SEX AND SUBTERFUGE: Women Writers to 1850 by Eva Figes

SEX AND SUBTERFUGE: Women Writers to 1850

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Novelist Figes (Waking; The Seven Ages; Little Eden) casts a warm feminist eye on the literary development of women novelists from the late 18th century to 1850, from Austen and her antecedents to the broader vision of the Brontes. Figes begins with a subtle crystallization of a new feminine novel form in the late 18th century--the product of a growing number of upper-class women who had the benefit of broad liberal education and leisure time. Inevitably, these women developed the subjective voice and concentrated on domestic settings. Since a feminine ""literary subculture"" had produced ""stupid romances for stupid women"" for a century, anxious apologies became hallmarks of the new domestic novels. Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen all learned to distance their ""studies"" from the despised ""novels:"" The price of such self-protection could be steep. As a young woman, Edgeworth wrote a superbly characterized, hilariously satirical novel called Castle Rackrent--only to have her brilliant originality (and her life) crushed by a domineering father who made sure that her work conformed to ladylike ideals. The subtle Austen allowed her innate sense of parody to wink out at the reader in her early works; after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, however, that ambiguity gave way to the completely quiet security of the drawing room: ""Jane Austen achieved greatness as a woman writer in a man's world by making herself small. . ."" Thirty years after Austen's death, the Brontes burst on the literary scene, finding unique ways to let the suppressed self speak. To Figes, Emily, more than the powerful Charlotte, found a new, broader view. With Wuthering Heights, Bronte proved that a woman writer could achieve greatness ""by making herself tall."" A wonderfully compressed, illuminating, and ultimately affirming study.

Pub Date: Dec. 30th, 1988
Publisher: Persea--dist. by Braziller