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. 

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Filed under Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
  2. During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
  3. She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
  4. She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
  5. Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.

And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.

The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.

So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.

The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on. 

Diana Athill

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.

And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)

Other reviews can be found by bloggers: for example JacquiWine’s Journal in February; and A Life in Books in January.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp

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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels and is perhaps best known for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. 

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

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The Far Cry by Emma Smith

The fictionalised account of Emma Smith managing boats on the Grand Union Canal during the Second World War appealed greatly to me. I reviewed Maidens’ Trip a few months ago. I would recommend it strongly. One comment on that post (Kaggsy again!) led me to this novel, which draws on the same author’s experiences in India immediately after the Second World War. She sailed there in September 1946, with a small film crew on a commission from the Tea Board. Laurie Lee was the scriptwriter in the same crew.

Looking back from the vantage point of old age at the young person I was in 1946 I realise now that the ignorance I so deplored was really a blessing in disguise. I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion. I was totally unprepared for it. Engulfed by a teeming multitude of exotic strangers – foreigners – by raucous noises, brilliant colours, pungent smells, the huge surprise of it almost overwhelmed me. (p.ix From the author’s preface)

The endpaper is a late 1930s English printed linen which Teresa’s sister Ruth might have chosen for her bungalow from a catalogue sent out from London.

The Far Cry 

Teresa Digby is 14 years old and at the start of the novel we find that she has not experienced much love so far in her life. Her mother left her father to live in America. As we become acquainted with him in the novel we understand why. This was her father’s second marriage. He has a favourite daughter, Ruth by his first marriage. Ruth lives on a tea plantation in Assam. Teresa had been placed with her Aunt May, who is kind but not loving.

Mr Digby believes that an imminent visit from the US of his second wife means she will take Teresa away. More in a spirit of defeating an enemy, Mr Digby determines that he will not allow it, and decides to take Teresa to India to visit Ruth. 

The novel moves through five sections, beginning at Aunt May’s, on the voyage to Bombay, the train journey to Calcutta, Arrival in Assam, the final outcome.

Each section is rich with understanding especially of Teresa, but also of Mr Digby’s selfishness and unsuitability for this adventure. On board the ship Teresa learns how to make friends and how other people will latch onto you. When she falls ill from sunstroke Miss Cooper looks after her with kindly detachment.

 In Bombay, like the author, she is nearly overwhelmed by India, but is helped by Sam their self-appointed bearer. The unsuitability of her father as a carer becomes more and more apparent. At Ruth’s husband’s tea Garden five unhappy people are thrown together: Teresa, Ruth who believes she deserves much better from life because she is so beautiful; Edwin, her husband who understands her, but despises her attitude; Mr Digby who having achieved his objective finds no place for himself and becomes more and more pathetic; and the deputy manager Richard, who is young and so required to entertain Teresa which he bitterly resents. Edwin is one of the few people who behaves well towards Teresa and does not join in Mr Digby’s racism. The five of them find only occasional pleasure in each other’s company, for example on a picnic. Teresa begins to fall completely for India’s charms and is devastated when after her father’s death Ruth plans to leave Edwin and take Teresa back with her to England. 

They begin their long journey back but Ruth delays in Calcutta and they meet up again with Miss Spooner. The outcome is better: Ruth is killed in a road accident and when Edwin comes to fetch Teresa he agrees to ask Miss Spooner to join them. It is hinted that Teresa will later marry him.

The novel is written with her clear style, with exciting set pieces: arriving in Bombay, the Festival of Light, the trip in the Nagar Hills, as well as long dragging times in the heat. She demonstrates a great deal of insight into the need of young people for affection and friendship and how that can be mishandled.

Here is an example of Emma Smith’s writing. 

She chose her oranges one by one, and the dusty-footed spectators who had gathered to help her choose, stretching their arms past her to pick out and offer the roundest, largest, most sunburnt specimens anyone could desire. They waved them in front of her now; they muddled her considerably. They were so gay, vying with one another to catch her attention: ‘Looky, memsahib – this one good orange,’ She felt like a grown-up at a children’s party. (121)

I was surprised that there was no mention of the war that had so recently finished when Emma Smith visited India, nor of the looming divisions in India’s independence movement that resulted in Partition at the time of Independence in August 1947.

Emma Smith 

She was born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923 but used her nom de plume because it is easier to say. 

During the war she worked as a boatwoman on the canals. And then aged 23 went to India for nine months with the film crew. On her return in 1948 she published Maidens’ Trip and then The Far Cry in 1949. This was written in Paris where she was captured by the photographer Robert Doisneau, typing beside the Seine. 

Emma Smith and her typewriter in Paris, by Robert Doisneau

She married in 1951, had two children and then was widowed. She went to live in Wales and published some children’s books. Later she wrote another novel: The Opportunity of a Lifetime (1978) and two books of memoirs about growing up in the South West. Susan Hill found an old copy of The Far Cry and was struck by its competence and quality. She wrote about this in 1978 in a piece reproduced as the Afterword.

Emma Smith lived in London until her death in 2018.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith, first published in 1949 and republished by Persephone Books (no 33) in 2002. Afterword by Susan Hill, Preface by Emma Smith. 324pp

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Last month, February, I wrote a themed post about outsiders in fiction (here is the link). I listed some books about outsiders and invited readers to make other suggestions, which they did. Many thanks. One comment in particular drew my attention – the suggestion that all books about women are books about outsiders (Thanks @Kaggsy59). This observation is at the heart of reading for so many women, especially those of us who were active in the Second Wave of feminism. Reading was often a political act.

The additional suggestions included books by Anita Brookner, Veronique Olmi, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson among others. A suggestion on twitter also drew my attention as I was intending to get a copy of this novel and read it soon based on reviews I had read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I found it in WH Smith on Paddington Station, as a ‘staff pick’ which seems fitting.

Convenience Store Woman

The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is 34, a virgin and she has worked part-time for 18 years in the same convenience store. Like many young people in Japan she began this work while at University, continued it after she graduated, and unlike her contemporaries she has never left. It is soon clear that she is on some kind of spectrum, having few emotions and only able to pass in limited social settings by using some interesting strategies: excuses, white lies and by copying behaviour, speech patterns and clothing. But it is also clear that she understands the rituals and routines of the store, the service it provides in the neighbourhood and that this deep understanding provides meaning to her outsider life. This is not considered acceptable by her friends and family.

Into her life, at the store, comes Shiraha. He too is an outsider, but he is lazy, prepared to sponge off people, and he blames everyone else for his lack of attractiveness. He is not a sympathetic character as he often expresses ill-thought out reductionist cave man theories. For a while he convinces Keiko that if she takes him in (he owes money on his rent) and feeds him, this will get people off her back. She is indeed troubled by people who try to make her behave more like other women. At first her friends are delighted when she takes Shiraha in, but eventually even Keiko sees that this man is sleazy. She rejects him and reasserts her right to work in a convenience store. She wants to return to the simple demands the work makes on her and to a life which is familiar.

Reading this novel

I often find that reading fiction in translation shows me the world in a very different way. It is true with this book too. There is an element of strangeness about it, but it is also an appeal to allow people to determine their own paths in life. It was an easy read even a bit of a page turner. Simply written, in a deadpan style as a first person narrative, this quirky narration exactly matches Keiko’s character. It is also very funny in places.

At one level this short novel is a critique of the social pressure to conform in modern Japan. Her friends and family seem to believe that Keiko should be made to follow the normal patterns for a young woman.  

I am not quite sure why Granta decided to issue this paperback in several different colours with the purchaser receiving any one of them randomly. Mine is blue. It seems like a marketing gimmick, but I can’t see how it links to the novel’s content.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) published by Granta. 163pp

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

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 two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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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.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I continue to reread many books, especially those by women from the C20th. This year is a bit of a Virginia Woolf year for me. In the summer I will be spending a week in Cambridge thinking about Virginia Woolf and her women. This means rereading four of her novels and other bits and pieces. It also means lots and lots of thinking and talking about her work, her life, her legacy and life between the wars. All this is completely to my taste.

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for it.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

Mrs Dalloway

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily alongside Clarissa as well as among the points of view of these and other characters. Among the most striking characters is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD. The doctors say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am completely wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts, some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country even as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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Five Things on my Writing Desk

Recently I read 5 Things on My Writing Desk on Shelley Wilson’s blog. Like a magpie I pick up good ideas. It’s all been a bit heavy on this blog recently as I grappled with technical issues. They are all resolved now, I hope, and so a little light blogging is in order. Here are five of my things on my writing desk.

Laptop

Not much comment needed on this. I love my laptop, so long as it keeps working. It’s my typewriter, word processor, research tool, photo hoard, access to other people … My everything.

SAD light

This year I decided to try a daylight lamp to counter SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It shines brightly in my face when I am on the computer. I’ve no idea whether it is working or not. Just in case, I keep going with it.

Pinboards

I have two pinboards: on the left a photo board, mostly pictures of women. On the right are some reminders, useful codes and numbers, lists and my blog schedule. The bearded gentleman, still visible, is a self-portrait of my great-great grandfather. The young boy is my grandson sitting in my former office at the Institute of Education in London. I don’t go much on quotable quotes, but occasionally I pin one up, and this is an example of something I like to be reminded of:

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? [Mary Oliver]

Cards and photos

I always have a few more cards and pictures around, sometimes birthday cards waiting to be sent. At the moment I am looking at a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. I recently acquired her wedding dress from c1923: it’s fuchsia. She died soon after, giving birth to my mother. When I first saw this photo I thought it was me. I have aged, while she has not.

Piles of Stuff

And piles and piles of stuff, all work in progress. Not necessarily creative writing, some of it is to do with other projects (school history project, volunteering, blog stuff, forms to fill in for blood donation) old notebooks and just stuff.

I’m not sure what you would make of any of this. Perhaps not much.

Your Five things?

Care to tell us about your 5 things on your writing desk?

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