I have been lucky enough to witness several social revolutions in my time. The most obvious is the personal computer; I only regret that it didn’t happen twenty years earlier. But the one that is most important to me personally is the acceptance of women into the literary canons.
Art being the record of human experience, this change did as much as any friendship or relationship to help me understand that women’s experiences were human experience, and therefore were something I needed to know.
When I started studying literature in Grade 12, women were severely under-represented in the works studied in academia. Except for those who might be hidden under the name of Anonymous, the first female writer mentioned was usually Jane Austen. She was too important a novelist to ignore, but for the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth century, women’s representation was limited. Charlotte Bronte was credited with having written one worthwhile novel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had written a collection of soppy sonnets to her husband. Christina Rossetti had written a few children’s poems and minor lyrics. Emily Dickinson was a decided eccentric.
And so it went, with women consistently written out of the literary history whenever possible, and presented as minor if they had to be mentioned at all. Even George Eliot was known for only three novels, one of which, Silas Marner, was taught mainly because it had the virtue of being short enough for undergraduate’s attention spans.
The only exception was contemporary literature, especially science fiction. There, you could find female authors in something close to the percentages that you might expect from random chance, and I read writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree, Jr. (actually, Alice Sheldon) as eagerly as their male peers. But even these pioneers sometimes had little to say about women as women, as Le Guin would come to acknowledge later in her career.
Anyway, there was something daring about asserting the worth of writers who were still living. Somehow, they were not taken with quite the same seriousness as writers in the canon.
By contrast, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, the canon had been drastically revised. In those pre-Internet days, the main reason for this change was the feminist-inspired publication of more female writers, often by small, painfully non-profit imprints.
Suddenly, Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliots were revealed to have had not just the occasional success, but entire writing careers. Other writers were suddenly being talked about – people like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Zora Neale Hurston, and dozens of others.
I viewed this change with a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion. On the one hand, here was enough fresh reading to keep me busy for years (which it has). On the other hand, just what had I been taught?
More importantly, who were these women? As a science fiction reader, I already knew that all worthy works were not contained in the canon, and reading Robert Graves’ literary criticism had taught me that exercising my own judgment on the canon was not only permissible, but necessary for independence of thought.
Yet if these women were any good, then surely I would have been taught something about them. I suspected that the promotion of some of these writers was as much the result of academics creating careers for themselves as it was of negligence. And, aside from the occasional exception for historical reasons, why should I bother with mediocrity?
Gradually, though, I realized I was being unreasonable. How could I possibly learn who was worth reading unless a wide variety of works were available? Besides, while most of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (for example) struck me as uninspired back then, so did that of accepted male members of the canon, such as Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray. If mediocre men were accepted, there was no reason not to accept mediocre women as well. If nothing else, tastes differ, not only between person and also occasions.
At any rate, the newly available work had enough masterpieces to justify the era of rediscovery in general. Without it, I might never have discovered the slippery mind of Aphra Behn, or learned as a non-Christian to appreciate the quirky thoughts of Christina Rossetti. I would have enjoyed Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but not have had Eliot’s other books to put them into context.
Just as importantly, I found myself reading works by women differently once a critical mass of their work became easily available. Being a young man and as egocentric as most young men, I had always read Jane Austen’s novels about courtship and marriage or Jane Eyre‘s story of love and indendence as exceptions – interesting in their own way but somehow trivial compared to the concerns of male writers.
However, discovering dozens of female writers changed my perception. Newly able to place their subject matter in context, I realized that such topics were not exceptions. For a very long time, they were the concerns of half the human race. If I were to be fully human myself, I needed to understand these concerns, and appreciate them – and in a matter of months, I did.
I like to think that ordinary life was leading me to similar conclusions, and perhaps it was. But I think that, without the rewriting of the canon, the process would have taken me years, instead of months. I might not have even been ready for love and marriage when they came my way near the end of my readjustment.
People often talk about how feminism transforms women’s lives. But, if my personal example is any indication, its effect on men’s lives can be just as great. Throughout my life, my outlook has been broader – more mature – because of the simple fact that, when I was in my late teens, suddenly I could read about women’s lives and learn to appreciate them as the material of art.
The lesson remains one of the most valuable ones that I have ever had.