restricted access A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women, and: Happily Ever After? Women's Fiction in Postwar Britain 1945-60 (review)
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Reviewed by
Christine Wick Sizemorc. A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1989. 307 pp. $27.95.
Niamh Baker. Happily Ever After? Women's Fiction in Postwar Britain 1945-60. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 199 pp. $39.95 cloth; pb. $16.95.

I was astonished one night in London in the early 1980s when, upon failing to find a taxi, the Englishwoman I was with suggested walking home from Oxford Street down to Trafalgar Square via Soho, through St. James's Park to a housing estate in Westminster. The distance was not off-putting—I always find walking in London to be a delight. No, what was worrying me was the hour and the darkness: it was three in the morning. Arriving from the south side of Chicago, I could not believe that my friend—and many of her female friends as well, she assured me—walked frequently at all hours of the day and night, with what American women would regard as reckless insouciance for her safety. It is precisely this sense of exhilaration and freedom experienced by contemporary British women writers that Christine Sizemore scrutinizes in her study A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women.

Since Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway announced that she would buy the flowers herself, traipsing up to Bond Street, contemporary urban women novelists have been fascinated with the city, and London in particular. And, as Sizemore explains, "like [Woolf] they portray the city as having a place for women." Drawing intelligently upon the work of female psychologists Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, and Jessica Benjamin, as well as on the recent architectural and city planning theory of Kevin Lynch and others, Sizemore examines the work of Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, P. D. James, and Maureen Duffy (these latter two a refreshing diversion from the nearly canonical). What dominates and unifies the project is the notion of the matrix (prevalent in both feminist and architectural theory), an image with psychoanalytic resonance that usefully subdivides further to emphasize connectedness, the nonhierarchical, and spacio-temporal dimensions: for Lessing, the palimpsest; in Drabble, the network; for Murdoch, the labyrinth, a "twisted and irregular" network; the fractured pieces of the mosaic in James; and finally, for Duffy, the image of the archeological dig as the site of multiple layers embedded in history. For instance, Sizemore undertakes an excavation of the ways in which the layers of the past arc built over one another in Maureen Duffy's Capital: A Fiction, where there is a literal archeological dig, and Londoners: An Elegy, where the site exists figuratively. The image of the archeological dig overlays the two novels not only thematically, psychologically, and symbolically but also in terms of narrative form and structure. Londoners, written in a stream-of-consciousness style, plays with both literary and architectural allusions and "contains not only a substratum of Dante, but a vivid portrayal of the surface of the city, its landmarks, its famous buildings, its districts, its houses and its parks."

Although these British women novelists continue in the tradition of Dickens to explore and celebrate the city of London, they are not unaware of its problems. As Sizemore herself points out, they "show the crime and the sordidness of the contemporary city but these negative aspects are balanced by the women's sense of freedom in the city and their delight and fascination with the variety of the city." Yet one cannot help but wonder, in light of the severe cutbacks in social services of the Tory government throughout the 1980s and the concomitant acceleration [End Page 624] of crime, homelessness, and hopelessness, how long women writers will continue to discover inspiration—I was shocked by the shabby and almost sinister London I encountered on my last visit. Perhaps Sizemore has documented only a fleeting moment between the hostility toward the urban of the modernists and the despair of the postmodernists—a moment which this careful and interesting study itself celebrates.

Niamh Baker likewise turns her attention to the fiction of British women in Happily Ever After...


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