I am teaching a course this semester on “Henry James and the Women Who Influenced Him.” We’ll be looking at Minnie Temple, Woolson, and Edith Wharton, and reading quite a bit of biography alongside the fiction and critical works. So we started the semester last week with two essays on the pitfalls and virtues of biographical criticism. What does it mean to read literature through the lens of the author’s life, something we have been told for decades is the ultimate sin but that we do all the time in the classroom? I wanted my students (and myself) to be more conscious of what we were doing and why.
One of the essays we read, Allison Booth’s “Biographical Criticism and the ‘Great’ Woman of Letters,” raised so many useful issues. She talks a lot about how women writers have historically found it necessary to escape their gender (and thus their private lives) in order to create “great” literature, her two examples being George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Most women writers, particularly in the nineteenth century, however, found it impossible to either write beyond gender or to be read simply as “writers” rather than “women writers.” Woolson wrote a fascinating story about one woman writer’s inability to be taken seriously apparently because of the inherent flaws of her gender—“Miss Grief,” her most widely known story today. (You can read it here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22401/22401-h/22401-h.htm.) In fact, the story has become a touchstone for feminist critics interested in the ways women writers have been stifled and forgotten.
As the title of that story implies, the lot of the woman writer was one of suffering and grief—or, at least it was in fiction. Women writers nearly always saddled their ambitious female characters with misery and failure. Booth homes in on this exact problem when she writes about “the gap between the female characters’ potential and their [creators’] achievement.” She mentions specifically Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Woolson has a fair number of ambitious female characters who conform to a plot of punishment, in contrast to her own success as a writer.
So, the question is, how miserable were women writers? Booth says that “[a]s feminist biographical critics, we may repeat this move; our subjects, the women writers, become heroines in a plot of women’s education and ambition necessitating self-sacrifice and suffering because of the ‘facts’ of oppression.” In other words, our understanding of the limitations imposed on women of the past has encouraged us to perpetuate narratives of thwarted ambitions and stunted personal lives. Booth doesn’t exactly explain how we can move beyond such a narrative. Certainly, such “facts” existed. But they weren’t the whole story. In Woolson’s case, that is definitely true. In spite of the final, horrible fact of her suicide, I don’t think that her life was a tragedy.
If you are studying or writing about a woman writer of the past, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues!