Holding the middle ground

Inventing Herself: claiming a feminist intellectual heritage

Elaine Showalter<em> Picador, 384pp,

When Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Their Own in 1977, it was a revelation and a celebration all in one. In her characteristically fluent prose, she suggested that British women's writing in the 19th and 20th centuries (her bookends were the Brontes and Doris Lessing) had been systematically sidelined, obscured and trivialised. Now here was Showalter, an American academic at the forefront of the new wave of "women's studies", showing us not only why those muffled voices mattered, but how they connected to one another to create, if not exactly a lineage, certainly a web of influence and sympathy.

It was perhaps inevitable that Showalter's work would lose some of its glamour after that high point. In the 1980s, the intellectual beacon in women's studies passed from the Americans with their biographical bias to the intricate linguistic and psychoanalytical teasings of French feminists such as Julia Kristeva.

Increasingly, the work of Anglo-American academic feminists seemed naive, dull and slightly beside the point. In The Female Malady (1985), for instance, Showalter was more interested in showing how historical circumstances had consistently conspired to label intelligent or independent women as mad than she was in trying to understand how Lacan was once again making Freud respectable.

Inventing Herself continues in what has now become recognisably the Showalter way of writing about women: low on theory, high on history. Her aim is to recover and realign the life and works of those women writers who have proved an inspiration during her 40-year career as a feminist academic. In this sense, she is offering a necessary corrective to the pervasive effects of F R Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948), which was responsible for so many good women dropping out of sight. Thus Inventing Herself starts with the mother of all feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft; works its way through Margaret Fuller and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; swerves back to the UK for Vera Brittain and Germaine Greer; and then nips over to France for Simone de Beauvoir.

Why Showalter has decided to choose some women and leave out others is never quite clear. She suggests in her introduction, in a phrase that would not sound out of place in Cosmopolitan magazine, that this is a book "about women with a passionate attitude to living"; she then lists a whole range of people, including Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher, who are automatically disqualified. Confusingly, however, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana are all judged to demonstrate the right degree of passion, and are rewarded with a place in the "feminist intellectual heritage" of the book's subtitle.

Inventing Herself is constructed as a series of mini-biographies. Some subjects, such as Margaret Fuller, get a whole chapter to themselves. Others, such as Naomi Wolf, are given only three pages. But the themes stay the same. What comes up again and again is the old problem that stymies women still: how to live an autonomous creative and intellectual life without giving up the satisfactions of sexual love and motherhood. The outcomes that emerge are quirky and sometimes full of pain. There is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's proposal of the kitchenless flat (apartments would be built around a central restaurant in order to spare women the chore of cooking, an idea that has recently taken off in New York City). And then there is Eleanor Marx, who killed herself in 1898 because, despite all the progressive talk at the Men's and Women's Club, she never found a way of having an equal relationship with her husband, the appalling Edward Aveling.

Showalter has necessarily depended on secondary sources, biographies mostly, to put this book together. Her method is to take what she wants from a life - the emblematic conflicts, the occasional happy solutions - and to make them repeat or amplify the experience of her other subjects (she is, after all, trying to build up a "heritage"). As a result, the whole enterprise has a synthetic feel, as if the grit and gumption of all those different lives had been thrown away, leaving homogenised pap of the lowest common order. Despite Showalter insisting in her introduction that she was not going to include Marie Curie, Inventing Herself none the less reads like one of those "Heroines of History" books that used to be given out as prizes to serious-minded little girls.

This is a shame, because Showalter continues to write with a fluency that puts virtually every other American academic to shame. And her prose style is not merely a matter of incidental pleasure. For nearly 25 years, she has provided a pathway between the dense discourses of academic feminist studies and the commercial market, which supplies the reading needs of Everywoman. During the 1980s and 1990s, these two markets became increasingly separated, with the result that writing by and about women has been either parochially intense or journalistically banal. Showalter's example shows that it is still possible to hold a middle, and higher, ground.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat