Susan Staves on Women’s Writing and the Novel (SCSECS ’07)

Another highlight of the weekend was the set of plenary addresses arranged to honor the 25th anniversary of the journal, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, featuring Susan Staves, Maram Epstein, and Carla Mulford.  Though all three talks were good, I thought that Staves’s talk would provide some interesting matter for further discussion here.

Staves did a very nice job in her talk distinguishing between the history of women’s writing and the history of the female novelist in her plea for further research on women’s writing in non-fictional genres.  This talk was clearly a spinoff of the long-term work she has done in feminist literary history, not just in her own studies, but in her powerful overview of the field, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789 (Cambridge, 2007).

What I found most interesting about Staves’s talk was her claim that it was women’s non-fiction, not fiction, that contained the least ideologically determined representations of women.  The female characters in the novels will resemble the characters in the conduct books, but the products of feminine experience found in diaries, memoirs, essays, histories, etc., will necessarily contain more complicated representations, and more realistic examples of how women worked within and against contemporary codes of conduct and decorum.  [this is all from memory, but I think I’m doing justice to SS’s points here]

This seems plausible to me, insofar as I’ve always wondered about how resolve the tensions between the prescriptive, conduct book images of femininity and the related though not identical images offered in both the novel and social history.  Bringing the non-fictional genres of women’s writing to bear upon this question seems like a good way to approach this problem.

But to do this, we need to start taking not-quite-literary genres like the periodical essay or the familiar letter much more seriously than we have in the past, and stop isolating the novel from other, concurrent genres.  Any sign that we might follow Susan Staves’s excellent advice?



4 responses to “Susan Staves on Women’s Writing and the Novel (SCSECS ’07)

  1. Kirstin Wilcox


    Thanks for filling us in about this talk. As it happens, I am eagerly waiting for my copy of Staves’s new book to wend its way to me through the library network.

    My immediate response is, “Preach on, Sister Susan!” Her approach, as you gloss it, sounds absolutely right. It occurs to me, though, that you don’t have to reach into nonliterary (or borderline) genres in order to complicate the representations of women that emerge from novels (and according to the blurbs I’ve seen about the book, Staves does discuss poetry and plays as well as nonfiction prose). Poetry has been a woefully underutilized resource for understanding C18 women (both real once-living women and literary/ideological representations of them), given the sheer numbers involved. Many, many, many more women were able to write (and publish and obtain a public voice through…) poetry than through novels–and yet much scholarship about gender in the C18 treats novels as the definitive discourse on these matters.


  2. Dear Dave,

    Thank you for the comment and description. This past year I did two conferences papers on Anne Halkett where I dealt with women’s memoirs. I’ve been interested in women’s life-writings for quite a while, and I agree with Staves’s that breaking away from the novel allows women to break stereotypes.

    The reason for this is the courtship marriage plot-design and more or lessly other shaped plot-designs stifle aspects of real life outside stereotypes from coming through. Letters, memoirs, autobiographies — all allow a story to emerge which follows a real life and stories control what we can know of characters.


  3. Ellen,

    I agree. Life-writing seems to be particularly important genre for the canon-revisions we’ve been doing in lit crit, and I’m spending a lot of time thinking about its value for historical writing, as well.

    This may sound heretical, but I feel this way about a lot of contemporary literary fiction–that even their exotic characters, situations and backdrops feel labored in comparison with the materials in contemporary memoir etc. [not that memoirs can’t be labored, artificial, etc.]

    Apparently others share my view, with the appearance of categories like ‘creative non-fiction’ on the shelves and in CW programs. And I think last year was the first in which non-fiction outsold fiction in American publishing.


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