restricted access The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel, and: Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community (review)
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Reviewed by
Rosalind Miles. The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel. New York: Routledge, 1987. 227 pp. $35.00.
Dale M. Bauer. Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community. Albany: State U of New York P, 1988. 204 pp. $34.50 cloth; pb. $10.95.

Extreme positions tend to provoke equally fanatic responses. Because the critical establishment has traditionally slighted female authors, it is no wonder that feminist critics occasionally claim too much in their attempts to redress the balance. The Female Form is one of those attempts. In the Preface Rosalind Miles announces that the purpose of the book is "to assert the supremacy of the role of women writers in the evolution of the modern novel, and to review some of the reasons why this simple fact seems to need restating again and again and again." What follows is a loosely organized overview of novels by women in the last hundred years or so.

Miles's tone is casual (she abjures footnotes as "barriers between reader and text"), and her argument is eclectic at best. Indeed it is less a coherent argument than an "artistic" arrangement of quotations from a wide variety of novels, often pasted together with problematic and sometimes contradictory assertions. For example, at one point Miles agrees with Katharine Rogers (The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature, 1966) that "There is an implicit and inescapable anti-feminism in any insistence upon the difference between the sexes." Yet just four pages later Miles asserts that "No artist can . . . avoid encountering sex difference as a theme."

Only solid scholarship can begin to redress the wrongs committed against women by literary historians, and ultimately Miles's reiterated assertions of supremacy and difference are unconvincing, forming as they do, not so much [End Page 393] a closely reasoned argument, as a diatribe that invites not intellectual scrutiny but emotional assent. And at that level, The Female Form must be accounted a partial success, for at times Miles's vision of the world is so intensely true to female experience that it made my teeth hurt. The following comment from Chapter Two, part of a discussion of the working conditions of nineteenth-century women writers, may remind some of us at least how far we have not come:

Where men writers could count on the domestic services of a partner without even having to think about it, women had to struggle with the burden of the domestic management and the guilt that is induced, even when living with men who might have been thought intelligent and enlightened.

Dale Bauer's Feminist Dialogics is both a more scholarly book and a less readable one. Critics enamoured of Mikhail Bakhtin and receptive to current jargon may well regard Feminist Dialogics as a tour de force. Critics of other persuasions may be more likely to find it pretentious and opaque. According to Bauer, a feminist dialogics seeks to "intersect [Mikhail Bakhtin's] celebration of carnivalized language with the language of sexual difference." Her exploration of the "ambivalent territory of dialogism and polyphony" and search for "gendered voices" focus on four American novels•The Blithedale Romance, The Golden Bowl, The House of Mirth, and The Awakening —because she finds in each the "play of female voices, misreading, carnivalized textual events, and a sequence of silencing."

Although Bauer's readings are intelligent and theoretically consistent, they seem for the most part painfully forced, as though the novels were being distorted to suit the theory rather than "disrupted" in order to focus the "refracted" speech of the feminine voices. This disruption is accomplished in part by "renaming" "situations . . . in terms of a feminist dialogic criticism." For example, Bauer's reading of The Blithedale Romance, although provocative in its details, contributes little to our understanding of the feminine voices of Zenobia or Priscilla by labeling the novel a "heteroglossic polylogue of ideological discourses on social structure and community in the Blithedale 'theatre.' " The Golden Bowl Bauer discusses in terms of "Maggie's attempt to make her father's word into her own 'private property,' to wrest it from those others who speak for her." But the discussion folds...


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