Writing Women: Women and Literary History


Welcome back to the Writing Women blog for 2013/4! This time around the course is year long and there are two groups of students participating. In some weeks students will be contributing blogs and I will be humbly commenting upon them.

In this first section of the module we are looking at the following works:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1899) on StudySpace

  1. Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own (1928) on StudySpace
  1. Dale  Spender, ‘’Women and Literary History’’ (on StudySpace)
  2. Mary Eagleton, Feminist Literary Theory:      A Reader, Third Edition, (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2010) All      selections in the first section entitled ‘Finding a Female Literary      Tradition’ pp. 1-56.

Our topic this week is Women and Literary Tradition.

The picture at the top of this blog was the one that came up when I googled “literary history.” Have a look at the names on the spines of these books. Notice anything funny? Thank God for Jane Austen!

Literary tradition not only influences what we read, but also how it is read and with what value it is imbued. While the writers whose works we will examine in this module have been affected artistically by their relations to the literary past, they have been informed politically and ideologically by that past as well. It is these pressures, interacting with each of these artists’ respective creative visions, which produce their written works. Furthermore, such social, political, and cultural forces have power beyond their impact on individual works of art: the same methods of culturally inflected reading have also informed the eventual canonical status of these women authors.


While each of the feminist critics whose work we look at this week (Woolf, Spender, and the various critics in the Eagleton text from Elaine Showalter to Anne Ducille, Paul Lauter, Adrienne Rich, Shoshana Felman) propound very different ideas about the relationship between women and literary tradition, there is one concern upon which all of them have, at one point or another, focused: the notion of language as a battleground in which words become weapons of patriarchy. Some thirty years ago, critic Carolyn Burke, in her “Report from Paris,” argued this idea as follows: “the very forms of the dominant mode of discourse show the mark of the dominant masculine ideology. Hence, when a woman writes or speaks herself into existence, she is forced to speak in something like a foreign tongue, a language with which she may be uncomfortable.”

Here, Burke proposes that women writers can and do feel a constrained relation to the texts they compose, if they attempt (as it seems they must) to employ the language of the father/master. Writing herself “into existence,” as Burke suggests, is an exercise in translation for the woman writer. The act of interpretation, of course, is never able to fully recapture the precise meaning of the original. But perhaps it can offer something more. Indeed, the contemporary writer Salman Rushdie suggests just this in his essay “Imaginary Homelands.” There, while discussing the importance of the English language to the British Indian writer, Rushdie argues that translation need not necessarily imply loss: “[i]t is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained” (Rushdie 17). Let us, too, cling to that notion, and find out over the course of this academic year precisely what has been lost, and gained, in the translated and transgressive writing of women in the 20th and 21st centuries.


11 responses to this post.

  1. You may be interested to know that Catherine Belsey (Swansea) is visiting Sussex uni on Thursday to discuss ‘Dangerous Dead Women and the Practice of Criticism’ (4-6 Jubilee Lecture Theatre)


  2. Its interesting to see from reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that women were forced by male doctors to have ‘bed rest’ so that they could be tamed and conform to their social roles.


  3. Posted by Jo on October 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    In ‘Is There Such a Thing As Women’s Writing? Xavière Gauthier notes that women’s writing is often represented by blanks and spaces; if words belong to men then women inhabit the spaces not filled by words. This enables an interpretation of the narrator’s actions in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The narrator is only able to express herself in a patriarchal society by tearing away the wallpaper that encloses her and occupying the blankness that is behind the wallpaper. Alternatively, rather than retreating to blankness, women writers can re-appropriate language to express their voiceless-ness. As the post-colonial writer Dennis Lee notes, in ‘Writing in Colonial Space’, to speak ‘unreflectingly in a colony […] is to use words that speak only alien space. To reflect is to fall silent, discovering that your authentic space does not have words. And to reflect further is to recognise that you and your people do not in fact have a privileged authentic space waiting for words; you are, among other things, the people who have made an alien inauthenticity their own. You are left chafing at the inarticulacy of a native space which may not exist. So you shut up.’ This position can equally stand for women writers.
    Lee goes on to suggest that rather than faking a space and writing it up, colonial writers should ‘find words’ to express their ‘space-lessness.’ Women too can re-appropriate language to express their ‘voice-lessness’, and as Rushdie suggests, bring something new to an act of translation.


    • Posted by Camille on October 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      It’s an interesting concept of women’s writing being represented by ‘blanks and spaces’ and I think this quite literally applies with certain interpretations of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ For example the interpretation that at the end of the story instead of John fainting in shock at the her descent she in fact actually kills him (accidentally or not), leaving the reader with the image of her creeping over his body. This actively shows the author inhabiting ‘the spaces not yet filled by words’ and giving the reader something further to wonder about and question.


  4. What I found interesting is the fact that Charlotte Perkins Gilman actually went through a similar experience herself where she fell into depression and was given the “rest cure”, which she believed only made her worse. The Yellow Wallpaper is then a criticism of the idea that women had to have their creativity stifled in order to recover from these illnesses. In The Yellow Wallpaper, John constantly patronises his wife and makes it seem as though she is a child who cannot make decisions for herself and he suppresses her mental activity, ordering her not to write. It is because of this that the narrator is inevitably driven to insanity, obsessing about the yellow wallpaper as it is the only thing she seems to have some control over.


  5. Posted by Ellie on October 7, 2013 at 7:33 am

    In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf uses a fishing metaphor for inspiration: ‘Thought […] had lets it line down into the steam’, ‘letting the water lift it and sink it, until – you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea’. Having a room to one’s self is like being at a fishing scenario. It is peaceful and isolated, which allows inspirations, without disturbance. Once an idea sparks, there will be a ‘cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out’. In a private room, it is possible to lay out ideas safety and if it is not ready, it can be placed ‘back in the water so it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating’. The private room, like the stream, allows ideas and thoughts to grow, without any interruption.


  6. Posted by Daivd on October 8, 2013 at 5:52 am

    It is an interesting notion, women clipping their tongues in order to speak to the outside world, however this to me seems more part of a broader trend towards simplifying and strengthening in order to speak most powerfully to the audience, it all comes down to writing what you know, but the key reasoning behind writing what you know is that individuality is less pertinent a reality than it is a buzz-word. But this affects every author no matter what template of human being they like to compare themselves to, and as such most authors tack themselves in slightly in order to truly reach an audience – or to put it less cynically, to communicate with their readers on as base and true a language as possible. You mention the googled books picture at the top of this piece, and what strikes me first was not the lack of female writers, but more the inclusion of Hunter S. Thompson with the standard classical cannon. The man was a hack who came up behaving like an asshole, though also possessing an charmingly winning nonchalance. The most interesting fact, and most often repeated, in my experience about him, for all the ‘far-out’ travelling of the mind, is that he once sat and typed out a Hemingway book from scratch when he was young. Thompson effectively lived in the shadow of the great American novel his whole life and as he could not constrain his tongue his books likely will not see the end of the next century as anything more than curios.
    Hemingway may not be the best author to lean on in regard to setting a standard for masculinity, however he brings me to what i feel the real point about authors: that they exist to create a reality, a logical paradigm that can be read as real by those with eyes and ears, and all that needs is for an author to recognise that events happen and are countenanced by other events, and that these events carry all the seriousness in the world to their characters, but not to the world around them most likely. That is not some inaccessible skill to anyone other than those who do not watch around themselves, senses being felt by both men and women.


  7. David,
    I think Hunter S Thompson is one of the great 20th Century Writers – but I am not sure what he has to do with Women and Literary history, this week’s topic.


  8. Posted by Khadija Azfar on October 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    I find it interesting how in both ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ with the argument of Shakespeare’s Sister, both women are forced to repress their creativity and intelligence. They are mentally stifled and oppressed in terms of how they are made to behave. Furthermore, in both texts it is the men who ridicule these women and do not allow them to express themselves. It is not surprising then that it was believed that the only way out of this mental prison for women was either through death or madness.


  9. Posted by Khadija Azfar on October 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Modern Women:
    ‘Is life like this?’ This is the question Virginia Woolf asked herself when looking at previous novels that had been written. And the answer is ‘no’ life was not like what was written on those pages. After the war, the old way of life had gone, only to be replaced by a feeling of uncertainty and loss. The old novels had been predictable in terms of the characters they would include and the mundane lives they would lead, but life was not like that any more. Nothing was predictable and the novel needed to change in order to better reflect the new way of life. This provided Woolf and other women writers the opportunity to experiment with new forms of writing as well as coming up with specific areas for women’s writings – such as focusing on characters’ emotions rather than on material things like Mr Bennett, Mr Wells and Mr Galsworthy are accused of doing in Woolf’s ‘The Common Reader’. The focus on the internal mind in comparison to the previous importance held on the external world is just one of the changes that came about in modern writing which Woolf explained in great detail in ‘The Common Reader’. Woolf’s famous concept of writing about ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ changed the form of short stories and placed greater significance on the internal thoughts and emotions of characters. This is also illustrated in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’ where we are shown into the mind of Kezia and feel the uncertainty and anxiety she feels. The sense of everything changing and of one being forced to leave the past behind is predominant in the beginning of the story. Furthermore, the similarities that can be seen between the authors’ texts and that of their own personal diaries show just how much they were linking their texts with their real lives in an attempt to make their writings reflect real life as closely as possible.


  10. Posted by Lilly on October 12, 2013 at 9:41 am

    I believe that language shapes the way we interact with each other as humans, female and male, probably more than anything. One of the main concerns of feminist, especially literary, critical theory – as Carolyn Burke makes clear – is still the predominance of a phallocentric logocentrism (phallogocentrism). This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of examining the writing of women through the ages, of understanding ‘how women write’, of beginning to understand what it may mean to write with a ‘female’ voice. How is it possible to write as a woman in a society that is inscribed by the language of men? How does our historical understanding of the power of language as a discourse of patriarchy influence the way we read women’s writing from hundreds of years ago?

    Burke suggests the creation of a completely new language through writing oneself ‘into existence’, a sentiment echoed by many feminist writers such as Annie Leclerc and Luce Irigaray. Other feminist critics, such as Shoshana Felman and Mary Jacobus, have sought ways of challenging the dominant mode of discourse from within, by appropriating and thus reinventing language as a tool of social, cultural and political communication.


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