Philip Hensher

An unmagnificent seven

Shelley DeWees has resurrected seven neglected female authors who, she claims, ‘transformed British literature’. The problem is, they are almost all manifestly terrible

One of the most interesting developments in modern publishing has surely been the revival of interest in women writers of the past. Beginning with Virago Press, publishers have delved back and rediscovered exceptional female writers from the 17th century onwards. These have either been rescued from oblivion, or from the frequent fate of being dismissed as middle-brow and narrowly domestic. Editors and a new generation of scholars have unearthed excellent writers, from Fanny Burney to Elizabeth Taylor, and have changed literary taste forever.

The success of the enterprise probably means that it is now easier to find a new readership for a once-popular female author than for a largely forgotten male author. The first generation of literary archaeologists had a traditional and rather strict criterion of literary quality. Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, was very clear that there was a level beneath which those green-backed classics would not sink. Germaine Greer wrote an excellent and scrupulous book, Slip-shod Sibyls, arguing that many women poets of the past were actually very bad: they had no possibility of being otherwise.

Women writers may still need excavation, but it is crucial that critical judgment is preserved. The excellent work that Virago did — along with underrated investigators of particular fields, such as Roger Lonsdale, who produced an astounding anthology of 18th-century women poets for OUP — demonstrated what good writers these were. But if judgment is abandoned, we might reasonably question why we are being encouraged to read terrible writers on the basis of their sex alone.

Inquiring readers ought to be steered towards really good women writers. Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story is an exquisitely refined piece of work. Hardly anyone reads Hannah More. Susan Ferrier’s three novels are a delight. Maria Edgeworth clings on by the skin of her teeth, but Castle Rackrent is quite a minor work compared to her longer novels.

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