A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘literature

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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And so here we are: the final book of the year and the last post of this blog. And what better way to round off this canter through some of the highlights of women’s lit past and present than to leapfrog back a few centuries to one of the early trailblazers?

Memories and attention spans being what they are, we have a tendency to think that we, or at a stretch the generation before us, invented most of the big ideas. From sexual intercourse beginning in 1963 to the term ‘wireless’, we congratulate ourselves on working it all out pretty much from scratch.

When it comes to feminism, we can be particularly smug. Alright, so we vaguely remember the suffragettes. But they were a bit quaint and genteel with their high-necked dresses and bustles, weren’t they? Really the whole thing only kicked off with Germaine Greer and after that, well, it all went a bit quiet. In fact it’s only in the last year or so with sheroes like Kat and Caitlin showing us how to be women that feminism has truly got off the ground.

Well, not quite. And there are few texts more qualified to show up the flaws in such short-termism than Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Published in 1762, the text sets out Wollstonecraft’s arguments against the marked inequality she sees between men and women at all levels in society. This, she claims, stems from a ‘false system of education’, which prizes ‘delicacy’ above all other traits in women, denying them the opportunity to  develop their talents and interests in a meaningful way, and encouraging them to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men to amuse themselves with. Given such an education, she writes, is it any wonder that women’s ‘minds are not in a healthy state’?

From this she proceeds to set out her stall for a new and better system of education that would enable women to develop their faculties and reasoning on the same footing as men, and give them the opportunity to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society. Give us a chance, she argues, and if it turns out we’re no good at it, at least you’ll have solid proof of women’s inadequacies rather than mere conjecture.

Writing from personal experience and observation, Wollstonecraft includes many anecdotes to illustrate her points. Inevitably, some of her own bugbears creep in, lending the text an occasionally quirky air. The observations on the indecency of women changing in the same room as each other and the frivolity of reading novels, for example, are products of Wollstonecraft’s time and taste, rather than central planks of the argument, but they lend the book some welcome colour.

Readers with any knowledge of more recent feminist literature will be struck by the amount that Wollstonecraft anticipates. From observations on the way men ‘inwardly despise’ women, foreshadowing Greer’s comments nearly 200 years later, to compelling arguments against gender-specific toys that might have been made by Kat Banyard, Wollstonecraft repeatedly sets out arguments that will be rehearsed over centuries to come. Even her reflections on the generations it is likely to take for true equality to take root find their echo in Marilyn French, Greer and Caitlin Moran.

But perhaps most striking of all, is the point that Wollstonecraft leads with in her introduction: that inequality stems from a tendency to ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’. Having spent a year reading women writers, this seems to me to be the problem facing women authors these days too. Until we get past the stage of thinking of books by women as a sort of sub-set of literature proper and realise that they are every bit as diverse, compelling, complex and vital as those by men (as I hope this blog has gone some small way to showing), women will continue to be under-read and under-published and intelligent young women will continue to regard books by their contemporaries as somehow lesser.

Wollstonecraft was on to this more than two centuries ago. Isn’t it time the rest of us caught up?

Thanks to everyone who has followed and commented on this blog over the past year, and to all those who have suggested books. It’s been a great pleasure and privilege to have your support. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read (or even if you haven’t), please join me on my next adventure. I’d really appreciate your help.

Best wishes for 2012.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 31, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

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Now and then someone recommends a book to me and my heart sinks. It might be that the title sounds naff. Or that the author is someone I’ve made a vow never to read. The genre might be the problem (as regular visitors to this blog know, magical realism and I have a largely hate-hate relationship), or the subject matter.

In the case of Norwegian Nobel-Prize-winner Sigrid Undset‘s Kristin Lavransdatter, it was the 1,100-plus page count that had me gnawing my knuckles in dread.

Now, as anyone who’s seen my plans to read the world in 2012 knows, I’m not afraid of a challenge. It’s simply that on balance I prefer novels to look like books rather than doorstops. So when this three-volume beast thunked on to the mat, it took me a good while to work up the enthusiasm to open it and have a read.

But, oh, am I glad I did because, quite simply, and with no qualifications of any kind, this is one of the best books I have read in my life.

Set in fourteenth century Norway (I know, it’s not a promising start, but stick with it), the 1920s trilogy follows the life of noblewoman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The narrative keeps largely to the estates and convents at which she lives, yet this is no period kitchen-sink drama: kicking sand (or perhaps Scandinavian snow) in the face of all those who maintain that women’s lit is narrow and homely in scope, Undset uses the domestic as a prism through which to view national and international events.

In this, the book shares ground with Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but, as the protagonist is female and, as such, not privy to the machinations of the kingmakers as Mantel’s hero is, Undset’s achievement is all the more impressive.

Impressive, too, is Undset’s knowledge of the period in which her story is set. This is evident in everything from the detailed descriptions of rituals around events from births, through the preparation of the marriage bed and the last rituals of dying right down to her choice of similes. These are consistently faithful to the setting and yet fresh and memorable for the modern reader — for example, when Kristin is only able to glimpse her lover from a distance at convent services, she is described as feeling like ‘a hawk that sat chained to a roost with a hood pulled over its eyes’.

Yet what brings all this alive is Undset’s feeling for the characters and world she has evoked. Instead of a cold procession of historical and anthropological details, we are presented with a vibrant milieu, peopled with beings riddled with faults and contradictions. What comes home again and again over the course of the epic is its author’s insight into and sympathy for humanity and her awareness of the cruel conspiracy of character and circumstance that drives people off the course they would have wanted for their lives and yet enriches existence.

The upshot of this is a cast of characters with whom we feel and live through events (when Kristin’s father Lavrans died, I cried my eyes out on the tube — apologies if you were riding in the same carriage), and it makes for a book that is without question among the greatest works in the world. If I hadn’t already read it, I would be recommending it to myself for next year, regardless of its length.

Thanks to Jason Cooper for the recommendation.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Rivka Galchen: Atmospheric Disturbances

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One of the great things about writing a blog like this is that you get recommendations of things to read. At first they come from friends, but pretty soon people you’ve never met all over the world are chiming in and bringing things to your attention that you would never have found on your own.

So when Andra Watkins joined the debate about magic realism that blew up in the comments to my post on The Tiger’s Wife, and suggested that I give a book about a man who ‘becomes convinced his wife is a doppelgänger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one’, I was intrigued.

As it turned out, reading this book in response to a suggestion from someone I didn’t know  over the internet was very fitting. Narrated by, in his own words, ‘a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalisations and no relevant past medical, social or family history,’ the novel charts the unravelling of reality as Leo gets sucked into the delusions of one of his patients. Increasingly convinced that the woman living with him is a simulacrum of his wife and that he is being recruited by the Royal Academy of Meteorology to help wage a war that involves controlling weather systems in parallel worlds, the New Yorker travels to South America, picking up coded messages, emails and signs from the mysterious professor Tzvi Gal-Chen (haven’t we seen that name somewhere before?).

Books like this live or die on the strength of the narrator’s voice and this novel thrives. Obsessive, quirky and clinical, Leo is constantly surprising. At times, particularly when constructing justifications for some of his more outlandish decisions, he recalls Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, enabling the reader to inhabit the rogue selectiveness of the paranoid psychotic and the cruel, strange way that mental illness weaves itself through the personality so that it’s impossible to tell where the condition stops and the person begins.

There are some arresting insights into the more general business of living too. From the nonsense phrases that play at the back of the brain and the paranoid connections made between things by internet search results, to the way that a stain disintegrates into power when you pick at it with your thumb, Galchen is a past master at picking out the little details we are each usually alone with as we move through the world, whether sane or not.

Yet she is not about to let us get comfortable with the notion that what we are reading is purely the addled account of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. Throwing in just enough external coincidences to make Leo’s reading of events conceivable, she teases us with the possibility that his is in fact a reality where there are weather wars, doppelgänger wives and parallel worlds.

The conundrum of what is really going on in the book (and what ‘really’ really means) is something we can never be 100 per cent certain we have solved. Whether we try to explain the strange happenings as elements of magical realism, products of psychosis, or a conscious attempt to mislead, or whether we buy into them wholesale, there is no solid ground on which to base our interpretation. Without an independent, or at least second, perspective from which to calibrate our reading (as Tzvi Gal-Chen discusses in one of his papers on radar technology and the doppler effect), we are dependent on our own partial soundings to try and pinpoint truth.

Leo ponders the dilemma himself:

If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a ‘madman’ to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the ‘author’ might be reality and the ‘madman’ just reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Qualified psychiatrist Galchen (the author, not the meteorologist) has left the door open for us to wander outside the bounds of the novel and question her storytelling too: her father, in ‘real’ life, is none other than Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meteorology. And the family photograph of the Gal-Chens that Leo keeps on his fridge door is her own.

We buy into her story, suspend our disbelief and allow the narrative to sweep us along.  But what is really behind the words? What hybrid of experience, truth and fantasy constitutes her art?

Maybe the only distinction between madness and sanity is the extent to which you are able to make others believe your story could be true.

Picture by kristiewells

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

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It was only when I got stuck into chapter two of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad that I realised I’d read some of it before. As the narrative zoomed in on the impotence, guilt and cringe-making memories of ageing music producer Bennie, I had that weird feeling you get when you recognise a celebrity in the street and raise your hand to wave only to remember they’ve got no idea who you are at all. I’d seen this somewhere before, but it wasn’t connecting with me in quite the same way.

The reason, I worked out after a bit of head-scratching, was that the chapter was featured in Granta‘s new writing anthology number 110, the issue entitled Sex. And, while I had enjoyed the portrait of a somewhat seedy yet touchingly bewildered bloke struggling to keep up with the modern world when I first read it, its inclusion in a collection of writing about sex had slanted my reading of it, pushing the focus on to Bennie’s preoccupations with physicality and downplaying some of its other aspects.

Chapter two wasn’t the only section to have gone solo. Surprisingly for a book celebrated for its experimental structure (which, similar to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, sees a series of linked stories weaving characters in and out of one anothers’ lives) a large number of Egan’s chapters appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and Harper’s prior to the book’s launch.

Although the quality of the writing would be more than enough to ensure readers enjoyed the extracts wherever they found them, context is so crucial to the work as a whole that it’s hard not to feel that the isolated chunks must have presented slightly different faces to the world through being separated from their companions in this way — much as people in varied social contexts present modified versions of themselves to the world.

With each chapter told over the shoulder of a different character, the book trades off the gap between our perceptions of the people around us and the reality. Its wide timeframe, sweeping from the seventies through to fifteen years or so in the future, allows Egan to play with some impressive effects, from bathetic flashes forward into characters’ lives (reminiscent of the deflationary techniques of Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) to a compelling vision of the NYC of the future: malaria-ridden, patrolled by helicopters, ruled by consumer babies and with trees that bloom in January. There are some startling insights too, particularly into the way that various people get ‘lost’ as their lives drift off the course predicted for them while their contemporaries power on by.

However, the structure is not without its problems. One of the more annoying is that if, like me, you struggle with remembering names, the opening pages of most chapters are spent in a haze of frustration as you try to place the figure who is set to guide you through the next stages of the story.

But far more serious still is the fundamental conflict between the book’s vision and the structure through which it is presented. Setting out a lonely cast of characters, all so walled up within their own perspectives that they can only be brought to a brief moment of unison by a corrupt marketing ploy, Egan gives an incredibly bleak prognosis for humankind. Yet, this is undercut by her own skill in realising the viewpoints of her characters.

Surely if one person can recognise the conflicting needs and secret loneliness of the world around us there is more hope for humanity than Egan leaves room for. If it’s possible for readers to perceive the good, the bad and the ugly in so many people, then it’s possible for human beings to connect more deeply, meaningfully and frequently than they do in Egan’s book. And if that’s the case, then A Visit from the Goon Squad is a magnificent, elegant and deeply heartening failure. And we should all be very glad.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

EM Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

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If proof were ever needed that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady provides plenty. Looking particularly chintzy in the rose-covered jacket of its excellent new four-volume edition from Virago, this prim-sounding  tome from the 1930s seems to promise a gentle stroll through everything that is genteel, correct and charming…

In other words, dull. In fact, had it not been recommended by a friend who’d already put several other great reads my way, I’d probably have slotted it straight back on to the shelf and moved on. So it was a delight, on settling down on the daybed one Sunday after giving the servants the afternoon off,  to find wit and sharp perceptions where I’d expected find fluffy generalisations and tweeness.

Told through the diary entries of an anonymous Provincial Lady, the novel unfolds the triumphs and frustrations of domestic life in the early twentieth century. It documents the trials of its narrator as she struggles to keep up appearances in the face of mounting debts, squabbles among children and staff and the unreasonable demands of contemporaries.

‘Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”?’ she muses at the end of one entry. ‘Answer came there none.’

Yet this is no catalogue of woes. Bursting from the same stable as Stella Gibbons, Delafield uses comedy to fence from behind the accepted forms and social mores of upper-middle-class society, spearing the hypocrisy, inconsistencies and oddness of the world around her. Each character is revealed in all his or her contrariness, from Our Vicar’s Wife, who is always saying how busy she is and yet always outstays her welcome, to the stormy Mademoiselle, who has a mauvais mot for every occasion. Not to mention the Provincial Lady herself,  with her talent for selective blindness when it comes to domestic economy versus shopping sprees.

Revelling in the ludicrous, Delafield, who originally wrote the book in instalments for Time and Tide — itself a recurring theme in the book — exploits the diary form for comic effect, puncturing expectations with the bathetic reality that follows. So ‘dear old school friend’  Cissy Crabbe turns out to be on a punishingly strict diet that throws the household into chaos, and the bulbs that are puffed so persuasively in their marketing pamphlets moulder in their pots.

The comedy lives in the space between the way things are supposed to be and the awkward reality, much like the novel itself. And this is what makes it such fun to read. Far from being the narrow story of a cossetted woman in a very particular time and place, this is a work that resonates far beyond the boundaries of its setting and subject matter. It is anything but provincial in scope. Cosmopolitan men, women and children everywhere will find it a joy.

Which books have surprised you ? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

Cynthia Ozick: Foreign Bodies

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There are few things nicer than discovering a great writer with an extensive back catalogue to explore. It’s like meeting an exciting new friend — someone you click with instantly and know will be the source of lots of sparky conversations and raucous fun.

So when I read an interview with Cynthia Ozick in the Guardian books section’s ‘A life in writing’ series, I had high hopes that she might be an addition to my virtual circle. The standfirst quote about writing was enough to reel me in on its own: ‘You have to be a fanatic, you have to be a crank to keep going, but what else would you do with the rest of your life? You gotta do something’.

Here was an author I could get on board with, I thought. So I downloaded Ozick’s latest, Foreign Bodies, and settled down ready to be enthralled.

Sad to report, things didn’t go quite according to plan. For one thing, I found Ozick’s plot threadbare, centring as it does around an ageing literature teacher, Bea, who lives in a New York appartement hemmed in by her ex-husband’s grand piano, until one day she receives a letter from her estranged brother instructing her to go to post-war Paris to winkle his graduate son out of an extended period of drifting. Thereafter, she receives a series of letters and instructions from various members of the family. These she obeys (at least in part), until she is finally thrown into the path of her ex-husband, who turns out to be less successful than his reputation suggests.

Perhaps I suffered from not knowing Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which Ozick claims to have inverted to construct her book, but I’ve always been a believer that works of art should stand on their own without supplementary reading. Extra research can add lots of valuable layers, but truly great books are believable and engrossing to anyone who picks them up.

In this case, I found it hard to buy into Bea’s grudging obedience to her relatives’ demands. ‘Why are you bothering?’ I found myself asking the the Kindle screen as it presented me with page after page of Bea’s complaints about having to rearrange her classes and the fact that her brother Marvin has always been far too used to getting his way.

This wasn’t the only problem. Because of the book’s heavy reliance on letters, there’s a strangely performative feel to a lot of the correspondence. Characters are obliged to rehearse information that would be obvious to both parties for the sake of the reader, giving some of the exchanges an oddly wooden feel. There is also the difficulty of certain hidden information being peeled back from several perspectives, forcing the narrative to retread the same ground several times.

Where secrets are revealed well, however, they’re corkers. Bea’s discovery of the true medium of Marvin’s wife Margaret’s ‘art’, for example, is masterfully managed. So is the moment when Lili reveals the true reasons for the distress that seems bound up with her dismissal.

Such writerly sleights of hand, combined with striking flashes such as the astonishing description of Bea’s waking up to a snowy morning in New York, make me feel that I would like to get to know Ozick better. Perhaps it’s time to do some digging into her biography and weed out her best work. As far as naming her my new literary best friend is concerned though, we’ve got some way to go yet.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

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When I was at university, a supervisor picked me up on one of my essay writing habits. ‘Why do you always call the reader “he”?’ he asked. I replied that it was shorthand, that I couldn’t be bothered with adding the cumbersome ‘or she’ every third sentence, that the Elizabethans used to use ‘he’ as a neuter form (I was a cocky so-and-so) and that, as a woman, I was aware I could get away with it.

He looked at me kindly but sternly. ‘I think you need to think more carefully about the battles that have been fought about this issue,’ he said.

Marilyn French wouldn’t have needed such a reminder. Writing in the seventies, a few years after the crest of the second wave of feminism broke on western shores, she made the struggles of women for equal recognition and a voice in debate the lifeblood of her work.

Told from the perspective of Mira, a bright but deeply conventional woman who gradually learns to test and then finally reject the status quo she has been brought up with in small-town America, The Women’s Room blows apart accepted structures and forces readers to question whether what is is what has to be. It brings in the lives of numerous female characters, each of whom eventually runs up and smashes against the limitations of the world in which she is obliged to exist.

The book is so massive in scope (despite its domestic subject matter) that it’s tempting to think of it as a sort of female Odyssey, in which the heroine encounters a string of challenges in an effort to reach harmony and a true home. French would no doubt reject such a definition, however, as her narrative is nothing if not a struggle to find a way of articulating the mental fetters that bind women by breaking free of traditional masculine structures, Homeric epics and all.

Val, French’s most memorable and tragic character, puts it most succinctly:

‘We’re rebels against all establishments because we’re rebels against male supremacy, male surface bonding, male power, male structures. We want a completely different world, one so different that it’s hard to articulate, impossible to conceive of a structure for it’

And that’s the dilemma that makes the book so compelling: when all that’s biased and tainted is stripped away, precious little remains on which to build a new vision. Val has a stab at it, positing a sort of Utopian community not dissimilar to the Italian commune Germaine Greer sketches out in The Female Eunuch, but even she has to admit the vision is unconvincingly vague.

Witnessing the sad dissolution of the women’s lives, you can’t help but feel how difficult it is to envisage true equality in a system that is fundamentally constructed by and for men. We are all (men and women alike) so trapped in the world-view we’ve been fed and clothed in since we were born that imagining that there might be an alternative is challenge enough for most of us, let alone trying to thrash out what that alternative might look like.

Society, the book leaves you feeling,  would be entirely different if it had been constructed by women — not necessarily better, but very different. In such a world, instead of swallowing my arrogance and adding ‘or she’ into my assignments, I might not have been writing essays at all.

Picture by Galdo Trouchsky. With thanks to Georgina for recommending The Women’s Room.

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 25, 2011 at 9:06 am