[Access article in PDF]
Women's Fiction Between the Wars: Mothers, Daughters and Writing
Theory and Cultural Studies
Heather Ingman. Women's Fiction Between the Wars: Mothers, Daughters and Writing. New York: St Mark's P, 1998. xi + 180 pp.
At a time when the so-called "war of the generations" rages between second-wave gynocritics and their factious poststructuralist scions (most recently, in the pages of Critical Inquiry), Heather Ingman's book reminds us that the mother-daughter relationship has been to feminist literary endeavor as crucial and contentious as any patriarchal critique.
Reading the novels of Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson through the lens of "the founding mothers of psychoanalysis"--Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud--Ingman aims to show that this rather gauche six-pack were united in an attempt to give an accurate portrait of early twentieth-century motherhood in the face of Sigmund Freud's antipathetic schematization of the mother-daughter relation and the oppressively utopian images of selfless matriarchal devotion in the contemporary press.
For Ingman, the mother-daughter bond is productive rather than obstructive or destructive, functioning as both inspirational source and subject matter for female creativity such that "the mother becomes the daughter's muse." In this, Ingman's project transposes the fault lines produced by French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, whose intensely lyrical writing euphorically extolled the progenitive powers of the Voice of the Mother in the early 1980s. More piquant, perhaps, [End Page 551] is Ingman's argument that the mother-daughter relationship is recuperated by these interwar women writers to the extent that the daughter-author is able to figure the mother as separate and subject, rather than as an adjunct and object. This thesis, borrowed from object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein and Jessica Benjamin, constitutes the structuring principle of Ingman's book, Macaulay and Richardson acting as teleological bookends, the latter hailed as the interwar woman writer who, finally, uses her maternal instincts to further her vocation as an artist. For the Richardson reader in particular, the idea that Pilgrimage's great achievement is the "reappropriation of the maternal" strikes a rather dissonant chord: while, certainly, the novel's protagonist does achieve a muted and belated relation of equanimity with her smiling, submissive mother, the idea that, "inspired by loyalty to her mother, Miriam sets out on a quest to find her place in life" is nothing short of fanciful. This type of wishful thinking spoils Ingman's book: just as the gynocritical project of "retrieval" tended toward uncritical retellings and over-ecstatic valorizations, so too Women's Fiction Between the Wars sometimes sacrifices interrogation and critique for deference and exegesis. Perhaps because of this "rose-colored glasses" approach, the fact that only one of the six writers considered in the book became a mother in actual fact (and Rhys, on her own admission, a very bad one at that) strikes the reader as somewhat problematic long before Ingman acknowledges this fact on the very last page. The reality that these interwar women writers found the trials and tribulations of motherhood impracticable or insurmountable is something not even Ingman's attempt to broaden her definition of mothering beyond the confines of the biological relation can assuage. In the end, Ingman's book reinforces the very notion she is trying desperately to disprove--namely, that the mother is not, ultimately, a subject in her own right or the teller of her own story. Rather than simply celebrating the fact that these daughter-authors replace the marriage plot with the mother-daughter plot, Ingman would have done better to question why these women compulsively and nostalgically revisit their mothers in their novels. Nonetheless, Ingman's choice of material is fresh, appealing, and intriguing and her breadth of scope impressive. Ingman's opening chapter, entitled "The Historical Context," featuring her ficto-critical creation, Olive, cleverly sets the socio-political scene for her reader...