Right, we’re going away for the weekend so I am allowing myself one hour absolutely no more in which to write about The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. It’s good to have some restraints when dealing with this novel, which is excessive, lengthy, and unrestrained in so many ways. On the one hand it’s about women throwing off those shackles of oppression and getting out of the kitchen and into the world, on the other, it can’t manage to be positive and forward-looking because it’s written from the point of view of women who’ve been wrongfully incarcerated, abused and belittled for most of their lives. Ostensibly it’s a novel, but I think it’s better described as other things, a series of Holocaust testimonies from the survivors of gendercide, perhaps, a version of Boccaccio’s Decameron in which all the travelers cooped up in a thwarted escape attempt turn out to be very angry women, a catalogue of sex crimes from the first half of the twentieth century. Well, it may be classified as feminist literature, but if I were back in the bookshop, I think I would be obliged to reshelve it alongside Stephen King in the horror section. It is a mostly gripping and disturbing read, one of those books that says a lot, disquietingly, about cultural history, and a flawed classic that ought to be discussed in schools, if it weren’t quite so long.
Ostensibly it is the story of Mira, who grows up in a distant, respectable family in the forties, marries and endures the suburban American dream of the fifties, goes through the destroying process of a divorce in the sixties and then returns to college, to Harvard in 1968, to witness a political scene in deep crisis that still has nothing of value to offer half the population. Mira’s personal story is constantly put to one side in order to explore the lives of her friends, women certainly no better off than herself, who escape abusive fathers to recreate the same situation with barely-known husbands, who pick their kids up from school in a drunken stupor, who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown from the demands of four or five children, who fall in love thinking it will be the answer and end up always disillusioned, embittered, and alone. The first half of the book screams out its message: the dream that is fed to women of satisfying domesticity, of romance and the rewards of childcare, is a dangerous and ultimately damaging fiction. The result is nothing more than emotional slavery with no recompense, and often with brutality or loveless sex thrown in for good measure. The blame for all this is laid fairly and squarely at the feet of men. The behaviour of the male characters moves on a spectrum from bland indifference to outright violence, but wherever the man may fall, an unacknowledged but underlying hatred of women is implied to be its cause. This novel marshals an army of women who are laying siege to the bastion of masculinity with some serious grievances, but it made me think of a siege in which the starving surround the walls of a prosperous city, where the citizens are well-fed and contented and didn’t want to go out anyway. For all the women may scream, the city’s inhabitants can’t hear them, because they happened to have the television turned up loud, or were reading something rather interesting in the paper. The emotional tone of the novel is relentlessly negative, but French’s descriptions of relationships do have a sort of anthropological truth to them.
The second half of the novel finds Mira tentatively feeling out liberation, having handed care of her children to her ex-husband and embarked on a graduate degree. If uneducated women from one generation can’t find satisfaction in their lives, is it possible for highly educated women who are mixing with the next generation, the novel asks? You can probably guess the answer. The novel was published in 1977 at the height of the second wave feminist movement when you might have thought it would be well-received, but it provoked and annoyed the majority of its feminist reviewers. In some ways I feel it rather missed the boat of consciousness-raising, which was most warmly welcomed in the sixties. Instead it landed in the middle of a political scene that needed to feel that change was on the way, that all kinds of freedoms had been won and that the future was bright.
I found a very interesting article on the internet (via Wikipedia) in which the author trawled through the masses of criticism leveled at this novel by feminist writers. There were two main points of attack; the first, which was maintained by men and women writers alike, was that the representation of men in this novel was unfairly skewed, that the novel lost credibility because it did not show a balance of men with some nice, caring, concerned husbands alongside the losers. The other criticism was that it had no prophetic vision at the end of a way that women could live in peace and harmony. The ending is very bleak, as if all the struggles Mira has gone though have been for nothing. I found this all extremely interesting, and to be absolutely honest, misguided. It shows me that if a book fell into the category of feminist literature, that meant there was a big prescription it had to fill out. It had to be irreproachable in its politics (if feminists were arguing they did not hate men, I agree it must have been galling to some extent to see a book roundly declaring the opposite), and it had to produce solutions, visions, blueprints. It had to be useful, it had to tick all the boxes. It lost its right to being literature, which is always an uncompromising wrestle with the recalcitrant parts of reality, the parts that don’t have easy solutions. I mean, I don’t see people ticking off Vladimir Nabokov for having written Lolita without producing a solution to the problem of child abuse. You might not like the book, but your grounds for doing so would be different. No, the problem with feminist literature was that it got backed into a corner, restrained on all sides; it had to be useful, it had to be perfect, it had to be beyond reproach. Do you see a pattern forming? Yup, that undermining feminine mentality, the one that says be perfect or else, is still ferociously at work here, emerging wholly unscathed from that particular wave of supposedly profound change. Women are still extremely harsh on one another, because at basis they are harsh on themselves.
If by the end of the novel, Mira has not managed to reframe isolation into independence, this is far from surprising. Given her background and her life experiences, it is wholly unlikely she would be able to. I think it remains a pressing question whether women have managed yet to free themselves from family and romance as their fundamental context, the place of their most captivating adventures. And here’s another uncomfortable thought for you: the book is perhaps most derided for the speech a character named Val makes, after having been through the wounding process of getting justice for her daughter, who has been the victim of a rape. The two women must face the collective hostility of the police and the lawyers, none of whom believe for a second that the girl did not in some way welcome or invite the sexual attack, and who express this view in the basest and most unpleasant terms imaginable in order to intimidate them into dropping the charges. The experience changes Val completely, and she withdraws into what she accepts is a fanatical position: ‘Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.’ Now okay, suppose we agree that this is an extreme position (although not an unreasonable one for the fictional Val to take, given all her back history). But what chills me is that another book I’m reading, one published this year, is also a testimony account of a mother’s battle to get justice for her daughter, sexually abused for four years by an elderly uncle (77, if you’d like to know) and her failure to do so because of a judicial system that still disbelieves women and honours men. In this respect, nothing has changed. This is, I think, gallingly, worryingly terrible.
I cannot but agree that Marilyn French does not exactly make the reading experience pleasant. Her perspective is one-note and angry, embittered. But the tales of the different women she tells are probably mostly based on reality. Val’s story was always already true; her own daughter was raped, and she was very upfront about the autobiographical basis of that part of the story. And it has the feel of testimony – the telling of an experience that makes its listeners uncomfortable, precisely because it does not have the soothing, reassuring balances of art. The critics were harsh on it, for not doing the things a novel ought to do, for not saying the things that would have been politically useful, but there’s also the small matter of three and a half million copies sold to women who must have hungrily devoured the pages of domestic horror, finally finding the expression of a certain truth. The Women’s Room does not say what we always want to hear, but there are very good reasons, still, for reading it.