MacCarthy's thesis concerning women and the novel is a bold one. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own had imagined a sister for Shakespeare, one just as gifted and profound as William. This woman, Woolf argued, would not have made it to London, where she would in any case have found the theatre a male-only affair both in acting and writing, since she would have been raped and silenced long before she reached the city. To counter this thesis MacCarthy advances a far more positive and daring notion: that women are peculiarly associated with realism and verisimilitude. In which case their long and (relative) silence before the beginnings of the novel resulted not only from their imprisonment in ignorance but from their indifference to the dominant genres of men: the heroic epic, the saga or pastoral. Shakespeare's sister failed to write not only because she was maltreated by men but because she did not much care for her brother's sort of plays. (from the Preface by Janet Todd)
Back in print for the first time since the 1940s, this classic work of pre-feminist literary criticism is a challenging and authoritative assessment of women's contribution to English Literature. When the first volume of The Female Pen appeared in 1945, the absence of 'sex-antagonism' was noted by the TLS and its originality and scholarship praised. Through her judgments, B.G. MacCarthy succeeded in challenging the dominant picture of masculine literary history created by F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot. Her exploration of early women's writing proved that these women from Lady Mary Wroth to Jane Austen 'can claim to have attempted almost every genre of fiction, to have enriched many, and to have initiated some of the most important'.
Often brilliant and savagely witty, MacCarthy is always ready to infuse her readers with an appreciation and joy of her subject. This one new volume edition is published with an introductory preface by Janet Todd, who describes the historical context of both the work and the author. Anyone who is interested in the development of English Literature, in women's writing and feminist literary criticism, will find much to inform, entertain and to question in The Female Pen.