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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

Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

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

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

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Filed under Feminism, Podcast, poetry, translation, words