Aspects of the Production and Reception of Female Writers in an International Context

Review by Irmgard Heidler

Suzan van Dijk, Lia van Gemert, Sheila Ottway (Hg.):

Writing the history of women’s writing.

Toward an international approach.

Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences 2001.

276 Seiten, ISBN 90–6984–293–9, € 43,00

This collection contains 20 essays on female authorship between the 16th and the beginnings of first feminist movements in different European countries in the 19th century. The essays also address the question of how the historiography of women’s literature ought to be approached (cf. p. x).

The essays are the proceedings of a 1998 colloquium for feminist literary studies whose participants came in equal numbers from the Netherlands and Belgium as well as from North America, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, and Hungary. The essays differ in terms of their place in scholarship, in part reflecting the differences in women’s literary production in the countries represented. Despite these differences, participants were able to interchange ideas on a series of issues, and to plead to continue engaging in comparative studies in the future. The colloquium centered around a large-scale Dutch research project of an anthology, Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550–1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar[1] “With and without laurels” introduces approximately 160 mostly unknown authors to a wide audience. The prominent placement of Dutch and Flemish women’s literary history in this collection is the result of a concerted effort to introduce the work of authors who have been marginalized due to their writing in non-dominant languages (unlike, say, writers of dominant languages like English and German or French).

In-depth portraits of five Dutch women writers (representing religious texts, neo-classicist texts, and novels) as well as of one Flemish poet, together with translations into French, English, or German serve as an introduction to the volume. In her preface, Suzan van Dijk offers guidelines to understanding the heterogenous methodologies and their problems, empirical research and different schools of thought by grouping the essays in three groups. The first group, “The history of women’s writing,” talks about different approaches in the histiography of women’s writing. “Broader approaches in women’s literary historiography” introduces more overarching concepts in the history of studying women’s literature. The essays range from taking stock of women’s literature to systematic research on the life and work of relatively unknown women authors, the conditions of their writing and the way in which their work has been presented to discussing feminist literary criticism, talking about issues of authorship (cf. Louise Schleiner’s “sujet de l’énonciation”) and text. The index at the end of the collection is very useful for finding information on specific topics and issues.

It might be of interest to note that some of the later forgotten women authors outdid their contemporary male colleagues in terms of fame. Boursier traces the direct link between non-conformity and exclusion from the history of French literature by using 17th and 18th century French women writers Madame de Villedieu and Madame de Graffigny (cf. p. 164). Often, women authors are only known for select works, not for their collected works, especially if some of their works do not conform to standard genres (cf. Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, p. 9).

The authors differ in their stance on qualitative evaluation of literature; most of them favour focusing on the importance of women’s writing for society (this also applies to Met en zonder lauwerkrans). Petra Broomans unearthes criteria of selection such as “novelty” and the “other,” as advocated in the prestigious Scandinavian project, the Nordisk Kvinnolitteraturhistoria (The History of Literature of Scandinavian Women, 1993–1999), as not entirely free of dominant structures. Christine Planté discusses the difficulties associated with defining criteria for selection for an anthology of 19th century French women writers based on the textual qualities of their works. This undertaking resulted in a “deconstruction” of the illusion of a timeless “femininity,” as the author was not able to find any homogeneity in the production of women’s writing of poetry. Planté did, however, find homogeneity in the reception of these works (ranging from irony to resistance) which in term caused similar reactions, coping strategies, and discourses among the women authors (cf. p. 152).

Approaches which examine the conditions of women in writing range from suggestions to increase women’s representation in publishing (which is, by the way, surprisingly high) to questions of positioning of self in relation with exclusive strategies of the literary business on an international scale (cf. Geraldine Sheridan, p. 208, Paul Hoftijzer, p. 220). Gemerts, one of the editors of Met en zonder lauwerkrans, concludes that the sociological and functional approach of many scientists should be endorsed and that the historiography approach in literature ought to be developed further (cf. p. 236). Furthermore, a broader audience would become interested in literature if issues of everyday life were not excluded from the body of work, as it is often the case with non-canonical literature.

Joepp Leerssen concludes in the closing essay of this anthology that the history of literature only gains importance from the intersection of production and reception by women and men. He claims that a synopsis of literary reception, of processes of reading and reception as well as stereotypes is needed (cf. p. 256). One way of doing so might be a new Dutch research project that deals with “Women authors and their reception, 1700–1880.” Its researchers argue that contemporary reactions to women’s writing offer an oversight over the effects of women’s writing (after all, there has always been a time lag between women’s writing and their disappearance from literary history).


[1]: Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, Karel Porteman, Piet Couttenier, Lia van Gemert (Hg.), Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.

URN urn:nbn:de:0114-qn032044

Dr. Irmgard Heidler



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