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Book Reviews No Man's Land, III Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume 3: Letters from the Front. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. xvii + 476 pp. $35.00 AT LAST, at last: Volume 3 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. We have waited five years for this concluding instalment. Volume 1 came out in 1988; Volume 2 in 1989. The series was, as Gilbert and Gubar explain in the preface to Volume 1, intended as a sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), their study of the woman writer and the nineteenth-century imagination , which ended in 1860s-70s. For any feminist scholar, for any student of women's writing or teacher of nineteenth-century literature, the first reading of The Madwoman must stand out as a benchmark. With excited energy, Gilbert and Gubar revealed a new dimension in women's writing of the nineteenth century, lighting up the complex interplay between the surface and the subtext by such sparklingly inventive interpretation that the whole cultural landscape was illuminated . It is too much to expect that another critical study could repeat that achievement for the twentieth century, if only because the earlier work had already changed the evaluation of women's writing. Nevertheless, this massive new undertaking disappoints. Some of the disappointment must be due to the lack of youthful exuberance in the final volume. It is, thankfully, less aggressive than Volume 1, which tended to participate in the hostility it identified: "The War of Words." It is also less creative than Volume 2, which was inspirited by the dizzying effects of the masquerade and experimentation under investigation: "Sexchanges ." The overall tone of Volume 3 is pessimistic, despite—or because of—the fact that it is trying to delineate women's envisaging of the future(s) made possible by the results of the Women's Movement: "Letters From the Front." The shaken confidence apparent in Volume 3 503 ELT 38:4 1995 perhaps reflects the loss of joyful optimism that fired women in the 70s and 80s. The backlash has been spiteful. Writing a book is like going on an expedition. You have some rough idea of where you are aiming, you make plans, draw up a general map and itinerary—but the details can only become clear once the expédition is in progress. You discover the terrain in writing about it. However, without acknowledging the fact, Volume 3 does not keep to the original plan; it also tends to circle around repeating the earlier volumes and does not make headway towards its destination until the final chapter, when no room is left to explore it. More importantly, the whole project is undermined by theoretical problems apparent from the outset. The preface to Volume 3 nods at the history of the Women's Movement , which was thought to be essential to the project in the 1988 preface, "We continue to believe that women's letters from and about the front are profoundly shaped by the history of feminism" (3 xvii), and makes further stabs at the dominant cultural theory it contested there. Yet "those systems of representation which have historically collaborated with oppressive social institutions to limit possibilities for women" (3 xviii) are lost sight of in the rest of the volume. And the failure to engage with the feminist theories which have been developed to oppose those systems and institutions is indicated by the glib definition of "feminism itself" as "a persisting structure of female desire" (3 xviii). This is about as useful as would be a definition of socialism as "a persisting structure of proletarian desire." Less, since it occults what is now, I had thought, axiomatic in women's studies: that there are feminisms. The scale and type of problem faced by Gilbert and Gubar was indicated in Volume 1 when they claimed that they "had to rethink everything we had ever been taught about twentieth century literature" (1 xi). Unfortunately they see themselves as pioneers in this endeavour, aided only by their research assistants; they scavenge from the work...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 503-507
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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