Friday, October 30, 2009

Gender, Professions and Discourse: Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Autobiography.

By Christine Etherington-Wright.

London: Palgrave Macmillan, January 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-230-21992-2, $80.00. 248 pages.

Review by Suanna H. Davis, Lone Star College, Texas

Christine Etherington-Wright examines autobiographies of British women from the 1900s to the 1920s. The author also writes of her search for meaning within the texts she studied, and her exploration of the autobiographies becomes a narrative of her own evolving theories on cultural history. It is a relational articulation of knowledge, which helps make the book more approachable. The vacillation between the scholarly objectivity and personal impulses fits well with her discussion of different styles of writing appearing within the autobiographies, with the changes apparently based on the subject matter.

Gender, Professions and Discourse discusses the autobiographies in two ways, by profession and theme. The professions are headmistresses, doctors, nurses, artists and performers (dancers, actors), and writers. The book details significant aspects of the autobiographies for each group. For example, Etherington-Wright found that the autobiographies of headmistresses used religious metaphors, while those of the doctors used metaphors from fairytales. Each chapter weaves together various threads of theories, uniting disparate fields and approaches. Within the chapter on doctors, for example, she calls upon numerous disciplines for explication, from Zipes on fairytales to Dworkin on woman-hating, from the history of children’s literature to discussions of social semiotics.

In the theme section, Gender, Professions and Discourse develops theories on frontpiece images, beginning materials, silences, and questions of identity and memory. In the beginning discussion within theme, the author describes the photographs used by different autobiographers as frontpieces; these ranged from studio portraits in the “girl child as angel” genre to an amateur snapshot of the author with a tennis racket and a mantling pigeon. The discussion of silences integrates theories of autobiography, representation, language, reader response, and sexuality to argue persuasively that the textual gaps within the autobiographies offer additional insight into the women who wrote them and the contexts in which they were written.

Etherington-White suggests that the autobiographies of representative women who were resistant to the dominant patriarchal culture, but who were not extreme, offer a unique insight into the era. She presents the idea that the individual voices in the autobiographies can be united in styles of writing, approaches to various subjects, and how they deal with or ignore various topics. They can amplify the female voice and mentality of the era so that modern readers can hear and understand it.

The book is partially an attempt to fill in the gaps left by historians who examine cultural artifacts, such as newspaper articles, and focus on the exceptional rather than the more normal. The author says that autobiographies contribute to the histoire de mentalités. She also says that autobiographies, being a masculine mode created and dominated by men, created expectations that women both acceded to and rejected; clearly a study of the ways in which they did both would help scholars to understand the viewpoint being expressed from these choices. In this attempt she joins many others, more and less successful, who have sought to identify and isolate the feminine for intellectual inquiry.

A variety of theories and theorists are quilted together to inform an understanding of the texts Etherington-Wright examines. Previous exposure to the theories is useful, but not necessary. The unique application of pieces of theories may be problematic. How can a particular part of a theory be relevant while the rest is not? However, if she is putting together a new theory, based on working models, then this is a legitimate exercise.

Within the book, Etherington-Wright says that the autobiographies she has chosen are representative rather than extreme. However, the methodology and criteria for determining this are not included. A chapter detailing parts of the decision-making process would have been useful on two levels. First, it would have allowed the reader to determine whether or not those decisions were reasonable. The representativeness is part of the issue in identifying the works as the voice of a generation of forward-thinking women. Decisions were made in silence, leaving textual gaps in the work that force the reader to accept or reject the arguments in the book without understanding their genesis. Second, a heuristic of her process would allow her work to be more effectively followed up or expanded.

Two other significantly lesser problems are distractions within the work. First, the author uses [sic] frequently, even when there is nothing wrong with the quotation. This could be a result of modern editing which cleared up the errors through a word processing program without recognizing the quotations or it might be a result of different word choices in British English. Second, while Etherington-Wright limits her discussions, she sometimes limits them only partially. The first instance of this is in the chapter on women writers where she prepares to discuss four authors, organizing them through the type of publications they produced. However, within the discussion she actually examines five, without placing her work contextually. The second instance is in the explication of the frontpiece images. The book includes six photographs for discussion, but Etherington-Wright actually discusses seven. This seventh is an actress who is included within the index, but she is not, in fact, mentioned anywhere else in the book.

Etherington-Wright officially covers 24 autobiographies in 248 pages. The presentations are insightful and fascinating, leading readers to ponder questions outside the scope of the book. An example of this is that the actresses presented were all encouraged to the stage by their fathers, despite the fact that stage work was considered synonymous with loose morality. Were the non-representative actresses also supported by their families? What caused this? How might it be explained?

Scholars working in gender, autobiography, and history, particularly of World War I, will find this book helpful and engaging. Readers in other disciplines will be enchanted with the glimpse into the private worlds of unconventional women of the early twentieth century.

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