Heilbrun's and Auerbach 's books are very much alike in basic concept and structure: both concentrate on a hitherto relatively ignored or unconventional idea of human potential, one not necessarily ever expressed, demonstrated or approved in "real life," but one which can be traced, reappearing now and again—sometimes dominant, more often obscure—in Western literature from Greek myth to twentieth century British and American fiction. Toward a Recognition of Androgyny is the pioneering work, first appearing in the mid-sixties. Auerbach acknowledges Heilbrun as a mentor and has benefited, it seems to me, from observing the earlier book's mistakes.
Heilbrun, in turn, harks back to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for its emphasis on androgyny as a mental and behavioral phenomenon, which Heilbrun carefully distinguishes from the physiological state of hermaphroditism (having the organs of both sexes). The word androgyny comes from the Greek andro (male) and gyn (female) and, according to Heilbrun, "defines a condition under which the characteristics of the sexes, and the human impulses expressed by men and women, are not rigidly assigned." (p. x)
As Heilbrun sees it, the Greek God, Dionysius, the human seer, Tiresias, the Jesus of the New Testament (but not the subsequent practice of the Church) all express the androgynous ideal. She also finds this expressed very clearly in Shakespeare's plays and individual characters. In the novel, which is her central concern, she sees the followers of the school of Samuel Richardson rather than that of Fielding as expressing the spirit of androgyny: giving their charcters, both male and female, a range of feelings and aspirations that are not sexually stereotyped.
One of the most interesting distinctions that Heilbrun makes is among female novelists. She finds some of them feminist and others androgynous. The two Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, represent respectively these two possibilities. Apparently Heilbrun's distinction rests partly on whether the author is aware of and expresses the social and political restraints upon women as special deprivations, as Charlotte Bronte does, or whether, as Emily Bronte does, the author sees them as part of the human condition. Heilbrun's concept of the female as hero, who is allowed a tragic denouement rather than fulfilling herself through love and marriage, is also an important one that has been developed by later feminist critics.
Heilbrun ends her book with a chapter on the Bloomsbury group, which she found to express the androgynous ideal in both their works and their life styles. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the latter in this chapter contributes to sense of diffuseness that the book gives as a whole. Heilbrun works with a concept that is not clearly defined to begin with and then she never stays with any work long enough, leaping from example to example, so she is not entirely convincing in her literary perceptions.
Communites of Women is much less diffuse and as literary criticism, therefore, much more convincing. Beginning as Heilbrun does with mythology, and in Auerbach's case, with the many groups of weird sisters who exist there, at the fringes of mortal and immortal society, Auerbach demonstrates that while communities of women have been depicted generally as marginal or strange they have persistently appeared and are often shown to have an amorphous strength not immediately apparent and certainly not always attractive.
Unlike Heilbrun, Auerbach organizes her subsequent chapters around particular books, usually choosing two together to illustrate differing ways of handling particular concepts of communities of women: Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Alcott's Little Women, Gaskell's Cranford and Bronte's Villette, James' The Bostonians and Gissing's The Odd Women, and Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A general underlying theme emerges; vis., that the course of depictions of communities of women in nineteenth and twentieth century literature has gradually been to grant them a wider space in the world, moving out from the family to political concerns, so that they no longer form a contrast to the world of masculine activity and power, but display its same strengths and weaknesses, sometimes even standing for the masculine world (as Spark's The Abbess of Crewe stands at one level...