Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter

A Literature of Their Own During a heat wave you would think I'd be reading something light and "beachy" but no, I've been reading this serious critical look at British women novelists from Bronte to Lessing from a feminist point of view. This is a revised and expanded edition of her original book published in 1977 I believe.

Those early women novelists were admirable, strong women. With all the restrictions on their education and lifestyle, they still managed to write novels that are widely read even today. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and all the other beloved novels they wrote have much of value to say to we modern women with all our freedoms. Just think, they had little or no education, were only trained to catch a man, hopefully a rich one, and had no knowledge of the life of anyone other than people just like themselves. Most of us would go stark raving mad with all their confining rules. Their fathers and then husbands had total control over them, even over what they were allowed to read.

We get a slight taste of this kind of life watching series on Masterpiece Theater, but the girls in those families are sly enough to find ways around the men in their lives. I doubt most women in 19th century English upper classes could get away with such things.

Showalter, a Princeton professor, wrote this book as a result of an academic study of all the women novelists in England and this is a book that could easily be used as a textbook. That is not to say that it is dry and boring, anything but. I found it very readable and fascinating, enough so to read it through a week of terrible heat and humidity. Now I'm going on to something very light, but this book told me not only about the writing these women did, but nearly every aspect of their lives. The addition of novelists of the modern day through Doris Lessing is a small part of the overall book.

The feminist aspects of the book are enlightening as well, and Showalter includes much about the suffragists' struggle for the vote and against war. I confess this was the least interesting part to me, but I must admit that it would be impossible to separate the feminist movement from English women's literature since each was influenced greatly by the other.

I recommend this book but not to everyone. If you are interested in women's history or the early English women novelists, you will enjoy this study. Otherwise, you'll do better to stick with the actual novels, but don't let yourself be misguided in the thought that 19th century novels will be boring. You'll miss some excellent reads.


  1. I think I´d like this one - but NOT for the summer holidays. But as background material for teaching these brilliant women writers...

  2. Dorte, I do think this would be a valuable book for you in teaching but agree it is not a book for summer. I just get in crazy moods sometimes, you know?