Women and literary criticism

Kimberly Vanesveld Adams, Elizabethtown College


A discussion of female literary criticism in the nineteenth century could begin with Corinne. This fictional character - ‘poet, writer, improvatrice, and one of the most beautiful women in Rome’ - gives a British lord a course in literary and artistic analysis as she leads him on a tour of the city. Corinne, for instance, contrasts the graceful lightness of the Pantheon with the detailed massiveness of St Peter's, and then suggests an analogy to literature: ‘In like fashion, classic poetry sketched in the overall picture alone, leaving it to the listener's thoughts to fill in the gaps; in every genre, we moderns say too much.’ Corinne's creator, the French aristocrat Germaine Necker de Staël (1766-1817), was similarly a writer of international glamour, honoured in Italy for her accomplishments, and hated and exiled by an emperor, Napoleon. De Staël grew up among Enlightenment thinkers at her mother Suzanne's salon, and her major works On Literature (1800) and On Germany (1813) were a product of the Enlightenment in their encyclopedic scope. In On Literature, for example, she explored the impact of landscape, government, religion and customs on European literature, and developed a contrast between Southern and Northern literary productions. But de Staël was educated according to the precepts of Rousseau. In works such as ‘Essay on Fictions’ (1795), she helped to shape early Romanticism with her emphasis on individual judgement and the feelings, the historically conditioned nature of taste, and medieval and national literatures. De Staël's literary criticism also adumbrated the concerns of the Victorians. In ‘Essay on Fictions’, she defended the modern genre of the novel, claiming that it appeals to the imagination, the most important human quality, and to the emotions; hence it can teach morality more effectively than philosophy and history can. She moreover contended that Realism - defined as attention to ordinary existence and the interior life - was the most effective narrative mode. Like later critics (e.g., Martineau and Eliot), she found the plethora of love stories tiresome and called for an expanded repertoire of plots to encompass the range of human experience. In On Literature Considered in its Relation to Social Institutions (1800), de Staël addressed the struggles of women writers to be educated and to achieve literary fame: ‘In monarchies, women have ridicule to fear; in republics, hatred.’.