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As women authors or critics we risk appearing simple-mindedly personal [End Page 435] unless we show ourselves capable of mastering theory . . . but we should not forfeit the ironic insights of the outsider's "difference of view."—Alison Booth
The whole story cannot be told. With each view there is another story, a different story, . . . and no one of them is truer than any other . . . nor will they one day . . . be synthesized into a better, stronger whole.—Eleanor Honig Skoller
Conflicts in Feminism, published in 1990, seems to mark a new era, or decade, in feminist scholarship, one in which the theoretical conflicts that divided feminists in the 80s would be, if not resolved, at least put behind us in an effort to shift the debate. Editors Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller express hope that by exploring the nature of those conflicts, feminist critics in the 90s might come to place less emphasis on the differences that divide us than on identifying strategies for "restoring dialogue" and "making productive our multiple and manifold differences."
The two books reviewed here partake of this moment to the extent that each author engages the terms of what is often considered to be the "other" side of the feminist debate. In Greatness Engendered, avoiding the temptation, and the tendency, to contrast George Eliot and Virginia Woolf in terms of the different "feminist theoretical treatment they invite"—Anglo-American empiricism and French psycholinguistics, respectively—Alison Booth writes, "[s]ignificant as distinctions among feminist schools may be for some purposes, in this book I make no attempt to segregate them, though clearly I read Eliot and Woolf for the most part through the lens of a feminist criticism they helped to form, often called 'liberal' or 'Anglo-American.'" Eleanor Honig Skoller, while clearly employing French psycholinguistics in The In-Between of Writing, explores the meaning of "experience" in women's experimental writing, though "experience" is often considered a suspect term for the postmodern feminists with whom Skoller aligns Margaret Drabble, Marguerite Duras, and Hannah Arendt. These critics' shared concern with the "authority of experience" (or, in Booth's words, "the problem of 'being personal'") in women's writings and in feminist criticism would seem to restore dialogue between different kinds of feminism. Booth might be speaking of Skoller when she writes in her chapter on "The Burden of Personality": "All feminist criticism, however chastely textual, ultimately refers to the specificity of female experience." But, Skoller (whose criticism is clearly, if not chastely, textual) might respond, the appeal to experience "reveals a paradox that feminists cannot escape: no experience can be told without some form of mediation that renders it changed . . . the truth of communicated experience is always attenuated, undermined." Ultimately, what each critic [End Page 436] means by "experience," and by "writing," attests to the ineluctability of a "difference of view" among feminist critics. Together these two studies of women writers provide strong evidence for what the editors of Conflicts in Feminism acknowledge, that consensus among feminists is neither necessary nor desirable, nor even possible.
Alison Booth's book is a study of the meaning, and the problem, of greatness for a woman writer. How can greatness, associated with public achievement, be reconciled with women's historical and cultural confinement to the private sphere? Booth's choice of subjects has as much to do with the canonical status of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, "the Grand Old Women of English Letters," as it does with their search for "an engendered greatness that would not silence the experience of female personality." Booth's work is "not so much an 'influence' study," she says, "as it is a study of an ideal of feminine influence." What Booth terms "the ideology of influence" refers to the Victorian gender ideology of separate masculine and feminine, public and private spheres...