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It is risky to make sharp distinctions between literary-critical and more widely speculative endeavors: A. C. Bradley, writing about Shakespeare, hoped after all to shed light on the nature of man. Feminist literary criticism and feminist psychological and political theory overlap and inform one another; often they come to, and from, the same thing. These three books—the first two more theoretical, the third more critical—take as a point of departure Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, reaffirming its status as a mother-text of contemporary literary feminism.
A mother-text is a daughter-text as well: Gardiner's study and Kloepfer's detail the ambivalences attendant on this. Rhys's novel is embedded in them. It was published at the beginning of the "new wave" of feminism, in the decade of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), and Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women (1968); Kate Millett's Sexual Politics would appear in 1970. The work of a seventy-six-year-old "forgotten" author who had been "rediscovered" in 1957, it was received as the exemplary, cautionary achievement of a woman who had seized the next-to-the-last day. A bold re-vision of Jane Eyre, it acknowledged a female tradition and even a feminist canon, and exemplified what Adrienne Rich would soon identify as the feminist critical method. (Rich's important essay on "writing as re-vision" would be published in 1972, and her essay on Jane Eyre would appear in Ms. in 1973.) And Wide Sargasso Sea invited readers to return to A Room of One's Own, that work to which all feminist criticism is a footnote, specifically the memorable passage in which Virginia Woolf deplores Charlotte Brontë's rage—or is it Jane Eyre's, or Grace Poole's, or Bertha Mason's? [End Page 677]
Judith Kegan Gardiner observes that by telling the story of Jane's predecessor, Mr. Rochester's first wife, Rhys "mothers her mother text." By moving Brontë's madwoman from the attic into the center of the narrative, refusing the view of "blameworthy madness" (in Molly Hite's phrase) and linking an exploited woman's rage to the fury of the colonized, Rhys also anticipates the emphasis of later feminist theorists: their vision of rage as rebellion, their concern with the intersection of race and class with gender, their focus on the problematic mother-daughter connection. Gardiner reads Wide Sargasso Sea as its author's "masterpiece," comparable to Stead's The Man Who Loved Children and Lessing's The Golden Notebook.
Gardiner argues that the process of identity-formation in girls—gender-based, mother-centered—is analogous and related to the political ideas of women writers, to the links between their lives and their texts, and even to the relationship between those texts and their (female) readers. Her notion of a "politics of empathy" grows out of the paradigm of female development described by Nancy Chodorow and others, in which the boundary between mother and girl-child is distinctively permeable. Empathy, as she defines it, is an imaginative effort more strenuous than sympathy, in which one puts one's own identity at stake while identifying with the other and understanding her otherness.
Its author tells us this book began from the epigrammatic insight that "the hero is her author's daughter." It evidently widened to embrace politics and psychology, and narrowed to focus on these three writers, under the pressures of feminist theory and perhaps the pressure to theorize. The grouping of Rhys, Stead, and Lessing is based on their dates, their sustained literary output, and their experience of colonialism (in Dominica, Australia, and Africa). Gardiner observes further that all three resisted the...