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Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions

Mary Evans applauds a collaboration that attuned our ear to female voices in fiction

Sandra Gilbert (both individually and with her collaborator Susan Gubar) has played a long and distinguished part in the rethinking of the teaching of English literature. The title of the first major Gilbert and Gubar collaboration, The Madwoman in the Attic, has become shorthand to indicate all those questions that once were not asked about fiction. Since that book's publication in 1979, all kinds of silences have been broken as women have become central figures both as subjects and as critics in the academic study of literature.

Rereading Women is a collection of previously published essays dating from 1977 to 2008, with new material limited to an introductory essay that describes how Gilbert began her collaboration with Gubar and became a professional academic. It is written within the standard assumptions of second-wave feminism in which, to paraphrase, the people who lived in darkness (particularly the darkness of the US in the 1950s) saw a great light in the early 1970s.

But despite this reservation, what this volume speaks to (and of) is the huge service that Gilbert did, not just for the teaching of literature but also for the wider cause of the recognition of different voices in the world of print. The introductory essay, although in some ways locked into the attic of the unexamined values of the US, is also articulate and passionate about the politics of the classroom.

It is a very important part of the politics of the internal geography of universities that the classroom has, at least in the UK, become increasingly degraded as a place of contest and debate. What Gilbert vividly recalls is a time when people really did care about what was taught, rather than the way in which it was taught (and even more so, examined).

The depoliticisation of the curriculum has had its merits, in that the content of courses is no longer subject to suffocating examination, but at the same time there is loss in the forms of the intrusion of increased standardisation and coercive expectations about "useful" knowledge.

The sheer value, excitement and interest of engagement with teaching speaks through this volume. There are various and important traditions in which many people might now "read" the subjects of Gilbert's essays in radically different ways and thus contribute to the endlessly engrossing possibilities of interpretation. For many academic writers on literature there will inevitably be questions and criticisms to make of some of the judgements (and absences) to be found here.

Among those possible criticisms would be the standard ones about the ways in which critics in the US tend to be less aware of the impact of the social on literature than is the case in Europe, even if those same critics might defend themselves by pointing to the European lack of awareness about race. Many of Gilbert's judgements seem to me - particularly, for example, on the subject of motherhood - to be too sure, too monolithic in their certainty.

For all that (and the "that" is worthy of volumes in itself), this collection has one very considerable merit: it situates the reader at the centre of the reading of literature. The work that Gilbert did, both in the classroom and the study, was essentially democratic: she wanted the people she was teaching to engage with literature and through it find not the voices of authoritative "great traditions", but their own voices.

When she, and Gubar, introduced the idea of the woman locked away in an attic by people for whom her existence was inconvenient, they introduced an idea into the curriculum that encouraged the recognition of other forms and occasions of silencing.

There remain problematic issues about the social and domestic politics of that attic - not least the question of how it was kept secure - but opening the door would allow others to ask for their own keys.

And having the key to the door was long regarded, at least in the UK, as a mark of an adult.

Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions

By Sandra M. Gilbert

W. W. Norton, 384pp, £23.00

ISBN 9780393067644

Published 18 September 2011

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