- Women and Literary History: 'For There She Was'
This collection of essays takes its title from an eponymous conference at the University of Alberta in 1997, sponsored by the Orlando Project, which is constructing the first large-scale history of British women's writing. Judging from the quality of these essays, the conference seems to have been an impressive gathering, and those who missed it are fortunate to have this collection. The essays, developed from selected conference papers, address many of the daunting intellectual challenges faced by feminists who, like the Orlando researchers, are rethinking the methods and practices of traditional literary history as they rewrite it.
Most of the contributors are among those whose ground-breaking research over the past few decades has produced the wealth of scholarly material on women writers that has made ambitious undertakings like the Orlando Project possible. Not only is the quality of the individual essays uniformly high, but they function effectively as a coherent group. As the contributors expand, qualify, and refine each other's points, their ongoing dialogues create a whole commensurately greater than the sum of its parts.
Chronologically, the twelve essays range from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. As the contributors assess the rich archive on women writers that has been assembled and identify the gaps that still remain, they analyse both the advantages and the drawbacks of integrating this diverse body of extant knowledge about women and literature into larger narratives.
Some of the probable contours of this historiography are already emerging. Gender will be only one element in it, albeit an important one, and not always the defining focus; Kathryn R. King, Elaine Hobby, and others cogently analyse the inadequacies of separatist models for representing the practices of women writers. Emphases will broaden from oppression and exclusion to incorporate more complex understandings of female agency, so that, for example, oversimplified accounts of mid-eighteenth-century women novelists can be corrected (Betty A. Schellenberg). The new feminist historiography will be shaped in crucial ways by decisions on chronological demarcations (Susan Staves), on the ideological valences of focal paradigms (Marjorie Stone on the Atlantis myth), on continuing developments in recuperative scholarship (Bonnie Kime Scott), and on the critical functions of minor writers and also of ideologically difficult writers (Jo-Ann Wallace).
Other essays highlight individuals whose careers have important ramifications for constructing a more inclusive historiography: Carole Gerson on Mohawk-Canadian author Pauline Johnson; Suzanne Raitt on [End Page 194] May Sinclair's engagement with the Brontës; and Ann B. Shteir on Phebe Lankester's popular science writing. Despite the impressive body of research already completed on women, most of the contributors emphasize the amount of work that remains to be done, particularly in expanding our understanding of historical and social contexts. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Sally O'Driscoll illustrates the inadequacies of current historical scholarship on sexuality for a lesbian literary history, while Antonia Forster discusses the need for more accurate accounts of women novelists in the latter part of the century.
This wide-ranging collection offers a variety of perspectives, with an excellent balance of theoretical and textual issues. As commentators continue to discuss the plethora of complex issues that the movement towards more comprehensive histories of women's writing raises, that ongoing scholarly conversation will almost certainly validate the introductory editorial claim of Women and Literary History: 'As groundwork, this collection will be hard to beat.' [End Page 195]
Martine Watson Brownley, Department of English, Emory University