“The Female Tradition” by Elaine Showalter
Elaine Showalter is an American feminist critic who helped develop the concept of gynocriticism. It involves the historic study of women writers as a distinct literary tradition, and the term was first coined by Showalter in her essay “Toward a Feminist Poetics.”
In “The Female Tradition”, Showalter begins by saying that English women writers have never suffered from the lack of an audience, yet they have never been sure about what unites them as women. In his essay “The Subjection of Women”, J.S. Mill said that women would find it difficult to overcome the influence of male literary tradition, and to “create and original, primary, and independent art.” He felt that women would always be imitators and never innovators. Showalter says that Mill would have never raised this point if women had claimed an important literary place. To many of his contemporaries, the 19th century seemed to be the Age of the Female Novelist, with stellar examples such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte.
There is a clear difference between books that are written by women and “female literature”. The latter was defined by Henry Lewes as that which “purposefully and collectively concerns itself with the articulation of women’s experience”, and which guides itself towards autonomous expression. Women writers have never considered the fact that their experiences can transcend the personal and assume a collective form in art, revealing a history. Thus, they have always been self-conscious, but only rarely self-defining.
In “The History of the English Novel”, Ernest Baker devotes a chapter to women novelists, and says that “the woman of letters has peculiarities that mark her off from the other sex as distinctly as peculiarities of race or of ancestral tradition.” Showalter says that most critics who have tried to elaborate on these “peculiarities” have found themselves expressing their own cultural biases. The woman novelist is a composite of many stereotypes: to critics of the 20th century, for example, she is childless, and by implication, neurotic.
There are many reasons why the discussion of women writers has been inaccurate and fragmented. Firstly, it has been subjected to what John Gross calls ‘residual Great Traditionalism’. In simple terms, this means that the vast range of English female novelists has been reduced to a tiny band of the ‘great’ – four or five writers such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Virginia Woolf. Losing sight of the minor novelists, who have acted as links from one generation to the next, has resulted in an unclear understanding of the continuities in women’s writing.
Secondly, critics have found it difficult to look at women novelists and women’s literature theoretically because of their tendency to expand their own culture-bound stereotypes of femininity. Thus, because it is difficult to accurately describe female writers, academic criticism often compensates by de-sexing them.
However, since the 1960s, there has been a renewed enthusiasm for the idea that ‘a special female self-awareness emerges through literature in every period.’ This interest in establishing a more systematic and accurate literary history for women writers is part of a larger interdisciplinary effort by psychologists, sociologists, social historians and art historians to reconstruct a political, social and cultural experience of women. Scholarship generated through this movement has increased the sensitivity to the problems of sexual bias and projection in literary history, while providing the information needed to understand the evolution of a female literary tradition.
Talking about the phases of women’s writing, Showalter says that it goes through three of these stages which can be loosely defined: the first is a prolonged phase of imitation followed by internalization of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition. Second, there is a phase of protest against this and an advocacy of minority rights and values, as well as a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-discovery, where there is a search for identity. An appropriate terminology for these stages would be to call them Feminine, Feminist and Female. These phases overlap, and one can also find them in the career of a single novelist.