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Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Light, charming, frothy, amusing … Guard Your Daughters is all these, but it is also a novel with a dark undertow. The five daughters of the Harvey family are amusing, witty and creative, but there are clues from the first page that something is awry. This is the opening paragraph.

I’m very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom. (1)

Note the ‘queer, and restricted’ and ‘our sort of family’ and you are set the task of wondering what is it about this family. 

Persephone endpapers from printed cotton designed by Susie Cooper, 1953

Guard Your Daughtersby Diana Tutton

This is a dysfunctional middle-class family living in genteel poverty, imposed by the father it turns out, in a rural area away from London. Rationing is still in force, and there are signs that the family lived at one time in more comfort, with a car, a telephone, a maintained tennis court and servants. 

The reader in presented early on with the details of restrictions on visitors and the social life of the four daughters who still live at home. The father is a very successful novelist, who writes minutely plotted detective fiction. So where has the money gone?

Pandora, the eldest daughter has recently married and in her new home in London has some perspective on the Harvey household, and in particular on the lack of education for the youngest girl.  She tells Morgan (the narrator)

“I realize now that we’re an odd sort of family.”

“Well of course we are.”

“But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I dowant you all to get married too!”

“Five of us? I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out. However, dearest, we’ll do our best.” (16)

This is not the only reference to Pride and Prejudice, and Guard Your Daughters  is by no means a rewriting of that classic. Note the affection between the sisters; Morgan’s pride in the oddness of the family; Pandora’s desire to get them out.  In Greek myth Pandora had a box that she opened and all kinds of evils escaped into the world. 

Four daughters are still at home: Thisbe (20), Morgan (19), Cressida (18) and Teresa (15). Thisbe is a poet. Morgan plays the piano – to a mediocre standard it transpires. Cressida is the most conventional, runs a small market garden business and is the best cook. Teresa is overweight, uneducated and indulged by all.

Their mother is known to be nervy, needing special care (and soup) and frequently withdraws to her bed. Their father has only one rule in the house: do not upset your mother.

The plot moves slowly: a series of events gradually accumulate in the climax. Many of the incidents are very amusing. A young man is invited to supper, but the household does not eat supper so something has to be concocted. 

We went into the larder and examined Mother’s soup. There was a jugful, meant to last her for two days, and we instantly tipped it into a saucepan and began to add to it anything we could lay our hands on – the gravy from an old stew, some vegetable water saved by thrifty Cressida, the last spoonful of Bovril and some powdered potato. It tasted quite good but there wasn’t nearly enough for eight of us. In the end we decided to use the little soup pots, and to give the full mixture only to Father, Mother and Gregory. The rest of us would have a drop or two and fill up with hot water and gravy browning. (55-56)

They decide to mark the bowls containing the full soup with a fragment of lettuce leaf.

Many of the episodes are amusing and some are pitiful, some both. Sometimes their unconventionality and naivety is charming. But they have been inculcated with the belief that they are special, in particular in their attractiveness to men. The cocktail party is an excruciating scene, as the matronly hostess wears the same dress as Thisbe and the sisters make gaffe after faux pas in ignorance. 

The girls have great loyalty to each other, lending each other clothes, educating Teresa, piling into the bathroom to chatter at the end of the day. The scenes accumulate, becoming more disturbing until the shocking denouement. 

While they are amusing, witty, welcoming, the daughters are without sound judgment, having been failed by their parents. (Again we can nod to the inadequate parenting skills of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.) I found this to be a convincing and disturbing novel about the dangers that lurk in families. Diana Tutton wrote two more novels, and both featured inappropriate relationships.

You can find many more reviews of Guard Your Daughters on book blogs. Some are enthusiastic and others critical. Many of them make comparisons with I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I think the family is akin to the Bretton family at Quayles in The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor.

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton first published in 1953 and reissued by Persephone in 2017. 262pp

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