- Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, and: The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelly, and Jane Austen, and: Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature, Medieval to Modern (review)
- Minnesota Review
- Duke University Press
- Number 24, Spring 1985 (New Series)
- pp. 152-155
- View Citation
- Additional Information
152 the minnesota review And it speaks volumes really about our attitudes and values that we now must describe Meyer Liben , to generate any real interest in his work, by saying that he was an admired friend ofPaul Goodman . Or that Harold Rosenberg and Delmore Schwartz loved his work. Or that George Dennison has a glowing tribute to him. Meyer Liben was neglected in his lifetime; his work very easily could have disappeared. And it still may. We should not let this happen. ROBERT ROTH Rachel M. Brownstein. Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. 332 pp. $7.95 (paper). Mary Poovey. TheProperLadyandthe Woman Writer: Ideologyas Style in the Hbrks ofMary HbIIstonecraft , Mary Shelly, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 287 pp. $9.95 (paper). Sheila Delany. Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature, Medieval to Modem. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. 218 pp. $8.95 (paper); $18.95 (cloth). Echoing Virginia Woolf, we may reflect that worksabout women and writing are likely to involve questions about how writing defines women as well as how women use writing (and reading) to redefine themselves, these topics being, as Woolf says, "inextricably mixed together." Mary Poovey does an exactingjob ofshowing the power ofideology to limit and deform womento the role ofthe proper lady, but she also shows how women writers could expand and refashion that ideology in somedegree to suit theirpurposes. Rachel Brownstein'sbookconcentrates on "reading women," examining the influence that fictional heroines have had over generations ofreaders; her act ofwriting calls us to an active awareness ofthe dangers ofbeing a "closet heroine." Sheila Delany's Writing Woman concludes each of her stimulating analyses of literary texts with a ringing dismissal of the power ofideology fortrue revolutionaries, an optimism that Poovey's careful work will make us skeptical ofembracing. Becoming a Heroine will appeal to female English majors who spent hours absorbed in the careers ofDorotheaandJane, Tess and Clarissa. It is insome sense an exploration ofpassivity—ofthe heroines themselves and of we who read their stories. Brownstein's argument is that "the female protagonist of a traditional novel seeks ... an achieved, finished identity, realized in conclusive union with herself-as-heroine. Her marriage ordeath atthe end ofthe narrative signifiesthis union" (xxi). The exemplary Clarissa who perfects herself in death and the charming Elizabeth Bennet whose marriageassuresthat she will hang as aportrait, alongside Darcy's, in the halls ofPemberley are types of tragic and comic heroines. Brownstein argues that "the idea of becoming a heroine, which can organize the self, can also enclose it" (xix). Although these heroines make us aspire to their composed integrity and moral authority, they also seduce us into imagining ourselves as portraits whose very perfection is untruthful to life. At issue is notjust the content ofa particular ideal ofwomanhood but the danger of setting up any exemplary standard—whether Proper Lady or Super -Mom. Brownstein develops her argument through autobiographical chapters about herselfand hercontemporaries and through critical analysis ofseven authors. Her first two sections, "Being Perfect" and "Getting Married," treat Clarissa and several Austen novels. In "Thinking It Over" she takes up problematic heroines whose selfhood depends upon intellectual and emotional integrity: Lucy Snow, Clara Middleton and, of course, Isabel Archer. She follows the pattern in which heroines, after Elizabeth Bennet, rum from the "hero" to achieve a more complex individuation, and here thediscussion ofGwendolyn Harleth is particularly interesting. Seeing Clarissa Dalloway at the end of this line, moving between her hostess perfection ("That was her self—pointed; dart-like; definite ") and the evanescense ofcharacter in flux ("laid out like a mist between the people she knew best") offers an interesting perspective on this much-discussed novel. AU of Brownstein's analyses are insightful, and especially in the autobiographical chapters the writing is witty and deliciously ironic. But finally the irony fails to resolve the contradiction which the book has identified, as is strikingly evident in the closing paragraph. reviews 153 The beautiful personal integrity the novel heroine imagines and stands for and seeks for herself is a version ofthe romantic view of woman as desired object . . . .That self-awareness which distinguishes her fromthe simple heroineofromance ends by...