The Woman Reader

Tessa Hadley writes:

Is there such a thing as ‘the woman reader’ – as a category, that is, suitable for study? ‘Readers’ constitute a real category, and ‘women’ do. But Belinda Jack believes that reading women are a sisterhood under the fancy dress. For her ‘history of women’s reading’ she has assembled potted biographies of women readers and writers through the ages. She presents them as ‘colourful examples of women who were not prepared to toe the line’, who were ‘distinctively feminine’, desperately in need of ‘free expression’, often critical of the ‘male aggression’ they read about, and keen to refute ‘aspects of’ tradition. She wants, in other words, for them all to be fighting for the same thing. She begins with Enheduanna, a king’s daughter and priestess in Sumer in the third millennium BCE and perhaps the first poet, male or female, known to have her name attached to her work. Her goddess Inanna, queen of heaven, is magnificently ferocious: ‘In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint.’ What does Enheduanna have in common with Hrotsvit, a noblewoman and poet writing lives of the saints in Latin in tenth-century Saxony? Hrotsvit hopes that ‘the Giver of my talent all the more be justly praised through me, the more limited the female intellect is believed to be.’ No doubt the self-deprecation is mostly literary convention, but it feels a long way from crushing flint with teeth.

(LRB 26 September 2013)

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