No Happy Woman Ever Writes

May 22nd, 2009

I’ve been sort of fascinated by the career of pioneering feminist literary theorist Elaine Showalter (born 1941) ever since I noticed a few years back that this former head of the Princeton English department was writing 300-word book reviews in People magazine. I remember thinking, WTF? Is this the same woman? I wasn’t sure if the career move betrayed pennilessness or porousness.

I think I answered my own question when I read the review of Showalter’s new book, “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx”–the first comprehensive overview of American women writers from the Puritans to the (almost) present–by Sarah Churchill in the Guardian. Churchill cavils with some of Showalter’s nix and pix (Showalter gives the nod to Margaret Mitchell, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Annie Proulx, and Jodi Picoult, but not to Edna Ferber, Anita Loos, Hortense Calisher, Paula Fox, Gayl Jones, Curtis Sittenfeld, or Claire Messud.)

But, more tellingly, Churchill applauds Showalter for delineating the difference between the pressures that American women writers have faced from those their European brethren have: “in America, middle-class women were expected to engage full-time in domestic duties even if they could afford help. But from the revolutionary era forward, most American women were driven to write by the mundane pressures of ne’er-do-well or absent husbands: as Fanny Hall put it in her bestselling 1855 novel Ruth Hall, about a woman forced to earn a living while her husband dies: ‘No happy woman ever writes.'”

And then, towards the end of the review, we learn that Churchill (the book’s reviewer)  was Showalter’s (the book’s author) student at Princeton, where the latter gave the former the most influential piece of professional advice she’s ever received: “Write to get paid.”

To which this reader appended, “…especially in publications that traffick in celebrity gastric bypass.”