be a book (simply!) about the writings of a century of neglected women, turned out to be an exploration of the oppression of women under the male pen and, further, an inspiring testament to the transformational power of writing in the lives of women. The attention to the dynamics of patriarchal dominance and the liberatory power of women's creativity is constantly made relevant to the present in a way that makes this text much more than a survey of literature-it is a record of women, denied selves, seeking and re/discovering themselves in their own texts and in their lives. Susan Hericks earned her Ph.D. in Theology and Religion from Drew University in 2000. She is a writer with many interests, including depth psychology and Jungian dream work, feminist ethics, peace studies, and feminist science fiction. She firmly believes you can never have too many books or too many varieties of tea in the house.