Now the libraries have many books by women. Women have written on all kinds of subjects, in all kinds of form, even occasionally economics and philosophy. Novels are still the main pursuit but maybe they have a different flavor now, maybe they are more artful and have less of women's struggling within them. To investigate, the narrator opens a novel by Mary Carmicheal called "Life's Adventure". Though this hypothetical text is a debut, it must be read as the latest in a series of works by women, as all works of fiction exist as part of their traditions and libraries.
The narrator has spent the essay so far showing how women have had to manage without a literary history of their own, with such negative consequences. Now she asserts that this legacy is starting to exist, and that contemporary women's novels can and must be measures against this legacy and seen as progressing from it. To explore current novels by women and their relationship to the legacy of women writers, she creates an imaginary one by Mary Carmichael
She starts reading Mary Carmicheal's novel, and finds at first that its sentences are somehow broken, do not flow like music as Jane Austen's did. The narrator wonders why Mary has gone against Austen's sentences, whether she is protesting against being called "sentimental" as so many women are.
As things have improved for women writers, it should be easier for a woman like Mary to avoid the anger that was found in earlier writers like Bronte and Behn, but the narrator finds that another problem has arrived - new writers are avoiding emotion and lyrical sentences for fear of sounding "sentimental" which men often associate with being "womanly."
She reads on and finds that as well as breaking the sentence, Mary has also "broken the sequence". Just when the reader expects one thing, Mary has provided something quite different. This monumental surprise comes when the novel states "Chloe liked Olivia". The narrator realizes that this might be the first time that literature has recognized the truth that sometimes women do like women. How incredible it would have been for one of Shakespeare's heroines to "like" another woman, instead of feeling jealousy or sisterhood.
The narrator has been reading Mary's novel critical of its awkward style and structure but now she finds that despite its flaws, the novel has made a positive social leap as well. Mary Carmicheal makes history by confessing that it is possible for a woman to like another woman. This simple truth has been hidden from the world of literature, and now Mary Carmicheal has been able to 'light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been". As a woman, she has reflected the fullness of life in a new way, in a way Shakespeare, for instance, couldn't and didn't.
Women in literature have always been considered in relation to men, and it is natural that men know very little about the female mind and women know very little about the male. So what is left is a literary history with a very skewed vision of women. The narrator goes on reading, finding that Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory, where they are investigating a cure for anemia.
Because she has confessed that sometimes women like women, Mary Carmicheal has made it possible to have a fictional world in which women exist not in relation to men but instead in relation to other women—the role of men is no longer necessarily central, the standard against which everything is measured.
The narrator holds her breath as she realizes that Mary Carmichael's genius lies in how she deals with the next moment, when Chloe watches as Olivia tidies up and prepares to go home to her husband and children. Here, if Mary has the right lightness of touch, the whole world could be changed, the chamber of women liking women lit up for the first time. Before she reads on, the narrator advises Mary that she must do it subtly, by having Chloe focus on something else.
The narrator sees Mary Carmichael as having given herself the opportunity to reflect the world in true ways that have never been reflected before, and in so doing change the world. Yet the opportunity is just an opportunity. Achieving this change comes down to artistic genius.
The narrator finds herself praising Olivia for her complexity and tells herself off – there's no justification for praising one's own sex for complexity, she says, since historically there are no measures for women's complexity and scientific discoveries are all from the point of view of men. So when the narrator praises Olivia for being "infinitely intricate", she is unable to check her meaning against the writings of the "great men", even though she knows that most of these men had wives, and were inspired by them in such a way that they must have perceived their "intricacy" as a race.
The narrator's self-criticism about thinking of Olivia as being complex stems from the fact that she actually has no historical basis upon which to compare Olivia's complexity to any other women because such complexity was never recorded.
To get a complete view of female intricacy and creativity and be able to write about how a woman feels when she walks into a room, one would have to follow her into hundreds of rooms, since there is so much variety in women that has gone unrecorded. Her creative power differs very greatly from a man's and it would be a huge pity if she started to write like a man because we would miss out on her unique world.
The narrator is arguing that the only way to capture the complexity of women is to attempt to do so over and over and over again, hundreds of times. This is another argument for the need for a literary legacy of books written by women, which would then allow women a reference and foundation that would allow women to write as women., and not to have to try to write like a man.
With this in mind, the narrator warns Mary Carmicheal that by staying outside the viewpoint of Chloe and Olivia, she risks becoming a "naturalist-novelist". There is endless material to observe. The narrator remembers seeing an elderly working class woman strolling at dusk and imagining how the woman would reflect on her life. She would remember battles and historic occasions fought by men but all the similar days of her own domestic duties would disappear from history. All these obscure, unrecorded lives remain to be observed by Mary Carmicheal if she is up to the challenge. She should record her own soul too, as well as venturing behind the figure of man and observing him for the first time as he has always observed women.
The "naturalist-novelist" is one who observes from the outside, who shows how things look without really understanding what is essential. By conjuring the anonymous, unexceptional working-class woman and insisting that this woman has a story to be told, the narrator insists on the importance of creating a legacy of women writers. There are innumerable women, ordinary women, young, old, whose lives are just waiting to be recorded into history. In addition, such a legacy would record men from a different perspective at last, in the way that women have always been recorded by men. All this remains to be done and the narrator spurs her audience on to take up the gauntlet.
The narrator stops herself from continuing to tell Mary what she should write, and instead goes back to the novel and reads on, hoping to get away from her prejudices about Mary's broken sentences. She finds that the structure of the novel is also disappointing, always leading her towards something deep and elemental but never quite giving it. She certainly doesn't have the genius of Austen, Bronte, or Winchilsea, but, she has something that they never had, a self-sufficiency, an indifference to men, which opens her work to an unbiased sexual curiosity as if she's "forgotten that she is a woman."
As the narrator returns to Mary Carmichael's imaginary novel, she comes to the conclusion that it lacks the genius to fulfill the possibilities of its revolutionary premise. Carmichael, quite simply, is not the genius that Austen and Bronte were. Yet the narrator also finds much to be hopeful about, because she sees that the changing society has allowed her to write in an unconstrained way: as a person rather than as a woman. The implication is that society as begun to change in ways that make the "wholeness" that distinguishes great novels accessible to women.
As she reads, the narrator waits nervously for the important moment that Mary Carmicheal must show if she is to prove herself. It is a moment of going deeper into the world of her story, of going beyond the shallow surface of appearances. The professors and historians of the male world will be shouting out their advice to her but she must not be distracted. The narrator concludes, having finished the novel, that considering Mary Carmicheal's talent and circumstances, she did well. But in another hundred years, she will write a much better book.
A giant leap has been made for women in Mary Carmicheal's book, but the narrator concedes that in the end, women need a bit more time, that the next Mary Carmichael will do better, and the one after that will do even better. By referencing the future generations, the narrator emphasizes the responsibilities and possibilities for her audience in this lecture: they are the next generation. They must continue to push forward, ad they will continue Mary Carmichael's progress.