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This review is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

AUSTEN'S AUNTS Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, (Pandora Press) £14.95

Dale Spender aims to open up the conventional literary canon, establishing the maternity as well as the paternity of the form of the novel. This is a bold enterprise which makes us confront basic aesthetic issues. For a feminist, the problem may be put like this. If, with Dale Spender, we want to make claims for a 'lost tradition' of female writers, are we doing so on the grounds that those novels which have been neglected do in fact conform to existing standards of literary excellence? Or are we saying that they do not - but that this is precisely why existing 'standards of excellence' need to be questioned, and, perhaps, rejected? In this situation most feminists are torn between the need to defend the quality of their discoveries in conventional terms, and a desire to radically redefine the nature of 'literary quality' itself. The second option is attractive in the light of the argument that existing standards are weighted heavily in favour of male interests and values: as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929:


It is probable, however, that both in life and in art the values of a woman are not the values of a man. Thus, when a woman comes to write a novel, she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values - to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important. And for that, of course, she will be criticised; ...


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