Category Archives: Feminism

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

Bookword has reached the 1970s in the Decades Project with this novel from Egypt. I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi when it was first published in English in the 1980s. Like many readers I was shocked by the brutality and suffering in Firdaus’s story. It took its place among the important literature of the so-called second feminist wave.

In the project we have moved from Anglo-centric literature to a novel in translation and originally written in Arabic.

The Story

Woman at Point Zero is introduced as a true story, and framed by a psychiatrist’s visit to a woman’s prison where Firdaus is awaiting execution. The psychiatrist, requests an interview with the condemned woman, but she is refused until her last night. She summons the doctor and tells her story.

Firdaus was born with two disadvantages: being a female and to parents who lived in poverty. She lives her whole life on the margins. She is orphaned while still young, and then taken by her uncle to Cairo where he sends her to primary school. On his marriage she boards at secondary school, which she loves. But on graduating she is married off to an old man, a relative of her uncle’s wife. The old man is one in a long line of men who treat her badly, exploiting her sexually, forcing her into domestic servitude and beating her on any excuse. She runs away and is rescued by the next abuser, and the pattern continues until she is rescued and groomed by a madame.

She leaves this comfortable life when she understands that she is as exploited by the woman as by the men, sets herself up as a prostitute, and for the first time knows financial independence and wealth. But the life still depends upon men, so she gives it up to work in an office, but is betrayed again by a man she fell in love with and who only wanted to exploit her sexually for free, she returns to prostitution.

But this is threatened by a gangster who offers her protection, from his own violence. She kills him. She has reached the point where there is nothing, point zero. Her freedom is to die.

Why Firdaus’s story matters

Her story is recognizable in the lives of all women, despite the novel being set in Egypt, despite being written 40 years ago, and despite her career choice. The abuse is recognizable in our own society today. Women still suffer from violent abuse, and we still struggle with residual beliefs that women’s role is to service men.

At the time it was published in English Woman at Point Zero reinforced everything that the second wave of feminism was uncovering. It was passed around and discussed widely in my circle.

Towards the end of her account Firdaus tells us about the bleak prospects for women to escape persecution.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.

Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the cruellest suffering of women. (117-8)

Her feminism is best understood as a criticism of capitalism, supported by Islam in parts of the world.

Nawal el Saadawi

Nawal el Saadawi by Mansour Nasiri via WikiCommons

Born in 1931 at 86 Nawal el Saadawi is still alive, and still speaking out. She was trained in medicine and psychiatry and Firdaus’s story is based on the life of a woman she visited in prison. Nawal el Saadawi worked for improved help for women in Egypt, as Director General for Public Health Education. Women who stand out often become enemies of prominent men and in 1981 she herself was arrested and imprisoned by Sadat’s regime. She was released after his assassination later that year. She worked for a time in the US but has returned to Egypt where she is still in the public eye, for example she was among the protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Early in the novel Firdaus, still a child, suffers genital cutting. The practice of genital mutilation has only recently been taken seriously in this country and appears to be acceptable in other parts of the world. Nawal el Saadawi is one of the most distinguished voices in the campaigns against FGM.

Her second novel was published in1976 God Dies by the Nile, and her study of Arabic women, The Hidden Face of Eve, a year later. In 2016 she explained how hard it was to get her voice heard she says this:

The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking … I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers. [quotation from Wikipedia, from an article in the New African]

Woman at Point Zero takes its place in my plans to read more Women in Translation (#WIT) as well as in the Decades Project.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. 142 pp

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, her third husband.

The Decades Project

The idea for the Decades Project originated in my library’s Reading Passport scheme. I have adapted it by selecting a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it on this blog.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have not yet decided what to read in September for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1990s (October) and 2000s (November).

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project, Women in Translation

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

My Writing Heroes

I reckon that the 300th post on the Bookword blog merits a celebration. That’s why I decided to write about my writerly heroes, an unashamed self-indulgence. Regular readers of the blog will not be at all surprised to find that I have chosen nearly all women as my writing heroes.

Why are these writers heroes?

After I had chosen my short list of heroes, I reflected on what they had in common.

  • They have all lived some of their lives in adversity.
  • They have all used writing to communicate important values.
  • They are all writers who share their understanding of the world, through fiction, but also through polemic, performance or other writerly activities.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft lived at a time when women were not expected to have a view on matters outside the home, and nor were they equipped to have a life in the public sphere. She had to support her family from an early age. She set up a school for girls in Newington Green in north London, was employed as a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland, and then decided to earn a living through her writing.

She held radical views, not just about women but about how society should be run and the French Revolution. She was intrepid, travelling to Lisbon alone to support a friend who died, and then going to live in revolutionary Paris. To support her lover Imlay, who had lost some merchandise in a shady deal, she travelled to several Scandinavian countries with their baby daughter, on his behalf.

American edition of Vindication

American edition of Vindication

She was a woman of principle, and passions. She gave birth to Fanny Imlay (later Godwin) in France. Back in England she met up again with the foremost political philosopher of the day, William Godwin. She died in childbirth. Their child was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and wrote; reviews for journals, reports of what she saw in France, letters, novels, and polemic writing including her most famous book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

She has been called the original suffragette, but this description is not appropriate. She was a feminist, she did believe that women should have political power, but she was not especially focused on the right to vote. Hers was a more encompassing vision.

George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot. She wrote novels, poems and was a journalist and translator. She was also, notoriously, a common law wife, that is she lived with George Henry Lewis without being married to him for 20 years.

She too was a prolific writer and today is best known for her novels, including Middlemarch (one of my desert island books), The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Just typing the titles makes me want to reread another of her novels.

There are a few other personal connections that mean very little, but are pleasing to note. Middlemarch was reputedly based on Coventry, where I was born and where I worked for 15 years. In London, my daughter happily attended George Eliot Infants School. I remember writing a history essay for my first degree about Middlemarch and feminism.

Write to Life Writers

My third writerly heroes are the writers at Freedom from Torture: the Write to Life group.

254 FFTlogo

These are people who have suffered torture in their own country, and as part of their recovery attend the Write to Life group. Some readers will know I am currently raising money for Freedom from Torture, and if you want to know more check out the The Challenge page on this website.

Jade in Lost and Found

Jade in Lost and Found

Recently some of these guys performed at the Roundhouse in London in their play with music called Lost and Found. You can read my account of this event here.

Sheila Hayman, who runs the group says:

It’s a lyrical, funny, surprising narrative about six survivors’ journeys to London; not the gloomy and overdone tales of crowded dinghies and miserable hostels you’ve heard before, but the violin buried when the Ayatollahs banned music, or the African song unwittingly sung to the occupants of a British Library reading room; the piano at St Pancras bringing a Cuban moment to a grey London, and the stranger who stopped to chat, and saved a life.

All these stories are linked by music; music remembered, and the original music they inspired. And the whole thing has been binaurally recorded so you can put on your headphones and travel with the stories.

On the site are videos and the individual numbers to browse, and the whole album to download for your journey to work, or wherever.

You can find the download of Lost and Found on the Freedom from Torture site here.

And …

I hope you enjoyed my selection of heroes. I would love to know who you would pick for your 300th post.

Related posts

Dear Jade, Sept 2013

Souvenirs, May 2016

Mary Wollestonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw, March 2016

Desert Island Books, February 2013

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Writing

The Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.

289-virago-squire

The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

110 Squire cover

A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)

289-enid-bagnold

The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaper

Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reviews

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You know the most famous line from Virginia Woolf’s essay:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

I sigh with satisfaction when I open one of my copies of this essay. It was published in 1928, between Orlando and The Waves. In this post I ask what has changed after 88 years.

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

Have the gains in women’s fiction been as expected?

283 Room VBell's cover

This is my fifth contribution to the #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

A Room of One’s Own.

The essay originated in talks given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge and Newnham College, Oxford in 1928 and she wrote more on the topic of women and fiction in Three Guineas, published in 1938.

In six chapters, just over 100 pages, Virginia Woolf describes what she found when she researched the question of women and fiction, and what was known about women’s lives. She does this through the fictional account by Mary Seton of some days in Oxbridge and London as she prepares for the lectures. She uses the device of a fictional sister for William Shakespeare, Judith, who ends up drowning herself in the Thames for daring to follow in her brother’s path. She builds a picture of the many influences that kept women from writing or publishing. And she considers why those four great novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to write, noting that three of them used male names: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot.

The core of her argument is that women needed money and their own room, to provide freedom from want and anxiety, and the necessary privacy. She was also keen to point out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

Some things are better now for women in fiction. We no longer think it strange that some women can earn a living, even a fortune, through their skills as writers: JK Rowling, EL James, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins. Nor are we surprised that women are shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes; or hold positions as Professors of Literature or of Creative Writing, or run publishing houses.

People who express sexist opinions can expect to be challenged. It is no longer acceptable to keep women off the lawns, out of libraries, out of colleges or the professions. At least not in the UK.

… but not a lot.

But things have not improved as much as might have been hoped after nearly a century of the vote (1918), and 41 years of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). And indeed since the publication of many, many volumes of fiction by women since the first novels, such as Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778).

But oh dear, how entrenched is the view that women’s fiction is of less value than male fiction! That’s why we still need Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. And oh dear, how deeply embedded is the idea that Virginia Woolf expressed in A Room of One’s Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

And still we do not find it strange that books by women are not published, read or reviewed in the same proportion as men’s books. I need only refer you to the VIDA statistics reporting the disparity in gender of reviewers and authorship of works reviewed. These figures have been compiled for several years, to show how bad the situation is, and how slowly it is improving. The most recent count (2015) can be found here.

VIDA is a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color; writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. [from the Vida website]

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

The truth of the original idea, that income and privacy are necessary to the creative process is still evident. My previous post was about Jean Rhys, and in it I challenge the romantic idea that poverty and artistic creativity go together. You can link to it here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, and in the Penguin Modern Classic edition, used in for this post, in 1945. 112 pp

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Inevitably, it’s the word ROMP that comes to mind when reading Orlando. For Virginia Woolf, the word was FUN, as she wrote in her diaries in 1928. She wanted fun, and she described the novel as ‘all a joke’. However, we should not believe everything she said in her diaries for she also said, in the same paragraph, that she thought she would never write another novel. I will admit that Orlando: a biography is not a novel that I especially enjoy, even on second reading. But it has many merits.

264 Orlandobackinengland

Famously Virginia Woolf had a romantic and sexual relationship with Vita Sackville West. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote,

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

The novel is dedicated to Vita. Certainly it reflects the joyousness and exuberance of their relationship.

The narrative

264 Orlando cover

It is a romp through English history from Elizabethan times until the final pages of the book: ‘Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight’. At the start of the novel Orlando is a gentleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth. By the end she is a married mother in comfortable circumstances in the reign of George V.

We follow Orlando through many adventures, of the heart, the pen, as Charles II’s ambassador to Turkey and as a gypsy, in the courts of successive monarchs, in the salons of the fashionable elite and mostly at home in the English countryside. Constant in his/her life is this country home and the oak tree from which can be seen most of England. And also constant is Orlando’s attempt to write a poem called The Old Oak Tree.

The style

Here is a passage from the opening chapter.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone,’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days perhaps thirty or forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky-line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountaneous among the clouds. (12-3)

The reference to ‘the record’ is an example of how Virginia Woolf draws attention to the act of writing. She refers to this, sometimes tongue in cheek as a historian with few documents, throughout the book.

It is also an example of the use of lists, elaborate, cumulative and increasingly stretching our belief. Orlando can see London, the coast, Snowdon and forty English counties all from his oak tree!

Her love of words is revealed in other lists, especially where they concern fabrics, and Orlando has many gorgeous costumes, both as a man and as a woman. And also in the names of the characters: Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is her husband.

Within ten pages of the scene under the oak tree, the great frost descends upon England, and the River Thames is frozen over. The description of the scene on the Thames teems with life and people and reflects Virginia Woolf’s skills in observation. Her fondness for walking through the streets of London is well known.

You might also have noted the reference to waves, which often featured in her writing.

Gender in Orlando

You could hardly have your hero turn into a woman without some animadversions upon the differences in the experiences of men and women. Some of this was being worked on in Virginia Woolf’s mind as she prepared the lectures that would eventually become A Room of One’s Own which also questions the role of women in fiction, and how women who write fared.

It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry. (p103 A Room of One’s Own)

Orlando is independently wealthy and it is somewhat ironic that it was the sales of Orlando that allowed Virginia Woolf to spend money at last. In December 1928 she was reporting in her diary that Orlando was selling well and for the first time since she got married she was spending her own money. ‘My room is secure,’ she reports on 18th December 1928.

Virginia Woolf treats us to her wit and insights as Orlando makes the transition into a woman. She muses on what will be lost to her by becoming a woman. But it seems that neither sex come off well. We must ask with Orlando, why make so much of gender in social relations.

She reflects on these matters as she sails back to England from Turkey, and notices the crew’s response to showing ‘an inch or two of calf’.

‘And that’s the last oath I shall ever be able to swear,’ she thought; ‘once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through his body, or sit among my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D’you take sugar? D’you take cream?’ And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong. ‘To fall from a masthead,’ she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet go about as if you were the Lords of creation – Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of is – what fools we are!’ And here is would seem that from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally as if she belonged to neither … (111-2)

Men of Letters

One group of people who come off badly in their meetings with Orlando are the men of letters. With pretensions to authorship the young Orlando invites Nicholas Greene to spend time at his country house. The experience is not a happy one. The poet lampoons his host. Later the 18th Century trio Addison, Pope and Dryden come in for some criticism. It seem that she can love their writing but on meeting them socially it transpires that they are not good company.

And …?

And what is one to make of all this. Well, I’m not sure, beyond the pleasure of the imagination at work. The extravagant and outrageous descriptions are a delight. I hope Virginia Woolf had fun writing it. But I prefer her other writings.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1928 by the Hogarth Press. I used the Penguin Classic version (1942, 231pp) in writing this post.

264 Peng Orlando

Related posts

This is my fourth contribution to #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog. Previous posts can be found through the links:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in January 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf in May

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

The winner of Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 was announced on Wednesday 8th June.

The winner is:

Lisa McInerney        The Glorious Heresies

258 Gl Heresies cover

Congratulations. It’s on the tbr pile.

The Shadow Panel’s winner, on Writes of Woman blog was A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, not shortlisted by the official panel.

258 God in ruins

The shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize was:

258 Bailey's shortlist

The Baileys Longlist for Women’s Fiction 2016:

  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins
  • Shirley Barrett: Rush Oh!
  • Cynthia Bond: Ruby
  • Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord
  • Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  • Jackie Copleton: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
  • Rachel Elliott: Whispers Through a Megaphone
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road
  • Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory
  • Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky
  • Clio Gray: The Anatomist’s Dream
  • Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time
  • Attica Locke: Pleasantville
  • Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
  • Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
  • Sara Nović: Girl at War
  • Julia Rochester: The House at the Edge of the World
  • Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
  • Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton
  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical writers of the late 18th Century. She ran away with and later married a radical from her own generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She spent time in the company of Lord Byron, and wrote her most famous novel trapped by the rain in his Italian villa. These associations are significant, but Mary Shelley made her own contribution to cultural life, not least through the novel Frankenstein.

Mary’s Life

The tragedy of Mary’s childhood was the death of her mother from puerperal fever within days of her birth in 1797. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up motherless. Godwin remarried, partly to provide a mother for baby Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s older illegitimate child). Her stepmother provided her with stepsiblings, including Jane, later Claire, but very little affection.

250 Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary spent intellectually formative time in Dundee with friends of her father’s, but on meeting and falling for Shelley in 1814, ran away with him and Claire to France. Shelley was already married to Harriet who was pregnant and later committed suicide. Her half-sister Fanny Imlay also committed suicide at this time. Mary married Shelley on Harriet’s death. She and Shelley already had a son and were to go and have three more children. Only one survived.

In 1816 the Shelleys and Claire returned to Europe, staying in Geneva near Byron. Claire had already started a liaison with Byron, but he soon tired of her. It was here that Mary had her first ideas for Frankenstein.

Over the next few years the Shelleys lived and travelled in Europe, where three of Mary’s children and Claire’s daughter by Byron all died. Shelley was drowned in June 1822. It is not surprising that Mary suffered from depression with her life defined by the death of many of her most important people.

Mary supported herself and her remaining son until she died in February 1851 through her writing. She wrote travel books (as did her mother) as well as six more novels, at least 50 biographical essays for an encyclopaedia and edited her husband’s work for publication.

Of her works, only Frankenstein has remained well known.

1816 – The Year without a Summer.

In April 1816 Mount Tambora erupted in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. It was the most violent eruption ever recorded. The effect of the huge volumes spewed from the volcano was to change weather patterns all over the world for at least 12 months. In Europe the dreadful, wet summer resulted in failed harvests, and the high prices of grain brought starvation and political unrest.

In Geneva it rained day after day and the Romantic poets’ party was confined to their houses. It was here that someone, Byron it seems, announced ‘we will each write a ghost story’.

Writing Frankenstein

250 Frankenstein text

Mary took time to find her inspiration, and it was the conversations that the party were having about life and its principles, and specifically about galvanism, that led Mary to form her ideas. After one such conversation she records

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (quoted in the Introduction xxi)

She began writing:

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. (58)

In the revisions the sentence appears at the start of Chapter V of Book 1.

The novel reveals her extensive self-taught understanding of ‘natural philosophy’ as physics was called at the time. She also knew the classics, and read the new knowledge being revealed by enlightenment scholars. Mary’s most famous novel is not so much a ghost story as a gothic science fiction horror story.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Not surprisingly women cannot be forgiven for so much transgression nor allowed to achieve intellectual status. Some commentators have suggested that Frankenstein was actually Shelley’s work. Although he apparently provided some editorial assistance, this was Mary’s.

More on Frankenstein in the next post, looking at the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by Liam Scarlett – a world premier.

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter

Both women challenged conventional acceptable behaviour by women, refusing to accept that women should be treated differently. Both had unmarried sexual relationships with men, and both had illegitimate children.

Both wrote fiction and travel writing, but Mary Shelley did not publish polemic books such as the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both women married radical men. Both suffered for their love, Mary Wollstonecraft was abandoned, more or less, by Imlay, despite their baby Fanny. Shelley seems to have indulged himself wherever he chose, including with Claire (Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied them on their travels). Claire is known to have had a child by Byron. It is not surprising that the group were known as the ‘league of incest’. The men of the circle seem to have behaved like those men of the 1970s who exploited women’s new sexual freedoms, whatever the cost to their partners.

Both women were ostracised for their sexual activities. Both spent time abroad, Mary Wollstonecraft in France during the revolution and Mary Shelley in Europe with Shelley until his death.

Despite the tragedies in both their lives and the attitudes of their times, both women pursued education, radical ideas and have influenced ideas for more than 200 years.

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon published by Corsair 2015. 652pp.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. I used the Penguin Classics revised edition 1992, edited with an introduction by Maurice Hindle.

Related posts

Katacharin on Mary Shelley on sheroesofhistory.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw from this blog in March, looking at Charlotte Gordon’s biography of the two Marys.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Writing

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?

 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw

Mary Wollstonecraft has been important in my life for nearly fifty years. I was studying history in 1970 with the great EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. Our small group of undergraduates were exploring the English radicals of the 1790s. The previous year I had picked up a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (price 7/6d). As a special project for my history degree I explored Mary Wollstonecraft’s radicalism. There were no available biographies so most of my work was done from primary sources. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism and we hadn’t really discovered Mary Wollstonecraft yet. I spent happy hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and browsed copies of radical journals lent to me by EP Thompson. My husband wrote my married name and ‘her book’ on the first page. I wrote my paper, and feminism took off.

Romantic Outlaws

241 Rom Outlaws cover

Over the last few weeks I have been reading the very detailed dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Charlotte Gordon’s book is very long. The chapters on the lives of the two women alternate. This has the effect of showing up the similarities and the differences in the lives of the two women. It also means that the cast of characters gets unwieldy, and you loose track of which semi-famous person came into which Mary’s life. In this post I am focussing on Mary Wollstonecraft and I will reserve Mary Shelley for a later blog.

241 MWbiosSince 1969 eight biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have been written, according to Wikipedia. William Godwin wrote a biography immediately after she died, intended to disprove the image of Mary as a virago. According to Charlotte Gordon he did her no favours, playing down her forthright political writings, and her determination to live according to her principles. What does this biography add to our understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary’s life

Reading Romantic Outlaws I am reminded of what an extraordinary woman Mary Wollstonecraft was. How resourceful, intelligent, free-thinking and brave. She set sail to Lisbon to assist her best friend; to Paris to witness the revolution; later to Scandinavia on behalf of her lover. She took on injustice, especially against women, and when she found it, she took action if she was able to – for example by liberating her sister from an abusive marriage – or exposed it with her pen. She lived and wrote despite extreme social disapproval. It was not acceptable for women to write about philosophy or politics. And they were expected to hide away if they had illegitimate children. And they were not expected to make demands upon the men who wronged them.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary was born in London in 1759. Her father failed to support the family and was alcoholic and abused his wife. Mary supported her family, despite a strong desire for independence. She worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, ran a school in Newington Green for a while, then became a governess to the foremost family Ireland. Not successful or happy employments, but they helped form her ideas about girls’ and women’s education. She returned to London and began to earn a living from her writing. She was employed by the radical publisher John Johnson to write reviews for his periodicals, and she advanced to essays and then to books on the education of girls, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her reflections on the French Revolution, a travel book about her experiences in Scandinavia, as well as several novels.

She believed in living according to her principles, which brought her into conflict with genteel society, where women were not supposed to write anything but sentimental novels. Her pursuit of the painter Fuseli was disapproved of. She went to France during the Revolution, witnessing the Terror, and became disillusioned by its excesses. She met Imlay, father of her first daughter, Fanny, but he tired of her. Distraught at a second rebuttal she attempted suicide. On her recovery she set out with her baby for Sweden in an attempt to win Imlay back by tracking down some missing cargo. On her return he made it clear he was interested in someone else, an actress whose name is not recorded. Mary threw herself off Putney Bridge in a second, failed, attempt at suicide.

She met William Godwin, an established radical philosopher, and they fell in love, and on her becoming pregnant, married. Mary died in childbirth of puerperal fever, aged 38, still engaged in writing.

Her writing

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Today we tend to see the Vindication as Mary’s most important published book. However, her book on the education of girls Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct (1788) was widely read. Her accounts of her experiences in France An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), and in Scandinavia Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden Norway, and Denmark (1796) were every bit as well known as the famous Vindication. Charlotte Gordon claims her travel writing was ahead of its time, and much appreciated, especially by Mary and Percy Shelley.

Perhaps we refer to it today because the Vindication is a manifesto, arguing for the acceptance of equality of women and improved education of girls. She was less concerned about how to achieve equality. She lived according to her principles, never financially dependent upon men, never accepting that men’s views had more authority than hers.

Mary’s influence

Since I first picked up A Vindication Mary Wollstonecraft has become much better known, seen as one the major influences on the development of feminism. She has even been called ‘the first suffragette’ to capitalise on the recent film. I don’t think she saw the vote as the way forward for women’s rights.

Newington Green, in north London, was something of a centre of radicalism and still held something of that history when I moved there in the early 1980s. It was an overgrown roundabout, a haunt for winos and rubbish thrown from buses. Islington spent some money on it and it became a nice green space, like a traditional village green, with a children’s playground, a café (intermittently), benches, places to throw Frisbees and to teach your child to ride a bike. Not long before I left a Banksy-like mural appeared on the wall of the former bank, and an appeal was launched for some kind of memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft.

44 M Wolst

The Biography

It’s hard, when you pick up non-fiction, not to just read to confirm what you already know. From Romantic Outlaws I learned how Godwin ruined her reputation after her death, while trying to demonstrate her vulnerability by revealing her sexual behaviour. Her intellectual gifts were subsumed in the subsequent damage to her reputation. Sound familiar? Ever been called aggressive, or shrill? ‘A hyena in petticoats’ was Walpole’s judgement.

I learned that her reputation was damaged and not rescued until Virginia Woolf paid her attention in the Second Common Reader (1923) and as the second wave of feminism got under way in the 70s, her contribution was reassessed and all those biographies written.

I hate the current fashion for rubberised covers of paperbacks. And I hate the Day-Glo pink on this one. It screams romance, girlie stuff. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was neither romantic nor girlie.

 

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Published in paperback in 2016 by Corsair. 652pp. This book won the biography section of the National (USA) Book Critics Circle Award for 2015.

Related Posts

A post considering Fallen Women, to coincide with the Foundling Museum exhibition was posted in the Autumn.

In May I will be blogging about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading