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Is There a Gender to this Text?Laura L. Runge, Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism, 1660-1790. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-521-57009-3. Price: £37.50 (US$59.95).

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe

…plus d’informations

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe
    University of Sheffield

Corps de l’article

In Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism, Laura Runge sets out to investigate the nuances of gender that inflect and inform the new field of literary criticism in the eighteenth century. She draws together a multiplicity of sources, familiar and new, to show that the language of social/sexual identity infiltrates the supposedly 'disinterested' texts of critics, and she complicates the notions of objectivity, universality, and literary value upon which much criticism was predicated in the long eighteenth century. Runge is alert to the changes literary discourse and gender assumptions undergo over the time period covered by her book, and she is alive to the resonances of diction; Gender and Language is consistently complex in its approach to texts. As she notes in Chapter One, 'Manly words on Mount Parnassus', '[b]y assigning gendered terms to otherwise neuter entities [manliness, effeminacy, beauty, etc], criticism places these things in masculine and feminine realms, but it also changes the valence of meaning for these words and superimposes the cultural values associated with gender' (11). This sentence exemplifies Runge's methodology: she approaches her topic from both sides, investigating the ramifications of gendered language as well as those of the language of gender. Gender and Language thus provides clear definitions, enabling the reader to learn from its argument rather than merely read by rote.

Runge 'adopts the rhetoric' (15) of Bahktin in order to empower and legitimate the more marginal voices in her study, and to undermine the complacency of a tradition that still all too often relies on assumptions of transcendent 'worth', 'value' and 'quality'. By showing how closely such assumptions rely on unexamined concepts of gender, she facilitates the unpicking of the hegemonic waft; but she avoids the trap of merely substituting one monolith of value for another. Instead, she approaches critical texts attentively and, dare I say it, objectively (interestingly, this is one of the few unexamined assumptions in the book: that somehow critical objectivity is possible, once the critic acknowledges its impossibility). In Chapter One, she 'identifies the parameters' (17) of her arguments, setting out one of its most important configurations: '[b]ecause distinctions of gender often serve as the organizing principles in the prescription of literature, the constitution of the literary subject in criticism forms a significant part of this study' (18). Touching on Dryden, Pope, Wollstonecraft, Astell, and others, this chapter sets the tone for the book as a whole: assured, confident, and very readable.

Chapter Two, 'Dryden's gendered balance and the Augustan ideal', discusses these two heavyweights of eighteenth-century culture. Runge fuses close reading with a culturally-aware approach that reveals the gender implications both of Dryden's critical style and of his representation by others. She shows that Dryden's use of gendered terminology 'attests to the understanding of gender as a role, as a sign indicating specific characteristics that are not restricted to biological sex' (46), an important observation and one that opens up the possibility of gender manipulation on the part of eighteenth-century writers. She is convincing and nonpolemical: her tone is understated, which adds to its force rather than detracting. Even as she exposes the politicised underpinnings of criticism that trumpets its objectivity, she utilizes its stylistics, but admirably so: her examples are appropriate, her evidence full. In Chapter Three, 'Paternity and regulation in the feminine novel', she examines 'the "fact" of the novel's femininity' (81), interrogating the conclusion that the genre is gendered, and recognises that many 'traditional' literary standards are deeply inflected by gendered assumptions of worth; in other words, tradition is as much a code as gender. This allows for an intriguing discussion of the gallantry that underlies critical apparati; chivalry thus acts to regulate sexual boundaries and 'registers the novel as the site of female sexuality[;] following patriarchal models, it codifies the male authority to create, sell, or police the text .... The inferiority of the novel, in the larger literary landscape, and its femininity become dialogically reinforcing, as the critical discourse defines the genre through ... gendered strategies' (99, 119). In both these chapters, Runge shows considerable skill at teasing out subtext.

This skill is also evident in Chapter Five, 'Returning to the beautiful', which treats the beautiful as the neglected aesthetic (Runge's book was published before Robert Jones's recent study of the culture of the beautiful in the eighteenth century) and reads it, interestingly, as a 'discourse of control', balancing and in that way regulating the masculine sublime. It is only in Chapter Four, 'Aristotle's sisters: Behn, Lennox, Fielding, and Reeve', that Runge seems less able in her handling of texts. Perhaps because her main focus is on non-fiction prose, when she reads more fictive texts there are some problems. Particularly with Behn and Reeve, she seems to read too straightforwardly, missing the point of, say, Behn's ironic, satirical tone, and conflating Reeve's characters in The Progress of Romance with Reeve herself. This becomes a real problem when a quotation from the character Euphrasia is attributed directly to Reeve without any discussion of persona, and when Hortensius, the male opponent to Euphrasia, is first presented as a 'projection' of Reeve, and a few sentences described as a character wholly separate from the author. This kind of conflation overreads Reeve's conformity to standards of gender, and disallows the strategies of displacement and storytelling that fictive writing encourages.

On the whole, however, Gender and Language is an excellent book. Thorough, intelligent, and well-written, it forces a recognition of how deeply gender implicates the most (seemingly) benign of texts. It also performs the invaluable service of questioning the continuing critical reliance on inherited notions of value and quality by pointing out the cultural influences that affected their original formulations. In Gender and Language, Runge shows that while the answer to the question heading this review is invariably 'yes', the route by which we arrive requires careful, aware, and thoughtful negotiation, all of which she demonstrates.