Sunday, June 15, 2008

On blogging about Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Over at the Huffington Post, I saw a blog post by John Lundberg that sounded interesting -- the title "A Woman Who Broke Poetry's Glass Ceiling" sounds promising. The post is about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who I have an appreciation for (and will be teaching in my survey course this fall).

But reading the post, I began to get frustrated and concerned by a lack of real reflection of what we actually know about women's publishing. Lundberg's discussion of EBB's poems at the end of the post is fine. But he's making some assumptions that are no longer the general thinking in literary studies. He writes,

A woman was rarely given access to the necessary education to write poetry, and even if she was and had talent, she had to fight to be taken seriously by the men who served as gatekeepers for the art.

A reasonable -- if a bit over-simplified point -- about the experience of women writers up to the 20th century in Britain. However, it actually ignores recent scholarship on the role of women writers in the 17th and 18th century. And that research isn't quite so new anymore, either (for example, John Richetti's book Popular Fiction Before Richardson, which is an early work in the rediscovery of 18th century women writers, was published in 1969). But still, there's some truth to the statement -- and certainly many of the literary luminaries of the 18th and 19th centuries questioned quite openly whether or not women were capable of writing.

But I was already skeptical of the post with the sentence before Lundberg's big claim:

Reading the Norton Anthology from Chaucer onward, you have to flip through four and a half centuries before you come to the first woman.

Um ... that's not what I recall from teaching out of the Norton in the last survey course I taught.

The first woman to appear in my edition of the Norton is Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"My edition" is quite a give-away here. In the current (8th) edition of the Norton, the first woman after Chaucer comes a mere 57 pages later (Julian of Norwich). The first woman in the text is actually before Chaucer (Marie de France). Julian was added to the 6th edition, which came out in 1993. At least since the 6th edition, the Norton has also included Margery Kempe (14th century); Queen Elizabeth I, Aemilia Lanyer and Mary Herbert (16th century); Mary Worth, Katherine Philips, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Halkett and Lucy Hutchinson (17th century); Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Astell and Aphra Behn* (Restoration and 18th century). In the second volume of the 6th edition -- literature after 1798 -- women appear before EBB as well, notably Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Joanna Baillie and (one of my favorites) Anna Laetitia Barbauld.

Later editions are doing even more in terms of including women's writing.

Women have been fairly well represented in the Norton since at least 1993 (I'm not saying it couldn't be better -- anthologies can always be better). Many of these women are poets, so EBB wasn't quite the trail-blazer that Lundberg makes her out to be.

At the same time, part of the argument still stands -- women, in many ways, have had a more difficult time writing, simply because they had fewer opportunities for education. But to suggest that women weren't able to write in centuries past based on a now-out-dated edition of the Norton Anthology shows a lack of awareness of what was really happening. Certainly, the lack of women writers in earlier editions of the Norton says something -- but it says something about the editors of the anthology, and not necessarily about the literary landscape as it actually existed. The editors responded to this and made changes -- that's why the anthology keeps undergoing revisions.**

Lundberg does further disservice to his claims by using a passage from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own to make his argument about the absence of women writers for hundreds of years. Before I explain why this is a problem, I want to explain that Woolf is one of my favorite writers and that Room has been very influential in my life.

Woolf, however, is not a literary historian -- and shouldn't be held up as an expert commentator on literary history. The most egregious error in her claims about women writers of the past comes in the fourth chapter of the book. Woolf explains that "Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney" (71).*** Unfortunately for Woolf's impassioned plea for respecting the women writers who have gone before us, Burney died in 1840 -- 23 years after Austen died. Woolf simply isn't always correct in her facts.

This doesn't discount the fact that EBB is an important poet in literary history; nor does it discount the fact that women's work has often been ignored by later generations (which is a large part of Woolf's discussion in Room, though most people simply quote from the section about Shakespeare's sister).

I don't want to discount EBB's contributions to English literature -- they're important and they're quite wonderful to read.

At the same time, if we're going to present literary history as currently relevant to a broad readership -- as seems to be part of the goal of the post in specific, and Lundberg's posts in general -- doesn't it make sense to get it right?

*and Behn was one of the most successful professional writers of the Restoration
**And the anthology has always left things out that are important parts of literary history -- I find the Norton to be a little light on novelists, especially 18th century ones. But then they wrote ridiculously long books.
***Burney is a late 18th century novelist and editor -- highly influential in her day. The bulk of her novel writing predates Austen's novels.


Bradley said...

Well said. Like you, I think Lundberg has some good points to make, but I think, ultimately, that the argument that the literary canon looks the way it does is because white guys were the only ones writing back then is rather illiberal. It suggests that the injustice occurred in the past, and that there's nothing for present editors and scholars to do about it now except acknowledge this sad reality while continuing to teach and study the same canonical works without reflecting on why these works and these authors made it into the canon while others were excluded.

Brian said...

Completely unrelated side note: Lundberg was a second-year Stegner during my first year there. He's a thoroughly pleasant guy, but I never got the impression from our workshops that he had much of a scholarly background. And I've always wondered how he scored that HuffPo gig.

Sally said...

It's interesting that usually pieces like this (about women in history and such) are meant to show how there are so many wonderful women in history and they get all the credit they deserve, even if it is not true, and then this piece almost does the opposite.

I love EBB though. Wish I was taking your survey course.

Emily said...

Brian -- I'm sure that he's a pleasant enough guy. So much of that column seemed, well, undergraduate level in its assumptions about literary history. (Not that undergrads can't be brilliant. It makes me crazy that Gayle Rubin wrote a highly influential piece of feminist scholarship as an undergrad -- and that I will never, ever write something that groundbreaking.)

I think that there are things to be said about "breaking the glass ceiling" (though as Bradley pointed out to me yesterday that the metaphor of the cracks in the glass ceiling allowing women to see the light of above doesn't actually work. Glass is, after all, see-through. You can always see the light. You just can't get to the source. That's the point of the metaphor) and there are things to be said about women in literary history.

The article could have been so much better if he'd done his research and talked about how EBB stood on the shoulders of women before her (Burney, Behn, Wroth, et al), just as Hillary Clinton has stood on the shoulders of female politicians before her.

Emily said...

Sally -- it's too bad you can't take it. I have such a moderate approach, ultimately, because I'm trying to represent the literary landscape as it was. We read both the people who've always made it into the anthologies, and those who have recently been rediscovered. I try to find a balance.

We're reading excerpts of Aurora Leigh this fall. I'll probably have updates on the readings throughout the semester (starts late August!), so you can always come back to find out what we're reading.