The English women's novel, killed by feminism


Elaine Showalter
Friday 12 June 1998 23:02

THE DEATH of Catherine Cookson signals the culmination and passing of a great tradition of the English women's novel. Twenty years ago, when I published A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, feminist literary criticism was in its infancy and research on women writers was hard work.

Books were out of print, and there were few substantial biographies, collections of letters or catalogues of women's manuscripts, let alone theories of women's writing. Trudging through libraries in 1972-73 in search of women writers' archives, I was often the first scholar to read a harrowing journal or open a box of letters.

Rummaging in the dusty stacks of the Fawcett Library, in London, I made friends with other hardy pioneers. We were accustomed to being mocked for working on women - my male adviser called my thesis "strident militant feminism". But we were inspired, too, by the goal Virginia Woolf articulated in A Room of One's Own: that, if we were willing to labour for women, Shakespeare's sister would be born again and be able to fulfil her genius.

As a young academic, I often doubted myself. But I never doubted that British women writers had a history worth recording. And stories such as Cookson's survival of illegitimacy, alcoholism, poverty, lack of education and illness to become one of the century's best-selling novelists sustained my faith in Woolf's ideals.

But now, at the end of the 20th century, as I finish a revised edition of A Literature of Their Own, Woolf's vision of Shakespeare's sister, the feminist literary messiah, no longer seems important. The study of women's writing no longer depends on winning critical laurels of genius for the few, but rather on the acceptance of the female tradition as part of the culture as a whole.

There can be no doubt that acceptance has arrived: on the Internet I can find hundreds of sources for research on women's writing; bookshops overflow with texts; the Orange Prize, which I helped judge this spring, provides materials for teaching contemporary women's fiction; and a lottery grant will soon create a National Library of Women based on the Fawcett Library Collection.

Of course, there is mockery still; A A Gill's puerile sniping at the new library in last week's Sunday Times is a reminder that the days of mindless critical dandyism are never over. But, on the whole, feminist literary criticism and British women's writing has never been so flourishing.

But, paradoxically, British women's writing at the millennium may also be coming to the end of its history as a separate "literature of their own". First, two decades of critical attention to women's writing has inevitably interfered with imaginative ecology and altered the evolution of the tradition.

Postmodern women writers' awareness of belonging to a literary tradition has made their fiction self-reflexive and parodic in a new way. Just as the heroine of a New Woman novel in the 1890s was likely to be an artist or writer, the heroine of a New British Woman novel in the 1990s is likely to be a feminist literary critic.

Joan Smith's detective, Loretta Lawson, is writing a feminist study of Edith Wharton; Fay Weldon's Big Women is about the women who run a feminist publishing house called Medusa; and A S Byatt's elegant Maud Bailey, in the 1990 Booker Prize-winning Possession, teaches women's literature at "Lincoln University".

Byatt dedicated Possession to her friend, Isobel Armstrong, professor of English at Birkbeck College and a distinguished scholar and critic of Victorian women's poetry. An academic herself, Byatt has so thoroughly absorbed feminist critical history of Victorian women's writing that she invents a whole canon of it in a brilliant literary tour de force.

Not only does she create a pantheon of remarkable Victorian women poets and writers - and compose all their poetry, letters, stories and journals - she also imagines, reproduces and satirises the feminist literary criticism written about them by British, American and French female academics.

Possession is explicitly about the battle for ownership of British literature between English and American scholars, traditional and feminist critics. But it is implicitly a statement that Byatt's imaginative possession of her literary heritage makes criticism superfluous, redundant and absurd. When fiction so anticipates and exceeds criticism, we have come to the end of an era.

Moreover, the insularity of setting and the consistency of style that made English women's fiction so homogeneous as a topic 25 years ago has been radically transformed. The British women's novels I considered in 1977 showed virtually no awareness of American literature and very little European influence. But the women's novels I read for the Orange Prize this spring were set all over the world and reflected the international stylistic influences that come with a global culture.

With contemporary mobility and the popularity of travel writing, British women writers, including Marina Warner, Pauline Melville, Hilary Mantel and Jenni Diski, have abandoned Austen's two little inches of ivory for an international canvas ranging from the Middle East to the Caribbean.

Angela Carter's influence on British women's writing was pivotal in this opening and transformation, and 1979, the year Carter published The Sadeian Woman and The Bloody Chamber and Thatcher became prime minister, was the historical turning-point.

Carter's familiarity with and enthusiasm for Japanese popular culture, American movies, Latin-American magical realism, French surrealism, perverse sexuality and carnivalesque masquerade marked a new turn. Since her death in 1992, the British women's novel is as likely to be set in decadent Carter Country as the decorous Home Counties.

Following Carter's investigation of Sade, women's novels in the 1990s explore the roles of sadist and masochist, cross-dresser and fetishist, that have increasingly obsessed contemporary culture.

Like Carter, women writers use postmodern technique as a shield to enter the subterranean, freakish, and dangerous spaces of the modern city. For novelists such as Helen Dunmore, Lucy Ellmann, Sarah Dunant, Helen Zahavi, Yvonne Roberts, Sally Beauman and Maureen Freely, there is full access to every language, style and subject.

Finally, women's fiction is no longer about uniquely women's subjects. In fact, British women writers have forged female mythologies and transcended them. On one side, Michele Roberts's Impossible Saints creates a fabulous hagiography of women writers; on the other, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy merges history and imagination to explore men's lives in the Great War.

Moreover, the boundaries between women's popular commercial fiction and high culture are less rigid. Mystery writers such as PD James and Ruth Rendell are among the most honoured contemporary writers, while Cookson's sagas will be as important to literary scholars of the 21st century as Margaret Oliphant's novels are to Victorian scholars today.

Cookson was a great benefactor of feminist education. She gave pounds 100,000 to St Hilda's College, Oxford, for the study of science and donated pounds 50,000 for a women's studies archive at Girton College, Cambridge. "I wish to encourage environments in which women can flourish as students and scholars," she wrote. If British women novelists have moved into the mainstream, Cookson deserves some of the credit, and the posthumous millennial publication of her 100th novel will be a fitting symbol of the fulfilment of a feminist dream.

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