Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism: Reviews
(Cambridge University Press, 1997)
pp. ix, 233; ISBN 0 521 57009 3 (Cloth)
After the summer of 2000 I stopped collecting references to reviews. There are at least three additional reviews available now. I encourage the interested researcher to contact me or dig further on her own.
The Times Literary Supplement "In Brief", January 23, 1998 (Full text).
Laura Runge's study of British literary criticism evaluates concepts of literary value and the language of aesthetics in relation to shifting constructions of gender from John Dryden to Hannah More. The central argument of her book is that literary criticism describes and prescribes culturally dominant ideas concerning masculinity and femininity. Runge argues that it is virtually impossible to understand fully the broader cultural project of literary criticism without reference to historically specific conceptions of gender and changing definitions of male and female social roles. In addition to providing an overview of literary criticism in a period when criticism itself developed as a widespread cultural practice, Runge also aims to 'demystify' the commonplace idea that literary value transcends historical specificity. A major part of her project is, therefore, to put in context the way in which gendered paradigms of knowledge shape notions of literary excellence and to draw attention to the marginalization of women - as writers, critics and readers - within literary theory. For example, she traces a movement from the relatively fluid Restoration use of gendered critical terms by Dryden and Behn - where the masculine heroic, although perceived as superior, can coexist with the feminine lyric --to the increasingly rigid categories exemplified by the strict separation of the masculine sublime from the feminine beautiful. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book, however, concerns women writers as critics rather than objects of criticism. Aphra Behn, Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding and Clara Reeve all employ strategies which are different from those of their male counterparts, but, as Runge stresses, each author responds to the particular critical discourses of his or her own historical moment. Runge's study is informative and accomplished and will serve a wide variety of interests. SP
Naomi Winter (University of Manchester) review in Manuscript, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1998) (Excerpt).
"Runge's ambitious study of gender and literary criticism in the eighteenth century comprises a feminist revision of the history of literary criticism and the institution of "Literature" which it has created….
Fixed gender models are rejected in this work, in favour of an exploration of gendered categories as evolving, unstable semiotic sites. Developing hegemonic concepts of gender are traced from the Restoration period, where sex was figured as a largely social category, with the signifiers 'masculine' and 'feminine' applicable to either biological sex, through to the ontological understanding of sexual difference which emerged later in the eighteenth century. Dominant concepts of the literary are shown to evolve along parallel lines. Dryden, for instance assumed the co-existence of masculine and feminine elements within his verse, whereas the later concept of the 'sublime' was premised on an opposition to the 'feminine' category of the 'beautiful', which was relegated outside of the 'literary' sphere altogether.
Runge's study is refreshing in its refusal to fall into essentialist binary oppositions or artificial homogenisations in its engagement with the complex and shifting gender ideologies of this period. The dialogic theory underlying her model of culture as the site of multi-faceted negotiation and exchange enables her to avoid a totalising perspective of women's oppression or marginalisation….
The mapping of gender ideologies between 1660 and 1790 nevertheless excludes any mention of the sub-cultural organisations who were actively challenging gendered hegemonic structures at this time, notably the radical sectarians, whose negotiation of received sexual models continued well into the eighteenth century. Runge's analysis consequently somewhat reductively implies that resistance to gender norms functioned at the level of the individual woman alone, rather than emerging out of collective (and not necessarily uniquely female) cultural formations.
The 'politics of complexity' (p. 37) which the work claims as its theoretical model is nevertheless productively employed throughout the densely argued, enthusiastic and politically committed work. The discussion opens out into illuminating assessments of the era's shifting constructions of masculinity and femininity, and the text performs vital recovery work in its analysis of 'lost' eighteenth-century female critics. Runge's study is therefore an informative and innovative exploration of the gender and power-inscribed discursive categories which have constructed still-current perceptions and frameworks of literary study."
Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean, from "Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century" SEL 38 (1998), p553-596 (Excerpt).
"Laura L. Runge's object of analysis in Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism, 1660-1790 indicates the distance eighteenth-century studies has come from the necessity of talking about literature at all. Again, the chosen historical range spans the Restoration and late eighteenth century, though the dates seem even more arbitrary than Siskin's or Hammond's (from the Restoration to Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment?). Beginning with Dryden, Behn, and Jonathan Swift makes sense, but why stop at 1790, implicitly with Kant, and then nothing of consequence about Kant? Or why take as exemplary of Hannah More's intervention in aesthetic discourse only her Essays on Various Subjects, Principally Designed for Young Ladies (1777), and not her continuation of it in Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799); alternatively, why discuss Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, since it was published in 1792? Runge's is a sophisticated project, and one only wishes it were a bit more precisely historicized. Not that Runge doesn't deal with recent historians, especially Joan Scott; she follows Scott in appropriating Foucauldian and postructuralist theory for a feminist history in which the categories of masculinity and femininity become as trackable as 'men' and 'women': 'For Scott, gender operates as a 'primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated'' (p. 11). But while insisting on 'the usefulness of gender as powerful discursive category,' Runge is quick to point out, by means of Judith Butler's argument regarding the power of 'resignification,' the need to retain agency (p. 13), in the interests of not demonizing eighteenth-century criticism as 'hopelessly sexist,' or engaging in 'meaningless relativism' (p. 215), but of how revealing criticism and 'literary' value are historically situated and interested (echoes of Donna Haraway).
The book is nicely constructed, moving from Dryden and heroic ideals, through the problematic of construing the 'feminine novel,' the neglected critical contributions of such women writers as Behn, Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding, and Clara Reeve (taking note of why they were or became neglected), and ending with the problematic of gender and aesthetics, the (masculine) sublime and the (feminine) beautiful, in Dryden, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Lord Kames, and More, as well as Peter de Bolla, Terry Eagleton, Mary Poovey, and Frances Ferguson. 'The conflation of gender and aesthetics indicates how the discriminations of gender and literary value work in conjunction to establish cultural norms of behavior consistent with developing capitalist society,' Runge argues, producing 'gendered scripts' (209, 206). The chapter on women critics is particularly fresh and methodologically nuanced, finding the women's critical practices diversely floating free of any essentialized notion of gender, though each engages 'the gendered expectations of the form in which she writes' (p. 167). Runge concludes that although 'we might justly be surprised by these early critical writings by women,' given their consignment to obscurity for some two hundred years, our 'wonder would be more profitably directed toward the forces that originally obscured the texts, which caused little consternation at their debut' (p. 167)."
Fiona Price, University of Durham in Bulletin and Review, for the British Association for Romantic Studies, no. 15 (March 1999), p. 25.(Full text).
"This book is a committed exploration of the way gender and language interact to determine literary value. Its focus is upon the eighteenth century but it provides constant reminders of the way twentieth century literary criticism has been determined by these earlier texts. Perhaps for this reason it contains some often surprisingly lengthy discussions of twentieth-century material. Its author does not, however, make the mistake of straightforwardly equating the mode of critical discourse in the two periods. Rather, by discussing a wide range of published materials, she acknowledges the distance between the diversity of the eighteenth-century market and today's often professionalized and institutionalized criticism.
Runge begins by examining the debate over the construction of literary authority in the eighteenth century. Here she takes the time to outline how various definitions of human nature and formulations of the subject position worked to marginalize the feminine. However, she notes, this marginalization was frequently complicated by the rather different discourse of gallantry. Particular attention is drawn to the change in the signification of gender in the period and its interaction with altering models of criticism, from Augustan to subjective. Her second chapter on Dryden traces the way the complex relation between gender and aesthetics in his poetry is elided by later critics' concentration upon his use of the masculine heroic. Far more interesting than her discussion of later criticism on Dryden, however, is the way in which she proceeds to complicate the literary "fact" of his masculinity. In the light of this complication, she alters an interesting account of Dryden's ambiguity in the ode to Anne Killigrew. This ambiguity, she argues, arises from Dryden's struggle to reconcile the requirements of gallantry with his demand for certain poetic qualities which he associates with the masculine.
Runge also examines the relation between gender and the early status of the novel. Here too the time she spends exploring twentieth-century criticism of the novel and its use of gender is perhaps excessive; more profitable is her analysis of early comments on the novel form found in preface dedications. Particularly interesting is her comparison between the way gallantry is often used protectively in criticism such as Dryden's while being deployed with ambiguity and eroticism within the marginal spaces of the novel.
Runge's lengthy close readings of the texts of a number of female critics are also timely and informative. In many cases, she has deliberately chosen not to isolate them in a tradition of women's writing but to examine them in dialogue with male critics. Only in the fourth chapter does she deal with the work of female critics alone, discussing criticism by Behn, Lennox, Fielding and Reeve. She explains this departure from her stated methodology by suggesting that it facilitates one of her major purposes - to demonstrate the existence of female critics in the eighteenth century. Runge may be right to attempt to hammer home this point; certainly the profile of such writers could hardly be described as high. However, their existence is not so unacknowledged as she seems to want to claim.
In her final chapter 'Returning to the Beautiful" Runge points out the lack of critical attention which has been paid to the beautiful as a discourse of the sublime. Her reading of Burke in this chapter owes much to Frances Ferguson's work on the sublime and the beautiful, but it nevertheless usefully prepares the ground for her insightful discussion of Lord Kames and Hannah More. The reading of More is particularly interesting as Runge refuses to present her as a reactionary, instead demonstrating how the addition of historical context alters her positioning. More may have had an ontological understanding of the difference between the sexes but comparison with Kames shows her much greater anxiety about the usefulness of the masculine sublime.
The scope of Runge's work is impressive but its very range means she is sometimes forced to jump too abruptly from general historical information to textual specifics. However, her reading of female critics alongside their contemporaries is insightful and worthwhile. These close but contextualized readings are the real strength of the work. They ensure that Runge's book makes an important contribution to the discussion of gender and critical discourse."
[While positive, this review does not convey an accurate sense of the book. Tenger does, however, make the valid point that I should have included the work of Margaret Ezell, although I do not agree with her reasoning as to why.]
Jaqueline M. Labbe, University of Sheffield, "Is There a Gender to this Text?: Laura L. Runge, Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism, 1660-1790." in Romanticism on the Net, 15 (August 1999) http://users.ox.ac.uk/~scat0385/runge.html
[This very positive review is highly specific in the strengths and weaknesses of the text. Labbe demonstrates an excellent understanding of the work. This review is definitely worth a look.]
Kirk Combe, Denison University in Notes and Queriesn.s. vol. 46 no. 2 (June 1999): 286-7.(Excerpt).
This book traces the history of significant change in the discourses of gender and literary criticism during the long eighteenth century as those two discourses relate to one another. Runge emphasizes that while a number of studies undertake the separate histories of either gender or criticism during this period, hers is the first substantially to consider these two cultural events "each as a component language of the other'(26). She contends that the 'discourse of gender informs, shapes, and, in part, enables early British literary judgment' (3). Neither changes in literary values nor shifting cultural designations of masculinity and femininity can be properly understood without reference to the other. Runge sees both discourses vitally engaged in the multiple and intricate practices of patriarchal hegemony and thus at many points thoroughly bound together. Moreover, the purpose of her feminist project to reassess the gendered literary criticism of the eighteenth century is that of allowing us 'to realign standards and reinterpret texts' (13). By providing us with fuller and an interrelated account of gender and critical issues, Runge wants us to re-evaluate what we think we know about early modern British literature, criticism, and society. She succeeds admirably both in her careful contextualization of gender and criticism during the period and in her thoughtful resignification of those discourses.
. . . .
. . . Runge's scrupulous demystification of early modern literature criticism, and society still applies to us today.
[The large part that I have cut is a close summary of the theory, method and organization of the work but it does not offer a critical assessment.]