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Between mothers and daughters - letters that counsel and inspire; Between Ourselves: Letters Between Mothers & Daughters 1750-1982, edited by Karen Payne. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 416 pp. $16.95.

''Between Ourselves'' is a fascinating study of the mother-daughter relationship seen through letters exchanged between mothers and daughters over two centuries, from 1750 through 1982. Editor Karen Payne has assembled an impressive collection of correspondence, much of it previously unpublished, from such famous women as Calamity Jane, Amelia Earhart, Louisa May Alcott, George Sand, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Sylvia Plath, and Vera Brittain. Half of the letters in the book, though, were written in the last 10 years, and in many cases by authors who have chosen anonymity.

''Between Ourselves'' is valuable as a history of both the mother-daughter relationship and of feminism. With its detailed table of contents and index, the book is useful as a reference work. The reader can dip into it, selecting only certain subjects or certain writers. Yet the book is organized and written in such a way that it can be read straight through. Karen Payne introduces each section with illuminating background material and historical perspective about the issues discussed in the letters. Each letter or set of letters is introduced with biographical information about the author and the recipient.

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Organized mainly by subject, the letters discuss the major issues in women's lives and the things that affect women's identities. These subjects include women's relationships with men, including marriage, divorce, rape, and incest; relationships with other women, including lesbianism; having children; women's liberation; careers and achievements; and women's dreams, desires, goals, and ambitions. Overshadowing the negative aspects of some of these subjects is the emphasis on the positive aspects of the mother-daughter relationship seen in many of the letters. ''Between Ourselves'' celebrates the value of mothers and daughters to each other.

Recently I spoke with editor Karen Payne in New York. Born and raised in Texas in the 1950s, Ms. Payne has lived in London for the past seven years. I asked her how she had conceived the idea for this book.

''Five years ago there was a lot of talk about the mother-daughter relationship,'' she replied. ''I was interested in how the issues of the women's liberation movement affected the mother-daughter relationship. . . . Lots of things have had an effect . . . . At other points in history there have been other things that have meant big changes for the possibilities for women's lives , like the Industrial Revolution, contraception, women's rights, women entering the professions . . . so that women had different choices than their mothers had. . . . It seemed as if the gap between mothers and daughters was getting bigger because of the women's liberation movement.

''I was interested in finding out ways of discussing the issues . . . which were being dealt with . . . by the media and sociologists, but not always in a way that I found illuminating. I just had the idea (that) if women wrote to their mothers or to their daughters about those issues, surely that would be very accessible to lots of people and wouldn't trivialize or caricature the issues, but would actually talk about the issues in a way that (could) be very positive about women's lives. . . .''

Ms. Payne hoped that the letters would ''put the emphasis on what a woman felt was good about the way she was living, what was enjoyable about it, what was positive, what was challenging, rather than so much emphasis on . . . oppressive conditions in women's lives.''

Her hopes were realized. She commented that ''there was a lot less censorship overall in the letters than I expected. . . . People were able to talk about subjects and feelings which were distressing to them . . . quite openly and frankly . . . things like rape, abortion, anger, hatred, disappointment, rejection. All of those things did come up in the letters, which was surprising to me.''

She found other surprises in the letters, among them ''the incredible number of mothers throughout the centuries who have encouraged their daughters to take risks, to get out in the world, to do the things they wanted to do, to live out their dreams. They haven't tried to protect them. . . .''

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''Between Ourselves'' can appeal to men as well as women. It can give men a different view of women, as well as a greater appreciation for their mothers. It also answers the age-old question, ''What do women talk about?'' The letters in this book can be an inspiration to both men and women. Noting that she has been inspired by the things that men have done, Ms. Payne adds, ''Men can be inspired by the courage of women and by their insight and compassion as well.''

''Between Ourselves'' is a challenging, enlightening, and inspiring book.

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