- Reviewed by
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An eminent (male) critic remarked to me several years ago and with a straight face: "If Edith Wharton were a man she would be a major figure." It was a recognition of the difficulty of that reassessment of women's literary achievement, and of the canon that selectively excluded it from major figurehood, that has been going on now for almost twenty years. The four books under review all participate in this effort to reevaluate women's literary work.
Jean Rhys and Rebecca West are excellent subjects for such scrutiny. Rhys, since her reappearance from oblivion in 1957 with the BBC radio version of Good Morning, Midnight and the critical triumph in 1966 of Wide Sargasso Sea, has attracted a fervent group of admirers and a solid readership. Dame Rebecca West, an imposing presence among her contemporaries, has slipped badly as they have aged and is now widely unread and ripe for a rehabilitation effort. Although Rhys is far better established than West, there is still movement in critical judgments of Rhys and uncertainty about her final standing among modernist writers. The current reputation of West is in serious disrepair: we recall her association with famous men—the lover of H. G. Wells, the defender of Lady Chatterly's Lover caught by the photographer in mid firm stride on her way to the Old Bailey. But as a novelist?
The literary instruments of these evaluations, like their subjects, come in pairs: a book of traditional academic criticism about each woman, and one each in a genre midway between criticism and popular biography, designed for the general reader. Orel and Davidson, the traditional scholars, both follow a chronological plan treating the major works of their authors in order and offering both interpretive readings of selected texts and evidence of such academic concerns as thematic unity (Orel) or development (Davidson); both press the case for the heretofore undervalued merits of this work. The more popular books are written for a new series by Penguin called Lives of Modern Women, described by the General Editor, Emma Tennant, as "a series of short biographies by distinguished writers of significant twentieth-century women whose lives, ideas, struggles, and creative talents contributed something new to a world in transition." Other publishers—Virago, Rutgers—are mounting similar series on women writers.
Both biographies treat their subjects as exemplary "modern women." In the case of Rebecca West, the result is a pretty drastic reshaping of the material. Thus we have a woman who lived ninety years and wrote an immense lot of journalism, history, fiction, and criticism of all kinds presented by Fay Weldon as the Unwed Mother, the intellectually gifted unwed mother. Weldon's entire book is set in the furnished room of Cicily Fairfield in a boarding house in Hunstanton, Norfolk, whither she has retired to have her illegitimate baby. Weldon composes "letters from the future" to the young woman in this very model of a modern predicament, and in these letters she contemplates the state of society from the point of view of West's later feminist writings. West is seen to have been brave and ahead of her time, and a pleasant story develops, loosely based on the West biography, of how our heroine must feel, lying there with her extraordinary mind passing back and forth over the warp and woof of her very ordinary situation. It is gratifying to recall as we read that the "fallen woman" later rose to the heights of venerated moral authority. Completed by hindsight, it is a happy, over-simplified [End Page 672] tale, but it could almost be about any well-connected girl in the same situation, so much is West's story made to share common ground. The problem...