Merryn Williams' Six Women Novelists, a frustrating and disappointing exercise, can only have been rushed into print by a publisher hoping to cash in on the continuing interest in women's writing. Six Women Novelists offers simplistic, descriptive reviews—and I mean reviews—of the lives and oeuvre of six women writers (Olive Schreiner, Edith Wharton, F. M. Mayor, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Antonia White). This study is problematic from the outset because, in the absence of any sort of theoretical framework or compelling organizational principle, each chapter follows the same mechanical format: first a few pages of undigested information about the life of each writer and then predictable readings of individual texts.
Writing in a vacuum without any specific focus, the author provides superficial synopses and touches only briefly on various themes or issues, such as religious conflicts or choices involving the family versus a career. The justification for including these six writers in the first place exemplifies Williams' lack of intellectual rigor: "I chose these particular novelists . . . because I admired them and felt that in some cases . . . their work had not had enough attention." This in spite of the fact that several excellent studies now appear on at least four of the writers in this study (Schreiner, Wharton, Mansfield, and Sayers). Williams does not seem troubled in the least that one of the writers, Katherine Mansfield, is not, strictly speaking, a novelist because "both the General Editor and myself felt that she should not be excluded." Here one might query "why," but I found myself posing this question on nearly every page.
What makes this book so disappointing is that the remarkable parallels among these post-Victorian women writers call for the attention of a scholarship informed by the recent, valuable work of feminist literary critics. By ignoring this work, Williams fails to raise even the most obvious questions. What do we learn, for instance, about the relationship between women writers, physical or mental illness, and social restrictions? Several of the women writers in this study suffered from asthma, severe depression, or other problems, and yet Williams does little more than remark on the connection, leaving the reader to ponder the significance. Ironically, this book is commercially viable precisely because feminist critics both challenge traditional notions of literary value that have often excluded women and explore the possibility of a woman's tradition. Without this sensibility, we find Williams, a woman critic, writing about women writers and coming up with final assessments so lukewarm and tentative as to undermine her own project. The chapter on F. M. Mayor, for instance, concludes by reiterating the conventional view that the subject matter is "limited": "Perhaps we tend to write [Mayor] off because we assume that women—particularly unattached, unwanted women—are not important. Her work should make us re-examine that belief." Is that all?
Might this modest little study at least serve as a basic introduction for the general reader or keen high school student? Unfortunately, no. Williams' sexist comments are so offensive that her manuscript would not be accepted or tolerated by an American academic press. At one point, Williams writes that Sayers had [End Page 395] difficulty in finding a husband because "there were not that many men available after the carnage of the war, and she was rather a plain woman." In another chapter she considers how Antonia White has been compared to James Joyce and suggests that White is immeasurably better because her work "could be read with pleasure by a twelve-year-old girl." Throughout the book Williams worries about women who are too intelligent for their time but makes this their problem instead of extending her analysis to explore the cultural conditions that make them "too intelligent." Ultimately, this book is out of date and out of touch, and the reader would be well advised to look elsewhere for discussions of these writers...