Category Archives: Feminism

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

What is this book? A cult classic? A fable? A feminist tract? A psychological story? Sci-fi? Perhaps all of these. I bought a copy and read it because I loved its excellent cover (in a new Faber edition), and because I had heard good things about it, that it is short and a good read.

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls appears to delight in ambiguity. You can take this book seriously at the same time as delighting in its playfulness. If Dorothy is Mrs Caliban, who is Mr Caliban: her husband Fred, or Larry the green frogman from the sea? Is it a psychological story, in which Dorothy has hallucinated a more satisfying relationship? This is not resolved. There is much sadness at the story’s heart, grief over the death of a son, a miscarriage and the failing marriage. Dorothy and Fred are too sad to divorce. 

The story concerns a human-sized green amphibian, who escapes from the Institute of Oceanographic Research. He appears in the kitchen in front of Dorothy, an unhappy housewife, in the middle of her preparations for dinner.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (20)

We are in California in the late ‘70s. Interested? Curious?

Dorothy is very lonely. She is sure that her husband is cheating on her. She has one friend, Estelle, with whom she has coffee and occasional outings. She does not confide in Estelle about Larry. Estelle in turn is cagey about her lovers, and by the end of the novella we have found out why.

Dorothy provides accommodation in a spare room and food for the creature, and she calls him Larry. He is particularly partial to avocados. Soon they are having frequent and satisfying sex and managing to take drives under cover of darkness. The press is full of shocking stories about the violence of the frogman, but he explains to Dorothy that he killed two of the lab technicians because they tortured him. Many of the stories are fabricated, designed to shock and titillate.

The hunt for the sea monster continues in California, as Larry and Dorothy monitor its lack of progress on tv. They plan to return Larry to the ocean he knows, which means they will have to travel to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific being unfamiliar to him. Before they can embark on their trip one of Estelle’s children is killed, and then the bodies continue to pile up. The novella ends as Dorothy waits for Larry at a prearranged emergency rendezvous.

She came out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech. But he never came. (117)

I loved it, for it is very engaging, unique and has a strong feminist thread.

Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls was born in Boston in 1940, her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, her mother a fulltime housewife. She attended Radcliffe, spent time in Germany and then came to Britain and settled here. She died in March 2019.

Although lauded by John Updike, Ursula le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates and others, she is unjustly neglected, partly because she was very self-effacing. She wrote 11 collections of short stories and novellas. She is often concerned with rules and conventions and the violence by which society maintains them. 

Mrs Caliban is considered her masterpiece, and John Updike described it as ‘an impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last’. 

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982. The new edition in the UK is published by Faber. 117pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

And the winner is …

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Congratulations to the winner

After 26 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 26 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, says it still does three important:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian in 2020 about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So, in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty-one brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2021 shortlist

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The 2021 longlist

There were sixteen longlisted books as follows:

  • Because of You by Dawn French
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Summer by Ali Smith
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

This is a story of so many tensions. Set in the years before Nigerian Independence in 1960, a young girl is deprived of the care of her father by his early death. Her family come under the protection of her ambitious uncle, and because she is educated he can demand a high bride price for her. 

This is a fairly short book, but I took my time reading it because I was enjoying the detail with which the story is told. From life in Lagos, a funeral ceremony, travel in the mammy lorries of the 1950s, the rural community and its traditions to the celebrations and customs of the Ibo people of Ibuz; I had so much to learn. I read a number of novels by Buchi Emecheta in the 1970s, but these mostly concerned Nigerian women living in London. 

The Bride Price

Early in the novel in Lagos Ezekiel Odia dies, and a funeral begins.

At the first announcement of his death, the traditional crying began. This was an art in itself. There were expert professional criers, who listed the good deeds performed by the departed and tactfully left out the bad. His lineage would be traced out loud, the victories of his ancestors sung and their heroic past raised to the winds, amidst the groans of other criers, the screams of women and the heart beats of the men. Such force was put into these cries. The first storm of them rose like and angry thunder, in different deafening pitches. The high, penetrating shrieks of the women somehow managed to have a touch of apathy in them, as if their voices were saying: “We do our share of the crying because it is expected of us, but what can one do when faced with death? It is a call we must answer however busy we are.” Their noises of protest against death were followed by low howls, like those of a slave who knows he is to be sacrificed for the life of his sick master. The men’s howlings were of a lower key, charged with energy, they hugged themselves this way and that like raging waves on a gloomy day, and on each face ran two rivers of tears which looked as if they would never dry. (29-30)

The story follows Aku-nna, the 13 year old daughter of Ezekiel, a respected man, who dies in Lagos. During the war he had been conscripted into the army to fight in Burma. His injuries lead to his early death. His family, wife and 2 children, become the property of his brother in Ibuza. Because she is educated, Aku-nna has a high bride price, which will allow her uncle to achieve his ambitions to have the title of Eze.

Aku-nna is attracted to the schoolteacher, Chike. But Chike is from a former slave family and so is regarded as lower caste and not suitable for Aku-nna. He is young, good-looking and saving to go to university. His father is generous and well-off but not accepted by the Ibo people. Meanwhile Aku-nna joins with the other girls in the traditional activities expected of them, and she prepares with them for the outing dance.

The girls talked and dreamed about their outing dance. They worked and saved hard to buy their jigida, the red and black beads which they would wear above their bikini-like pants. Apart from these, their tops would be bare, displaying the blue-coloured tattooes that went round their backs, then under their young breasts and met at the heart. Their feet would also be bare, but small bells were to be tied round their ankles, so that when in the dance they jumped, or curtsied, or crawled in modesty, the bells would jingle in sympathy. It was to be the great moment of their lives and they knew it. In their old age, with their clay pipes in toothless mouths, they would turn to their grandchildren and say, “When we were young and our breasts were tight as tied ropes, we did the aja dance. It was the best dance in the whole land, and we did it.” (103)

Chike and Aku-nna are soon in love and plan to marry when she is 16. But others have been waiting for her to start menstruating, a sign of becoming a woman, and when she does they begin to pay court, encouraged by the uncle. One night she is kidnapped by the family of one of her admirers, but she resists, telling her ‘husband’ that she and Chike have been intimate. Okoboshi rejects her and she escapes with Chike to another part of the country. Her uncle refused to accept the bride price offered by her father-in-law and, as tradition would have it, tragedy follows.

Tensions and oppositions

The story sets up a number of oppositions: Lagos is compared to Ibuza and the city against the rural setting. In Ibuza the community is very traditional. This provides a great deal of support for the family who lose their breadwinner but makes high demands on women. The wants of the individual are set against the practices and expectations of the community. 

The possibilities for boys and men are in contrast to those for girls and women. Traditional culture is in opposition to more modern attitudes, for education and health care for women in particular. 

Buchi Emecheta continued to explore the themes of race, gender and colonialism in her subsequent writings.

Buchi Emecheta

Born in Lagos in 1944, Buchi Emecheta was orphaned when young and although educated married young. Her husband came to London and she followed soon after in 1962 with two children. More children were born and she became unhappy in her marriage. When she began to write her husband burned the manuscript of her first novel. She decided to leave him, taking the children and to earn her living and continue to gain degrees in the next few years. She also rewrote the novel, which was The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing.

She went on to publish 16 novels as well as several autobiographies, children’s books, plays and articles. She died in January 2017.

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976 by Allison & Busby.  I used the Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

Related post

Celebrating Margaret Busby, who promoted African literature in the publishing house that bore her name. (On Bookword December 2020)

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Sister of the more famous …

Many women have had their creative spirit doused because they were women, and some more have been eclipsed by their more famous brothers. Here are a few examples.

Judith Shakespeare

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. [A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 48]

Judith Shakespeare was invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 to consider the question of ‘the possibility of any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare’. A bishop, no less, had declared it impossible Virginia Woolf charts a life for Judith, beginning with her lack of formal education.

She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books or papers. (49)

She imagines Judith faced with the prospect of marriage arranged for the benefit of her parents and resisting until she decides to run away to London. But hanging around the stage doors of London theatres was not a safe place for a girl of 16, and she fell pregnant by Nick Greene, the actor-manager who took pity on her. So she killed herself … 

… and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. (50)

Famously, Virginia Woolf claimed that Judith Shakespeare, and the many other women who put pen to paper were not successful because:

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

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

Another Look at A Room of One’s Own on Bookword (2018)

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth was much missed by her brother William after her death as recorded in these lines on the occasion of being surprised by joy:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Dorothy was a diarist, letter-writer and poet herself. But she was not interested in being published.

‘I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,’ she once wrote in a letter, ‘give Wm. the Pleasure of it.’

Sister and brother were close, living together, walking in the Lake District, sharing accommodation even after William’s marriage. Occasionally Dorothy’s writing was used by her brother, for example in his guidebook to the Lakes. More famously William relied on her detailed accounts of nature scenes and borrowed freely from her journals. For example:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing [Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal 15 April 1802]

Not so lonely then.

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë, author of Agnes GreyThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and poetry had two sisters and a brother. The reputations of Charlotte and Emily have grown over the years. Who takes account of Anne today? Even her wretched brother Branwell is better known than her. It has been claimed, however, that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the first feminist novel. She died aged just 29.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Born into a musical household, Fanny Mendelssohn was known to be as talented as her younger brother. She was a noted pianist and composer and she contributed to the musical atmosphere of their house which fostered the talent of her brother, Felix. She composed over 450 pieces of music and some were published, but under her brother’s name to satisfy the ideas of the time and the reservations of her family. Fanny’s father wrote to her: ‘Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.’

The death of Fanny Mendelssohn was the stimulus for one of her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest string quartets: No 6 in F minor Op. 80. You can hear the raw grief in every bar. Felix died six months after his sister.

Nannerl Mozart

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, ca. 1763. Via WikiCommons

Another musical prodigy had a sister: Nannerl Mozart. She too was something of a prodigy and toured with her father and brother, performing to the courts of Europe. It is thought that she also wrote much fine music, but like Fanny Mendelssohn, she was not allowed to continue when she reached adulthood. Mozart mentions her compositions, but there is no record of them in her father’s papers. Mozart wrote many duets for himself and his sister, and they kept up a lively correspondence when he went on tour without her. 

Some have argued that she was the more talented musical artist. The Other Mozart is a play by Sylvia Milo, review in Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/08/lost-genius-the-other-mozart-sister-nannerl

Sisters ….

I acknowledge the theft of my title from Barbara Trapido’s novel: Brother of the more Famous Jack.

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins wrote in the late 19th Century, publishing The New Magdalen in 1873. He had very enlightened ideas about the treatment of women for his time. His most well-known novel, The Woman in White, revealed the practice of inconvenient women being placed in lunatic asylums for the convenience of their families or their husbands. 

Asylums, diagnoses of madness and incarceration have a long history as a method of dealing with inconvenient people of whom the powerful disapprove:

  • Dissidents in Soviet Russia,
  • Unmarried, pregnant women in Ireland
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today.

In The New Magdalen Wilkie Collins takes up the issues of women who are deemed to have fallen, and in particular how society at that time did not understand how women in poverty might become prostitutes and did not allow her to redeem her reputation. She was forever judged by the lowest point of her life, not by her character.

The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins was known as a sensational writer, that is one who could provoke sensations or emotions through writing. Since the novel was originally published as a weekly serial there needed to be many cliff-hangers. The novel is full of will she/will he? moments, or of people listening outside doors, decisions needing to be made immediately, and if only she had known moments.

Mary Magdalene is a New Testament character, who travelled with and supported Jesus and the apostles. Very early commentators interpreted her as a reformed prostitute or a promiscuous woman. Mercy Merrick is the new Magdalen, and her character is contrasted with Grace Roseberry. 

We meet the two women as their paths cross in a cottage in France in the middle of a French war with Germany. Grace is returning to London after the death of her only close family to find refuge in the household of a wealthy relative. Mercy is a nurse caring for some French soldiers. She tells Grace her story and her despair at being a permanent social outcast.

‘… Society can’t take me back. You see me here in a place of trust – patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn’t matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me, the kindest people shrink.’ (16)

The able-bodied French retreat and Mercy and Grace remain with the injured until a bombardment is launched by the Germans. Grace is wounded and pronounced dead by the French surgeon before he flees to escape the German advance. Mercy is rescued by a journalist who provides her with safe passage. Despite some misgivings she has decided to take on the identity of Grace Roseberry. 

And so the scene is set for the contrast between the two women to emerge, and especially for reactions when the real Grace appears, having been restored to health. In the interval between her escape and the second section of the book, Mercy has established herself as a much-loved companion to Lady Janet Roy and the fiancée of her nephew, Horace, the journalist who rescued her. But when the real Grace arrives to claim her position in the household the dilemmas and tensions begin.

Around the same time as Grace reappears, so does Julian Gray, an unconventional preacher who has previously inspired Mercy. He too is a nephew of Lady Janet Roy. The true Grace is at first dismissed as a mad woman, so convinced is Lady Janet that Mercy is her relative, and Horace that his fiancée is who she says. But Mercy finds that her honesty will not let her maintain the fiction for very long, even if Grace is spiteful and vindictive and judges her according to the history she heard in the cottage.

‘Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don’t leave me without a word.’ Illustration by George du Maurier

When Mercy finally confesses, each of the characters in turn must decide how they react. Lady Janet Roy wants to sweep everything under the carpet and maintain the fiction that Mercy is her ‘adopted daughter’. Horace is horrified and cannot imagine being married to such a woman, influenced in part by his mother and sisters who would never accept a wife from a disreputable background. Julian Gray supports her, and eventually falls for her, inspired by her bravery and determination.

It falls to Horace Holmcroft to articulate the prevalent view of society at the time in a letter in the epilogue which he writes to Grace Roseberry.

‘The existence of Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves against imposters interested in gaining a position among persons of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be) familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently succeeds. ‘ (374)

In the first scene, in the French cottage, when Mercy had told her story to Grace, the reader is reminded of the Christian attitude to sin. Mercy tells Grace that she had heard Julian Gray preach and it gave her the courage to persist in trying to make a good life for herself.

His text was from the words, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over nine and ninety just persons which need no repentance.  …From that time I have accepted my hard lot, been a patient woman. (18-19)

Even when she becomes the wife of a man of standing and good reputation and is supported by Lady Janet Roy, Society does not relent. Mercy and her husband are forced to emigrate from England because she is not acceptable.

The novel was also produced as a play, and many scenes of the book can be visualised in this way: the French cottage, the room through which people can pass unseen, or hide from those meeting there. Some of the speeches were designed for theatre audiences.

Wilkie Collins

It is not irrelevant that Wilkie Collins himself ran two households, two women and their children, marrying neither woman. Both were acknowledged in his will: Caroline Graves was his ‘constant companion’, Martha Rudd as the mother of his children.  I suspect that such an arrangement would still be frowned upon today.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1873. I read the edition from Persephone Books, published in 2020. 397pp

Related post

Fallen Women about ‘fallen women’ in fiction, on Bookword October 2015

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Help! Send reinforcements: Women are taking over literary fiction

I’m not sure what Johanna Thomas-Corr is saying in her recent article published in the Guardian. Is she complaining about women writers’ success in sales and prizes? Is she noting, even celebrating women’s achievements? Is it a warning? Is this patriarchal pushback? 

The headline, provided by a sub no doubt, is misleading and hooks in readers with a martial, competitive angle: 

How women conquered the world of fiction

The word conquered is misleading. You can read the article here

What is this?

Johanna Thomas-Corr begins the article as if she is making a complaint. Most of the buzz in fiction, she says, in the last twelve months ‘has been around young women’. She mentions the successes of Yaa Gyasi, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, and Odessa Moshfegh among many others, including some being revisited such as Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston and so on. 

The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.

And one reason for this domination is that women have taken over the publishing of fiction. She quotes some statistics. 

Poor men?

I read this far and began to think to myself, oh diddums. In my family, as in others, this means that you are complaining about something that you may have responsibility for, or you ignored it when someone else complained about it. But I chided myself. If it was wrong when women were so excluded, it can hardly be acceptable when men are.

But then, I said to myself, hold on a minute there. Just for a while it would be good if a few men understood what it feels like to be excluded or on the margins. Women experienced it forever in literature. And still do, by the way, in terms of getting reviewed and being employed as reviewers. See all that VIDA data.And what is more, women are still kept in a minority in most spheres: sport, government, parliament, film (apply the Bechtel test, which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), music, orchestras, tv, business, seniority in most professions, and on and on. For a few moments, just take the experience of fiction and then, oh complaining men, imagine what it must be like to meet this kind of dominance in every walk of life, everywhere, all the time.

So what’s the problem?

Having expressed myself on that matter I return to fiction. Here is what I was not clear about: what is the problem caused by this dominance? Perhaps it is not a bad thing that women have ‘conquered’ fiction. Some publishing and writerly people Ross Raisin spoke to do not see it in terms of difficulty. 

[Rob Doyle] sympathises with readers who are turning away from fiction by men, partly because “the whole 20th century was a pretty close examination of male sexual desire.”

And if they are pandering to what they believe to be women’s tastes in fiction “they are in danger of rendering themselves even less worth reading than they are already”. Others felt that they were witnessing a realignment. 

Consider the effects of the commercialisation of publishing as the smaller companies have amalgamated or been swallowed into the big five. As a reader it is clear that the bigger houses are not taking any risks with fiction, reaping the rewards of the big names of today as they did those of the (largely male) famous names of previous generations. It is with Indie presses and self-publishing that innovation is promoted. 

One publisher, Sharmaine Lovegrove, founded Dialogue Books to spotlight writers from marginalised communities, excluded from mainstream publishing.

She argues that publishing has become a monoculture, dominated by “white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative women” who feel that they are themselves victims. “Because it’s all about dismantling the patriarchy, men don’t get a look-in.”

That’s me, a bit. Although I do not dominate the publishing world, and would not regard myself as heteronormative, and I am certainly not defining myself as a victim. I am a reader and I feel quite able to pick books by all kinds of writers, and promote novels by writers from marginalised communities, or writing about marginalised communities. On this blog I promote books about older women in fiction and by women of colour and translated fiction by women.

I agree that there is a danger of a hegemony emerging in newly published fiction. It is based on “comp titles” by which publishers consider a submission by comparing it to other similar books. 

The reliance on that as a mode of thinking leads to publishers reproducing what already exists … It doesn’t allow publishers to innovate. [Kishani Widyaratna, editorial director of 4th Estate]

This approach is part of the favourite culture, encouraged by the if you liked that book you will like this one or people who bought that book also bought this one sales pitches, made possible by digital marketing. The pursuit of profit in literature is not compatible with innovation and new perspectives. And anyway, promoting sales based on previous commercial success is unlikely to favour hegemony of what Sharmaine Lovegrove calls ‘white feminism’ when you consider the number of titles containing the patronising use of the noun GIRL or novels which feature women being brutally murdered.

A Quite Read by Frank Jameson

Karolina Sutton (agent at Curtis Brown) says that readers will continue to read novels by men, but the literary space has changed. Their status is no longer dominant, she says. The challenge for publishers is to continue to surprise readers because literature and culture do not stand still.

Are you worried, dear reader? I’m not clear whether Johanna Thomas-Corr is.

[Note: this post is an amended version of the original.]

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Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

I loved reading this book for two reasons. First, it validated being a difficult woman, that is considered to be difficult every time I objected to something sexist. Second, it was my history. I am solidly and proudly a ’second wave’ feminist. Additionally, it provided perspective on some developments in gender politics during my life. 

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights

The full title gives you an idea of the content and structure of this book. Helen Lewis explores eleven fights in the history of feminism and you could probably predict what they are. Some have not yet been won, others began a very long time ago. Each one, as Helen Lewis shows, was pushed forward by one or more women who were seen as very difficult.

Christabel Pankhurst and the fight for the vote
Marie Stopes and sex
Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strike
Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly Lesbian MP
Sophia Jex-Blake and women’s medical education
Erin Pizzey and women’s refuges
And and and

In each of the eleven fights women refused to be quiet or withdraw their objections, and each of them were vindicated in the longer term. 

In my own past I think of access to contraception for unmarried women, divorce reform, abortion rights, equal pay, maternity leave and childcare. I became a pregnancy counsellor for the centre in a nearby city after being active in the campaign to provide access to abortions in my local area. I learned so much from that work, not least about the agonies for women contemplating abortions.

I was one of the first to apply for maternity leave in the same city, in 1977. It was granted, but the vitriol meted out to me by my colleagues was hard to take. I was taking a man’s job, I was told. I learned the truth of the phrase she quotes more than once: to have it all you must do it all. I became a single mother, wanting to progress my career, to be able to take advantage of living in London, but finding that my life was exceedingly tough for several years. 

And so my personal struggles were often feminist struggles. This is true for Helen Lewis too, although she is at least a generation younger than me. As we used to say – the personal is political.

Omissions

Two omissions from this book sadden me. I spent my professional life working in schools or on school improvement in the university. I worked in London schools from 1982. These were the years of school curriculum reform, and analysing classrooms from perspectives such as racism, sexism and class. We considered the curriculum that we had inherited and adjusted it for all the children in our schools. From 1988 such freedom was removed from teachers and the curriculum became defined as the knowledge and skills that children needed to acquire at certain points in their lives.

We also looked at how gender relations operated in classrooms. How boys dominated, demanded attention, and occupied the extremes of behaviour. We looked at how teachers prejudged children, by gender, race and class background within seconds of meeting them and considered how to change this. We looked at girls’ aspirations beyond school and tried to raise them. My first published book was on the subject of gender and pastoral care. I was an editor and had a chapter in it.

All this feminist work in schools is overlooked by Helen Lewis, as she focuses only on Higher Education and training men to be teachers in primary schools.

More curious for the overall story of feminist fights is her silence on the Greenham Common protest, a hugely significant political struggle and a very feminist form of activism, women protesting without men. It is mentioned once in relation to contradictory press coverage of the participants. I remember Greenham as an existential battle to remove US missiles from Berkshire, one led by women who sacrificed large parts of their lives to set up a camp around the base and stay there. I joined them in the Embrace-the-base event in 1982, along with my mother, and my sister and our three children. We had a banner quoting Mrs Thatcher on The Falklands: the wishes of the islanders are paramount

Embrace the Base 1982 via Wiki Commons

Women also played a significant and differentiated role in supporting that other great political battle of the 1980s, the miners’ strike. The miners’ wives were heroic and inspirational in their attempts to support the fight against the miners’ unions.

Divisions

One thing Helen Lewis does capture is the long tradition of divisions within the feminist movement, or rather feminist movements. Caring passionately about something means you disagree passionately with others who might also be engaged in change. We label each other and thereby exclude fellow travellers; sometimes we heap scorn and fury on them. Helen Lewis describes how, having become deputy editor of the New Statesman, she earned the opprobrium of many women, who were able to publicly voice their views on social media and in other fora.

I find myself wanting to avoid the current differences in the views about transgender people, not clear about my own opinions, not clear about the issues involved, but witnessing great hurt and anger in the exchanges. 

Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis finishes Difficult Women with a call to put every advance, every step gained into the structures of our society and with a manifesto for difficult women. It begins like this:

The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean. She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it; demanding if the situation requires it; and obstinate, if someone tries to fob her off. She does not care if ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. She is unmoved by the suggestion that it’s ‘natural’ for women to act a certain way or accept a lower status. It probably isn’t, and even if it is – so is dying from preventable diseases. No one thinks we should succumb to cholera just because it’s traditional. 
The Difficult Woman has strong beliefs … (329)

Her writing style is journalistic, which makes it lively. While she draws on her own experiences there is also plenty of evidence to support the arguments, referred to in the text, and listed in the final pages. She’s currently a staff writer on The Atlantic. Wikipedia reports that in 2012 she coined a useful note-to-self called Lewis’s Law

the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights by Helen Lewis, first published in 2020. Available in paperback from Vintage. 356pp

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