Category Archives: Feminism

Mind your sexist language!

A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).

In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

The reversibility test

In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.

For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus. 

From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)

It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life

In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • A nag

And I might even have been described as a working mother.

Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist. 

And there’s more

I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.  

So what can we do?

Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …

Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist. 

Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.

And another thing …

And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here

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

And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point. 

1 Comment

Filed under Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

Let’s have more older women writers

In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: 

You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which I posted on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

Older woman writing: Literacy in Oaxaca by Pilarportela in 2005 via WikiCommons

Since then …

Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:

Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.

  • Sugar and Snails
  • Underneath
  • Becoming Someone
  • Somebody’s Daughter 

Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?

They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.

I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.

Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.

2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize? 

I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!

Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping. 

I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.

The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?

I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.

Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:

Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.

1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men

2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.

3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.

Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?

I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.

Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help? 

Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.

So the answer is …

Any thoughts about any of this? 

Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.

But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.

A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!

I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here

Silly old Martin Amis.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, words

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.

This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.

Mary Olivier: A Life

We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.

Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told her.

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never let you rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.

They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.

She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)

In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.

In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.

Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.

“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.

‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”

“Should you say I was unhappy?” 

“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”

“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”

“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”

“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”

“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”

“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”

Why?”

“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)

The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life. 

Reflection on Mary Olivier

Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer. 

The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953). 

Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself. 

There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380) 

She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first choice for the project was My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

6 Comments

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

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

4 Comments

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

The Best Books for … changing my life

So us book-bloggers, we are always saying that books are very significant. So are librarians, publishers and writers. And that’s because books change lives. This post is stuffed full of books that have changed lives (with links to Bookword reviews). Which books changed your life? 

This is the first in an ad hoc series of posts which will all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … presents for my birthday; … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on.

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

Back in November 2014 I found a list of  books that had ‘impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’ organised by Bailey’s (who at that time sponsored the Women’s Prize for Fiction). I doubt whether it would be much different if they surveyed readers again today.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

Life-changing political books by women 

And in February last year the Guardian Review asked several influential women for their choices of life-changing political books by women. 

Harriet Harman and Mary Beard: The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Nicola Sturgeon: The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark and The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir

Diane Abbott: Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Gina Miller: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Jess Phillips: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caroline Lucas: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Natasha Walter: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Best Books for … changing my life

I have chosen just three books, or I would have had to mention 300. Each of these I think about a great deal still.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976): a novel that suggested it was possible not to organised society around gender. (See also, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): when asked why he had  never written another book as good as Catch-22 , Joseph Heller replied ‘Who has?’ That story may not be true, but it is good. This book told me you cannot expect rational behaviour in policy, politics or war. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954): in which the author showed that history has real meaning when understood through people’s lives. It is the source of my enduring love of history and the reason history was the focus of my first degree.

What would be on your list of influential or life-changing books? What I like about framing the topic in this way is that it bypasses any notion of favourites. Writing this post has made me think about some books I would like to reread. I’ll get on to that.

A related post

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

You might also look at A Book that Changed my Life by Ursula Le Guin, a post in June 2015 on Book View Café Blog. It is only fair that the writer who has the most references in this post gets to say something herself. And basically she says it’s an impossible task, but here is one list. It’s a good one. I was pleased to see it includes Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man. Our hero tells a great story the punchline of which is ‘it’s a great day to die!’ Go visit Ursula Le Guin’s list!

Over to you

So what would you add to the unlimitable list of best books for changing your life?

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, The Best Books for ...

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

Continuing my theme of reading books from the 20th Century, in this post I consider Dorothy L Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night. Is it a who dunnit? Or is it a romantic novel? Or is it a feminist book? Published in 1935, and already alluding to nasty things happening in Germany, and making no comment on the effects of class structures that influence the story, this is a book that must be considered within the context of its time.

First Edition

Gaudy Night

Terrible things are happening at the new Women’s College, Shrewsbury College, in Oxford. A former student and a detective novelist of repute, Harriet Vane, agrees to attend a gaudy, a reunion. On her return to her rooms she comes across a poisonous letter which seems to refer to her own past: she was known to have been ‘living in sin’ and to have been tried for the murder of her lover. She was acquitted through the skill of the famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

From there things escalate: more poisonous letters to other academics and students, vandalism in the new library, effigies, fleeting sightings of a strange hideous angry creature. Harriet agrees to return to Shrewsbury to try to help solve the mystery. 

As the story unfolds Harriet is not able to establish the identity of the Poltergeist or the motive behind the damage. She calls in Lord Peter and he resolves everything.

A mystery

There are many suspects in this novel and circumstances point the finger at the Senior Common Room. I am not much of a detective novel reader. I find it hard to notice the clues, and this was not helped by the large number of characters introduced, nor by many of them being referred to either by name or by job title. The Dean is also Miss Martin, and the Warden is Dr Baring. And of course I got the motive and resolution quite wrong.

The tension of the mystery is held until almost the end, of course. When Lord Peter reveals the culprit, it is only after Harriet’s life has been put in danger. 

The malevolence that has been unleashed turns on a question of loyalty to one’s sexual partner versus loyalty to the ideals of scholarship. (See Michelle Roberts’s piece in Slightly Foxed, no 63)  

Queenie Leavis’s suggestion that the novel pretended to realism does not stand up to scrutiny because the things that take place in the college at the hands of the malefactor are absurd. Nor does the hatred that fuelled it appear to be in the least realistic. But that’s detective fiction for you.

A romance

Gaudy Night is definitely a romance. Harriet Vane’s attraction to Lord Peter is clear to any reader. In previous novels having saved Harriet from the hangman he proposed marriage. He continues to profess his love for her and makes periodic routine and prosaic proposals of marriage which she consistently refuses. 

Her history of love is not a good one and she has found real pleasure in the academic life. Moreover, she is indebted to Lord Peter for saving her life, and she does not believe that gratitude is a good basis for a marriage. But by the end of the novel … 

A feminist book

Dorothy Sayers had experienced the obstacles to women’s education in the early 20th century and she is entirely supportive of female academics and their new college. She had been awarded a scholarship to Somerville, going up in 1912, completing her studies by 1915 but not able to receive her degree as a woman until 1920. The women of the senior common room would all have been veterans of the struggle for education for women. We know how these new women’s colleges lacked prestige, history and funds (see A Room of One’s Own for an explanation of how this affected women’s writing by Virginia Woolf in 1929).

The women in Gaudy Night are intellectuals, creative women, capable managers and professional standards are upheld. We should note that a theme of the novel is the fragile nature of female reputation. Harriet has suffered from an unwelcome notoriety for her past and the college women are very keen to keep the existence of the Poltergeist away from the outside world.

One of the key conversations these senior women have with Lord Peter concerns the importance of truth and scholarship. They explore what it meant for a woman to be a scholar, to manage the college, or to work and have children.

At the gaudy meal the company is addressed by one of these women:

She spoke gravely, unrolling the great scroll of history, pleading for the Humanities, proclaiming the Pax Academica in a world terrified by unrest. […]

And then, her [Harriet’s] imagination weaving in and out of the spoken words she saw it as a Holy War, and that the wildly heterogeneous, that even slightly absurd collection of chattering women fused into a corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom integrity of mind meant more than material gain – defenders in the central keep of Man-Soul, their personal differences forgotten in the face of a common foe. To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in life, that was the way to spiritual peace. (32-3)

To me this is an extraordinary passage. Before it Harriet had been thinking about how she wished she could have met Lord Peter on an equal footing, and immediately after she finds the first of the poisonous notes. And it says much of what is needed to say today in a world terrified by liars.

The motives of the Poltergeist result from an old-fashioned belief in support of a wife. Confronted with her actions the guilty party addresses the senior common room. Her long statement reveals the arguments that women face.

A woman’s job is to look after a husband and children. I wish I had killed you. I wish I could kill you all. I wish I could burn down this place and all places like it – where you teach women to take men’s jobs and rob them and kill them afterwards.  (539) 

I’ve heard you sit around snivelling about unemployment – but it’s you, it’s women like you who take work away from the men and break their hearts and lives. No wonder you can’t get men for yourselves and hate women who can. (540) 

You couldn’t even find out who was doing it – that’s all your wonderful brains come to.  […] You don’t know what love means. It means sticking to your man through thick and thin and putting up with everything. (541)

So the anti-feminist rhetoric is put in the mouth of the malefactor. However, the overtly feminist character, Miss Hillyard, is not pleasant either.

So while not exactly a feminist novel (see romance) there is a great deal that reflects the discussions of the 20thcentury in Gaudy Night. The women must find a way through the many binary choices presented to them: male versus female; body versus mind; and marriage and children versus the academic life. 

 

Gaudy Night is a detective novel from the golden age of detective novels, even if the hero detective does not appear until halfway through. It is also undeniably a romance. And it is influenced by the feminism of its day and the experiences of the writer as a student at Oxford during the First World War.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1935. I read the edition published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 564pp

I enjoyed reading Michelle Roberts’s article in Slightly Foxed, no 61 Autumn 2019. 

And for those interested in her Oxford education, a new book is about to be published by Little, Brown: The Mutual Admiration Society by Mo Moulton. The cover claims that it shows ‘how Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford circle remade the world for women’. Thanks to my Pilates friend Lesley for drawing my attention to this book.

7 Comments

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

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

What an amazing writer Miriam Toews is. I read A Complicated Kindness over a decade ago on the recommendation of another writer on an Arvon course, who admired the voice of the narrator. I was fascinated by the Mennonite community and the narrator’s childhood. And then there was All My Puny Sorrows. This is how I introduced that book on an earlier post.

This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her? How do you help?

I reread it earlier this year for my reading group. It had the same effect on me all over again, as if I held my breath from start to finish.

Women Talking

Women Talking takes the Mennonite community and extraordinarily difficult circumstances for its starting point. The women of the Molotshna community gather in secret to decide whether to leave or stay. Even this small act of meeting without permission is transgressive. It has not been sanctioned by the menfolk.

The events that have led to this meeting are drawn from real life and they are shocking. In 2005-9 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia it was found that many of the women and girls had been repeatedly raped at night by men within their community. The women and girls were drugged with animal anaesthetic and when they woke, sore, bloodied, bruised and confused their injuries were put down to visits from ghosts, demons, or as divine punishment for their sins. But one day a young man was caught. He confessed and implicated others. Because of the seriousness and extent of the crimes the community elders decided to hand over the matter to the police, despite usually handling matters of law and order themselves. 

Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination .[From A Note on the Novel by the author]

In Women Talking the women are facing the return on bail of the men, needed for the farm work on which the community depends. All the able men of Molotshna have gone to the nearby town to provide the bail money. In their absence the women meet to discuss two options, having rejected the choice of doing nothing. They can stay or they can leave.

The novel is presented as the notes of a sympathetic man, who had been invited by the women to record what they say. The women have not been allowed to learn to read or write. August Epp is something of an outsider in the community, having lived outside it. 

Eight women meet in secret in a hayloft to arrive at their decision before the men return. They have suffered from the nighttime attacks and some of them are pregnant. Together they consider their options and the implications of anything they do. The reader has some sense of the limitations placed on the lives of the women up to this point, how the community and their men determine what they can do. Now for the first time they must make decisions.

Most of the book is Epp’s report of their conversations. Miriam Toews has said that she found it hard to write, keeping track of the women and making it digestible to the reader. The two youngest girls are teenagers, and often up to mischief together

Autje and Neitje, I notice, have removed their kerchiefs and braided their long hair together, into one braid, so they are conjoined. (59).

Ona is favoured by Epp, and is playful and determined in equal measure.

[Greta] asks: What will happen if the men refuse to meet our demands?

Ona responds: We will kill them.

Autje and Neitje gasp, then smile tentatively. (58)

As the discussion goes on, exploring every possibility, the women pose themselves a question: is leaving their husbands to save their children an act of disobedience, and if so according to what authority? They come to see that, because they cannot read, they have relied upon the men to tell them what is in the Bible. It is the central point of their discussion. They discuss disobedience.

It’s a word that the men of Molotshna would use, not God.

That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving. […]

(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotshna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.) (159)

The manner of this discussion is striking. As they explore the possibilities, they reason and support each other. They do not try to score points, nor come to the discussion with their mind made up. This is a dialogue, their attempt to arrive together at a decision they could not reach on their own through their shared explorations. This is women talking.

Another aspect of their discussion is how philosophical it is. The women are in new territory, so it is not surprising that they arrive at a point of questioning the authority of the men. 

I won’t reveal what the women decide to do. The future of all members of the community is uncertain. As it always is for everybody.

Talking about her purpose in writing this book Miriam Toews said

I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

You won’t be surprised that the book is endorsed on the cover by Margaret Atwood.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) Faber and Faber216pp

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. Her early work had involved magical or mystical aspects, such as a strange plague and levitation. For The Juniper Tree Barbara Comyns retold the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable. She retells it with a feminist slant.

The Juniper Tree

Bella is young, rather messed up, scarred and good at letting other people make decisions for her. When the story begins she is drifting after the end of a relationship with a mean young man who was driving when she received the injuries that resulted in her scars.  She has a little money in the bank. 

For a time this money seemed a curse to me, yet I wouldn’t share it with Stephen. It was the insurance money paid for my damaged face. … For some reason Stephen thought we should share it, although he was responsible for the damage. (18)

Bella seems very susceptible to this kind of treatment by people and not to be very decisive herself. She has a daughter by a man whose name she can’t remember. The child, Marline also called Tommy, is mixed race and very attractive. Bella and her daughter are taken up by a couple called Gertrude and Bernard Forbes. They are a well off couple who long for a child

Bella finds a job running a second hand shop and enjoys herself for the first time, but she becomes more and more absorbed into the Forbes’ life especially after Gertrude becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Gertrude dies having given birth to a son. Now Bella is roped in more and more to the housekeeping chores and childcare and eventually Bernard marries her. You probably can guess what is coming.

Bernard takes up another young girl and Bella realises that she has left behind a life that she really loved. Then the little boy is killed accidentally, in a storage chest for some apples. Bdelieving she was responsible Bella tries to hide the death from Bernard. She has a breakdown.

Magpies do appear in this story, together with some details from the Grimm tale, such as the juniper tree, a red slipper and stolen jewellery. But there is no bloody revenge, only some soul searching, including an emerging understanding that because Bella was susceptible Bernard persuaded her to do things against her better judgement. Bella, though malleable, is also a trooper and she learns to trust her own judgement and ends up happily married to someone else.

The most destructive person in Barbara Comyns’s version is Bella’s mother who treats her very badly when she is a child, although they are later reconciled. It turns out that she too has been badly treated by a man.  

The writing style is very even. The sentences follow one from another, regardless of the many mishaps in Bella’s life. Sometimes there are little warning bells hidden inside this evenness. 

… I told him the truth that I was quiet because I felt so happy, and he [Bernard] said, “How extraordinary, people so seldom admit they are happy. Gertrude did and look what happened to her. Take care, dear Bella. Happiness is a very fragile thing, but no one deserves it more than you.” (103)

It was published in the 80s but it felt more like the 60s. Although there is a trademark Comyns surreal feel to everything.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

You can find the Grimm’s version of the story in Grimm Tales for young and old  by Philip Pullman, published by Penguin Books in 2012. 420pp

Books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (April 2018)

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (March 2019)

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

And the winner is …

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Winner was announced 5thJune 2019.

And here are thirty-nine brilliant books written by women from the short- and long-list for this year and the previous winners. I have included links when I have reviewed them on Bookword. 

Shortlist April 2019

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker

My Sister, the Serial Killer  by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Milkman by Anna Burns 

Ordinary People  by Diana Evans

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Circe  by Madeline Miller

Longlist March 2019

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker 

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

My Sister, the Serial Killer  by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Pisces  by Melissa Broder

Milkman  by Anna Burns

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ordinary People  by Diana Evans

Swan Song  by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Number One Chinese Restaurant  by Lilian Li

Bottled Goods  by Sophie van Llewyn

Lost Children Archive  by Valeria Luiselli

Praise Songs for the Butterflies  by Bernice L. McFadden

Circe by Madeline Miller

Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss (review on Bookword will appear 29thJune)

Normal People  by Sally Rooney

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

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)

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading