Mrs. Cooper's paper on Iphigenia as the typical Greek maiden was beautifully written and read. She represented Iphigenia as speaking, telling her own story as we learn it from the drama. Each paper was followed by informal discussion of the topics treated.
My first clear memory of myself as a reader comes in the middle of that third grade year. The book was Pippi Longstocking. Of course. Pippi was red-headed, freckled, high-spirited, and mischievous. She was also several things that I was not. She was strong, self-confident, and independent. She had no principal, no parents or teachers to tell her what to do. She lived a life of adventure. She was a girl.
Showalter observed that the conservatism of the literary canon “reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women novelists to a tiny band of the ‘great’”— specifically, Austen, the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf.
Showalter noted that scholars and ordinary readers had “lost sight of the minor novelists, who were the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next.” Hundreds of women writers had gone out of print or were otherwise waiting to be rediscovered—novelists like Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E. Arnot Robertson, Elizabeth Jenkins, F.M. Mayor, Kate O’Brien, Rebecca West, and Winifred Holtby.
I am not alone, among male readers, in finding this heightened sense of sympathy and identification at the heart of the appeal of women’s novels. The novelist Jonathan Coe, writing in the Guardian about Dorothy Richardson, praised her novels for making “readers feel that they had actually lived [a] character’s life, in rich, imaginatively continuous detail.”
The novelist and Tory politician Ferdinand Mount put it this way: “[W]hat is indispensable [in a novel] is a certain quality of sympathy with the characters and their dilemmas. Even when raucously exposing his or her character’s absudities, the novelist must convey some fleeting sensation of what it would be like to be them.” Mount finds this quality, this ability to make us imagine another life as it is really lived, more consistently a feature of women’s writing.
For most of the history of the English novel, writing was one of the only occupations open to women, one of the only ways in which they could make their voices heard outside the nursery and the kitchen. That’s part of it—their writing can’t help but express the immense gulf between the expansiveness of their imaginations and the narrowness of the sphere to which they were confined.
But being confined to that sphere, the sphere of domesticity, they couldn’t help looking around and seeing some of its homely beauty. They couldn’t help seeing that this world of messy children and dirty floors, of broken cookers and tight household finances, was also the real world. More real, perhaps, than anything else.