- At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Presenta by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord, and: Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins by Susan Fraiman
Second-wave feminist literary criticism took its fierce and energetic start in the 1970s from nineteenth-century fiction by women authors, and generations of scholars have continued to build on this rich legacy. Central to feminist criticism's vision of gendered representation was the figure of the domestic, middle-class white woman, exemplified by Jane Eyre—as Virginia Woolf saw her—interrupting Charlotte Brontë's novel by expressing her author's anger about domestic women's limited options. Did the regime of separate spheres entrap such women in the home, wasting their talents and inducing rage and madness? Although feminist critical focus was initially on the singular individual—coinciding with the rise of psychoanalytic criticism in the 1970s and 1980s—the embedding of the private and personal in the public and political was always part of the story. Jane's solution returns her to the private home and costs the life of the woman of color, but along the way, she envisions solidarity with "masses" and "millions."1 Private was always at least partly public, and more recent works by feminist literary critics—particularly those concerned with white women's often complicitous relation to imperial ideology—have explored the public cultural work of the domestic woman (for example, Laura Wexler and Amy Kaplan on the United States, and Gayatri Spivak, Susan Meyer, and Deirdre David on Britain).
Nonetheless, both books under review, At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present, by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord, and Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins, by Susan Fraiman—each one lively and a pleasure to read—require the trope of nineteenth-century women's stultifying privatization to loom large as the critical error that they are motivated to correct. The corrections, in readings that bring the topic forward to the present time, could be summarized as follows: for DiBattista and Nord, women have always been going out into the world, if only to find a better home; for Fraiman, the domestic also has a positive side, for both men and women. Both books take in a broad historical sweep—from Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Jane Austen to the present—and both create alternative literary traditions that refresh the old categories of women's writing and domestic writing.
In creating their new canon, DiBattista and Nord hew close to Woolf, thinking back through a women's literary tradition as Sandra Gilbert and [End Page 211] Susan Gubar also did, but correcting both earlier models by looking back instead through such adventurers as Mary McCarthy and Martha Gellhorn and by astutely pointing out that Woolf's literary women were not as constrained as the argument in A Room of One's Own (1929) requires them to have been (p. 6). DiBattista and Nord undo the myth that Woolf fostered and instead construct an "anti-domestic" tradition by rereading classic authors such as Austen, Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Woolf (p. 14); by paying fresh attention to slightly less canonical but more obviously "peripatetic" authors such as Harriet Jacobs, Sara Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Rose McCaulay, and Vera Brittain (p. 11); and by bringing the study forward into the twenty-first century so as to include not only McCarthy, Gellhorn, Tess Slesinger, and Joan Didion, who moved back and forth between wartime and political journalism and fiction, but also a group of (im)migrant writers such as Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Edwidge Danticat for whom "multinational" dwelling is foundational to being "at home in the great world" (p. 11). The book is organized not by author...