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ELT: Volume 33:2, 1990 Women Writers and Modernism Gerd Bj0rhovde. Rebellious Structures, Women Writers and the Crisis of the Novel 1880-1920. Oslo: Norwegian University Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. 252 pp. $35.00 MUSICIANS TELL THE ANECDOTE about an internationally renowned composer of avant-garde music who was running an orchestra through a dress rehearsal of his latest, aggressively dissonant, symphonic tone poem. At a particularly thorny passage, the concertmaster motioned the maestro over for help in deciphering the handcopied score. "Sir," asked the perplexed violinist, "should this note be an F rather than a G?" The Great Man focused thoughtfully on the troublesome passage and replied, "It looks wrong. It sounds wrong. Must be right!" Gerd Bj0rhovde's study of the literary accomplishments of four women writers of the 1880s and 1890s proceeds by something like the same logic: what contemporary readers dismissed as work of clumsy or uncertain craftsmanship was in fact the product of innovative and rebellious genius. The novels of these writers, argues Bj0rhovde, "were often judged according to rules and criteria that [the authors] were in fact out to rebel against: the strategies of their literary rebellion went unrecognized. ... If one looks at some of these devices collectively ... it will emerge that they amounted to a lot more than singular instances of failures to conform to the accepted modes of discourse." In their open rebellion against the literary conventions and stereotypes of the Victorian novel they discovered numerous narrative techniques that modern readers would regard as distinctively "modernist." Bj0rhovde considers individual works by Olive Schreiner (The Story of an African Farm), Margaret Harkness (A City Girl), Sarah Grand (The Heavenly Twins) and George Egerton (Keynotes and several other stories). All four authors were social and political rebels as well as artistic innovators: Schreiner and Harkness were radical Socialists; Egerton rejected conventional barriers restricting women's freedom of movement, socially and sexually; Grand rebelled against the double standard of morality. What these writers shared in addition , argues Bj0rhovde, was rebellion against the restricting conventions of the traditional, sentimental and melodramatic Victorian three-decker novel. They demanded, and helped to fashion, "a new fictional environment, in formal and structured terms, not just in subject matter." While most critics (Elaine Showalter among them) 226 Book Reviews have tended to regard the women writers of this period as artistic failures, Bj0rhovde approaches them instead as pioneers "who were consciously trying out new things." Olive Schreiner's artistic radicalism is concentrated in her one completed novel, The Story of an African Farm. While critics have deplored both the profusion of themes and the lack of a structuring principle in the novel, Bj0rhovde finds in it many of the elements of "modernism" as set forth, for example, by David Lodge in Modernism. She finds its constantly shifting levels of discourse and its rapidly alternating moods and shifting narrative points of view to be effective technical means for conveying the complex texture of what Schreiner called "the life we all lead." While Schreiner deserves recognition for her trail-blazing impressionistic techniques, Margaret Harkness is to be admired for doggedly pursuing the vision and methods of the "New Naturalism." For her the literary aspect of revolt was secondary to the political aspects. In her best-known novel, A City Girl, she explored the devastating effects of poverty and exposed the conventionally pious literary treatment of the "fallen" woman with the weapons of satire and irony. Sarah Grand's recurring subject was sexual morality, both inside and outside marriage. In Ibsenist fashion, she explored the consequences of loose morals, including sexually-transmitted disease. Although she remained faithful to the old Victorian triple-decker format, she employed that form to examine issues that had gone largely unmentioned in Victorian fiction; she "entered a conventional literary form and undermined it from within, changing it both in form and content almost beyond recognition." In The Heavenly Twins she undermined the content of the Victorian novel by using it as a vehicle for her view that equality of the sexes should not mean greater sexual licence for women, but rather purity for men; she undermined its form by employing such literary devices as abrupt shifts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 226-228
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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