[(essay date June 2000) In the following review of Critical Conditions, Reddy pays tribute to Gubar's pioneering feminist criticism.]
Retrospectively, we can all trace epochs in our lives, moments when everything changed. It is more difficult to recognize those moments in the present tense; but I remember knowing I was living through such an epoch-change in my own life in 1979 as I read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's co-authored The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. I was a beginning graduate student in English, planning to focus on Victorian fiction; I had read most of the feminist literary criticism then in print (amazing now that it once was possible to do such a thing!) and knew that I wanted to contribute to that field, but was uncertain about what exactly I might do.
Slogging through the scads of non-feminist criticism assigned in my classes, I was increasingly disheartened by its prevailing tone of superiority, its competitive mode, its lack of relation to the world outside itself. Reading Gilbert and Gubar was exhilarating: there was real passion in their work, a clear sense of more at stake than their own academic careers, a collaborative sensibility totally at odds with the usual solitariness evident in literary criticism. Even when I strongly disagreed with particular insights, scribbling objections in the margins of the book, I felt a powerful sense of connection with the co-authors. Madwoman was, in short, an amazing inspiration.
I begin with this bit of personal history in order, first, to pay tribute to Susan Gubar and also to try to give some sense of how important her work (both alone and with Sandra Gilbert) has been. But lest this opening give the impression that Susan Gubar is some sort of icon of the past glory of feminist criticism, I want to make clear that her reputation does not rest on Madwoman alone, but has been built and sustained on numerous works published since then, including the co-edited Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. This new book, Critical Condition, extends her already considerable reach and is another kind of inspiration, as in it she engages with new feminist critical methods and problems.
But Critical Condition is also sometimes disheartening, for, despite her critical acuity, Gubar occasionally missteps rather seriously. For example, the book's subtitle--Feminism at the Turn of the Century--misleads: Gubar's seven essays are not about feminism per se but about one branch of...