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Elaine Showalter-The Female Tradition Essay

In her book ‘A Literature of Their Own’, Showalter attempts to rediscover the lost Atlantis of female writingfrom the archives of British literary history, for which she tries to assemble women’s writing of that period into a linear developmental process dividing it into three phases depending upon their unique characteristics, that is, the Feminine, Feminist and Female phase which thereby establishes the existence of a female tradition in the history of literature. In this essay, I shall elaborate the three phases as propounded by Showalter while critically evaluating the boundaries of these said categories. The latter half of this essay shall deal with the complexities of Showalter’s formation and classification of British women novelist’s literary genealogy.

Showalter classifies the first stage of female literary history as the ‘feminine phase’ referring to literature produced during the period of 1840 to 1880.She proposes that women wrote during this period as imitator of dominant patriarchal standards conforming to the notions of high-brow literature and internalised masculine standard of art and their view on social roles, thereby developing an internalized feminine ‘self-hatred’. The disguise taken up by female authors through the use of male pseudonyms as seen in the case of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, etc. is a perfect example of the constant rejection that women practised with regards to their ‘masculine’ nature, while at the same time signals a ‘loss of innocence’ for women as they subtly grapple with the idea of role playing required by their gender.

Certain areas of experience and knowledge such as sexuality, passion, ambition and male transcendence (as propounded in Simone De Beauvoir’s theory) lied beyond the ambits of the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ or ‘the Perfect Lady’ and therefore were suppressed by women in their writing through practices of displacement (as seen in Lydia’s case in Pride and Prejudice), splitting of self (as seen in Jane Eyre through the figures of Jane and Bertha) or even punishment (as seen in the character of Maggie in The Mill On The Floss) to uphold the idea of ‘womanliness’ in their writing. Therefore, it seemed that women novelists were compensating for their will to write by preaching submission and self-sacrifice, working at home and denouncing female self-assertiveness.

However women did not simply conform to the pattern of society’s concept of ‘work for others’ and challenged the patriarchal reception of women’s writing in their own subtle ways. Emily Bronte in her novel Wuthering Heights finds release to explore the fenced territories of dark passion, madness, ruthless desire and its politics through the character of Heathcliff as he would be less scrutinised by male critics. This struggle became a site of anxiety for women writers as the act of writing in itself represented the wish to transcend the defined feminine boundaries of their society, and therefore reconstructed the political and public spheres for women. As Showalter states, the women writers of this period often grappled with the question, “where did obedience to her father and husband end and the responsibility of self-fulfilment became paramount?”

Another vital aspect of this phase is the carving of space for womenin the literary circle as done by feminine writers for women to follow against the hostility and critiques they received from their male competitors and society at large. G. H. Lewes in his 1852 review “The Lady Novelist” proposed that women’s literature had fallen short of their task owning to their natural weakness of imitation. Many male critics called women’s novel “bland, didactic and senseless rambling” not taking into account the antagonism women received at the hands of male critics whenever they tried to transgress into the ‘male domains of knowledge and language’ of politics, power and desire. The ‘damns’ in Jane Eyre or the ‘dialect’ in Wuthering Heights or the slangs of Rhoda Broughton’s heroine termed as vulgar, unholy and termed by Victorian readers as ‘coarseness’.

On the one hand, this ‘double bind’ that paralysed women writers made them feel humiliated by the condescension received from male critics making them obsess over the desire to avoid special treatment and achieve genuine excellence and on the other hand,it made them anxious about appearing unwomanly in their works too. Despite all such obstacles, women overcame the hurdles placed upon them by patriarchal conditioning of repression, concealment and self-censorship and participated in the literary process thereby creating a space for their sex which was earlier not availed to them. The major contribution of the novelists of this phase to the female tradition to follow was the enabling of a cultural exchange that had a special personal significance for women at large.

Following this comes the ‘feminist phase’ spanning from 1880 to 1920 which comes to aculmination following the winning of “the vote” for women. This period was marked by protest and struggle for one’s rights, oppositional equation that the female author developed with their male critics, advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy and seems to stand in opposition to the earlier feminine phase as it defined by an ardent ‘feminist withdrawal’. As against the casing of issues as practiced by earlier writers, women writers of the feminist period acknowledged their sexuality, passions and desire publically without any sense of patriarchal guilt or shame. Since this period also overlaps with women’s suffragette movement in Britain and America, they had also become politically assertive and this literally was translated into literature as the battle of the two sexes. The impetus provided to women’s writing by such political activism can be seen in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Robins, etc.

The influence of the political movement gave rise to the development of an array of new characters such as men who were “effeminate fops by day and fearless heroes by night”. In contrast to earlier women writers who saw male characters as a means to escape patriarchal domination, not realising that they were exchanging one set of chains for the other; female writers of this period use male figure to further their own emancipation and re-examine the stereotypes placed upon them by their patriarchal society as done by the Sensationalist women writers in their novels. An example of this would be Florence Marryat’s Love’s Conflict where she holistically examines the exploitative trap set for women by patriarchal society’s conception of love.Such awakening resulted into a complete rejection of the notion of femininity and attacked the figure of the self-sacrificing woman in exchange for agency and self-expression.

Fidelity and chastity on men’s part became a contested issue in the literature of this period and thereby reversed the question of female faithfulness to question male loyalty. The politics of pseudonym also changed during this period as ‘Sarah Grand’ the persona taken up by Frances Elizabeth Bellenden McFall expressed a feminist pride. All these trends amalgamated into the creation of an ‘Amazon Utopia’ which rejected all notions femininity in exchange for intense female solidarity derived from a complete rejection of the then established notion of ‘womanhood and femininity’.

Another major contribution of the writers of this phase is the professionalism they introduced with regards to female authorship. Just as the transition from self-hatred to feminist withdrawal was an essential shift in the two phases, similarly equality in terms of monetary payments to women writers as against the disparate differences in terms of earnings of male and female writers (a characteristic of the previous phase) was challenged and overhauled which provided women writes of this period further incentive to take up writing as a profession rather than an activity of leisure as practised by their predecessors.

As Showalter argues, women by 1860’s had started “to retain their copyrights, work with printers on the commission basis and edit their own magazine”. This did not only offer women with an alternative space for securing financial support and fortifying independence from ‘patriarchal commercialism’ but also provided them with themuch required artistic and ideological freedom to explore issues concerning their lives and experiences. Women by discerning over ideas of their day to day concerns actively participated into reviewing ideas of established ‘Femininity’ and thereby providing the foundation for future women writers to develop and completely deconstruct the notion of gender and its attributes.

This was followed by the last stage,that is, the ‘female phase’ beginning in 1920 and continuing to the present, which according to Showalter from 1960 onwards has entered a new era of self-awareness. This phase is the least theorised and developed by her as it is yet to meet a conclusion. The writers of this phase carry the dual cultural baggage of the history of female authorship in the form of ‘feminine self-hatred and feminist withdrawal’, yet have initiated the task of insistent self-exploration backed by rejection of male culture moving towards separationist literature focusing on inner space and psychological interrogation rather than being socially focused so as to escape the materialistic, harsh realities of the patriarchal world.

The metaphor explored by many female writers for this motif was ‘the enclosed and secret room’ which ‘extended the fantasies of enclosure’ in the form of secret rooms, hideaway attics and suffragette cells as represented in the works of Mrs Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room or Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of one’s Own. The application of this female aestheticism by writers of that period transformed itself into the fragmentation of the self through a feminist cultural analysis of words, language and ideology in their novels.

This self-destructive rite of women’s aestheticism and receptivity leading to suicidal vulnerability is exemplified in the careers of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.Paradoxically, the furthering of female aestheticism also led to an apparent fringing from sexuality and its politics, where the site of the body wasveiled, disguised or denied for insistence of artistic freedom and autonomy, leading Showalter to state that even though women’s writing was “erotically charged and drenched with sexual symbolism, female aestheticism is nonetheless oddly sexless in its content”. This leads to the popularization of the idea of ‘androgyny’ in women literature of this period (Bloomsbury group being a major contributor to this ideology).

Showalterfurther develops this phase stating that the literature of the female phaseentered a new, dynamic stage in 1960 to incorporate and develop itself on Marxist, Feminist and Psychoanalytical theories and therefore helped women to both deconstruct and reconstruct their identities while providing society with women’s view of life, experience, originality and individuality; as demanded by G. H. Lewis and J. S. Mill. Continuing with the conflicts of the feminist phase, novelists of this period continue to struggle with the binaries of “art and love, between self-fulfilment and duty”, but work by consolidating the gains of the past while working with a new range of language and experience converting sexuality and anger (earlier treated only as attributes of realistic characters) into sources of ‘female creative powers’. In this light, women writers have tried to unify their fragmented experience through artistic vision which Showalter states will ultimately leadthem to make a choice between assimilation and separation into literary mainstream in the near future.

The assembly of the lineage of women novelists as done by Showalter through the construction of the above mentioned three phases in her book has significantly contributed to the establishment of a Female Literary Tradition and has helped to unearth the vast expanse of women’s literature, previously ignored. However, it appears to me that there are certain foundational impediments in her work. A major premise for her work remains the construction of women’s literary history through the genre of novel writing alone which thereby excludes the colossal mass of literature that women wrote in the forms of drama, poetry, diaries, social tracts, autobiographies, etc. To formulate any kind of literary history for women’s writing without taking into account all these genres will necessarily provide us with a fractional and restrictive imagine thereby undermining the profundity and versatility of women’s imagination, creativity and intellectual labour.

To see novel writing as the only path through which women entered and created a space for themselves in literary field is not just a reductionist interrogation of the history of writing but is also an injustice done to the massive proportion of women writers who were not ‘fortunate enough’ to enter this particular field and instead worked incessantly to carve out a space for women in other genres as done by figures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning andAlice Meynell (poetess), Alice James (diarist), Hannah More (dramatist), Florence Nightingale and Mary Carpenter (social Tracts) etc. Similarly, many novelists also attempted other genres of writing and deflating their efforts outside novel writing is also playing into the patriarchal trap of reducing the toils of women writers to a singularly defined category for purposes of convenience.

Similarly, Showalter in her book advances a certain dimension of universality into the category of 19th century British women novelist, pedestrianizing her struggles and triumphs over many others. Though she mentions that her foundation for the historical re-evaluation of women’s writing is the 19th century British novelist, her disregard for the categories of third world, post-colonial women’s literature is apparent in her vocabulary. Within the foundation of her work, she fails to take into account the pivotal issue of class based Marxist evaluation of the development of women’s writing movement.To not take into account the economic constraints under which women had to work to enter the field of literature will blemish the depth and shared experience of a particular class of women writers and will also deter us from analysing their works as repositories of class strained social realism of that age.

The absence of any class based differential paradigm for reviewing the works of British women novelists is an immense undercutting of the forces of patriarchy and capitalism and the role they played in obstructing women’s path to literacy emancipation.Therefore, even though she challenges the notion of the ‘canon’ by re-evaluating the exclusion of women from its centre, Showalter nonetheless, never deconstructs the ‘canon’ itself but works simply to readjust it to the requirements of a specific group of ’21st century female British academician’. Her stating that the sensation novelists of the late 19th century did not add significantly to the intellectual issues of that age but rather contributed to women’s cause byacquiring public literary space exemplifies the same.

Nonetheless, despite all such complexities, Showalter’s assertion of the value of the ‘lost’ works of women writers and their role in history initiates a process of questioning and subverting of the patriarchal edifice of the ‘history of literature’. Feminine, Feminist and Female writers all had to contend with the cultural and political forces of their age and the epistemological classification of these three stages themselves reveals the developmental process that has taken place with regards to women’s writing.

“The Female Tradition” is a record of the conditions and struggle that women breathed through to gain agency andchoice for their sex. Therefore even though Showalter does not pursue the full scope of her questions, she nevertheless opens the opportunity for individuals following her to further her theory and critically analyse the homogenizing politics of literary history, from not just the perspective of gender but also from a class, race and linguistic perspective. Here, Louise Bernikow’s comment becomes extremely crucial and exemplary:

“What is commonly called literary history is actually a record of choices. Which writers have survived their time and which have not depends upon who noticed them and chose to record the notice.”


Elaine Showalter’s “A Literature of Their Own”.

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