Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Literary Tradition of Women

Women's writing is not determined by biology, anatomy, or psychology. It comes from women's relation to the literary marketplace, from pressures to live public and private lives, from literary influence.

What is women's literature and is there a place for a women's literary history? The academic Elaine Showalter talks about her new book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf), and discusses some of these issues. Showalter argues that even today, after all these freaking years, women's writing remains largely unknown and that this is to do with the fact that women's writing hasn't been pulled together into a defined literary tradition.

The good news can be found in the progress that Showalter describes.

And the end of the story? In an earlier work, I talked about the phases of British women's literature: "feminine" (bowing to male expectations), "feminist" (rebelling), and "female" (articulating women's experience). By the 1980s and 90s, I think, we'd entered a new stage: "free." Women had joined the juries, as publishers, critics, reviewers, authors. No longer restricted to certain subjects, they could, for example, write about violence and boxing, as Joyce Carol Oates does. They could, like Raymond Carver, be minimalists (look at the understated style of Amy Hempel or Ann Beattie). They could write from any perspective, even a male one. They were multiculturalists.

That doesn't mean that their work has become fully integrated into our literary culture: That's why I wrote the book.

More here.


Giovanni said...

Brilliant - thank you for that Katy.

Anna said...

A first year English paper I did featured a section on women's writing. Many of the class were really hostile to it - they thought they were being given inferior literature to read for the sake of an affirmative action policy. (This was a few years ago, mind you.)

Can I also add that I just don't see the point of Jane Austen. I'm a bad feminist/literature student.

Anonymous said...

Anna, in my opinion Jane Austen doesn't get enough criticism from feminists. A lot of what she wrote was very sexually suspect (and suspect in many other ways too)

Anna said...

I'm intrigued, Anon - share more of your thoughts!

katy said...

One quite interesting response to Jane Austen is "Wide Sargasso Sea" which was written as prequel to "Jane Eyre" with the "mad wife" as the protagonist.

That being said, I have to say that I have a real weak spot for Jane Austen and (when I was younger) the 20th century version, Georgette Heyer.

Anonymous said...

Jane Austen's female protagonists never seem to question the idea that their fate is to get married and have children, not to be educated or not to have careers.

You could argue that Jane was 'of her time', but that underestimates the tradition of contemporary female political activism. Even by the standards of the day, Jane Austen was anti-feminist.

But even if we do use that excuse, it doesn't make Jane Austen's books any more acceptable in the current gender-political context as anything other than a historical document.

And that's before we start looking at the book's stance on the poor, or on slavery. Jane Austen focused exclusively on the top 5% of society.

Unfortunately, too many people find attractive the trappings of regency upper class life - the clothes, the accents, the manners - attractive, and just aren't interested in the structure of oppression it rested in.

Anna said...

Anon, that's very well put - it captures my discomfort with J.A. beautifully. And I get a sense (although I haven't read heaps of her novels) that she is slightly mocking of women for the conventions they were trapped in - thinking of Northanger Abbey here - without challenging the conventions themselves or the fact women couldn't escape them. And I think there's a bit of flouncy escapism in our ongoing cultural love of J.A.

PS Katy, 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is rad (although Jane Eyre was a Bronte effort). It really points to the class and racial limitations of the thinking in Jane Eyre (although that's still quite a rad novel too). It's pretty telling that Bertha is a slightly less than human figure of almost revulsion in J.E.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right Anna. JA was very sensitive to the rigid conventions that dictated the way people, particularly women, lived their lives, but she never seemed interested in questioning them, just making light-hearted jokes about them. You could argue that sort of fond, uncritical mocking actually strengthens social conventions, rather than breaking them down.

I also agree whole-heartedly about escapism. It saddens me that almost all of the historical writers that remain popular focus on the upper class.

katy said...

"Wide Sargasso Sea' is rad (although Jane Eyre was a Bronte effort)."


Anna said...

Jane Austen viewed through modern eyes has the characteristics of a fairytale - girl gets guy, taken for granted affluence, no real life problems except those related to finding a husband. I wonder if that's why her stuff still appeals?

katy said...

"It saddens me that almost all of the historical writers that remain popular focus on the upper class."

I was interested in this comment so I tried a little scientific analysis of most poular writers. The writeers below are from the UK Public Lending Right which tracks what books are being borrowed from libraries.

Intersting to see that 4 of the top 5 are women!

I guess Dickens is the notable exception??

Most Borrowed Classic Authors

1. Enid Blyton
2. Roald Dahl
3. Agatha Christie
4. Georgette Heyer
5. Beatrix Potter
6. Charles Dickens
7. Jane Austen
8. Daphne Du Maurier
9. C S Lewis
10. J R R Tolkien
11. William Shakespeare
12. A A Milne
13. George Orwell
14. Thomas Hardy
15. H G Wells
16. Rudyard Kipling
17. Arthur Conan Doyle
18. Robert Louis Stevenson
19. Ernest Hemingway
20. Charlotte Bronte

katy said...

"I wonder if that's why her stuff still appeals?"

Bridget Jones Diary was quite popular...

Giovanni said...

Not to mention Sex and the City. Or America's Next Top Landed Gentrywoman.

That list of most borrowed books is sensational. I want one from every country in the world now. I wonder if we could follow Mr Moretti and produce a gendered atlas of the novel.

Anna said...

Isn't Bridget Jones' Diary based on Pride and Prejudice? Is there no escape from Jane Austen?

katy said...

Jane Austen was lad lit??


The New York Times
March 17, 2009
Austen’s Dangerous Books for Boys
By Jennifer Schuessler

The recent publication of “A Jury of Her Peers,” Elaine Showalter’s sprawling history of American women writers, has provoked much discussion about the gender politics of reading and writing.

You know: that continuous, noisy debate about why most prizes (and reviews) go to male novelists, when most buyers and readers of fiction are women. It’s the one where female critics ask why novels about men in boats get more attention and respect than novels about women in houses.

All very good questions. But in the meantime it’s useful to ponder the way our ideas of the masculinity or femininity of works of fiction can change over time. For example, I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago, while researching a story on Jane Austen monster mashups, that until fairly recently the Bardess of Basingstoke was regarded as pretty much for the boys.

“There is a pattern throughout the Victorian period and into the modern era that sees the great English statesmen and literati and gentlemen scholars manifesting their devotion to Austen by reading her novels over and over,” Deidre Lynch, a professor at the University of Toronto who has written extensively on Austen devotees, told me in an e-mail message.

Benjamin Disraeli read “Pride and Prejudice” 17 times, and Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman read “Mansfield Park” every year. The historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay read Austen obsessively and, as a colonial administrator in India, wrote letters home comparing various colleagues to characters in “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” None of them are known to have covered the books in plain brown paper.

In fact, Lynch points out, the term “Janeite” — today used somewhat derisively to refer to Austen’s besotted female fans — came into usage in the 1890s thanks to men who wore it like a badge of honor. Kipling’s 1923 story “The Janeites” was about a platoon of British soldiers who use Austen talk to distract themselves from the horror of the trenches. And here’s E. M. Forster, coming out as a “Jane Austenite” in 1924:

I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity — how ill they sit on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers.

On the distaff side of the library, women readers were often much less enthusiastic. Charlotte Brönte, Lynch says, bridled when George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s paramour) kept pushing the novels on her. “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on this point.”

The heroine of “Troy Chimneys,” Margaret Kennedy’s 1953 historical novel set in the Regency, offered one possible explanation. When the male hero keeps pressing “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” on a lady he knows, she pushes back, arguing that the books, however entertaining, ended up keeping her, well, in the house. Austen’s “greatest admirers,” she says, “will always be men, I believe. For, when they have had enough of the parlor, they may walk out, you know, and we cannot.”

But by the mid-20th century, Austen had become identified as a women’s author. Lynch points to a 1947 usage cited in the O.E.D. that suggests that the question of the Janeite’s gender was starting to make people nervous:

Men as masculine as Scott and Kipling have been Janeites and have been enthralled by her sly humor and fidelity to reality.

As opposed to the awesome clothes and swoony subplots? Next time I go whaling, I’m taking Jane.

stargazer said...

katy, i was really surprised not to see j k rowling on that list, but maybe that's because people buy the books rather than borrow them. or maybe they just aren't as popular after all.

it's really funny, but my girls have discovered some old books recently. the younger one has suddenly developed a passion for trixie belden books, and the older one is now a fan of agatha christie. this has meant that i now frequent second hand bookshops. being an ex-agatha christie fan myself, i started rereading some of the old stories, and the uses of words like "pussy" and "queer" just had me in stitches!

katy said...

stargazer, I have to say that I loved Agatha Christie novels when I was in my early/mid-teens. Not sure what the attraction was, maybe the creation of a new world/s that is the cumulative effect of all those books.