In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter shows how women's literature has evolved, starting from the Victorian period to modern writing. She breaks down the movement into three stages — the Feminine, a period beginning with the use of the male pseudonym in the 1840s until 1880 with George Eliot's death; the Feminist, from 1880 till the winning of the vote in 1920; and the Female, from 1920 till the present-day, including a "new stage of self-awareness about 1960."
When discussing the characteristics of each of these phases, she looks at how other literary subcultures ("such as black, Jewish... or even American") to see how they developed. A female solidarity always seemed to exist as a result of "a shared and increasingly secretive and ritualized physical experience... the entire female sexual life cycle." Female writers always wrote with this commonality and feminine awareness in mind. Therefore, women's writing and women's experiences "implied unities of culture."
Showalter finds in each subculture, and thus in women's literature, first a long period of imitation of the dominant structures of tradition and an "internalization of its standards of art an its views on social roles." This Feminine phase includes women writers such as the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, and the later generation of Charlotte Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant, and Elizabeth Lynn Linton. These women attempted to integrate themselves into a public sphere, a male tradition, and many of them felt a conflict of "obedience and resistance" which appears in many of their novels. Oddly enough, during the Victorian period, women flooded the novel market and comprised a healthy segment of the reading public — still, women writers were left "metaphorically paralyzed." The language with which they could fully express their experience as women and their sufferings as they still identified themselves within the confines of Victorian bourgeois propriety.
In the second stage, the minority — or rather, the subordinate — lashes out against the traditional standards and values, demanding their rights and sovereignty be recognized. In this Feminist phase, women's literature had varying angles of attack. Some women wrote social commentaries, translating their own sufferings to those of the poor, the laboring class, slaves, and prostitutes, thereby venting their sense of injustice in an acceptable manner. They expanded their sphere of influence by making inroads into social work. In a completely different direction, the 1870s sensation novels of Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, and Florence Marryat, "explored genuinely radical female protest against marriage and women's economic oppression, although still in the framework of feminine conventions that demanded the erring heroine's destruction." Their golden-haired doll-like paradigms of womanhood mock contemporary expectations of Angels in the House by turning out to be mad bigamists and would-be murderesses.
Militant suffragists also wrote prolifically during this protest phase of literature. Women such as Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Mona Caird, Elizabeth Robins, and Olive Schreiner made "fiction the vehicle for a dramatization of wronged womanhood... demand[ing] changes in the social and political systems that would grant women male privileges and require chastity and fidelity from men." On the whole, Showalter finds these women's writings not examples of fine literature. Their projects concerned themselves more with a message than the creation of art, though their rejection of male-imposed definitions and self-imposed oppression opened the doors for the exploration of female identity, feminist theory, and the female aesthetic.
The third period, then, is characterized by a self-discovery and some freedom "from some of the dependency of opposition" as a means for self-definition. Some writers end up turning inward during the subsequent search for identity. In the early half of Female phase of writing, it "carried... the double legacy of feminine self-hatred and feminist withdrawal... [turning] more and more toward a separatist literature of inner space." Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf worked towards a female aesthetic, elevating sexuality to a world-polarizing determination. Moreover, the female experience and its creative processes held mystic implications — both transcendental and self-destructive vulnerability. These women "applied the cultural analysis of the feminists [before them] to words, sentences, and structures of language in the novel." However, Showalter criticizes their works for their androgynistic natures. For all its concern with sexual connotations and sexuality, the writing avoids actual contact with the body, disengaging from people into "a room of one's own."
This changed when the female novel entered a new stage in the 1960s. With twentieth-century Freudian and Marxist analysis and two centuries of female tradition, writers such as Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, and Beryl Bainbridge access women's experiences. Using previously taboo language and situations, "anger and sexuality are accepted... as sources of female creative power." Showalter's analysis shows how the progress of women's writing reached this phase and expresses all the conflicts and struggles still influencing the current of women's literature.
Last modified 1996