Subtitled “An Alternative History of English Literature,” Anna Beer’s “Eve Bites Back” is a tricky book for a male reviewer to critique. Overall, few people today would disagree with Beer’s main theses — that female authors have been marginalized, that in the past superior written work by women was regularly misunderstood or dismissed as freakish and aberrant, and that we need a more gender-balanced literary canon.
To explore these and related issues, Beer — a professor at Kellogg College, Oxford — offers biographical sketches and reappraisals of eight female writers between the 14th and 19th centuries. She begins with two late-medieval autobiographers, devout Julian of Norwich (“But all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”) and garrulous Margery Kempe, followed by Renaissance poet Aemilia Lanyer (whose major work, “Salve Deus,” culminates in the description of a female utopia), the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, the racy Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn and the much-traveled 18th-century letter writer Mary Wortley Montagu. Beer then closes by looking at two major novelists of the 19th century, Jane Austen and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Her chapters on all these writers are engrossingly anecdotal, critically argumentative and sometimes needlessly belligerent in their tone. I say “needlessly belligerent” because, with the partial exception of Lanyer, these writers have been part of many college literature courses in America since at least the mid-20th century.
This isn’t to say that they’ve all had the attention they deserve. Still, I studied Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in graduate school back in the 1970s; remember when A.L. Rowse proposed that Lanyer, whose poems he edited, might be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and have long cherished the 1950 Grove Press edition of “Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn,” edited by my literary mentor, Robert Phelps. I doubt I’m alone in keeping Montagu’s letters on the same shelf as the poems of her friend Alexander Pope. Jane Austen is, well, Jane Austen. And anyone who reads Victorian ghost stories has long admired Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace,” “Eveline’s Visitant” and her chilling vampire tale, “Good Lady Ducayne.”
Nonetheless, except for Austen, it’s true that none of these writers has exercised much literary influence, the one practical sign of a truly classic author or text. That’s changing now, as college literature courses pay less attention to close analysis of “the poem itself” and instead emphasize a work’s sociological underpinnings, notably those relating to gender, race and class. This is Beer’s priority, too.
Throughout “Eve Bites Back,” she repeatedly underscores the obstacles confronting any woman before the Victorian era who wanted to write and publish, let alone earn a living by her pen. Beer places some blame on the patriarchy for keeping women in their place, i.e. at home, bearing children, running households and, not least, providing moral guidance to often wayward husbands and sons. Yet patriarchy may be only the intermediate cause. Christianity, as other scholars would argue, is the ultimate culprit, imposing conceptions about the proper behavior of both sexes derived from long-standing theological doctrine.
From late antiquity onward, Adam was commonly associated with reason and Eve with emotion. To avoid sin, reason has been tasked with keeping the emotions in check. In effect, the fall from Paradise resulted because a weak Adam failed in his duty and allowed Eve’s blandishments to lead them both astray. The church drew the obvious lesson: Fathers and husbands should regulate their naturally impulsive and unruly womenfolk, who, in their turn, should channel their emotions into calming domestic routines and be grateful for the guidance of (supposedly) rational men. It is this medieval model of the ideal Christian family that locks both sexes into distinctive modes of being, assigning authority and command to the men, obedience and submission to the women.
Under such a regime, a woman who asserted her independence was thus more than worrisome, she was unnatural. As Beer stresses, for a long time it was commonly thought, if only half-consciously, that any woman who revealed her private self in print was not only immodest but metaphorically a prostitute, available to any passerby who could afford to pay for her book. What man would want his wife, daughter or sister to be viewed as a whore? What woman would want to be seen this way? If this language sounds a bit strident, it is in keeping with Beer’s in-your-face style. “Eve Bites Back” isn’t pleading for justice for female writers, it’s indicting a system that has long ignored them and, to some extent, still does.
Throughout her book, Beer emphasizes that female writers do tend to focus on their interior selves — partly because they were long denied a public life — which leads them to confessional poetry, memoirs, letters, diaries and other intimate forms, all of which have been regularly denigrated as “feminine” and consequently regarded as minor compared with tough-guy epics, tragedies and multivolume works of history. When women started to write novels in the 18th and 19th centuries, these too became devalued and dismissed as frivolous, popular entertainment. Here again, we see those biblical hierarchies playing out.
In no way, however, does Beer reflexively cheerlead for anyone with two X chromosomes. She complains that there’s “a dash of cosy feminism” in biographer Charlotte Gordon’s picture of Bradstreet rocking her baby while composing her poems. She reveals unsureness about Behn, who may have been the first woman to earn a living through her plays but did so by becoming, essentially, one of the boys. She points out Montagu’s antisemitism and her apparent approval, during a long sojourn in Istanbul, of harem life and enslavement among the Ottoman Turks. Only Braddon — a former actress, the longtime mistress of a married man, the mother of several children outside of wedlock, and an astonishingly prolific and successful writer — earns Beer’s almost total respect. Braddon lived her life as she chose and found happiness in it.
Part polemic, part revisionist criticism, “Eve Bites Back,” as its title suggests, is sharp and aggressive, a book that will irritate, enlighten, persuade and provoke argument. It’s a work of correction, in every sense of the word.
Eve Bites Back
An Alternative History of English Literature
By Anna Beer
OneWorld. 304 pp. $28.95
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