“Once I thought,” Ellen Moers writes in her preface, “that segregating major writers from the general course of literary history simply because of their sex was insulting.” I confess I thought so too before I read her book, and even now I’m not convinced we were entirely wrong. The segregation of women writers from men, however it is done, must, in the present state of the game, carry a large streak of condescension. Moers says she used to find Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Brontë boring, while she could “barely read” Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But “reading them anew as women writers” taught her how to “get excited” about them. She means to say that the fact that these writers were women is important, and of course she is right. But she is on the edge of saying they are not bad writers considering they are women, and her whole book hovers on just this edge.
Mme de Genlis, Ann Radcliffe, George Sand are no doubt “major women writers,” as Moers says. But Mme de Lafayette, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot are major writers without any kind of qualification, and “major women writers” begins to look like a protected constituency to which it would be an honor not to belong. It is this sense of a rather cozy club that accounts, I think, for the mild claustrophobia one feels on finishing Ellen Moers’s highly intelligent and thoroughly well-informed book. In its shakier moments, Literary Women is a cheerful, printed, upside-down version of one of those dreary male societies and institutions that have so doggedly excluded women. Ellen Moers herself speaks of her “saturated reading of women’s literature,” and perhaps I’m simply saying that the saturation shows.
Another difficulty, of course, is the broadness of Moers’s central critical category: women, more than half the species. “There is no single female tradition in literature,” Moers insists. “There is no single female style in literature.” But I’m not sure that beyond certain biological specifications and a depressing common history of subjection there is even a single female creature we can call a woman. Twice Moers talks of women writers as separated by “everything but sex,” but just what sort of connection remains then for a writer? Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, makes a funny and pointed slip:
Moreover, I thought, looking at the four famous names, what had George Eliot in common with Emily Brontë? Did not Charlotte Brontë fail entirely to understand Jane Austen? Save for the possibly relevant fact that not one of them had a child, four more incongruous characters could not have met together in a room—so much so that it is tempting to invent a meeting and a dialogue between them.
Woolf has forgotten that Charlotte and Emily Brontë were sisters, and spoke uninvented dialogue to each other for most of their lives, but of course she is right about the literary incongruity between …