At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present by Maria Dibattista and Deborah Epstein Nord

 

 

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

As the title of this book implies this oeuvre “offers an account of the female literary tradition of the last two centuries that recognizes and evaluates its engagement with public life”. Throughout the book there is an emergence of recurrent themes that uncover the evident, but often underestimated, very real public concerns and preoccupations of women writers.

The authors DiBattista and Nord, both Princeton professors, present to us an informed exposé of a diverse range of work from English-language women writers from the past such as Austen and Bronte to more recent and contemporary authors like Desai and Gordimer.  They argue that the fictional works of these writers are not defined or limited by the accepted traditional female experiences of personal relationships and private lives. Rather, they create stories which illustrate active engagement of the writer and their progeny with the most pressing issues of public life.

Each chapter describes different areas that are considered to be relevant to the uncovering of women novelists as authors that consciously handle and address the most demanding and important questions of their day. The first chapter, entitled ‘Peripatetic’, acts as an introduction to what we can expect from the rest of the book. It describes writers who, if even only in their minds, are untiringly moving towards narratives that encompass the wider world outside the home – ‘the promised land’.

Subsequent chapters interpret and profile the ideas of adventure, emancipation, pioneers, war, politics and multinationalism by means of presentations and expositions of female writers’ work that the authors feel demonstrate the dedication and awareness of the writers to the ambitious topics of democracy, reform, peace and freedom. Of particular note in Chapter One is the acknowledgement, by the authors of this book, of Mary Wollstonecraft as a highly significant, passionate and insightful woman writer who led the field in fighting for causes such as education of girls and political parity. They argue that in her 18th century essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” she clearly demonstrates that she was a trailblazer who could not fail to inspire female writers who followed her. The authors’ view supports that of Nancy Snyder who, in her work “Evolution of English Literature by Female Authors”, describes Wollstonecraft as the initiator of the feminist movement which paved the way for future women writers.

DiBattista and Nord call for respect for the quality of the writings and writers that they cite prolifically throughout the book.  They seek to demonstrate that this literary value cannot fail to give credibility and potency to the social change promoted and debated in their narratives. The writers and, on occasion, their characters are presented as strong, politically engaged women who have managed to leave their mark on the literary and public life of the world they lived or live in. It is interesting whilst reading this book to remind oneself, that on many occasions in the past women writers did not wish to reveal their gender when their books were published for fear of critical reception of their work.  For example, on publication of her 1901 novel “My Brilliant Career” the Australian writer Stella Miles Franklin requested that her publishers remove “Miss” from her name, as she did not want her gender influencing her readers’ perceptions of the literary worth of her work.

The concluding chapter of the book, entitled ‘Promised Lands’, describes the authors and their protagonists as being, to some extent, idealists and visionaries who leave their familiar domestic lives and embrace the real or imagined world and future with enthusiasm. The discovery of self through imagination and a departure to unknown destinations through travel or displacement is considered an exciting adventure which will result in greater fulfillment.

This book seeks to acknowledge and establish the important ways in which female writers have, over the last two centuries, engaged with public life and its concerns. Using multiple cases from the works of a diverse collection of writers they have presented and exemplified the way in which these authors have tackled the difficult social issues of their time whether it is politics, war, freedom, religion or culture. This academic account, with its extensive yet succinct references and quotes from well known, unrecognized and present-day writers, convincingly supports the thesis of the book and would please not only any enthusiast of women’s literature but would have wider appeal too.

 

At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present

(2017)

By Dr Kathleen Huxley

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 9780691138114

US$29.95; 296pp

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