The essays in Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions by Sandra M. Gilbert are all so interesting that I could write an entire post about each and every one of them. The essays span the feminist awakening of Gilbert, from the present day looking back over a long and distinguished career to pieces written in the 1980s and 90s. The book took me back to my undergrad college days when the work that Gilbert and her frequent co-author, Susan Gubar, were doing seemed so very groundbreaking and women scholars across academia began offering classes in literature written by women and analyzed from a feminist perspective. I took many of those classes, was excited by them, and experienced my own feminist awakening because of them. So the book gave me a little thrill as I began to realize that even though the university I went to had a Women’s Studies department, it was still very new in the scheme of academic studies, and Gilbert and Gubar’s book, Madwoman in the Attic was only published in 1979, seven years before I got to college. Then it seemed like the book had been around for ages but from this distant perspective I begin to understand why my college professors who taught from a feminist perspective were both often so energizing and defensive.
Gilbert begins her preface to the book:
To reread is both to read again and to read anew – that is, to read in another way what is already familiar, as if it has been read yet not read before.
Ah, that wonderful “re” prefix so beloved by feminist writers intent on re-vision and re-membering. I felt immediately at home in this book and while my attention dragged here and there when books I had not read were discussed, it was always a pleasure to read and learn and wonder why I had not read some of my favorite poets Gilbert mentions in so very long. Poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, H.D., Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and of course, Adrienne Rich. There is much on Plath and Dickinson throughout the book, but there is also Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Christine de Pizan, Charlotte Bronte, and even Francis Hodgson Burnett.
My favorite essay is actually a pair, the final two in the book, “Potent Griselda: Male Modernists and the Great Mother,” and “Mother Rites: Maternity, Matriarchy, Creativity.” These two essays look at the late 19th and early 20th century and how archaeological discoveries on Minoan/Crete culture that was obviously woman-centric as well as embryological discoveries that proved that women’s wombs were not just incubators affected male and female writers, the concept of the muse and the idea of giving birth to a book.
As you can imagine women and men saw things very differently. Gilbert spends a good many pages on D.H. Lawrence examining how his admitted fear of a coming “matriarchy” played out in his often misogynistic portrayal of women in his books. For male writers, the act of “begetting” their thoughts onto paper was primary. Women, for whom pregnancy was a very real thing, tended to stay clear of the begetting, and embraced the idea of women’s power and the Goddess through more of a Maenadic independent and primal wild woman metaphor. I loved the discussion about this so much that I briefly considered tattooing the word “Maenad” in a wild but elegant script onto my shoulder. While I tended to read one essay at a time, I read the final two essays one after the other and I would highly recommend that since they really are a pair.
I borrowed Rereading Women from the library but I am going to buy a copy for my bookshelf when the paperback comes out in the spring. It is a book well worth having on the shelf to refer back to again and again. And, it has a fantastic bibliography. Beware of that, you’ll find your TBR list much longer than it was when you began reading the book. I do love a book that leads me to more books, both nonfiction and fiction and this one has definitely done that.