Silenced Sextet:
Six Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Novelists

by Carrie MacMillan, Lorraine McMullen, Elizabeth Waterston,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0773509453

Sounding Differences:
Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers

by Janice Williamson,
370 pages,
ISBN: 0802027628

Thresholds of Difference

by Emberley,
ISBN: 0802028500

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Vocals by Women
by Jinnean Barnard

SPEAKING WOMEN and silenced women: the three books under review here present new articulations of Canadian women's voices. Like a small-town church choir, the three texts, Thresholds of Difference, Sounding Differences, and Silenced Sextet, can be distinguished respectively as the paid soprano, the harmonizing alto and the "one-noter."

In Thresholds of Difference Julia V Emberley uses literary theory as a tool against itself, prising apart the assumptions of what have become institutionalized practices. In describing this book, I find myself reproducing the style of language that makes it demanding. The words "plain" and "simple" are not in Emberley's vocabulary. This is a complex, scholarly book for readers comfortable with the language of literary theory. However, "deconstructive" techniques, such as slashes through words and bracketing of letters in words to produce dual meanings, are already (over) done, and more often obscure interpretation rather than enhance it.

Thresholds of Difference is particularly focused on how the effects of specific situations upon specific women are glossed over or made similar by the "isms" of postcolonial discourse and feminist discourse. Analysing the critical and fictional writings of the Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi, Emberley shows how feminism's attempt to create a feminism of "all" women universalizes women's oppression. Emberley writes that the result of disregard for differences, such as those based on class or race, is that

Bourgeois feminists render labouring women or women who are economically dispossessed invisible by claiming their (bourgeois) victimage and interests as "all" women's under a class-blind notion of patriarchy.

Emberley next turns to the writings of Canadian Native women, who, she suggests, are insurgents "working within the circumstances with which history has confronted them." They are examples of hybridity and resistance to the universalizing practices of bourgeois feminists. Emberley's combination of theory and analytical practice, impressive throughout the book, is particularly insightful in "readings" of passages from works by Maria Campbell, Beatrice Culleton, and other Native women authors.

"Difference" is a concern of Janice Williamson's Sounding Differences too, as its title suggests. In an interview with Betsy Warland and Daphne Marlatt on the subject of collaborative writing, Williamson asks: "How do you maintain strength in the particularity of the voice, as well as elaborate a sharing? In collaborative work, do you fear losing the distinctiveness of voice?" If Williamson has her own book in mind when she poses this question, she needn't worry. Sounding Differences is very much a collaborative work in which Williamson's voice and the voices of her interview subjects maintain their uniqueness, but also blend in shared themes and concerns. The effectiveness of Williamson's interviewing style is largely due to "sounding" out her own position as "White feminist academic," with its inherent privileges. Williamson's forthright presentation elicits a similar candour from her interviewees. The resulting exchanges are lively and thought-provoking. Di Brandt, for example, raises questions similar to those addressed in Emberley's Thresholds of Difference, saying:

In the feminist writing community in Canada ... you could say there's a correct feminist language developing; we read the same critics and there's a correct text. I'm not sure if it's less prescriptive than my old Mennonite community.

The inclusion of the authors' photographs and excerpts from their work further emphasizes their uniqueness, as does their discussion of race and sexual preference and its relation to their writing. This book goes a long way toward helping Canadian women to understand each other.

The front cover of Silenced Sextet is highly suggestive. It depicts a piece of paper patterned in the style of the well-known Victorian wallpaper designer William Morris. The green and black arrangement of entwined tendrils, flowers, and berries is abruptly ripped, and the jagged white edges of the paper are set off against a black space in which the book's title appears. The cover thus alludes to the disappearance of both the women novelists and their books. I also sense an echo of Charlotte Gilman Perkins's short story of patriarchal oppression and female frustration, "The Yellow Wallpaper." While as allusive as its design, Silenced Sextet does not fulfil the expectations its cover raises.

Carrie MacMillan, Lorraine McMullen, and Elizabeth Waterston investigate the lives and texts of the Canadian women novelists Rosanna Mullins Leprohon, May Agnes Fleming, Margaret Murray Robertson, Susan Frances Harrison, Margaret Marshall Saunders, and Joanna E. Wood. Each, in her time, was a highly successful and popular writer. In fact most were more successful and popular than their male contemporaries -men whose books are still in print today, while those of the women are not. Silenced Sextet proposes to "re-examine" the lives of the six novelists, "to tally their literary achievements, and to explore some of the causes of the disregard of their work by critics in succeeding generations."

The resulting investigation is best described by D.O. Spettigue, who writes that "The essays represent valid bioliterary research and sympathetic interpretation." What the essays lack, I think, is a critical analysis of the texts. The authors raise interesting ideas: that women "were under particular pressure to devise indirections of expression," for example, and that unusual women characters "serve as a release for rebellious impulses." These tactics, as well as the novelists' subversive use of the romance genre, need to be elaborated upon. (The authors' repeated use of phrases such as "one wonders if 'and "one can speculate that" suggests that there are many areas for further research and analysis.)

Unfortunately, the essays in Silenced Sextet are largely plot summaries. On one hand, the frustration engendered by the summaries serves to underline the authors' point - if you wanted to read the books by the "sextet," you couldn't because (for the most part) they aren't in print. On the other hand, plot summaries are - well - plot summaries. Silenced Sextet should, however, prove useful to those interested in discovering the significant themes in 19th-century Canadian women's writing, and could well provide a jumping-off point for further research.


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