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Narrative and Gender in Literary Histories


Literary histories as a rule serve two purposes at the same time. They supply information on individual works of literature and their authors. And they tell the story of literature throughout the ages, relating how it developed and changed, creating ever new styles and worlds. Recently, however, the first function, that of providing information, has all but obscured the second. 'Narrative gets shouted down by the encyclopedic', James Wood complains in a review of the twelfth volume of the Oxford English Literary History. The verbal links which are used in literary histories in order to convey an impression of coherence with regard to succeeding works and authors are revealing in their monotony and superficiality. In volume twelve of the OELH, simple comparative gestures abound: 'Comparable views shaped the works of other novelists [...]'; 'Similar views were developed [...]'; 'Similar emphasis appeared [.. .]'. One wonders whether students looking for the information thus offered would not be better served by encyclopedias and readers’ companions with their entries arranged for easy reference in alphabetical order.

It is my conviction that, while reference books can do full justice to individual works and their authors, literary history should concentrate upon its special task, namely historiography. Theory has not shown much interest in this of late. Discussions tend to be limited to problems of the canon; for example, the question which individual works should be selected for the classroom has aroused considerable controversy. Yet this is only a side issue of literary history proper. Kristevan theories of intertextuality, although they refer to the interrelations between texts, are too unwieldy and one-sided for the practice of writing literary history. They cannot do justice to the human, story-providing aspects of literary life. What is needed is a concept of literary history that would consider writing, reading and criticism as elements in narratives which show how literary ideas develop, solutions are sought and found, dialogues pursued from one oeuvre to another, from an earlier age to a later one. To be sure, in constructing networks of synchronic and diachronic interrelations, one would have to give up the ambition of simultaneously providing a full account of authors and their works. When one writes a detective novel one cannot expand freely upon the life stories and the psychology of the characters but has to limit oneself to the elements that are relevant to the plot of detection. Similarly, in a history of literature one would have to concentrate one's efforts on establishing connections between the works and authors and interpreting these in terms of individual and collective aims and purposes.

While scholars have neglected the story-telling element of historiography, some novelists and poets have experimented with literary history as a structuring device for their narratives. In his novel English Music (1992), Peter Ackroyd imagines English literature, music and art as a space for mental excursions. For the protagonist who travels through these regions, a world of beauty, wonder and learning unfolds. Literary history is thus told in the guise of a Bildungsroman. A comic version of the story of English poetry as a ramble through the ages is offered in Adrian Mitchell's 'The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry' (1971). The speaker of the poem relates his adventures as a bard from pre-Beowulf times to the 1950s, drawing attention to changing social demands upon poets and poems. In the 'Oxen in the Sun' chapter of Ulysses (1922), James Joyce succeeds in performing literary history. His narrator runs the gamut of styles from Old English alliterative verse to present-day prose while telling the event of a woman giving birth to a child. The most ambitious English literary history in the guise of a fictional text is probably Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). Orlando lives through one period after another from early Elizabethan times to Woolf’s present. Literary themes, motifs and styles are experienced by the protagonist as ways of seeing, mental attitudes, moods, impulses and constraints in an ongoing process of self-fashioning. Changes in literature inevitably lead to changes in Orlando's character and lifestyle. Towards the end of the seventeenth century they even lead to a sex change from male to female. The faintly self-mocking irony of B. G. MacCarthy's literary history The Later Women Novelists 1744-1818 (1944—1947) might have been inspired by Orlando, while some of the literary scenes depicted by MacCarthy remind one of the graphic representation of literature in maps like la carte du tendre prefacing Mlle de Scudéry's Clélie. The transition from literature by disreputable women such as Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley, for example, to the norm-abiding female writers Jane Barker, Penelope Aubin, Mary Davys and Elizabeth Singer Rowe in the early eighteenth century is described as the reader's journey from dangerous to dull country: 'Before we can arrive at this God-fearing and piously sentimental ground we must pass through noxious swamps. Here be crocodiles, here be stenches! Let us clench our teeth, hold our noses and advance'. Passages like this suggest the larger possibilities and entertainment value of dramatized history writing.

'Is Literary History Possible?' asks David Perkins, and his answer is 'that we cannot write literary history with intellectual conviction, but we must read it'. And he adds: ‘The irony and paradox of this argument are themselves typical of our present moment in history'. It is my contention that we could write literary history with intellectual conviction if we would give up the encyclopedic ambition. The concept of literary history as story could give new life to the outmoded yet indispensable genre. As narratology has put it beyond doubt that such stories can never be more than versions of the past, the literary historian would be free from the obligation to produce a definitive and comprehensive account. The reader, on the other hand, would want a plurality of histories of literature with various perspectives and principles of selection. Histories that would relate what happened in literary life. That would interpret the succession of authors, of poems, plays and novels in terms of dialogue, challenge, conflict, competition, joint effort, loving imitation. That would relate the drama of texts, the battles of books, the romance of one book courting another.

In fictional versions of literary history by authors such as Joyce, Woolf, and MacCarthy, the categories of sex and gender function as organizing principles. Thus in Adrian Mitchell's poem, poetry is an exclusively male pursuit, its history a history of male competition. In Ackroyd's English Music, the death of the mother empowers the protagonist to enter the realm of English culture, which is again represented as an exclusively male space. In the episode from Ulysses, the female body provides the matter, the male narrator the written words. As in traditional histories, literature here is an eminently masculine affair. This is not so in Woolf's novel. Orlando writes first as a man, then as a woman. Literary life is described in Orlando in terms of hetero- and homosexual love, of hetero- and homosocial bonding, of Jacobean male and Victorian female seclusion. The protagonist begins as a young man who admires literature, is the patron of writers and writes a long poem himself, and then, around 1700, changes into a woman whose salon is open to literary men and who continues to write and rewrite the same long poem. By this metamorphosis, some periods of English literature are represented as dominated by masculine tastes and topics, others by feminine interests, yet on the whole literature is considered as belonging to both sexes; the writer is presented as an androgynous being.


Continuing the project started by Joan W. Scott's seminal essay on gender as a category in historiography, Francoise Thébaud comes to the conclusion that, after a period of research on women and men and on femininities and masculinities, we need to explore 'a more relational history of the connections between men and women, to place the difference between the sexes and the construction of masculinity and femininity at the heart of historical questioning'. What Thébaud seeks in a history of intellectuals is a requirement for histories of literature, too. After feminist research has radically altered our view on literature and rendered obsolete the traditional literary histories, the time has come to experiment with patterns of historiography that would not only do justice to women's literary works but also indicate the relations between male and female contributions, blending them together into one picture of the literary past. In this essay, I want to indicate some of the possibilities of writing literary history in terms of sex and gender. I shall try to imagine versions of the literary life of the past as a life in which men and women participated, as authors, as readers and as critics.

Ruth Felski, in The Gender of Modernity, has shown that even the organizing units of the history of literature, namely the periods, can be and have been considered as gendered. She demonstrates the presence and power of gender symbolism in the conceptions of classical modernism. According to the self-portrait of the modernist poet, his elitist masculine ambition takes its stand both against a mass culture which he despises as feminine and against a new generation of masculine women who invade the realm of literature and the arts as men's equals. Modernism has certainly not been the only literary period characterized by its partisans as male. Metaphysical poetry was proud of its 'masculine perswasive force'. The Augustans aspired to Roman manliness. The pre-Romantic ideal of original creation was introduced as the parthenogenesis of a male genius: 'an original author is born of himself, is his own progenitor'. Romantic poets carried their male self-fashioning to misogynistic extremes. The synchronic dimension of male poetic bonding is emphasized by group names such as the 'Sons of Ben [Jonson]' or the 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood'. The diachronic dimension has been theorized by Harold Bloom as 'the anxiety of influence'. In Bloom's view, literary history consists in a continuing process of sons killing their literary fathers. The 'murder' is done by a technique of strong reading, i.e. a misreading of the literature of the older generation, thereby creating space for new and supposedly better works.

Such acts of male self-fashioning imply story lines. Male protagonists develop against a background of female otherness, in contrast to women who do not write, ineffectively imitate the men, or write in different, minor ways. Gender competition might become the source for tension and excitement in the story of literature. If the periods of literary history as a rule start as self-declared renewals of manliness, not unfrequently they end up in a stage considered as feminine. Instances of this imputed decline are Lady Mary Wroth's belated Petrarchism, Katherine Philips's poetry in the metaphysical manner, the degeneration of the male literature of sensibility into feminine conduct book morality, Jane Austen's and Maria Edgeworth's classicism, Felicia Heman's Byronism. Both gender segregation with regard to literary genres and shifts in gender concentration would have to be registered. While female dramatists are the exception, women have specialized as novelists: authors from Aphra Behn to Ann Radcliffe, George Eliot and Dorothy Richardson created new and successful styles. Edging women out as soon as the public begins to accord prestige to a genre of novels seems to have been the reaction of male writers and publishers - and not only, as Gaye Tuchman observes, in the Victorian age. Poetry, on the other hand, is declared to be an eminently male affair; it must continually be protected from contamination by the female. From the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, women's poetry in England was excluded from 'general' anthologies and published in separate collections. The story of this practice, together with that of its justifications by the editors, would make good reading in a history of literature and should not be relegated, as it is now, to special studies.

The presence of women writers in literature has by no means always been dependent on male literary models. Feminist studies have developed theories of specifically female writing and the concept of an autonomous female literary tradition. Taking Woolf’s statement 'we think back through our mothers if we are women' as a starting point, they have constructed a female line different from the male tradition in its achievements as well as in its mode of coherence. On the basis of psychoanalytical theories of female identity, they distinguish women writers’ relationships to each other from those of male authors. Instead of destructive competition, as between father and son, cooperation predominates. The daughters carry on their mothers’ work. The solidarity of the early feminist writers Anna Maria van Schurman, Bathsua Makin, Mary Astell, Judith Drake, Elizabeth Elstob, Lady Mary Montagu and the Bluestocking Ladies seems to me an obvious case in point. From Showalter's book on A Literature of Their Own (1977) to Susan Staves's Literary History of Women's Writing in Britain, 1660—1789 (2006), feminist scholarship has suggested many such female genealogies in literature. Recently, attention has been drawn to the fact that women, due to their competence in modern languages, have frequently served as cultural go-betweens. The transnational connections between women readers and writers have to be rediscovered and taken into account by literary historians. Although the theories of male competition and of female bonding do not always hold true, the gendered modes of referring back to one's predecessors might occasionally be set against each other for dramatic effect. For example, the female gothic tradition from Radcliffe and the Brontës to Du Maurier and Angela Carter's Lady Oracle could be contrasted with the male gothic line from M.G. Lewis's The Monk to Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. The caring and nurturing activities of (at least some) 'women on the left bank' might be made to set off the competitive attitudes of the Pound and Auden circles.

Certainly, women have not always written in isolation from men. By now, feminist aesthetics have been replaced by the idea of a 'double-voiced discourse'. Women writers participate in a literature of their own as well as in general, that is, male-dominated literary traditions and innovations. At the same time, male writing has profited from the work of women. A gendered history of literature would have to take into account both kinds of intertextuality. It would relate the give and take between male and female authors and make visible the intersections between masculine and feminine modes of writing. The fear of contamination by the female on the part of male authors such as John Keats would have to be registered as well as the reproaches to women writers, such as Charlotte Brontë, for adopting a masculine style. Games of hide and seek by female authors writing under male pseudonyms would be part of the story as well as experiments in androgynous writing such as Tennyson's The Princess, which was claimed by both patriarchal and New Woman readers as a work giving voice to their own ideas.


Such narrative histories of literature would need to find room for many storylines. They could not restrict themselves to a single plot. Rather, they would have to borrow structuring techniques from the multiplot novel, the episodic picaresque genre, the travelogue and other narrative hold-alls. More often than not they would, like those monumental novels Henry James wondered at in one of his introductions to the New York edition of his works, become 'large loose baggy monsters'. Like these, they might contain several plots and subplots, adopt various literary discourses, allow themselves Sternean digressions and offer a plurality of perspectives. James also finds that 'the novel, as largely practised in English, is the perfect paradise of the loose end'. Taking one's cue from this observation, one might withstand the temptation of teleological emplotment. Instead, one would experiment with discontinuous modes of organization more true to the contingencies of history. And, as in novelistic plots, gender would provide a dominant or at least subsidiary element in such narratives. The new histories of literature will be his story, her story and their story. They can reveal a poetics of desire. They will relate hetero- and homosocial encounters; one writer approaching, misunderstanding, partially understanding, following, opposing, inspiring another writer. Not only success but also defeat, not only great but also minor works will have their place in [stories where the literary past would be differently structured:]

Stories of literary love and hate, family sagas. […]
Literary history as a battle of books. […]
Literary history as the history of sex changes. […]


'No more feminist history after 2000!', exclaims a German historian. It is high time, she finds, to replace the parallelism of 'general' and women's history by one genuinely general history, namely the history of human beings. The advice should be taken seriously by literary historians as well, with regard to both national and transnational aspects of literary life. This does not mean that they should ignore the differences of sex and gender. On the contrary, such literary histories would take gender as one of their main organizing principles. They would interpret the sequence of literary works in terms of a process in which both men and women are involved, as writers and as creators of female and male literary characters. They would try to reconstruct the negotiations between men and women by means of their works, offering stories both of Elle et lui [by George Sand] and of Lui et elle [by Alfred de Musset]. They would tell tales of sex antagonism and gender envy, of the erotic attractions of literature and literary characters. They would trace the changes in gender norms and sex roles as they have been represented and sometimes even effected by literature. They would fully reveal the transvestite character of literary works and literary life.

For the complete version of the article, see:
Ina Schabert, "Narrative and Gender in Literary Histories", in Comparative Critical Studies 6, 2 (2009), p. 149-164.

SvD, November 2009

  • Conferences > NEWW November meetings > 2009 > Schabert

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