These days there is no dearth of lofty inquiries into the special workings of the female imagination (see Patricia Meyer Spacks' 1975 study of that name) or confident generalizations about the continuity of a women's literary tradition (see Ellen Moers' Literary Women, 1976). But Showalter (director of women's studies, Douglass College) sees many individual imaginations and many divergent traditions at work in the gradual evolution of women's ""own"" literature. Examining the output of British women novelists born in the 19th century, she marks out three flexible but useful chronological divisions: the ""feminine"" writers who adopted male-defined categories; the ""feminists"" who polemically rejected those categories; and the ""female"" novelists who elevated women's own sensibilities into an esthetic. Within the first two rubrics, the great surprises come from Showalter's treatment of minor figures and prosaic publishing circumstances. It was the long-forgotten ""feminine"" chroniclers of clerical virtue who boldly ""channeled their immense energies into the portrayal of imaginary clerics through whom they could preach."" Toward the end of the century it was the equally forgotten sensation novelists who opened up all sorts of ""unsuitable"" imaginative terrain to women writers. And throughout the century, Showalter demonstrates, women novelists kept up a tremendously important scrutiny of each others' works (and those of men) in book reviews, publishers' reports, and fictional ripostes. These wonderful materials sit oddly with some pompous and jejune critical analyses of better-known works (see especially the section on Jane Eyre). Yet there is an arresting revaluation of Virginia Woolf as the culmination of Showalter's ""female"" esthetic--a credo which in her opinion retreated into neurotic passivity and irresponsibility in the name of a subtle, all-embracing consciousness. The book ends with a brief glance at some current reshapers of the ""female"" vision and a lengthy biographical appendix. Despite the price and the specialized focus, this will be read by an audience much broader than the academic, as a much-needed education in some of the circumstances under which women have actually thought and written.