The quotation that brooded over Sexchanges (1989), volume two of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's history of 20th-century women's writing was Emily Dickinson's see-saw verse: "I rose - because He sank". After all the fun they had had with The Madwoman (that was back in 1979), it proved a lot harder to map out women's routes through the multiplying traditions of modernism, now that the patriarchal line was petering out in polyphonic, cross-dressed texts.
You could (they did) trace the battle-lines of gender drawn across what was theoretically now no man's land - but it was a laborious business. You knew where you were in the attic, after all. And who you were. Now even the titles are running out of metaphorical steam: the "front" in this one is the vanguard of writing, the attempt to imagine a future. The Second World War gets a chapter, but so does the self-invention of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), done with rather more conviction.
Her celebration of her own rebirth is, we are told, "a response less to the Great War or the Second World War . . . than to the literary war between the sexes" - which takes us back to the movement of this whole, heavy volume: back to the future. The two main texts Gilbert and Gubar end on are, appropriately enough, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Antonia Byatt's Possession, novels that find a mirror for late 20th-century desires in 19th-century stories.
One reason for this is the sheer proliferation of women's writing, and the differences their work reveals. The old fairy tales about relationships between men and women have mutated in increasingly complicated ways, so that many of us - feminist critics, cultural historians - seem to be lost in a forest of stories about the future of sexuality and sex roles. Has any sense of an ending to the gender revolution emerged in recent decades?
Well, no. Or rather, Gilbert and Gubar do have a positive answer of sorts up their sleeves, but mostly they want to back all the horses, and make room for the "complex cast of characters" the century's "radical sociocultural disruptions" have thrown up: "the femme fatale, the New Woman, the mother-woman, the woman warrior, the feminised woman, the no-woman, the female female impersonator, the goddess . . ." In fact, the last two of these get the most space, perhaps because they may be taken to represent the ends of a spectrum - the woman-as-construct and the woman born again (yet again) as myth.
Edna St Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore are both interpreted as the first kind, female female impersonators, one gallantly vamping, the other playing the spinster school-marm. The woman novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, too, come in under this head, and lend cruel, paradoxical depth to the cultivation of inauthenticity and masquerade. Even the most "savvy and spirited shape changing" runs out on you in the world of Zora Neale Hurston, letting spirituality back in.
Enter H.D. and, to stand as the very emblem of the sex war postwar, Sylvia Plath: 'Torn between her acquiescence in the decorum of the fifties and her ambition to become a boldly great artist . . between scholarly admiration of an often misogynistic male modernist tradition and secret anxiety about that tradition, Plath seems always to have been doomed to suffer in her own person the sexual battle that marked the century in which she was born." You can always tell when Gilbert and Gubar feel confident of their ground by the way Harold Bloom's language surfaces through theirs ("anxiety" is the key word here) and sets them up with an inspiriting sense of the enemy within.
Plath, with her "strong revision" of Lawrence, and her "strong dialogue with literary history" (more echoes of The Anxiety of Influence) is the madwoman out of the attic, and it is through taking Plath as representative that the book smuggles a new-old heroine on to centre-stage: the mother-poet. At the time, in the postwar period, exorcising mother and mythology seemed the vital move. They quote a sardonic Simone de Beauvoir, listing the attributes of the eternal feminine - "She comes down from the remoteness of ages, from Thebes, from Crete, from Chichen Itza; and she is also the totem set deep in the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird . . ." And they note, too, the parodic deconstruction of Mother in Angela Carter's Passion of New Eve and The Sadeian Woman, but their hearts are with Plath, and with Adrienne Rich, who rewrites Beauvoir into a positive vision of the coming goddess: "I see her plunge breasted and glancing through the currents, taking the light upon her at least as beautiful as any boy or helicopter . . ." This is the kind of answer they want to give to their central question about the future ("what would be the nature of a future in which the real world did not equal war and the difference?") Though their very attachment to the motherly notion that more means better has the odd effect of obscuring their drift. The range of reference is, as ever, catholic, generous, inclusive.
However, the argument is not, not really. Even if you believe that they are right about western women's control over their own fertility being the key to rethinking our metaphors about creativity, you may well want to take the demystificatory line, rather than theirs. There is something wrong with this book's version of magic. It is not only that the retellings of Snow White with which they pad out the ending are embarrassingly stiff and uninventive - a gesture towards readers-as-writers, scholars masquerading as story-tellers, that backfires badly. But that the whole assumption that the literary sex-war symbolises other wars (and so can recruit their images, as Plath does the language of fascism and concentration camps) seems wrong. The whole book seems inturned, isolationist, as a result.
Writers (especially fiction writers) are enlisted in a campaign that is narrowly redefined; Doris Lessing without Africa, Angela Carter without the attack on born-again religions and so on. I stress the un-American writers to underline how wide is the Gilbert and Gubar net; the problem (which they are aware of) is how to outgrow "the Ur-story as we interpreted it in The Madwoman: how is a woman to achieve personhood . . .' They sound, alas, all-too-motherly themselves. But then we all do when we try to write literary history. Letters from the Front is the record of an honourable defeat. How pleased the authors must be to have got that behind them, too, like veterans who can rest on their laurels now.
Lorna Sage is professor of English literature, University of East Anglia.
No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume Three, Letters from the Front
Author - Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
ISBN - 0 300 05631 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 476pp