Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature

  • By Anna Beer
  • Oneworld Publications
  • 304 pp.

Declaring women’s rightful place in the canon.

Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature

In her alternative history of English literature, Eve Bites Back, cultural historian and biographer Anna Beer takes up arms against the patriarchy. She focuses on eight white women born in England between 1400 and 1900. These writers fought against the constraints of gender stereotypes and Eve/Virgin Mary archetypes. They wrote as they did because their sense of selfhood depended upon it.

Beer presents them chronologically, with each essay devoted to an individual author, except for the first. That one concerns Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, two devotional writers from the early 1400s. Kempe was a survivor, writing her pilgrimage travelogue at a time when possessing a single Bible verse in English was punishable by death. Julian, on the other hand, wrote from an anchorhold — a doorless, enclosed cell in a church. In her Revelations of Divine Love, she defied convention by writing for a female readership and by conceiving of God as mother as well as father.

The next essay is about Aemilia Lanyer, the illegitimate daughter of an Elizabethan court musician, who was subsequently educated by Katheryn Parr. She was the first woman to seek status as a professional author. She also wrote for women. Her poem “Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum,” now considered an important Renaissance text, re-imagines Genesis in Eve’s defense. Eve might’ve eaten the apple, but Jesus was betrayed by men.

Unfortunately, when we get to the essay on Anne Bradstreet, Eve begins to lose her bite. Perhaps Beer wrote this chapter to maintain a steady chronology. But I don’t see how Bradstreet fits the book’s premise. In fact, Beer suggests that Bradstreet’s poetry might have been published — with the help of her father, husband, and brother-in-law — to counter the scandalous behavior of her sister Sarah, a London preacher. “Why should Bradstreet do our feminist heavy lifting,” Beer asks. To which I reply, tell us more about Sarah!

The essay ends by asking us to think about Bradstreet’s “tendentious take on history, her blindness to the colonized and her silences where we might have hoped for words.” We know very little about Bradstreet to begin with. It’s therefore unsurprising that this essay has the least to offer Beer’s central theme.

In contrast, an enormous amount has already been written about Jane Austen, and the essay on her offers little that’s new. Beer does have an interesting take on The Watsons, however, a satirical commentary about women’s economic dependency that Austen never finished.

Beer’s research is extensive and meticulous, and she packs an awful lot of it in. But the result is that some essays, such as the one on Mary Wortley Montegu, could have been expanded into more than one chapter, while others feel padded with extraneous detail.

There’s also an occasional mismatch between the seriousness of the scholarship and the rather jaunty tone of the writing. It’s certainly hard to square the circle when you’re trying to appeal to a general audience. Beer reminds me a little of Rachel Maddow, who is sometimes a bit too brisk and chummy in her effort to communicate vast amounts of data without boring the masses.

Mind you, Beer knows all too well that the desire to be liked and not to come across as self-important is one of the pitfalls of the highly intelligent, educated woman. She describes Montegu in just such a way, imagining her to be like Vice President Kamala Harris, smiling too much because her “desire to please is also rooted in her sex.”

Having said that, the chapter on Montegu is by far the richest and most exuberant. Montegu was married to a diplomat, traveled to the Ottoman Empire, learned Turkish, and wrote voluminous letters and travelogues, none of which were published in her lifetime. “She writes of wolves and fashions, war and pheasants. Trivial social bitching jostled with earnest philosophical analysis,” explains Beer. She was, the author contends, “setting herself up in explicit competition with the male literary establishment, past and present.”

That we know about Montegu at all is owed to a trip she took to Rotterdam in her 70s, while dying of cancer. There, she handed over her papers to an evangelical Presbyterian minister for safekeeping. They were published after her death in 1763 and “still have the power to charm but also provoke outrage.” Beer admits that she can’t do Montegu’s life justice in one short chapter. I only wish she’d write a whole book about this woman.

Likewise, her essays on Aphra Behn and Mary Elizabeth Braddon could have been expanded; she is clearly deeply invested in establishing their literary reputations. Both women were unorthodox, wrote prolifically for money, and found their audiences. They were determined to write even though to do so as they did was akin to prostitution back then. By any standard, Behn and Braddon were enormously successful.

It’s a little surprising, then, that in writing about them, Beer begins to lose heart. She speaks about lost lives. They were misunderstood and not taken seriously. “It seems that selling a lot of books was not enough.” The fact that we haven’t been discussing the work of Braddon for the last 150 years is, she says, “one of the sadnesses driving this book.”

But dismantling the patriarchy can’t be done alone, and all of these authors found male allies to get their work into print. Kempe had scribes; Austen and Bradstreet had fathers and brothers (and, in Bradstreet’s case, a husband) to champion them; Braddon had the support of her husband and publisher.

“Eve is not biting back,” Beer writes rather wistfully toward the end, “she just wants a break from being Eve.” Don’t we all want a break from gender stereotypes? They are as harmful to men as they are to women. But surely things are looking up. One can hardly find an author more celebrated than Austen. Lanyer’s work, as well as that of Kempe and Julian, has found its way into college curricula. With the help of books like Eve Bites Back, I expect that trend will continue.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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