Women’s Writing: Some Issues, Old and New

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women's writing

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women’s writing

Throughout history, women have written. But it has only been at the far end of the twentieth century, the tiniest sliver of a second on the great clock of time, that their writing has been seen to be in any way equivalent to that of men. Oh for sure, there was the occasional ‘miraculeuse’ as the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu termed women like George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir, women who made it through the ranks in a way that looked as if it might be possible for anyone to do so. When of course it wasn’t, and they were startling anomalies. And in the present day, the category of women’s writing, with its subdivisions of chick-lit and mommy-lit and light romance and historical romance, is often considered more frivolous and lightweight than the thriller or science fiction novel. All of which is to say that the literary world has never really been a place that welcomed women in, and it does so with reservations even now.

And yet stories have had a great deal more power over women’s lives than over men’s. As soon as we begin to look into the past, it’s obvious how constrained women have been by the story of the ‘good’ woman, who she is, how she behaves, what she may expect. The stories available to women as guidelines for living have traditionally been few and uncompromising: women were supposed to be quiet, well-behaved, charming, gentle, tender. They were destined to be faithful wives and devoted mothers. The romance was their only socially permitted adventure, and so they had to make the most of it (one of George Sand’s heroines delays her engagement for 8 years, about 250 pages of incident-filled narrative, before succumbing to marriage and motherhood in the final chapter, which Sand recognised would be the end of her freedom and interest to the reader). Those who deviated from these rules were severely punished by ostracism from the community, confinement in mental hospitals, excommunication from the church, public disgrace, scandal and death. All this because of stories handed down from generation to generation! So much constraint, so much restriction, because of this dreadful paucity of narrative possibility.

But still, women wrote. They wrote because writing was compatible with confinement in domesticity. What they wrote, however, was inevitably marked by the differences imposed upon them. They wrote out of a completely different relationship to power than men enjoyed. They wrote out of exclusion from the places in society where decisions were taken. They wrote out of a narrower view of the world and the things people could do in it. And where exceptions arose and amazing women found ways to travel and organise and become pioneers in a field, they deserve our awe and admiration while taking nothing away from the others who did not find those precious loopholes. They were not easy to come by. Today, in many countries across the world, the situation for women is still one of restriction, too often accompanied by suffering and fear. The obstacles may vary, but consistently, across time and space, women have found their conditions of life, the options open to them, to be different to those enjoyed by men. It’s an ongoing reality, and one brought home to us most vividly and powerfully by the stories women get to tell. We need every story, and each one asks us to listen, not to judge.

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

These past few weeks, reading for a whole month of blogging about women’s writing has been quite fascinating. I’ve been almost shocked by the differences between the feminist writing that came out of the 70s and 80s and the genre fiction of today. Whilst the feminists fought for the right to be free of domestic chores, to be less confined by marriage, to have the choice of meaningful work, to bring up children in less constricted environments, the genre fiction of today paints a world in which women have rushed back to the realm of the Stepford wife. A successful marriage, a pretty house, lots of nice material things, these are the hard-won goals. And motherhood remains the country that feminism forgot; it demands the absolute sacrifice of women’s personal needs, desires and activities. I’m not saying this is necessarily wrong or lacking in value – but what does the radical swing in social aspirations mean?

What has remained consistent throughout the recent period of literary history when women have been much more free to write whatever they chose, and to have lives lived according to their own principles, is the difficulty women have with accepting that other women may behave differently. In almost all the fiction and non-fiction I’ve been reading, the conflicts arise because women find it hard to live and let live. The choices and behaviours of others, if they run counter to their own, are too often understood to be offensive, wrong, threatening. This difficulty is very obvious in the reception of women’s writing, too. How often are female characters damned for not being ‘sympathetic’? For not behaving, in other words, the way that the woman reader wants them to? Still there remains the tendency to prescribe female behaviour – and it’s most noticeably done by other women. If the great historical battle of feminism was the right to be something other than a gentle nursemaid and competent housekeeper, why on earth should we spend so much time and energy squabbling over a new definition of how women should be? And worst of all, why should the mirage of ‘strength’ be the quality that dominates these prescriptions? ‘Strength’ if we mean constant energetic, fearless engagement in life, is an unlivable idea. Real strength, achievable and sustainable strength, is about flexibility, gentle discipline, understanding, compassion, and the acceptance of weakness.

But surely this goes a long way to explaining how come women survived – were complicit with – those endless centuries of history in which only a few stories were available for women’s lives. If there were one great overriding narrative, one way to be, women could measure themselves against it and feel secure, even superior to other women who did not match up so well. But that is to understand the meanness of women to one another as pure aggression, and I don’t believe that’s so. I think it’s actually about the unplumbed depths of women’s insecurity. When women fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s because the other’s difference awakens their insecurity. And by some twist of psychology, personal insecurity can easily become something that has to be avenged. If we could somehow alter this kink of mentality, if we could give women, not a vitamin pill, but a confidence pill, the unalloyed permission to be who they were without the constant fear of critical undermining by others, wouldn’t that make the world a better place? Forget the pill, we could do it if we somehow managed to make women better readers of one another. If they stopped looking for similarity and found in difference some interest, curiosity, learning. When women’s writing erupted into a glorious profusion of different, new, unheard voices back in the 70s, the sisterhood welcomed them all. We lost something vital when we believed we’d reached equality and started bickering over what it should look like.

people call me a feminist

Isn’t now the perfect moment to understand that each woman is her own story? And that the story is there to be listened to attentively for the pleasure of solidarity and curiosity, not judged for the pleasure of finding it wanting, or the fear that it might reflect badly on our own?

The Slap, European Style

sila's fortuneI haven’t read Christos Tsiolkas’s controversial novel, The Slap, although I can see I will have to now. But I think the catalyst for the narrative is a slap dealt to a difficult child at a social event by a man who is not his father, yes? In Fabrice Humbert’s new novel, Sila’s Fortune, the occasion is a normal night at a prestigious and expensive restaurant in Paris in 1995. When a black waiter tries to guide a misbehaving child back to his table, he has his nose broken for his pains by the child’s aggressive and boorish father. The scene is witnessed by five people who will feel guilty subsequently for not stepping in or reprimanding the father in some way – the child’s mother, the pretty but ineffective Shoshana, a Russian couple newly rich with corrupt roubles, Lev and Elena Kravchenko, and two Parisians: Simon a shy mathematician, and his friend the extrovert nightclub host, Matthieu. Although random witnesses of this scene, fate will conspire to bring them together again at the end of the narrative, by which point their lives will have changed dramatically.

The first part of the story details what happens in the run-up to the fateful night at the restaurant. We follow the waiter – Sila’s – journey from poverty in Africa to what represents affluence for him (though not for anyone else) as an illegal immigrant in Paris. Sila is an intriguing character, a man with the sort of self-contained charisma that permits him to get on wherever he ends up, but who will be unable to save himself from the victimhood into which he is cast by his entanglement with the male diner. The assailant – Mark Ruffle – is an American, a former football star who makes use of a well-timed injury to account for the failure of his sporting career. Determined to find his way back into the limelight, he begins a subprime mortgage service. The Russian couple have made it big on the back of Yeltsin’s rise to power, or at least Lev has. A former university professor, he became a political advisor and then was fortunate, and smart, enough to be awarded a hefty interest in the oil fields. His wife, Elena, has remained a teacher and his voice of conscience, a voice that sounds increasingly naïve as the power of the oligarchs is challenged by the various mafias that spring up in the wake of democratisation. Lev may be monstrously rich, but his life is fraught with dangers and dilemmas. As for the French friends, Simon has recently left his researchers job for an investment bank in London where his work as a quantative analyst is raking him in a big salary. Matthieu, whose get-rich-quick dreams were the prompt for his move, is suffering exquisite jealousy as his shy, introverted friend finds love and fortune whilst he can’t even get a job. All of our characters, in other words, are swept up in the unethical and mostly immoral wave of economic development that created a super-rich elite at the end of the 90s. We follow them to the crest of that wave, and then see what happens when the crash comes.

This story reminded me stylistically so much of Balzac; the fascination with money and power, the slightly allegorical characters whose fortunes rise and fall, and the backdrop of history, pulsating with triumph and disaster. It’s a very ambitious novel that in many ways doesn’t quite work (the way the plot threads are drawn together at the end is a little messy and hurried, the characters don’t undergo the kind of truly profound revelations that provide genuine poignancy, the moral questions raised aren’t fully answered), but I would much rather have a novel flawed by overreaching itself than a perfect bland one. The part of the story that I found most fascinating was the storyline that concerned the Russians. I confess I knew in a very vague way what was happening in Russia (not least because one of my linguist friends moved there with her Russian husband and was forced to move back a few years later because the situation was so dreadful) and found it fascinating and horrifying to learn in more detail about what was going on. All in all, the late 90s were a parcel of history that I had more or less forgotten, and it was gripping to watch them play out again. Humbert is a skilled writer who is interested in writing properly ideas-and-philosophy-based novels, and I am pretty sure that sooner or later he will hit the jackpot and produce something special.

In the meantime, Sila’s Fortune is an entertaining and compelling novel that doesn’t pull its punches on the financial orgy of the 90s and the various catastrophes it caused. And I really must read The Slap for comparison.

Winter Games

winter gamesI’m not sure how many people will follow me if I make allusion to The Producers, a film and a musical about two dodgy producers who fall upon a get-rich-quick scam that involves launching a musical so bad that it is destined to close after opening night. The musical they pluck from its happy obscurity is Hitler in the Springtime, a thigh-slapping camp-fest in which glorious Aryan types (featuring a blond John Barrowman) support a mincing, prima donna-ish Hitler. Well, the novel Winter Games by Rachel Johnson had an unmistakeable flavour of Hitler in the Springtime about it, being that unusual creature, a funny story about Nazis. What’s potentially confusing is that it’s also, fundamentally, an upmarket piece of chick-lit, inspired by the aristocratic family history of the author. And at this stage in the review, you’ll just have to take my word for it that even if the politics are a bit dodgy and the whole thing a bit bonkers, it does sort of work and is certainly entertaining.

This is one of those stories with parallel plotlines, one in the past, one in the present, and as is almost always the case with them, the story in the past is the more compelling. The novel opens in 1936 with 18-year-old Daphne Linden, a don’s daughter in Oxford, being sent off to a German finishing school. Daphne knows she’s being sent away from home because her depressed mother recently lost a baby and her philandering father is busy seducing another student. There has to be a ‘human sacrifice’ for these various complications, and Daphne is it. She doesn’t mind, however, as a) the school she is going to is co-educational and Daphne is longing to meet that other species, boys, and b) as a sop, her father is suggesting her best friend, the buxom and reckless Betsy Barton-Hill, joins her later on. Once in Germany, the girls quickly fall into the clutches of cousins Siegmund and Otto, the former gung-ho for the Nazis, the latter outraged by the party and their treatment of the Jews. But much more important than politics are the romantic entanglements that arise during their time in Siegmund’s family chalet at the Winter Olympics. It’s the tone that cracks me up in this part of the narrative, however, which is sort of Enid Blyton on amphetamines, or more precisely, what happened to the Chalet School girls when they grew up and their hormones got the better of them.

In the present day, or 2006 at least, Francie Fitzsimon, Daphne’s granddaughter, is a travel writer for a glossy and pointless magazine. Much in Daphne’s life is glossy and pointless; it’s all about hanging out in the right places to be seen, and buying the right merchandise and lusting after her boss, Nathan, who is a complete jerk and she knows this, while being half-heartedly married to an advertising exec. If it’s not strung up in lights for you already, you should be warned that there are unsympathetic characters in this part of the story. The point is that Daphne’s life is supposed to be vacuous, and that Daphne herself remains half-formed and somewhat clueless because she is living ‘in a time of peace and plenty, when houses doubled in value every ten years, households threw away as much food as they consumed, and men didn’t die for their country, they did Yogacampus or BeautCamp Pilates.’ This is possibly true for a small section of media-obsessed childless people living in central London, and quite possible not true for millions of others. But this is not a book that is out to make general points. Instead, it’s a sort of apologia for the aristocracy who never understood what Hitler was about until it was too late, sent down the ages to a kind of metropolitan soul who has (self-righteously) too much money and plenty of critical judgement about everybody other than themselves.

Francie finds a picture of her grandmother with Hitler, and this sets her off on a semi-ironic Quest (she knows her actions follow a certain clichéd route, but that doesn’t prevent her genuinely hoping for enlightment from them), to find out what Granny did during the war. As the story unfolds, so Francie has to take a slightly wincing look at herself and her principles, and try to care about something more than her next purchase from Net-à-Porter. ‘You have nothing in your lives,’ an ageing but still game Betsy Barton-Hill tells her. ‘Not even a war.’ And this is doubtless a reasonable rebuke for a generation who have never had to want for a single thing, and yet have failed to take intellectual or moral advantage of such riches.

And yet, of course, the storyline set in 1936 is about two silly teenage girls, without a clue in their heads, skipping arm in arm in brand new embroidered dirndls towards trouble. And how their own parents believed that Germany was somehow related to Great Britain because Queen Victoria’s grandson was on a Ducal throne there, and that a second war would never happen, not after the devastation of the first. It’s not like the generations that went through the Second World War were intrinsically more brave and dutiful, they simply had courage and sacrifice thrust upon them. However you want to read this, I found the intergenerational themes in this novel very interesting, and the rest of it is a bit of a romp. If you loved Hitler in the Springtime, and could see the funny side of it, then this is definitely a book for you. Oh, and in all honesty, it might help to be female to read it, though I would hate to put off any intrigued males. It’s just that, in my experience (limited), men reading books by women that have even a whiff of politics about them can be very scathing. Please feel free to leave opposing examples in the comments.


Wolf Hall

wolf-hallHere’s a fun game: try saying the title of this novel three times out loud, quickly. Still, for an unpronounceable book, it’s done pretty well; it must be one of the most successful and talked about publications of this millennium. Like all good phenomenons, it has sparked a debate about the ‘respectability’ of historical fiction, with many claiming that what used to be a lowly genre now has literary chops, whilst historians like Anthony Beaver get to grizzle about ‘histo-tainment’ and ‘faction-creep’ as corrupting forces on the purity of proper historical writing. I’m in the camp that believes fiction creates its own kind of truth, different to that embodied by the archive, but no less powerful. For me, Mantel’s novel does a brilliant job of bringing the past up close through its unusual structural choices.

I imagine that most people know now that the novel is about the resolute rise of blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell, to a position of power in the court of Henry VIII. He manages this despite the enormous setback of his mentor, the cunning and sophisticated Cardinal Wolsey, falling out of favour. It’s a salutary lesson to the young Thomas, who is more than aware how sharp his skills of diplomacy need to be if he’s to survive the shark-infested waters of regal politicking.

The issue of the day is Anne Boleyn. Henry wants to marry her – if he’s to bed Anne, she’s insisting on nothing less than a binding contract – but he unfortunately happens to be married to Katherine of Aragon, and he’s already pulled a bit of a fast one by marrying her when his brother’s death left her widowed. The main problem is that Katherine has failed to provide a son, and Henry is quite desperate for an heir. The motivation, beneath all the jostling surface reasons, is that Henry believes kings should be allowed to do anything they want. However, in this particular case, the ‘anything’ involved means turning the laws of the Catholic Church on their head and entirely rewriting England’s relationship to religious doctrine. To achieve the impossible requires a very special kind of lawyer – and so enter Cromwell, a man who has been a foot soldier in his time and has no fear of a dirty fight.

The magnificence of this novel resides in the character of Cromwell and the strange and unique way Mantel brings the reader inside his head. Cromwell is a tough man, but a fair one, intelligent but grounded, ruthless but tender. Most endearing of all is his drily ironic sense of humour which bubbles up around even the most fraught situation. You can’t help but love Cromwell because he loves his job, he genuinely admires the King, and, unlike just about everyone else around him, he never abuses his power. He has the courage of his convictions without the savagery of those who believe the end justifies the means.

The way the character is narrated is highly unusual, as the reader skips in and out of Cromwell’s head, presented with his outer tough guy image through the eyes of those around him, and then swiftly transported into his sympathetic mind and heart. There are no signs to indicate the transition, though; Mantel leaves it all to the implications of the narrative to let the reader know where s/he is, and this becomes, in the eyes of some, the problem of the unattributed ‘he’ in the text. ‘He’ mostly always refers to Cromwell, apart from the times when it doesn’t. And you’ve got to work that out for yourself. I think that Mantel adopts this almost intentionally confusing device because it makes readers keep their wits about them. As I was reading, I noticed my mind had that restless, darting quality that must characterize dangerous political times, when you have to take note of who said what, and when, and who is tugging at the hem of power. It felt to me like a very subtle way of taking us quite deeply into the mindset of Cromwell, and the shifting, tricky climate he lives in. You have to sit up and pay attention to this novel or it will run completely out of hand.

This is also true because it is a novel with a huge cast and an enormous quantity of events. As Cromwell grows in stature, so he comes into contact with the royal court, with the clergy, with the businessmen of the city, with the pretenders to the throne, with the heretics, with the powers from overseas. A vast web of relationships creates ever widening circles, and plucking a thread unleashes a chain of uncertain consequences. Cromwell is in the centre of a dangerous game of chess, with the smoking stake outside his window to remind him of the cost of losing.

As I was reading, I was surprised by what felt initially like a lack of depth to the novel. We skate precariously over the surface of so many events, barely has one finished than something else kicks off elsewhere. This happens, then this, then this… and so on. But it occurred to me as I read on that the exercise of absolute power reduces all human event to its mere surface. Henry’s great aim is to undermine the sanctity of his marriage – to claim those twenty-some years never properly happened, and to do this he must make a nonsense, not just of the passage of time, but of the religious precepts that have long been understood to be the repository of all meaning. Inconvenient people are reduced to ciphers. Life and death become of little matter, a footnote to the bulldozing sweep of power as it hacks down a path across time. But in contrast to this majestic obliterating force, Mantel offers us pockets of stubbornness in the form of the so-called heretics who are agitating for the acceptance of the bible in English. I wonder whether the success of Mantel’s novel is due in part to the historical and cultural shock that comes from reading, in our most superficial and self-centred of eras, about men and women who would die horribly for the sake of a belief. There’s something so rich and redolent of valour in this story, about an age where everything matters hugely, where change is feared and demanded, and where power, as ever, is all about being able to argue that black is white and get away with it. I’m so looking forward to Bringing Up The Bodies.