- The Poison at the Source: The Female Novel of Self-Development in the Early Twentieth Century
Penny Brown's study of the female Bildungsroman provides sympathetic and sensitive readings of May Sinclair's Mary Olivier: A Life and The Life and Death of Harriet Frean; Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp and The Well of Loneliness; Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz, and The Weather in the Streets; Antonia White's Frost in May, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass; and Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage. In her concluding chapter, Brown identifies other early twentieth-century British women novelists whose heroines struggle against the limitations of the definition of womanhood in a patriarchal culture, for example, F. M. Mayor, whose novels explore the "emotional and social implications of spinsterhood." Other novels that Brown points to are Eliot Bliss's Saraband, E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, Winifred Bryher's Development, and F. Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See the Peepshow. That a woman's opportunities for self-expression and fulfillment are more limited than those of a man is what every woman knows. What feminist literary historians and theorists have repeatedly demonstrated in the last decade and a half is that novels which reflect life as experienced by a woman have often been dismissed as trivial. A half century before the work of these feminist scholars, Virginia Woolf reminded us of the effect upon the lives and accomplishments of women, of the differences between women's and men's values. Those differences affect the assessment of those lives and accomplishments as well: "And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic [End Page 988] assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room" (A Room of One's Own). Many readers no longer dismiss women's stories as unimportant. For them, although Brown's book breaks no new theoretical ground, her readings will provide an overview of women's telling of what it means to grow up as a woman in the first part of this century. Brown's book does not discuss any authors or works that those of us with particular interest in British women writers have not heard of. Indeed, all the novels she discusses including those mentioned in the last chapter have been reprinted by Virago. But her well executed study takes its place beside the growing number of scholarly works that acknowledge the importance of the contribution of British women novelists to the literature of the twentieth century.