This book is the fruit of a bad -- or, at best, so-so -- idea whose hour was nonetheless bound to come. Women, deprived of so much, have even been required to get by without a Bartlett of their own gender, as it were. There have been, of course, scores of anthologies devoted to what used to be called "the female poets," but that is not quite the same as having one's own Bartlett.
Into this breach steps Elaine Partnow, who then proceeds to fritter away about 58 minutes of the hour her idea had preempted. For reasons that are nowhere made clear, she decides to limit herself to women born between 1800 and 1975. Her listings are arranged chronologically, beginning with Catharine Esther Beecher (1800-1878), and ending with Octavia Waldo, date of birth not given.
It takes but little consideration to make one wish that Partnow had moved her dates back by at least a century. Many of the most quotable women who ever lived did so in the 18th century. By limiting herself as she does. Partnow not only loses gifted feminists on the order of Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor, but also deprives us of the wit of Madame de Sevigne and Madame de Stael, of Jane Austen, Mrs. Thrale, Harriet Wilson, Stella, Anne Royall, Mrs. Montagu and a host of others.
The loss is not compensated for by her heavy reliance on early suffragettes and minor Victorian poets. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is represented by 85 quotations; Virginia Woolf by only 54. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gets 66 quotations, more than Florence Nightingale, the Countess Tolstoy, Madame Blavatsky, Queen Victoria and Isadora Duncan put together. Since many of these quotations are directly repetitious of one another it is hard not to wish that Partnow had sooner moved on to springier ground. Colette is the alltime most quotable woman, with 109 examples to Edna Millay's 106, though some of these, like colette item 62 ("He loved his dreams and cultivated them"), would not strike everyone as quotable.
Indeed, one thing that makes this compilation curious is its dogged avoidance of the aphorism. Partnow seems to think that aphorisms are somewhat tendentious -- thus she ducks and dodges through a great deal of sparkling prose in order to come up with earnest truisms. Even in this she reveals curious priorities. "Middlemarch," a novel crammed with genuinely wise sayings, is represented by only four rather weak examples, while the vapid works of George Sand are probed for some 58 passages.
Sad to say, Partnow's scholarship is roughly on a level with her taste. At least two of the her quotable women were in fact men: Elie Faure, the French essayist and art critic, Sabine Baring-Gould, the prolific English clergyman and folkorist, whom she identifies only as a Danish hymnist. He was, indeed, a hymnist; he may even on occassion have been quotable, but a glance at any of the standard biographical dictionaries might have convinced Partnow that he was never a woman.