A love of lit­er­ary ladies

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

RE­VIEWED BY SO­PHIE LEWIS

THIS BOOK ABOUT“the wo­man’s novel 191439” is not a work of aca­demic crit­i­cism, al­though it is braced by ex­em­plary in­dexes and ref­er­ences. It is a work of deep in­ter­est verg­ing on ob­ses­sion — with the lives and self-ex­pres­sion of un­fash­ion­able women in an un­fash­ion­able pe­riod.

Beau­man fo­cuses on the nov­els of mid­dle-class women (work­ing-class women hadn’t the time to write, while the up­per classes had still some ves­tige of the un­con­strained lives oth­ers could only dream about).

She ad­dresses fem­i­nism as a con­tem­po­rary in­flu­ence but ap­proaches her project with a re­fresh­ingly un­aligned, cel­e­bra­tory agenda.

From late-Vic­to­rian times to the verge of the 1940s, Beau­man re­peat­edly shows the painfully slow openingup of women’s in­de­pen­dence and per­sonal de­sires. In ad­di­tion to fem­i­nism, her themes in­clude war, psy­cho­anal­y­sis, sex, ro­mance (ie low­brow nov­els) — a chap­ter with far more sex in it than the pre­ced­ing one — as well as the im­por­tant cir­cum­stan­tial themes of do­mes­tic­ity and pop­u­la­tion im­bal­ance, which bur­dened so many women with un­ful­filled lives.

Joy­ful dis­cov­er­ies in­clude writ­ers Cicely Hamil­ton, EM De­lafield and May Sin­clair, whose nov­els show flashes of vi­vac­ity in Beau­man’s sym­pa­thetic re-tellings and ex­tracts. Mixed in among th­ese forgotten tal­ents are the re­as­sur­ingly canon­i­cal: Vir­ginia Woolf is a pre­sid­ing spirit, Kather­ine Mansfield and Vera Brit­tain make ap­pear­ances. There are also the dread­ful. Beau­man is not afraid to nail the sug­ary, sen­sa­tion­al­ist or just plain bor­ing. And HG Wells, EM Forster and DH Lawrence pro­vide male coun­ter­point to the fe­male per­spec­tive.

Much of this lit­er­a­ture has dated badly. Yet Beau­man’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of it is in­fec­tious. First pub­lished in 1983 by Vi­rago, her work re­mains fas­ci­nat­ing and in­for­ma­tive. More­over, Beau­man has fol­lowed her own ad­vo­cacy by go­ing on to pub­lish her favourite writ­ers in her own im­print, Perse­phone Books, this book’s nat­u­ral home. So­phie Lewis is a writer, trans­la­tor and ed­i­tor

Oiled cogs of imag­i­na­tion

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