Friday Book: The apex of a vast act of reclamation

The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English edited by Lorna Sage (Cambridge University Press, pounds 16.95 p/back, pounds 27.95 h/back)
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AT ONE point, Dorothy Richardson described her extended novel Pilgrimage (1915-38) as an attempt to forge a "feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism". Something of the same sort underlies this massive and magisterial Cambridge Guide, which is wonderfully conversant with everything that literary women were accomplishing over the centuries and in many unexpected localities (Barra to Borneo and back again).

In one sense, this book forms the apex of a vast act of reclamation that has been going on for 30-odd years, ever since forgotten women authors began to be reinstated. More than that, it shows that reinstatement is in fact no longer an issue, since women's literary claims have been staked out and consolidated. This guide is as much about moving forward as about acknowledging and appraising the past.

The book's ambitious scope - chronological, topical, geographical - facilitates an abundant overview, and does full justice to all the odd corners and even dead ends in which assiduous literary activity was taking place. Lorna Sage has marshalled more than 300 contributors (here I should declare an infinitesimal interest, being one of them), not all of them women. Their approach, for the most part, is scholarly and animated. Writers, key works, genres, landmarks and all are discussed with cogency and flair. What's striking about this guide is its overall coherence and evenness of tone, given the dauntingly piecemeal, patchwork nature of the enterprise.

The exhilarating commentary extends to cookery writers (Eliza Acton, Julia Child, et al), hymn-writers, gardening experts, the domestic novel, regionalism, colonialism and fairy tales. Detective fiction is ably treated - even though one of the Dorothy Sayers commentators has missed the feminist implications of Gaudy Night, and the buoyant Californian Sue Grafton is absent (although her contemporaries, such as Sara Paretsky and Katherine Forrest, are not).

Everyone understands that total comprehensiveness is a chimera. But that won't keep ungrateful readers, even of a compilation as wide-ranging as this one, from latching on to some - to them - unaccountable oversight. They will wonder, for example, how a writer such as Gillian Avery, author of (among other things) a splendid children's novel of 1958, The Warden's Niece, has slipped through the net, or why Joan Lingard should be in but not Jane Langton; or Ruth Pitter but not Ruth Dudley Edwards or Ruth Padel.

Complaint of any kind, however, soon dies away in the face of all the unassailable riches in this remarkable volume. It is full of information. We learn for example, something about Maya Angelou's multiple careers (mother, poet, prostitute, civil rights activist, dancer, actor, producer, singer, journalist and autobiographer), and can ponder the connection, if there is one, between afflictions such as anorexia, depression, insomnia and tachycardia, and the amazing productivity evinced by Joyce Carol Oates. We read about social explorations conducted "through the eyes of a female elephant" and pause to admire the mettle of all those 19th-century women travellers.

We find a good deal about fiction promoting "New Womanhood" - continuously, indeed, in accordance with the mores of the day. Well-known terms such as "bluestocking" are satisfactorily scrutinised, and space has been found for quirky snippets of information, such as the fact that the novelist Phyllis Bottome, who lived in Germany for a time, used to patronise the same cafe as Hitler.

One of the functions of the literary companion is to alert readers to all kinds of enticing works that they might otherwise have missed. This guide goes about the business with the utmost diligence and perspicacity. Aficionados of social history (for example) may like to note Rebecca Harding's indictment of American industrialism, Life in the Iron-Mills (1861). Indian and Kenyan poets, and other opponents of colonial administrations, are not neglected.

All in all, the Cambridge Guide is as instructive, stimulating and illuminating as an indefatigable editor, mostly incisive contributors, and a stupendous purpose, can make it.

The writer recently edited `The Belfast Anthology' (published by Blackstaff Books)