HAMLET'S MOTHER by Carolyn G. Heilbrun


Email this review


A collection of characteristically spirited and enlightening feminist essays by the professor (Columbia/English; Writing a Woman's Life, 1988; Reinventing Womanhood, 1979, etc.) who doubles as mystery writer Amanda Cross. Heilbrun takes her title from a 1950's essay (the earliest here), arguing that Hamlet's mother has been wrongly interpreted as a ""weak-minded vacillating woman"" when, in fact, she is an ""intelligent"" woman brought down by lust. In this pioneering essay and those that follow (dated between 1972 and 1988), Heilbrun again proves herself a rare scholar--who writes in lively, jargon-free prose, who here considers the Odyssey, James Joyce, Anna Freud, and detective fiction in the same volume, and who candidly uses her own experience to interpret ""exemplary women"" and ""Literature and Women."" In a wonderful essay on Virginia Woolf, Heilbrun discusses the radical nature of the late novel, The Years, from the perspective of ""being in one's fifties,"" explaining how ""in middle age Woolf found herself uniquely urged toward an artistic act of great courage."" Such courage, Heilbrun emphasizes, is demanded of women who choose unconventional lives and who invent their own narratives--women like Margaret Mead, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Louisa May Alcott, and May Sarton, who are among her subjects here. Appropriately, Heilbrun includes what she calls ""the two bravest acts of my professional life,"" two speeches that draw us into the politically charged debate on feminism's broad challenge to the assumptions of ""malecentered"" culture. In the three last essays on detective fiction, Heilbrun argues that this genre has run ahead of others in abandoning sexual stereotypes for androgynous heroes like Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. Eloquent discourses, ""written with the relative clarity of a revolution in its early days,"" that bring many of feminism's fundamental questions to the university and beyond.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press