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Phyllis Rose has established herself as a contemporary woman of letters by writing lucidly, intelligently, and insightfully of women in Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, and numerous book reviews and articles. Some of the latter are collected in her most recent book, Writing of Women: Essays in a Renaissance. Rose claims this collection is "united by two enthusiasms," an enthusiasm for the feminist "revolution in literary history" and an "enthusiasm for biography" in what she describes as a "golden age." It is not her "enthusiasm," however, but her measured assessment of the various women writers who come within her purview that draws our attention to the potentially valuable distinction between canon formation and canonization.
Some of Rose's critical acumen may be attributable to her freedom from ideological constraints and compulsions. By her own admission, Rose is a classical rather than a radical feminist: "Classical feminism is integrationist. It aims at giving women equal access to power with men. Radical feminism today is separatist." The critical essays in the present volume represent a significant contribution to the creation of equal access to power in the literary world.
Although Rose concludes her introduction by apologizing, with conventional female modesty, for a "collection of previously published essays," both the apology and the modesty are inappropriate. Far from "a dinner of leftovers," Writing of Women makes some of the best of Rose's shorter critical pieces available to a wider audience than before. The essays are divided into two sections: "Lives" and "Works." The reviews in "Lives" focus our attention on several literary and artistic women far outside the canon; those in "Works" refocus our critical perspectives on a number of better-known writers.
Among the more interesting essays on biographical works are those on Frida Kahlo, Helen Bannerman, and Alma Mahler. The review of Hayden Herrera's Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo emphasizes Kahlo's part in Mexican cultural and political life at the beginning of the twentieth century in concert and in conflict with her husband Diego Rivera. Rose's review of Elizabeth Hay's Sambo Sahib may be more convincing than the biography itself as an attempt to rescue the author of Little Black Sambo from literary limbo. The review of Karen Monson's biography of Alma Mahler, Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius, raises a number of questions avoided by the biography itself. Was there a connection between Alma's "compulsive romancing" and "the frustration of her talent"? "Was there a talent worth cultivating"? Perhaps the most important question, however, is the one [End Page 361] raised by Mahler's life: "Her life was the reductio ad absurdum of one sort of female calling: the attracting, securing, and nurturing of creative men. How many women justify their lives by the men they have married or bedded?"
An essay on "Fact and Fiction in Biography" provides a natural transition to the "Works" section of Rose's collection. Citing Henry James's comment that "the novel is of its very nature an ado," Rose asserts that "a biography is as much or more of an ado" and asks, "what does a person have to do or be to merit one?" Rose answers her own question by pointing out that, at least until recently, biography, as a genre, "is much more elitist than the novel" because it "ignores almost everyone." "To write about women," Rose argues, "it was necessary to write about compromise and failure." This necessity has prompted a "bourgeois-democratic revolution" because to write about failed or minor authors is to increase their visibility and enhance their reputations. The intrinsic unity of "Works" and "Lives" is implied by Rose's belief that "life is as much a work of fiction—of guiding narrative structures—as novels and poems are" and that "good biography, like good art, depends upon a subversive effect: showing the truth, the beauty, the interest or importance of...