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Revi e w Forum Elaine Showalter, A Literature ofTheir Own. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. pp.347 + xxxiii JillMatus Reading this "expanded edition" of Elaine Showalter's A Literature ofTheir Own, I cast my mind back to my first encounter with this now classic text of feminist literary criticism. What impressed me then, as it impresses me now, was the groundwork that Showalter laid in reviving interest in long-forgotten women writers of the period. It is not so much her remarks on the Brontes or George Eliot or Woolf that give this book its enduring quality, but the range of its references to writers such as Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Rhoda Broughton, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the Suffrage movement writers. In the case ofthe sensation novelists, particularly, her focus has been instrumental in creating the saliency they enjoy in Victorian studies today. Her work was indeed that of "rediscovery," mapping widely rather than mining deeply the territory of "women's writing," helping to launch a new area for literary investigation and giving "institutional legitimacy" to the field (xxi). I first came to this book in the mid-eighties, through the rather hostile mediation of Toril Mois Sexual Textual Politics. Mois lucid explanations ofdevelopments in deconstructive and French feminist post-strucuralist theory were built, as her opening section on Woolf shows, on opposing Showalter's position and revealing its untheorized assumptions. The introduction to this edition takes on the critiques of Moi and others as Showalter sets out to show that this book, both "imitated and reviled" (xv), has been central to the development of feminist criticism. In a talk at the University ofToronto a few years ago, I heard Showalter discuss how she handled the "heat" from her recent book Hystories, which drew fire of a much wider and more personally dangerous nature than any of her previous publications.1 She seemed to relish the cut and thrust ofdebate with antagonistic critics, and was not alarmed to find herselfarguing on national televi108volume 26 number 2 Review Forum sion with Satanists, representatives from chronic fatigue syndrome groups, or GulfWar Veterans, all ofwhom were incensed with her claims about psychosomatic illness. She clearly thrives on the limelight ofcontroversy. The introduction ofyl Literature ofTheir Own is thus an opportunity energetically taken to write back to Toril Moi, Janet Todd and other critics. Her account of Mois criticism is accurate—Moi does charge her with privileging critical or bourgeois realism, with regarding the text's reflection of the author's authentic experience as most valuable—but rather than answering these specific points, Showalter opts generally to defend her ground ofenquiry as different but equal. Moi, she says, is interested in philosophical and linguistic questions; even if French feminist theory had been available to her in 1974, which ofcourse it was not, it still would not have shaped her focus, which derives from cultural anthropology and social history. Showalter also takes the opportunity in the new introduction to defend her title, but once again the defence seems to sidestep the criticism. Referring to Janet Todd's comment that she snubs Woolf's textyl Room ofOne's Own in her title, Showalter gives the history ofits origin in John Stuart Mill's words: "ifwomen lived in a different country from men, and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own" (xiv). But even though Showalter says she intended the distance that the pronoun "their" creates, deeming it appropriate to show the divide between an American academic and the British writers under her scrutiny, the pronoun does have the effect ofundermining the sense ofa gendered tradition, the creation ofwhich was one of the purposes of the book in the first place. And furthermore, Showalter often has recourse to Woolfs phrase "a room of one's own" as ifit were the space offemale writing, both in her new introduction and in the now penultimate chapter: "if the room ofone's own becomes the destination, a female secession from the political world. . .it is a tomb" (319). She can hardly claim to have been unaware of the implications of the title, even if the phrase itselfcomes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 108-120
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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