Upon its publication in 1979, the big, ambitious volume, subtitled The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, vaulted its authors into the front ranks of their field. They went on to write a three-book sequel on the 20th century, and to edit a sweeping anthology that fashioned a canon of women's writing throughout the ages. Gilbert-and-Gubar, pronounced as if one word, became shorthand for one kind of feminist scholarship. And ever so rapidly, that shorthand went from compliment to complaint, as critics on both the right and the left accused them of reducing complicated issues to a battle between women and men.
Madwoman, still the two scholars' most famous book, has sold more than 70,000 copies, remaining in print since Yale University Press first published it. The 20th anniversary is prompting the press to release a special edition, with a new introduction by the authors. In a session at the Modern Language Association conference this month, colleagues and disciples will sum up the book's impact, especially in the classroom. "Students at various levels can work with it," explains William B. Thesing, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, who organized the session. "Feminist criticism after Gilbert and Gubar is really much more difficult for students -- it's jargon-ridden and sometimes antagonistic," he adds.
"It's been so powerful that it doesn't have to be explicitly cited -- it's simply in the air," says Susan Fraiman, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia. At the M.L.A., she plans to summon back the moment of the book's release, to remind younger scholars "how audacious, original, and even profane" the book was for its time.
Jennifer DeVere Brody was a high- school senior when she read a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review. She asked for Madwoman as a Christmas present, devoured it, and decided to enroll in Vassar College, the rare campus where a student could major in Victorian studies. She's now an associate professor of English at George Washington University.
Paging through her well-worn 1983 copy, she calls Madwoman "very much a book of its time."
"It's a monumental book, not only in size but in scope," says Ms. Brody, who now teaches it to another generation of undergraduates.
Scholars were not the only ones to notice. Widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines, Madwoman was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Today, it's unusual for a feminist book to make such a splash. "Feminist criticism now doesn't feel as vital," says Ms. Gubar, a professor of English and women's studies at Indiana University. "That saddens me."
In 1973, Ms. Gubar was a young assistant professor new to the Midwest when she discovered a kindred spirit in Ms. Gilbert, a new associate professor at Indiana. Neither was trained as a Victorianist, but they shared a passion for the works of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen, among others.
Women were badly outnumbered in a department that the professors recall as stuffy and uncongenial. "When I arrived, an older professor handed me his syllabus and asked me to type it, assuming I was a secretary," says Ms. Gubar.
Yet feminism was in the air, if not in the classroom.
"There was a strong urgency to live feminist lives," Ms. Gubar recalls. "But there certainly was nothing called feminist criticism at the time."
In 1974, the professors team-taught a course, an accelerated seminar that allowed Ms. Gilbert more time to commute to her family in California, where her husband taught at the University of California at Davis. Instead of situating a woman writer in her period, they argued for a distinct women's literary tradition, and therefore included Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath on the same syllabus.
The various books were connected, the scholars argued, by the ways their authors struggled to express women's experiences in a patriarchal society. The prototypical figure was Bertha Mason, a spectral presence in Jane Eyre. Bertha turns out to be the imprisoned wife of the hero, Rochester, and late in the novel burns down his mansion. To the scholars, Bertha was a kind of double for Jane herself, able to express the passions that the well-mannered governess could not. She was one of many such female figures literally or metaphorically imprisoned, and aching to break free, in books by women writers.
Five years later, the syllabus for that course became the 700-page Madwoman. "It's incredible to me now that we wrote that big a book so fast," adds Ms. Gilbert. "We were ourselves on fire."
They were no longer in the same department, however. After only a year at Indiana, Ms. Gilbert returned West, where she got her own professorial appointment at Davis. Despite being separated by miles, teaching duties, and their responsibilities as mothers, the scholars continued to write together for the next two decades.
Indeed, only in 1997 did Ms. Gubar publish her first book as a lone author, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (Oxford University Press). Ms. Gilbert, a poet as well as a critic, was the president of the M.L.A. in 1996. Most recently, she published Wrongful Death: A Medical Tragedy (W.W. Norton, 1995), an account of how her 61-year-old husband inexplicably died during routine surgery.
That tragedy has taken the scholars in different professional directions. Ms. Gilbert is working on a study of elegies. Ms. Gubar remains an active voice in the debates within feminism. Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (Columbia University Press), a collection of her recent essays, is due out by the end of the year. It includes "What Ails Feminist Criticism?," a 1998 article that caused a stir when first published in the journal Critical Inquiry.
Because Ms. Gilbert is on leave in Paris, she won't be at this month's M.L.A. conference, and Ms. Gubar decided not to appear at the Madwoman panel without her. After a decade of lecturing in tandem around the world, they find themselves together less often. But last August, they did share the stage at a conference of Victorian-studies scholars at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They delivered their remarks as a dialogue, which is how they frame the introduction to the anniversary edition of Madwoman. As an authorial pair, Gilbert and Gubar have not published together for most of this decade, save for Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama (Rutgers University Press, 1995), a comic jibe at their critics.
And critics they have. "Gilbert and Gubar have paid a price for their accomplishments, and have been roughly indicted in tones of voice that are seldom employed for male scholars of comparable importance," notes William E. Cain, a professor of English at Wellesley College, in his introduction to Making Feminist History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Garland Publishing, 1994).
Many scholars willing to open the canon to women authors still resist the feminist insistence that a writer's gender is crucial to her work, Mr. Cain points out. "The notion of women who write, read, or teach as women strikes antifeminists as special-interest criticism, as cheerleading and propaganda," he writes.
Yet for Gilbert and Gubar, later generations of feminists have been among their steadiest critics. They accuse the professors of speaking too broadly, and ignoring distinctions among women of different races, classes, and nationalities.
From the first sentence on, however, Madwoman wasn't going to be a measured literary study. "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" the authors asked. The first hundred pages establish their argument for a distinctly "feminist poetics," challenging Harold Bloom's famous postulation that all writers toil under the "anxiety of influence." Women writers don't have forebears to write against; rather, Madwoman argued, they suffer from the "anxiety of authorship" in a culture that doesn't deem them worthy of taking up the pen at all.
The authors advanced their claim in chapters on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson, as well as in close readings of several books by Charlotte Bronte. Despite its fame, the analysis of Jane Eyre is actually comparatively brief.
While the book divided reviewers, it quickly became the kind of opus that demanded a reaction. Some who didn't buy the thesis praised the close readings. And some who admired the ambition didn't like the way every novel was shoehorned into an overarching feminist argument.
Over time, the climate changed. "We were being accused of sins that in those early days we knew not of," writes Ms. Gilbert in the new edition.
Poststructuralism challenged the notion that there was anything "essential" at all about women or women's writing. And attention to race complicated matters further. "We were cast as establishment puppets just too dumb to notice that we wrote from a position of middle-class, white, heterosexual privilege," Ms. Gilbert notes.
Madwoman "had this incredibly synthetic view," explains Beth Newman, an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University. "It didn't take long before other people started pointing out just how partial their view was."
Among the most famous retorts came from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the postcolonial theorist at Columbia University. In a widely circulated 1985 essay, she pointed out a crucial blind spot in the critics' depiction of Bertha Mason in Madwoman: Ignoring that Bertha was a Creole Jamaican, the authors leave out of their account the ways that British imperialism and racism afforded privileges to white women. In Ms. Spivak's rendering, Bertha's attic stands in for the marginalized third world.
"That turned their approach upside down," recalls Ms. Newman, who has edited a critical companion to Jane Eyre for Bedford Books. "It pointed out the whole book was really about 19th-century middle-class white women." Other aspects of their argument began to seem quaint as well. "For feminist critics, circa 1979, it made women's anger seem invigorating," says Ms. Newman. "Yet that did have a tendency to end in the romanticization of madness."
In the new edition, Ms. Gilbert agrees that the press for more exact analysis is a sign of strength within feminist criticism. "But such nuance may be precisely what we couldn't afford at a time when it was enough suddenly to see that there could be a new way of seeing," she notes.
Today's feminist literary critics, raised on Gilbert and Gubar, have very different aims and methods.
Ms. Brody of George Washington, who read Madwoman in high school, did her graduate training in the era of cultural studies. As a result, she doesn't want to give novels -- let alone novels by women -- a special place in her analysis of the Victorian era. In Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture (Duke University Press, 1998) Ms. Brody discusses plays, paintings, and minstrel songs, as well as novels, to explore how depictions of black femininity shore up the superiority of white Englishness.
None of the novels in Madwoman figures in her work. "What keeps Victorian studies white," says Ms. Brody, "is the focus on the novel."
While her book has been well-received (and gets a plug in the new edition of Madwoman), a study like Ms. Brody's can never hope to gain the kind of audience that Gilbert and Gubar enjoyed during the best moments of the last 20 years. Their ambition, their passion, and their timing are hard to replicate in today's hyper-professional academic culture. Feminist literary critics are fighting smaller, more localized battles, using specialized language, and are less connected to struggles beyond the ivory tower.
Ms. Gubar continues to issue reminders of what once was and what still could be. Over the last few years, she has given a paper at various meetings called "Who Killed Feminist Criticism?" When she published the paper in Critical Inquiry in 1998, she softened the title to "What Ails Feminist Criticism?" But her tone remains angry and wounded, as she struggles to get beyond generational disputes and to imagine "some hope for recovery," a feminism that addresses "the here and now."
Robyn Wiegman, an associate professor of women's studies and English at the University of California at Irvine, answered back in the journal this year, labeling Ms. Gubar's article "a lament for the lost status of the literary." She contends that literary and cultural theory have made feminism more sophisticated, and healthier, than Ms. Gubar believes.
Ms. Wiegman still teaches the introduction to Madwoman in the rare classes she teaches on criticism. "You could teach the history of feminist literary criticism by teaching that book and the conversations that came out of it," she says.
Among those lessons: Critical fashions move more quickly than ever. "There's so little in literary criticism that doesn't feel like a period piece 10 years later," adds Ms. Newman. "That's more a statement about the profession than anything."