“Feminine Writing” in the Past and Present in Romania

Abstract

If we browse through the literary histories, we surprisingly notice that, at least until recent days, women writers are almost absent. What is the cause for such a phenomenon? Is there a feminine literature, or is it rather an invention of the feminists? If there is, is it a literature of the periphery? Is the alleged marginality a sociological problem or one of history of mentalities? Can we define it without making reference to the “masculine” literature? Here are some questions which prove the fact that the problem is a complex one that can hardly be put into strict conceptual frameworks. There are partisans of feminine literature, but there are also sceptics. We are going to try to define the concept reviewing different opinions that have been expressed starting with the beginning of the 20th century, when the first women writers made their presence known, until the present days, when the phenomenon of feminine literature became a very well-known one in the literary field. Abandoning the dichotomy masculinefeminine or even the lack of differentiation, ideas that were manifested in the writing field too, become a symptom of modernity. Confronted with the perspective of absolute equality, but also with her desire to still be a woman, the “female writer” must face the new challenges of today’s world.

Keywords: Detractorsfeminine writingfeminization of literaturepartisanstheory

Introduction

If we look at the pastwe notice thatmost of the timesmen have held the supremacy in the realm of

letters, while women have always remained in their shadow, practicing their anonymity as mere

puppets on the literary stage. There were and maybe there still are many stereotypes on this topic, such

as the one stating that “feminine” literature is a sweetened, soppy, sentimental one, with a great amount

of subjectivity, emotion and lyricism. Feminine literature has often been placed under the sign of

marginality and sometimes even mediocrity. What is the truth? Is there a “feminine” literature? The

present article is the result of such interrogations and we will try to provide answers for them by

analyzing the various points of view expressed on different occasions, over time.

The first debates. Viața Românească (Iași, 1906-1916)

The first debates on the existence of a typically feminine literature or type of writing appear at the beginning of the 20th century, in the paper Viața Românească . At least during the first stage of its

apparition (1906-1916), the literary circle of Iași does not promote, but neither does it discourage

women writers, who had started to make their presence known in our country starting with the second half of the 19th century. Feminine literature comes to be a reality that the leader of the paper, the literary critic Garabet Ibrăileanu, as well as other fellow writers or critics are forced to accept. In a review article on Elena Farago’s poems, he expresses the idea that, for a better understanding, in addition to a feminine literature there should also be a feminine critique, the only one capable of reaching the depths of a text written by a woman. In the article from the next issue of the paper he continues his discourse, thus being placed among the first to state that there is a feminine writing, an expression of “a feminine soul”, different from the masculine one. “Of course a woman’s soul is different from that of a man, most of all with respect to the sensitivity, namely the trait that a work of art usually results from. So, a woman’s work of art will be different from that of a man.ˮ (Ibrăileanu, 1906, pp. 267-9) The voice of a woman writer didn’t wait too long to make itself heard, also in the pages of Viața Românească . That voice belongs to the only female critic of the paper during those times, Izabela Sadoveanu. She takes as a starting point G. Ibrăileanu’s statement, in which he talked about the necessity of a feminine critique to objectively judge a feminine literary work, safe from the typical male temptation to treat feminine literature with a certain courtesy. Izabela Sadoveanu revolts against such a tendency, as she considers that literary critique, either feminine or masculine, must be objective. She talks about the existing prejudices that are recalled into question in society thanks to feminism. “So, the measure by which one evaluates feminine works has, of course, a fault: an excessive sensibility that makes him always hesitate more or less, according to various side-influences, with no connection to the value itself of the work that must be analyzed.” (Sadoveanu, 1906: 108) There mustn’t be different criteria. The social inferiority of women is a result of her nature. If physically she must accept the obvious inequality, spiritually this limitation is valid no more. She has “the possibility to create in art as man’s equal”. “We mustn’t prove an intellectual short-sightedness, demanding identification Women’s works of art may have other qualities than those of men; they bear the sign of

feminine particularity, but that doesn’t imply that they are inferior to the masculine ones. “The error of

the partisans, as well as that of the opponents of feminism is precisely this confusion between equal

and identical .ˮ (Sadoveanu, 1906, pp. 108-12)

“Sburătorul” Literary Circle (1919-1943) and Eugen Lovinescu

The Literary Circle “Sburătorul” activated between 1919 and 1943 and it was concentrated around

the emblematic personality of its mentor, Eugen Lovinescu. He was the one that brought together a

group of women writers for who he provided the appropriate framework for their affirmation.

Women’s empowerment had become a reality and the numerous women that took part in the meetings

of the literary circle prove it. It is here that the concept of “feminine writing” first takes shape.

The traits of feminine literature in E. Lovinescu’s vision

In a series of articles published between 1922 and 1933, and later republished in Critice 2 , analyzing

the first writings of Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, E. Lovinescu brings to discussion the concept of

“feminine writing”, the traits of which, in his opinion, are the following: the presence of feelings: “A

woman lives in a world of feelings as in a world of her own. Her first function is to love. A lover and a

mother – here are the two patterns of the eternal feminine essence (Lovinescu, pp. 124-5); sensuality:

“Sensuality is a tone of a much more complicated feminine soul. (...) The feeling is pursued to its

remotest ramifications. The heart is no longer the sacred cave of the Eleusinian mysteries in which the

rites of love are codified (Lovinescu, pp. 129); the feminine mystery : “Since a woman doesn’t talk, but

whispers, doesn’t pronounce, but suggests herself, her literature becomes a true cryptography , a rumor

of mysterious words, of half-covered sensations, of vague poetry, a literature with a key (…), a

literature of shadows and whispers, of mystery and of cushioned alcove (Lovinescu, pp. 125); the

contradictory nature of a woman’s soul: “The female writer’s literature is a woman: she attracts, she

promises a happiness that she never grants; she lifts obstacles that only few manage to overcome with

the satisfaction of having surpassed a difficulty; she caresses by scratching and she leaves you with an

obscure feeling of pleasure and discontent. So, the critic steps in, not without hesitation, in order to

clarify things for himself and for others, trying to define the nature of the contradictory talent of the

female writer (Lovinescu, 1982, pp. 122).

He allusively reproaches Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu her lack of epic sense. However, he notices

the subjectivity that makes her book an impressionist painting where some pieces are prose poems that

are rich in lyricism; others are a refined analysis of moods. “The writer heads towards the novel of

psychological analysis, where the feminine soul is depicted with all the perversions and the temptations

of the deep and troubled waters (Lovinescu, 1982, pp. 123).

A visionary opinion

In the same article, Lovinescu makes a prediction that the following centuries will confirm: that

according to which in future times women will acquire the equality they long desired, but that at the

same time they will lose that distinctive “something” that defines them, that poetry of mystery: “We

are heading for full feminism, so that our followers will live under the regime of total equality. We

worship the inevitable. But there are romantics who believe that only when women are given all rights

will they realize what they have lost, as their greatest treasure was precisely the inequality and the lack

of rights, and it was with the charm of their fragility that they conquered the world. They will obtain all

rights, but they will lose the only weapon of their sex: the majesty of their weakness. The day all of us,

with no exception, concentrate on the same piece of bread, splashed with our sweat, human kind will

have lost something of the poetry of femininity, (…) the stripping of the mystery from femininity.”

(Lovinescu, 1982, pp. 129-30)

The Evolution of Feminine Writing – a radiography of the interwar feminine literature

However, Lovinescu’s stand as a devout supporter of feminine writing changes in time. In 1935, he

signs the preface of an original work for those times, unique even in the following years. Here we refer

to the anthology Evoluția scrisului feminin (The Evolution of Feminine Writing), by Margareta Miller-

Verghy and Ecaterina Săndulescu. The work contains a biographical and critical note for every woman

writer and one or more literary excerpts taken from their works. What amazes us is the multitude of

female writers included in the anthology: 34 in this volume and 38 more in the second volume that was

never published. Some of them remained in the literary history, especially the ones that wrote in

foreign languages, while others are entirely unknown. The selection criteria have been violated at

times, but the work is still one of reference and, as far as we known, it is the only one of this kind in the

history of Romanian literature.

What does Eugen Lovinescu state in the Preface? This time he is reserved, he almost opposes the

notion of “feminine writing” because “art knows no gender, age, region or even, in the end, nationality;

it is gratified through its substance and it organizes itself into groups and establishes hierarchies only

according to aesthetic criteria”. However, he continues, although there is no question of establishing a

hierarchy of the works of art according to gender, in order to make the understanding easier there are

secondary criteria that make possible the existence of a literature classified according to region, gender,

age. The relentlessness from the beginning starts to weaken, probably because of the necessities of the

era.

In 1939, in the article “Notă asupra literaturii noastre feminine” (“Note on our Feminine

Literature”),published in Revista Fundațiilor Regale, he varies his position. First, he says, we must

make the distinction between women’s literature, feminine literature and feminist literature. “Women’s

literature is not exclusively feminine, namely a literature which revaluates the essential elements of

femininityˮ, because “art doesn’t know the laws of gender.” For instance, Hortensia’s novels “are not

feminine literature, but only, by chance, the novels of a woman.” Only the first novels are exclusively

feminine. (Lovinescu, 1939, pp. 179)

However, he returns to the ideas stated in the first articles and he notices that, although most of the

times the writer masters the expression technique, “the femininity is a larval form of lyricism, of the

transfiguration of the object through a high frequency emotion; it is the residuum of the combination of

random things, reduced to the artist’s temperamental unit.” A “feminine” literature is centered on “the

only axis of a woman’s life: love”, with all its forms: “sensitivity, sensuality, which in literature are

rendered in the sensorial and even ideological impressionism.” (Lovinescu, 1939, pp. 180)

A partisan of feminine literature: Camil Petrescu

Around the same period, this time a novelist states his opinion on the existence of a feminine

literature. We are referring to Camil Petrescu. In his article, he takes as a starting point the statement of

an English critic who claims that in days to come literature will become mostly feminine, on one hand

because women represent the highest percentage of the readers, and on the other hand because they

have more time and a more varied receptivity than men. From the two ways of cognition, intuitive and

rational, women will prefer the first. For Camil Petrescu, women are “these ever ailing creatures” and

Proust, who the novelist quotes, he himself endowed with a feminine sensibility, observed the great

truth according to which the sickly condition often develops the intelligence. (Petrescu, 1937, p. 400)

The feminization of literature

The author of Patul lui Procust notices the fact that great names that truly have something to say

appeared in English literature, and the same thing happens in our country: women writers become an

undeniable reality. The examples he offers are: Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Princess Bibescu, Lucia

Demetrius, Anișoara Odeanu. He analyses the novel Călător în noaptea de ajun ( Traveler in the Night

of the Eve ) by Anișoara Odeanu and he highlights the feminine sensibility that causes the story to

become “a fabric of moods, endlessly nuanced, like an embroidery… one might say it is a sort of

intuitive pointillism”; “everything has such a simplicity and such a veracity that is similar to the

beginning of things.” Most of all, he appreciates the analytical lucidity and authenticity, “the sharpness

and the freshness of the descriptive vision.ˮ (Petrescu, 1937, p. 402)

Although sporadic, the articles on literary femininity emphasized the existence of this phenomenon

that gained more and more ground in the Romanian literary landscape. The phenomenon of

“feminization” of the writing appears and Camil Petrescu too mentions it in the cited article. The

confrontation with the tightrope represented by illness causes the apparition of a “feminine” literature

of the inside, of isolation, of intimacy, a “compensation” literature, where living between real and

unreal replaces the epic. The “sick” writers of literature have a feminine composition par excellence.

Camil Petrescu suggests a subtle convergence of femininity and sickness and of femininity and a certain

spirit of modernity (and of modern literature). (Burta-Cernat, 2010, p. 35)

A declared enemy of feminine literature: Eugen Ionescu

But such a “feminization” of literature was not a phenomenon likely to be accepted by everyone. If

there were passionate supporters, at the same time there were those that opposed it. Such a stand we see

with Eugen Ionescu. Showing his habitual severity, in the article “Generaţia fetelor” (“Girls’

Generation”), published in 1935, he declares himself a fierce enemy of the feminine writing and also of

any other intellectual manifestation of women. Dominated by the spirit of total negation, Eugen

Ionescu mocks any attempt women make in order to enter the area of the intellect. He deplores “the

agesˮ, the politicized contemporary society, in which writers can no longer find their place: being a

writer and a contemplative person is nowadays a strange, out of place, ridiculous thing. Writers have

become spiritually “weak” and they too ended up dealing with politics or, in the best case scenario,

they are drawn towards “ethical concernsˮ. He notices “a cultural fatigue”: “Our weak culture cannot

withstand the political present.” A symptom of the literary life is that young writers have given their

place to girls. “From now on, literature and culture will be women’s concern or the pursuit of impotent

and effeminate men. Besides, can’t you see that the literature of the youngest (of men) is sad,

pessimistic and too disgraceful to be called literature? Instead, girls’ literature takes charge with

optimism, love, morality, cheerfulness and, naturally, mediocrity.” With a passion worthy of a true

pamphleteer, he continues: “So we no longer have young writers, but girls, only girls, hostels for girls,

schools for girls, girls’ interiority, loving girls, girl students. On, girls! Take care of culture and of your

kitchens! And there you have it – the kitchen becomes a cultural hall: Erastia Peretz, Anișoara Odeanu,

Lucia Demetrius, Yvonne Rossignon, Sidonia Drăgușanu, Maria Rădulescu, Coca Farago, Elena

Eftimiu, etc., etc.” (Ionescu, 1935, p. 1)

Present tendencies

If during the interwar period the comments on feminine writing or literature were few and placed at

a greater distance in time from each other and in the communist era they completely vanished, after

1989 they became rather frequent. We notice nowadays the more obvious tendency to conceptualize

and also the firmly stated desire to recover a literature that most of the times has been ignored by

criticism, as well as by the public. This time, women-critics themselves are the ones that fight, through

their works, to impose this concept, by bringing to public or literary attention the images of forgotten

women writers.

Novelists of modern Romanian literature – the first study dedicated to feminine writing

The first serious work dedicated to feminine writing is Prozatoare ale literaturii române moderne

(Female Prose Writers of Modern Romanian Literature,Biblioteca Revistei Familia, 1994), by Liana

Cozea. She observed that there is a real tradition of feminine writing in the Romanian literary

landscape and it manifested despite a negation tendency that made its presence known in time. The

feminine prose represents a unique and inimitable voice that in the 20s or 30s excels in psychological

analysis and the writing becomes a true observation of the self by the self. Most of the times it is

sentimental, refined, erudite, analytical and speculative (Cozea, 1994, p. 12). The affirmation of this

“feminine” writing doesn’t imply – Cozea continues – a tendency of isolation or separation, and neither

of marginalization. She pleads for a balanced position: neither total negation, nor acceptance on the

grounds of discrimination, but a choice made in full understanding of the situation, based only on

aesthetic criteria. The acceptance “ de facto of the ‘feminine’ field in Romanian literature must not be

read as an act of discrimination with pejorative-isolating tendencies and it doesn’t mean a

disqualification of value. The fierce and obstinate negation of the feminine essence of such a prose

undeservingly takes away its intrinsic qualities.ˮ However, the use of aesthetic criteria doesn’t rule out

noticing a unique and inimitable “voice” illustrated in the fictional prose or the essayistic works written

by women.

Liana Cozea is therefore the first woman specialized in letters that proficiently deals with the

phenomenon of feminine writing after 1989. Her name left its mark in the Romanian literary landscape

also by various literary investigations ( Familia, Apostrof ) that she made on the existence of feminine

literature.

The “voice” of a woman literary critic that pleads for “feminine writing”

Another “voice” that belongs to a literary critic which pleads for “the feminine writing” is that of

Elena Zaharia-Filipaş, university professor, author of the book Studii de literatură feminină ( Studies on

feminine literature ), published in 2004. The study brings together critical essays about Romanian

female writers, preceded by a comment on E. Lovinescu’s statements on feminine literature. The

author draws her conclusions on the statements of the mentor from “Sburătorul” and she comments,

sometimes critically enough, the attributes of the feminine writing he enunciated: the instinct that, in

the author’s opinion, proves “a primitive masculine attitude”; the bashfulness, which appeared as

women started to have access to education; the feminine mystery – a cliché that expresses men’s

impossibility to understand the feminine soul; the sentimentalism – one of the most upsetting

stereotypes, a result of the classical dichotomy between feelings and reason; the subjectivity and

lyricism, traits of the feminine writing, as opposed to the masculine one, which is supposedly analytical

and objective.

This way, starting from Lovinescu’s statements, Elena Zaharia-Filipaş builds a definition of the

concept of feminine literature, a definition that will be completed by an illustration which gathers some

portraits of women-writers (Zaharia-Filipaş, 2004). A pertinent remark is that many of our women

writers are born under the care of a masculine figure: either a husband or a father. Such is the case of

Hermiona Asachi, Iulia Haşdeu, Adela Xenopol, Sofia Nădejde, Veronica Micle, Matilda Cugler-Poni,

Maria Mavrodin, etc. Another remark, just as interesting as the previous one, is that “women writers”

are most of the times educated at a magazine, they are trained according to its ideas and they take

advantage of it in order to succeed on the literary stage. As examples, the author gives us the following

names: Matilda Cugler-Poni, who is cultivated at Convorbiri literare ; Sofia Nădejde, whose name is

connected to Contemporanul ; Constanţa Hodoş and Maria Cunţan, who collaborate at Semănătorul ,

which proves that, despite the independence that women shout for so decidedly, most of the times they

need a support/a masculine helping hand in order to succeed in the literary world.

The latest attempt to define feminine literature: Bianca Burța-Cernat

The latest attempt to define feminine literature belongs to Bianca Burța-Cernat. In her book,

Fotografie de grup cu scriitoare uitate (Group Photography with Forgotten Women Writers), printed

by Cartea Românească Publishing House in 2010, a study that already represents an important

reference in this domain; she brings back to present the concern for feminine writings, by drawing the

readers’ attention on the notion of literary marginality. At the same time, this is also an attempt to place

the feminine prose in the context of the interwar literature.

For the cited author, the traits of the feminine prose are: fragmentation, the ”mosaique”

construction, the method of inserting journal or epistolary excerpts, a narrative that has two or more

“voices”. If in the short prose the interwar women writers seem to like the narrative miniature best, the

“quasi-photographic” snapshot, in the novel they hardly ever choose a solid-realistic architectural

construction, preferring, possibly also because of a structural deficiency, the ”mosaique” construction

specific for the assemblage of testimonies or documents of the soul constituted in “life files”; the novel

(genuinely) built according to the diarist notes type or the one using the journalistic, memoirist or

epistolary insertion trick in a narrative that has two or more “voices”. (Burța-Cernat, 2010, p. 31)

She highlights the process of “feminization” of literature in the interwar period, a process also

noticed by E. Lovinescu and, later on, by Julia Kristeva. The focus on the inner life, on the mysterious

world of instincts, of sensations, of feelings is associated with bringing to the foreground a type of hero

that is “repressed, minor, oppressed, marginalized”, “the ailing one”. It is a modernity in crisis, marked

by multiple neuroses, but also by the search for an identity (Burța-Cernat, 2010, p. 21). The

“feminization” of the writing in modernity is linked to the fact that the male creator is now discovering

within himself a feminine identity: weak, vulnerable, passive-contemplative. This discovery can be the

result of his confrontation with the limits of the illness and his literature becomes a “feminine” one of

the “inner worldˮ, one of isolation, of intimacy, “a ‘compensation’ literature in which the phantasmal

feeling is a substitute of the epic itself” (Burța-Cernat, 2010, p. 35).

The genre studies – a challenge for modernity

If in the interwar period we can talk about “a feminization of literature”, in modernity, on the

contrary, we notice a “masculinization” of the feminine prose. Women writers get closer and closer to

fields that not long ago were considered mostly “masculine” – for example, the pure epic, the objective

prose.

In post-modernist contemporaneity, the idea that femininity is rather a social convention, that a

person becomes a woman not just as a result of the native sex, but also as a result of a series of

predetermined images and representations comes up by means of gender studies. The idea of

complementarity of the genders, of abandoning the male-female dichotomy and, more recently, that of

lack of differentiation, also manifested in literature, become a symptom of modernity. The so-called

“feminine” traits (subjectivity, sense perception, introspection, lyricism) may be observed at a male-

writer too, just like some traits considered to be masculine (objectivity, sensibility, the analytical, the

epic) may become attributes specific for some female writers.

The first conclusion to our study is that most of the opinions are heading towards accepting the

existence of “feminine” literature. Despite the thematic and stylistic diversity, there are certain traits

that singularize the “feminine” writing: the preference for the unconventional genres, such as the

journal, the letters, the biography and the autobiography (this “literary narcissism” might be the result

of an inferiority complex), the ability to describe environments, the sensibility when facing nature (all

these traits are also connected to a perceptiveness and a sense perception that perhaps are more

significant than the masculine ones). Most of the accusations regard the lack of appetence for the epic

or the inability to create grand literary structures.

Another conclusion we come to is that, as we have previously stated, there are periods in which one

can notice a “feminization” of literature, as for instance the romantic or the interwar period, just as

there are others, like the classical one for example, where the typically masculine rationality is

predominant. The lack of differentiation becomes the most acute symptom of literary modernity and

the dissimilarities become ever more blurred.

As for feminine literature (meaning “a literature written by women”), we notice that it finely came

into prominence in the literary field, men’s supremacy was destroyed and the “women writers” became a reality no one can question. If during the 19th century the tendency to “differentiate” was required because it was part of society’s evolution, a society where women fought to come to the fore, once women are involved in all social domains the fight for “femininity” becomes evanescent and the centuries old dispute that had marked the history of mentalities fades away.

How can one reconcile the woman’s old dream of equality and the full affirmation of femininity with her desire to remain a “distinct” being, on all levels of existence, therefore including writing? Confronted with the perspective of an absolute equality, as well as with the hope of still remaining a woman, “the female writer”, who nowadays has become a constant presence on the literary stage, is forced to face the challenges of the modern world.

Acknowledgement

References

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  2. Ibrăileanu, G. (1906). Arta și critica feminină. Viața Românească, 8, 267-269.
  3. Ionescu, E. (1935). Generația fetelor. Viața Literară. Revistă de informație critică, literară și artistică, X(10), June 1935, 1.
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Publisher

Future Academy

First Online

18.12.2019

Doi

10.15405/epsbs.2016.09.11

Online ISSN

2357-1330