Auerbach arbitrarily picks an odd lot of seven novels to trace what she calls ""the Tradition"" of female communities in English and American literature. Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, she says, depict isolated families of semicomatose women waiting for men to return from the ""larger reality"" of war. Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford and Charlotte Bronte's Villette show communities of women in slightly widened worlds--a town and a city--but still ""strange"" and apart from the ""real"" (masculine) world. It is men--Gissing in The Odd Women and James in The Bostonians--who ""free"" their female communities ""from self-enclosed sirenlike deceit to invade the authenticity of public life."" And at last Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie portrays a female community that incorporates ""a dimension traditionally denied to women--the violence of history and religion"" and thus somehow transcends regular old female society. Auerbach doesn't confine herself to these novels: a character who has no work reminds her of a character in another book who goes to a school not unlike a school in a book by another author who also wrote an essay in which he mentioned another book about women and--one things leads to another in dizzying free association that tries to pass for literary analysis. Auerbach has read everything in the literary canon and manages to allude to it all. Here and there an insight surfaces, then congeals in clotting prose. Sample: "". . . her language bestows on them a magnitude of anti-nobility and nonhumanity simply because they appropriate the reality her world makes available to us, casting off the cornfields that can be reaped and sown to exist on a plane of absolute created myth."" This is literary scholarship of an old, idiosyncratic, turgid, and not very helpful sort.