25 SEPTEMBER 1976, Page 21


Olivia Manning

The Female Imagination Patricia Meyer Spacks (Allen and Unwin £5.95) This is a disapointing book. Claiming in its sub-title to be a 'literary and psychological investigation of women's writing', it is, in fact, the result of a seminar on women writers conducted at an American college, to which the author has added material previously published in magazines. The usual result of this sort of book-making is a lack of cohesion and a general lack of balance. Professor Spacks is wide-ranging but many writers touched upon get very short shrift indeed.

The set books of the seminar are treated at length. These include The Mill on the Floss and several of Jane Austen's major works, all of which have been intensively dealt with by scholars for more than a century. The analysis of the character of Maggie Tulliver, both rebel and victim, is interesting but would, I feel, have been more interesting if studied in relation to George Eliot herself. Eliot, a sadly plain woman with a longing to be loved for herself alone, put much of herself into Maggie whose striving towards selflessness may epitom ise Victorian womanhood but contrasts oddly with the drive and co•urage of Florence Nightingale and the women explorers of the Victorian era.

Wuthering Heights, another much discussed novel, leads, interestingly enough, to The Bell Jar. Catherine of Wuthering Heights realises that 'it is necessary to grow up or die'. Esther of The Bell Jar, 'tormented victim of her narcissism, cannot move forward into adulthood she understands as psychic deformation'. There are side glances at a wide variety of women artists: Isadora Duncan, Carrington, Marie Bashkirtseff and Mary Maclane; then, in relation to what is said of them, there is an overweighted research into a handful of modern novelists: Mary MacCarthy, Isak Dinesen and Doris Lessing. As The Golden Notebook was one of Professor Spacks's set books for the seminar, Doris Lessing's work gets a considerable showing but, apart from a chance reference to Rebecca West, Miss Lessing is the only contemporary English woman writer to get a mention. Being something of a campus cult in the States, she is, I suppose, of unusual interest to American students but there are other female English writers of equal worth. Professor Spacks's 'investigation' would, I feel, have gained in depth and scope had she included the works of Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Margaret Drabble and other contemporary writers who are not obsessed by the often tedious 'problem' of being a woman. It is difficult to believe that any of these writers ever saw

themselves as cheated, frustrated, insulted or disgusted by their femininity. They have other things to think about.

Perhaps we have had too much of this woman business. There is something claustrophobic about it, and the particular voice with which the feminist writer writes of her lot is beginning to sound like a whine. The battle may not be won but it would be pleasant now to have a rest from it. Women have proved that, apart from their womanly tasks, there is one thing they can do well: they can write. It is true that there has never been a female Shakespeare but, then, there has never been a male Jane Austen. So, just for a little while, peace, my sisters.