Writing women and peonies

I recently finished Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers from Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing.


Researched and written in the 1960s and 70s, first published in 1977 and revised and expanded in the 1990s with a new edition 2009 much reprinted since, this study of British women writers has stood the test of time very well. There is much to fascinate a writer today. Perhaps most astonishing is that this study, by an American, was so ground-breaking. As Elaine travelled “…around chilly municipal libraries in England in quest of women writers’ archives, I was often rewarded by becoming the first scholar to read a harrowing journal or open a box of letters.” Studies of women’s writing have abounded since those early days and much of the introduction (written twenty years later) is taken up with the (often negative) reactions by later scholars, pundits and activists to her analysis of this subject.

The book itself is a treasure trove of discoveries, of women who wrote the best-sellers of their day, but have been wiped out of history, of changes of taste, of changes in the roles of women, of transformations (or the lack of them) in the reactions of men. It back-fills the story that seems so often to consist only of Austen, the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf and gives a structure to the history of two centuries of writing.

Elaine’s original title had been The Female Literary Tradition in the English Novel, but Princeton University Press changed this to the current one – not, as so many have assumed, in reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but a quote from John Stuart Mill  in 1869 in The Subjection of Women. He wrote: “If women lived in a different country from men, and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own.”

Although this book started life as an academic treatise it is highly readable and full of insight. It has changed my understanding of the journey so many British women writers have taken. There are also some quotes to make your blood boil and your mouth drop open.

On a completely different subject. It is tree peony time here. Finally the long-watched buds are opening.

White tree peony

White tree peony

Over Easter I saw this Molly-the-Witch in the local Botanical Gardens. Molly is usually a clear yellow, but this is a very delicate cream with peachy markings. Definitely on my want list.

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

There will be more in a later post.