Tag Archives: Writing a Woman’s Life

Forget girl in the title, let’s have some women!

I refuse to read books with girl in the title. The titles have become a warning of a genre I will not enjoy – girl fiction. I was reminded of my dislike of the term girls for grown women during the recent world athletics championships when all female contestants were referred to as girls. I ask myself whether we won the battle not to be addressed as ladies (which most of us are not) only to be referred to as girls. Let’s reclaim women and woman for titles. And here are eight titles to start with. And I’ve included one exception to the no-girls-in-the-title rule.

  1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

We start with a classic whose title doesn’t work if you substitute girl for woman. The girl in white. You have lost a crucial ‘w’.

It is an early detective novel with a terrible villain, Fosco. Wilkie Collins was drawing attention to the practice of confining awkward women to mental institutions in Victorian Britain. It’s still a good read.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

And here are two novels whose titles remind you that women are always close at hand.

  1. The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

This is the story of two women in the new South Africa who, despite being neighbours and of a similar age, can hardly speak to each other and their animosities shape their lives until one becomes dependent upon the other. I included this in the older woman in fiction series. You can read my review here.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Vintage (2016)

  1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This is any woman, angry and isolated. She adopts the Shahid family when they move to Boston, and feels deserted when they leave. Is her reaction over the top or has she been betrayed and exploited by each member of the family?

I reviewed it in March 2016 and you can read that review here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Virago (2013)

  1. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius

A nameless young woman walks from her protestant convent in Rome in 1946 to a church to hear a concert. The signs of war going badly, shortages, threat of bombs are everywhere, as is the presence of the German army. She is German, and eight months pregnant. Her husband has been sent to the North African front despite being wounded. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she is caught up.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius, Peirene (2010) translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

  1. Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi

Many women have tough lives and none come tougher than this Egyptian woman who has nothing left to loose. I recently included this novel for the 1970s in the Decades Project series on my blog and you can read my comments here.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

  1. The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan.

A woman is dumped by her husband for her younger friend, who takes her job and her home as well as her husband. Rose’s revenge is to make a better life for herself than her erring husband and friend manage. The hurt and pain of the betrayal remains but Rose realises that those years with her husband and children cannot be taken from her.

The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan, Penguin (2002)

  1. The Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Another Arabic woman, this time from Lebanon, single and no longer young. Aaliya collects and translates European books despite the troubled times in Beirut. Her situation improves when she accidentally dyes her hair blue and the plumbing in her ancient flat gives up. This novel was also included in my older women in fiction series here.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine published in the UK by Corsair (2013)

  1. Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun

This short book is non-fiction. It explores the ways in which women give accounts of their lives, both literally and unconsciously. It asks the question what influences the way a woman thinks she should lead her life. I reviewed this several years ago but it remains one of my most-read posts. You can read it here.

There are four ways to write a woman’s life; the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write the woman’s life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognising or naming the process. (p11)

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun, Norton (1988)

And here is the exception to the girl in the title rule.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

This novel was the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. It is narrated in the brilliant harsh inner voice of an Irish girl. Her life is shaped by the misfortunes of her family and by the abuse she experiences and she takes on as she descends into self-loathing. The final line of the novel is ‘My name is gone.’ Her identity has been subsumed in the awfulness of her life. The voice is jagged, speaks in incomplete sentences, confused (words, sentences, capitals and lower case letters) when being beaten up. It’s hard to read but worth it.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber (2013)

Over to you

I am sure I have missed lots of books with woman in the title. My daughter spotted one and she has promised to add it in the comments. How about you?

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#readwomen2014

You will understand my title even if you don’t know what a hashtag is (a twitter thing) or have never heard that 2014 is the year of reading women. It started when Joanna Walsh, writer and illustrator, decided to call 2014 ‘the year of reading women’ and sent Christmas cards listing 250 names to encourage recipients if not to read women exclusively at least to look up some of the named writers. From this #readwomen2014 grew. She wrote on the Guardian blog about it: Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?

100 BookshelfI’m not one of those who have decided to only read women writers, but I do want to do my bit to encourage people to read women, especially in the face of fewer women getting published, fewer women’s books being reviewed, and fewer women reviewers. (See the VIDA statistics for the record of different publications, aka the hall of shame). And there are days at a certain literary festival where there are no women featured at all. We need #readwomen2014.

Some reviewers, prompted by #readwomen2014 decided to read, and therefore review, only books by women in 2014. An American journal, Critical Flame, decided to go one step further and dedicate 2014 to women writers and writers of colour. This kind of action challenges the idea that white males set the standard and are the default position for how the world is to be seen in fiction: through the male consciousness. It encourages diversity.

It’s an attractive idea – expanding reading horizons. You could look at the gender balance of your recent reading*. Or of the books on your shelves. Or of the books in your local library. You could ask yourself how any imbalance has come about? How much is it to do with how you find out about books?

Last week I heard about a newly established mixed reading group, who picked their books for the first year, and not one of them was by a woman. And no one present had noticed.

83 BWPFF logo biggerSo in the spirit of #readwomen2014, and because this is my 100th blogpost, and because the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 will be announced this week, I am using my blog to wholeheartedly recommend reading more fiction by women (and, yes, to split an infinitive or two!). So here’s some suggestions from Bookword blog, with links to the posts.

Everything on my older women in fiction theme is by women. You can find these by clicking on the category link on the right. My review of Margaret Laurence The Stone Angel has been consistently one of my most read posts for over a year.

Elizabeth Taylor – novels and short stories (link to reviews by clicking on the category link).E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Bowen – In the Heat of the Day.

Claire Cameron – The Bear (longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize).

Ruth Ozeki – Tale for the Time Being.

Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight.

Ann Tyler – almost anything by her, and I reviewed The Accidental Tourist.

Carolyn Heilbrun – Writing a Woman’s Life for some non-fiction.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330Foreign fiction by women should not be ignored either. Try The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch. It has just been given a special mention at this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

And Tove Jansson – The Summer Book.

*I checked my reading record over 12 months and it is 70/30 in favour of women. Perhaps I need to read more male writers.

 

More about #readwomen2014 in Guardian article by Alison Flood.

And for an excoriating post about the label ‘women’s fiction’ see Joanne Harris’s blog Capitalize This.

 

So: will your next book be written by a woman? Tell us one of your recommended reads by a woman.

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

‘How’s your autobiography coming along?’ my friend asked. I was puzzled. Why did he imagine that I was writing an autobiography? He meant the one in my head, continuously revised, revisited, renewed. It’s the story of my life that I tell myself and sometimes, some parts I relate to others, especially to women, to my daughter and to my friends. In Carolyn Heilbrun’s terms my friend was asking me about the first way a woman can write her life.

There are four ways to write a woman’s life; the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write the woman’s life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognising or naming the process. (p11)

Of course I am interested in all these ways to write a woman’s life, but it is the fourth method, the unconscious writing, without recognising or naming the process that influences us all. It is the script we are given as little girls that she is referring to here. The script is reinforced throughout life so that it’s hard to write a good autobiography, to live a good life as a woman, without being aware of it. Indeed, the task of a feminist is to explore the script and replace it with her own story.

There will be narratives of female lives only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men. (p47)

Now there’s a challenge.

84 carolynHeilbrunCarolyn Heilbrun was a professor of literature at Columbia University in New York, specialising in British fiction of the twentieth century. She wrote scholarly examinations of feminist theory and is especially remembered for her work on the cultural narratives of women’s lives.

Writing a Woman’s Life was published in 1988 and is a short book – only 131 pages. Her themes include ‘”unwomanly” ambition, marriage, friendship with women and love for women, aging, female childhood’. She has chosen to explore these areas because in them women are especially subject to control by others. She suggests new ways that women can write their own lives, as a feminist undertaking.

“Men can be men only if women are unambiguously women,” Deborah Cameron had written. What does it mean to be unambiguously a woman? It means to put a man at the center of one’s life and to allow to occur only what honors his prime position. Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one’s own ideas and quests are always secondary. For a short time, during courtship, the illusion is maintained that women, by withholding themselves, are central. Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight – and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations – to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality. And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion: that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret. (p21)

The story for men to follow is of the quest, while women’s plot, she suggests, is marriage, support, erotic service. Two expressions jump out at me in that paragraph: the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality and The rest is aging and regret. The disappointment implied by these phrases are behind my search for strong older fictional female characters, those who have not accepted marginality, those who do not see ageing as an afterlife.

Despite the brevity of the book and phrases such as those picked out here, it is not an easy read. Because it is the work of a scholar it is intense and dense, with many references to other scholars – for it is also a celebration of women’s scholarship.

84 Writing cover

Her final chapter on ageing is fascinating, especially in the light of her own death. She committed suicide (having told the world that she intended to do so at some point), leaving a note that read The journey is over. Love to all. She was 77. The book’s concluding paragraph suggests that in old age a woman finds a time to escape the biographies ascribed to her, and can stop being a ‘female impersonator’.

Biographers often find little overtly triumphant in the late years of a subject’s life, once she has moved beyond the categories our available narratives have provided for women. Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called women. She may for the first time be woman herself. (p131)

Carolyn Heilbrun also wrote successful detective fiction under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, whose heroine, Kate Fansler, investigated crimes in university settings. In hiding behind her pseudonym Carolyn Heilbrun also gave me insight into the uses of secrecy. It’s a phrase I have adopted as the title of my novel. The friend who asked about my autobiography also gave me a gift. It was the word ‘effulgent’. I think I should try to use the word in my novel very soon.

How’s your autobiography going? Is your narrative breaking free of ‘the houses and the stories of men’?

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction