Drabble routed by Americans

The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women
February 14, 1997

The second edition of the 1985 Norton Anthology of Women is inevitably a reactive work: it takes account of changes in emphasis in the teaching of English in Britain and the United States over the last decade. A quick comparison of the two editions makes the changes clear: middle-class white Englishwomen such as Margaret Drabble have disappeared to make room for a far larger number of Americans and for a more politically correct ethnic mix of writers in English. These include women from Africa and Asia who went to the US to learn or teach creative writing, as well as Japanese Americans, Chicanas, Native Americans and African-Americans. Some of the new arrivals such as Buchi Emecheta enrich the volume; some perhaps pander to its slight tendency to pathos and sentimentalism. However, it is inevitable that every reader would have done it differently: I would have included Sylvia Townsend Warner, and probably the Australian Christina Stead; also, perhaps prizing irony and humour more than Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (authors of that most influential of feminist blockbusters, The Madwoman in the Attic), I would have selected further examples of the sort of work represented here by Aphra Behn's comic erotic poems of male haplessness, the colloquial comedy of Marilyn Hacker, and Rebecca Brown's sardonic tale beginning "When I said I'd give my right arm for you, I didn't think you'd ask me for it, but you did''.

There is perhaps something dated about an anthology of women at all. One might wonder at the validity of selecting them out from the history of writing when gender has so often superseded women as the focus of interest, when deconstructionist doubts have shaken the category "woman'', when postmodern misgivings have destabilised tradition, even in the plural forms as here, and when the return to historical specificity has made unfashionable the coalescing of periods. None the less, if one wants an anthology of female writers across the centuries without much considering the culture in which they are embedded, this is a fine selection to use for teaching. No other work will give you 2,452 pages of women for under Pounds 20.

The swing towards the Americans reflects the major consumers of Norton anthologies: American students. Until recently the British have instead relied on ever cheaper copies of the classics, while Xeroxing favourite texts such as Eliza Haywood's Fantomima, included here. They have also disliked being told what to think: teachers' handbooks have not appealed and introductions in which, as here, we learn that Behn's "revolutionary'' Oroonoko is "sometimes considered the first English novel'' and includes "a passionate protest against the institution of slavery'' can irritate a good many. Yet, since students are buying fewer and fewer books, however cheap, perhaps there is now a pedagogic role for the literary anthology in Britain.

As a resource for the "general reader'', this anthology is a good buy; unless one is blessed with a muscular arm, however, it is not for reading in the bath or in bed.

Janet Todd is professor of English literature, University of East Anglia.

The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English

Editor - Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
ISBN - 0 393 96825 1
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £18.95
Pages - 2,452

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