Friday, 22 October 2010

The Female Repertoire

Further to my suggestion in English Literature: A Very Short Introduction that 'repertoire' is a more valuable term than 'canon', I have been asked to reflect on whether or not the shift of terminology has any bearing on the debate about the gendering of the canon. For a generation, feminists have been arguing that the canon as traditionally received is predominantly male. 'Canon' is a term that comes from Biblical criticism. It might be said that, just as the books of the Bible are predominantly male-voiced, with a few exceptions such as the Books of Ruth and Esther, so the canon is predominantly male, with a few exceptions such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes. What is more, Eliot and the Brontes wrote under male pseudonyms and Austen published anonymously. The assault on the canon is associated with the term "dead white European males." In my Guardian column linking the VSI to Michael Gove's remarks about the teaching of classic literary texts in schools, I defended the value of the dead and suggested that the literary repertoire of these islands has always been ethnically highly diverse, as witnessed by the fact that the earliest identifiable author in the tradition could variously be argued to be a Celt (Ossian), a Roman (Julius Caesar) or an Anglo-Saxon (Caedmon). This provoked the response: if these are the fathers of English Literature, who is the mother?

The answer that the book offers to this question is: a variety of female religious writers from the post-1066 era, for example the author of the 13th century Ancrene Wisse. I am not aware of any identifiable pre-1066 female authors, but I'd love to hear about them. The book also proposes that the study of English Literature has been in some sense limited by our tendency to think only about literature in the English language. Thus it suggests that the honour of being the first English poet to have their works collected in a quasi-scholarly edition, with commentary, in the manner of editions of the classics of ancient Greek and Rome, belongs to a woman, Elizabeth Jane Weston, but that she has been neglected not because she was a woman but because she wrote in Latin and lived for much of her life in Prague.

I introduce the term "repertoire" by analogy with the theatrical repertoire, which is something much more fluid than a "canon." One of the things that struck me in doing the research for the book was how the eighteenth-century repertoire gave much more space to women dramatists than the nineteenth: I'd like to know more about exactly when and why those fine dramatists Susanna Centlivre and Hannah Cowley dropped out of the repertoire.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan
    Just found your blog and will follow avidly. I am freelance now, it's great, am loving it and have a new children's book of poetry out from Salt, with a chapbook coming in January from them.
    Did you know Matt Simpson had died? Last June (2009). I miss him dreadfully. We had such fun when we visited you. Hope all is flourishing your end. Am writing a monograph on John Clare for Greenwich Exchange and finding your biog so helpful.