Currently Reading

A Jury of Her Peers. American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

by Elaine Showalter.

ISBN 978 1 84408 078 6  Virago. 2009

showalter

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.

In a narrative of immense scope and fascination—brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions—we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers—both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon—were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.

Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture.

As with her previous ground-breaking studies of women’s fiction, including, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, Showalter exposes the ‘invisible’ women of the 19th century American literary scene. It’s a book to dip into and to savour different parts and new authors than to read all at once.

Here’s a flavour, which shows how little the experience of 19th century women has changed from that of her latter- day peers:

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880):

When she returned to fiction (a weak novel with a classical theme) in 1835, she was discouraged and deflated. Child would continue to play an important intellectual role in the women’s movement and in its antislavery causes, but after the 1820s, her creative zest diminished or was extinguished under the load of household duties and domestic obligations.

A list she recorded in 1864 gives the key to the damming up of that once over-flowing fountain. Child reported her employments for the year:

Cooked 360 dinners.

Cooked 360 breakfasts.

Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times.

Filled lamps 362 times.

Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.

Besides innumerable jobs too small to be mentioned …  (p. 48)

About Janette Currie

Editor and literary consultant at JC Consultancy. Freelance writer.
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