Folk of the River

OffshoreOffshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a child, I occasionally watched a TV show, familiar to most British people of my generation, about two puppets who lived on a canal barge called Ragdoll, which seemed homely, safe and jolly. Most people only set foot on a boat for the purpose of pleasure and so imagine life on a barge to be sheer, uninterrupted delight. I have always been drawn to water, and even lived at sea for a while (I was not happy for other reasons, but I was happy to be at sea) But, hopelessly addicted to warmth and cleanliness, knowing the filthy Thames, the muggy, tepid London weather at its most unpleasantly moist, I must imagine being utterly miserable on a river barge once the novelty wore off. I can only assume Nenna and Richard feel a stronger inexplicable affinity with the watery element than I.

Of course, the book is short enough to maintain the feeling of novelty and I am able to remain dry while reading it, so Fitzgerald has to make it sound as squalid and uncomfortable as possible to prevent me feeling envious of her vividly sketched cast. The exactness and offhandedness of her de-romanticising portrait of the river life reflect her own stint on a Thames barge, and this autobiographical realism affords the story unsettling and soggy emotional depths under its crisp, witty surface.

After Angela Carter’s glorious romp Nights at the Circus, for example, this book feels so calm, so sure-footed, with all its adverbs absolutely to purpose and, as on Richard’s boat Lord Jim, everything in its place. But while Richard complains of not being able to get his feelings across easily, Fitzgerald is a virtuoso of economical expression, somehow finding time for six-year-old Tilda’s second-hand daydreams and a plethora of colourful minor characters who briefly enter or impinge upon the rather isolated river community. Most charming of these is the aristocratic German teenager Heinrich, who captivates the grounded, hilariously and tragically mature Martha, Nenna’s elder daughter. Nenna herself, as foolish and helpless as I myself feel, though entirely sympathetic, reminds me of Bridget Jones, or even better a character from one of Wes Anderson’s films, which this book decidedly evokes for me. Indeed, a cross between classic chick-lit and Andersonian whimsy might read just like this, if it were written by a genius who had experienced actual poverty.

Here the chick-lit trope of the gay male friend is embodied by Maurice, a lovingly drawn character whom Fitzgerald based on a real friend of hers. While the trope can be desexualising (and the role, I suppose, exploitative and othering) and oriented to diffuse heteronormative anxieties, at least it grants some degree of visibility, which in the seventies was probably still worth having in itself. In this case, Maurice, a sex-worker, is no stereotype and is Nenna’s closest friend. The book’s ending feels like a tribute to him. However, both Nenna and Maurice possess the ability to express their feelings, which Richard says he lacks. This vital ability may be the feminine counterpart to Nenna’s claimed deficiencies-of-gender, such as being unable to fold a map. This crude surmise of mine makes Maurice feminine. In any case, Richard’s behaviour and skills are always tidily attributed to ‘training’, a word encompassing both military and social conditioning. The socialisation of women into caring, empathic, expressive skills is less visible, indeed, in this book it is never mentioned.

The story, despite its female centre on Nenna and her daughters, is rather oriented towards men. The river community’s life has wealthy, efficient, upperr class, generous, decent, chivalrous Richard at its hub, and Nenna is so focussed on her broken marriage that she can barely care for her daughters, who fortunately are more than capable of picking up the slack. Even the girls have male preoccupations (Elvis, for example) yet, Fitzgerald finally refuses to let men dominate. (view spoiler)

The contrast between Nenna’s London and the one I live in today is most evident in the gentrification of Chelsea, especially the King’s Road, now lined with high-end chain stores, designer outlet, expensive cafes and the Saatchi Gallery, which in Offshore appears as a kind of bohemian paradise vaguely reminiscent of present day Camden High Street, only more enchanting. Stoke Newington has also, more recently, become a fashionable address. I cannot tell, though, whether cab drivers have become less kind.

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Of the Monstrous

Nights At The CircusNights At The Circus by Angela Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well this is probably as much fun as can be had reading, for me anyway. I surrender utterly to the allure of Fevvers; I believed every wonderful word of her story and every page of it yielded some new pleasure to my feminist consciousness. The portrayal of a group of sex-workers (and ridicule of their would-be self-appointed saviours) seemed particularly well-observed to me. On the level of the symbolic, fill yer boots. On the level of prose, this is as extravagantly creative and exuberant as it could possibly be. Carter’s style echoes Fevvers’ fetid dressing room, cluttered with nonchalently veiled and camouflaged magical amulets, almost animate animal-like lingerie intimidating to the timid male guest (snaky stockings seem to threaten and discomfort him), the debris of the star’s ablutions and voracious consumption of decidedly local and humble refreshments such as eel pie and sugar-loaded tea: it is a divine, diabolical, vernacular, esoteric, ingenious, streetwise, starry-eyed, audaciously feminine mess. Take it as it comes or fuck off.

Once the protagonists leave London there is a certain wild abandon, even chaos, about the flow of the story. I couldn’t really see how the section on the women’s prison fit in to it all, except that Siberia was a good location for it, and perhaps that the frozen expanse existed to be open to creative possibilities, both for the author and for all women. In any case, I found this section absolutely brilliant, particularly in realising the character of Olga who killed her abusive husband and delivers the verdict of self-defense upon herself in the private court she shares with the author. However, though she is thus absolved, Carter does not forget to realise her suffering mother and traumatised son. The boy, Ivan, witness of so much violence, is appropriately drawn into the clan of clowns; their diabolical capering and their nihilistic philosophy. The scary clown trope is vividly, terrifyingly explored.

I was amused and impressed by Carter’s treatment of the black characters, Madame Schreck’s servant Toussaint and ‘the Princess’. Carter seems to be humorously castigating the poor representation of black people in white literature, since she exaggerates their silencing to the point of absurdity – Toussaint has been ‘born without a mouth’! Even so, he manages to be elegant and eloquent in writing, so much so that it is several times remarked on, thus, I think, mocking the ‘well spoken’ cliche used as a ‘respectability’ marker to help distinguish between people of colour who are acceptable to white supremacy and those who are not. The Princess voluntarily refuses to speak, since black women cannot trust white women (ie Carter, the author) to represent them.┬áThe inclusion of these characters as distanced from the text by their silence makes them (especially ‘the Princess’) critical witnesses, marking whiteness, including that of the author.

Writing of female minor characters is lovingly thorough. Perhaps the most developed, ubiquitous theme here is mutual support and care between women, and, apart from that between Fevvers and her informally adoptive mother Liz, the relationship between abuse-survivor Mignon and ‘the Princess’ is the most touching for me. Brian pointed out to me in discussion how carefully written Mignon’s story was. The only subplot that I struggled with was Walser’s amnesia-driven sojourn with the shaman. Here I felt Carter was projecting some ideas about mysticism onto uncolonised people in a potentially exploitative way.

On the other hand, I generally loved Carter’s treatment of animal characters – the intellectual apes especially. The elephants constantly rattling their chains were rightfully disturbing, and mirrored other unresolved agitations that Carter sets up to highlight other aspects of as-yet unachieved liberation.

I cannot resist drawing a parallel between Nights at the Circus and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Readers who enjoyed the latter as (pre)teens like me will probably find their sensibilities well attuned to this hearty and heartily satisfying feminist romp. Spread your wings, women.

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Dear Alice

Dear Life: StoriesDear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where do I begin? My second Munro and I feel that familiar sensation, like feeling for the barely palpable edge of the sticky tape on the roll, a way in, when everything feels like the centre, a cycle that’s encircled me, that I’ve had with me for so long I can’t imagine either end.

It’s not as if the stories are all the same or blur into each other – far from it in fact! The mood and mode of each is so crisply distinct I can imagine Munro writing in an organised study, selecting from the options as from coloured paints lined up on a shelf – shall we have ‘brooding pastoral’ with a splash of ‘breathless passion’?

There is structural variation too, Munro even amuses (and terrifies) us with a storyform so hackneyed that EFL exam handbooks warn against it: the ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ trope. Wait. Here’s a tiny ridge, let’s peel it. The edge Munro presents us with here is the uncertainty of reality and of identity when memory becomes unstable, thus tripping up the trope: we cannot awaken from this half-dream. The threat of dissolution is softened by the darkly comic, but finally heartening story ‘Dolly’, which I read aloud to my mum in the car. We both thought it would make a great screenplay.

Most of these stories have keener edges, over which we peer into less final abysses. In most of them, a woman is punished for transgressing the rigid norms of conservative small-town society. The means of correction are many and varied, all too often they are internal – the self-coercing mechanisms of patriarchal socialisation kick in. There’s a truthfulness, a wry rightness to the detail that has me constantly nodding: that’s the way it goes.

But plotwise it isn’t the way it goes, it’s always fresh and surprising, the page yields up a shock, the heart drops a beat and races. It’s only the texture of everyday life that is so utterly real, so well worn and worn well on the strong frames of Munro’s direct, unadorned sentences, her many quiet, clear voices that allow precise evocation, and make a calm and light background for strange small horrors and delights to leap out from all the more vividly.

Generational gaps are important in a collection that examines a period of shifting cultural values. There are a few young characters imbued with potentially rebellious, transformative energy, especially disruptive, gregarious, voluble Mary in ‘Amundsen’, who, although she transforms the narrator Vivien into Miss Hyde, seems to make generous efforts to preserve her threatened vivacity. The narrator of ‘Haven’, a tale in which the deadly patriarchal morality of a passing era is deftly explored, also has a certain energy and freedom about her. These lively, unrestrained young girls remind me of The Madwoman in the Attic in which Gilbert and Gubar share their divination of a sad yearning on the part of C19th women authors for lively spirited girls like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights to be able to grow up into autonomy and subjectivity, instead of being imprisoned by sex roles.

In ‘Haven’ as in other stories, the reader is not spared discomfort. I found myself anguished by even subtle hints of the narrator’s increased socialisation into patriarchy. Munro is not afraid to offer the unpleasant; her tactic is to confront it, and there is a therapeutic value in this, a learning that unpleasant things exist, which helps to deal with them or put them in their place. In one of the concluding semi-autobiographical pieces, ‘Voices’, the narrator shares how her father helped her to deal with terrifying thoughts of killing her sister by telling her that ‘everyone thinks things like that’, reassuring her thus that the unwanted thought is not an intention. Munro’s stories sometimes deal with unwanted thoughts and panic in helpful ways.

‘Pride’ and ‘Corrie’ deal with sexuality around physical disabilities, making space in the discussion for differences of gender and social class. Cultural assumptions about male desire are thrown into relief, as are those about women as empathic carers. ‘Train’ forms something of a counterpoint to these stories in that is deals with an apparently asexual man. Compulsory heterosexuality keeps him more or less on the run from one safe-space to another, yet such freedom is clearly a gendered prerogative – he finds work anywhere and is (explicitly) assumed to be trustworthy. A lone woman would not have such mobility, unless, perhaps, she were a sex-worker, which would come at the cost of social exclusion.

In general the stories have harmony with each other, in their shades of like and unlike. Occasionally there is a sunny clearing, as in the loving older couple in ‘Leaving Maverly’. The natural world, beautifully sketched, is ever-present and significant (sometimes it seems that everything is significant in Munro, every detail has a polysemous aura, which discussion helped me to read), though arguably it only once, at the end of ‘Pride’ intervenes and utters the last, transcendent, cryptic, unanswerable word.

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bitter destiny

The Joys of MotherhoodThe Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nnu Ego’s father is a great man, so much so that when his senior wife dies, her burial is a grand affair. She must take everything she will need in the afterlife with her, including her personal slave, a beautiful and vivacious young woman captured from another tribe. The woman begs for her life, but to no avail, she is executed. Her restless soul bonds with the recently conceived Nnu Ego and becomes her chi, her personal god.

The great father, Agbadi, feels compassion for the slain slave and to placate her angry spirit, frees all of his slaves and bans the practice of enslaving captives taken in conflict, but the legacy of slavery is not so easily expunged: Nnu Ego suffers the rage of her chi. Another character later comments on the irony of white settlers banning slavery and continuing to employ native black workers in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. This agitated, complex, multivalent engagement with troubled histories of slavery is characteristic of Buchi Emecheta’s fictional biography of an Igbo woman born to a prosperous, highly respected family in a village where pre-colonial lifestyles seem undisturbed. In contrast to this setting is the British colonial city of Lagos, where Nnu Ego, having not conceived a child by her first husband (due to the machinations of her chi) is married to a washerman. Having lived in comfort in Igbo villages, she spends her years in Lagos locked in a constant desperate struggle to earn enough money to feed her ever-expanding family, consoling herself with the knowledge that she has fulfilled society’s expectations of her as a mother and wife.

Recently I have been reading a lot of books by women that I find to be strongly feminist, and have what strike me as silly, patronising cover notes that are rendered ironic by the content. John Updike reckons, approvingly, that this ‘graceful, touching, ironically titled tale… bears a plain feminist message’. Although this is praise, I actually feel it creates a false and belittling impression of the work, which is not simple, in its structure or in its feminist ‘message’ . The book appears to reach a conclusion when Nnu Ego asks

God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?

and Emecheta elaborates in Nnu Ego’s thoughts as she names her younger twin daughters

The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That’s why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband — and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.

But there are several chapters to go, Emecheta is not done here exploring her interlocking themes. Significantly, Nnu Ego’s struggles are shaped by the contrasting environments she moves through. Emecheta suggests that the pre-colonial context offers a better way of life to Nnu Ego and to most others. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened to Oshia, for example, if Nnu Ego had not been forced to return to Lagos. However, Emecheta employs images of healthy female and especially male bodies to complicate this point, when Nnu Ego contrasts the younger and older Nnu Ego, or Nnu Ego herself with Adaku, and contrasts her first husband with Nnaife. The colonised body is shown as distended, aged, faded, odorous, somehow unnatural. Even more significantly, the colonised body loses its gender. Nnu Ego’s constant gender-normative criticisms of Nnaife’s work and body reveal how her socialisation in the village structures her critical, attritive, but overall solid acceptance of patriarchal gender roles. In fact, Nnu Ego’s trans-phobic horror of Nnaife’s job, and Adaku’s decision to seize independence by becoming a sex worker, suggest that gender roles may be less rigid in Lagos; the city is a site of disruption as it forces desperate measures.

This is not to say that the colonial context of Lagos is less patriarchal or less hostile to female independence. As if to foreshadow continual gendered violence, Nnu Ego is raped by her husband when she arrives. For me, this recalls bell hooks writing about African American disaporas

African men, even those coming from communities where sex roles shaped the division of labour, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use to violence to establish patriarchal power. – bell hooks, We Real Cool

While her mother enjoyed comparative sexual freedom and qualified affirmation of her desires in the village, Nnu Ego experiences the moralistic, misogynistic Christian approach to sexuality enforced by Nnaife’s employer. The relationship between Nnu Ego and her husband’s inherited younger wife Adaku also provides rich material to investigate the complexity of village/urban gender dynamics. When Adaku arrives, Nnu Ego speculates, only partly accurately, about the kind of relationship the beautiful woman will have with her husband. Emecheta explicitly suggests that a senior wife must behave in some respects ‘like a man’ and Nnu Ego certainly feels unfeminine beside Adaku. She does not give birth to any sons, thus ‘failing’ to affirm her husband’s manhood, yet, resourceful Adaku attains a degree of autonomy and, significantly, the means of education for her daughters, thus casting off the male-orientation that Nnu Ego retains to the end.

Another ‘compliment’ from The Sunday Times (a British newspaper) reads ‘Emecheta is a born writer’. No doubt well intended, this comment is often made condescendingly about writers of colour, especially female, and even white women, who are seen to have produced great art by chance, by a freakish gift of talent, rather than by effort and intelligence. The simple and direct prose is full of irony “[Nnu Ego] crawled further into the urine-stained mats on her bug-ridden bed, enjoying the knowledge of her motherhood” and the story encompasses global events from an exploited and underinformed colonial viewpoint. Nnaife is forced to fight for the British in the war, leaving Nnu Ego to struggle on to provide for the family alone. Emecheta also explores the theme of tribal tensions in Lagos, where the Igbo are a minority among the Yoruba. Emecheta has these groups making near identical criticisms of each other, founded on generic fears of difference, despite their commonalities, for example the sense of community ‘we all belong to each other’ conveyed extraordinarily vividly in a scene of attempted suicide. Yet Nnu Ego’s thoughtful daughter (second born) Kehinde is able to cross these divides. As the narrative dissipates, hope flows out in many unexpected directions.

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Hearing the unsaid

The Joy Luck ClubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

The blurb on this edition focusses on the struggles of mothers and daughters to understand and help each other, and Tan’s skill in conveying emotions. As usual, there is no acknowledgement of the book as a feminist work, so I’m going to begin by hailing it as such in all its woman-oriented glory. Aside from the fact that men are merely accessory to all of the narrative strands, and that the majority of conversations are between women and girls, Tan positively critiques patriarchal tropes throughout by revealing the constrictions on women’s lives imposed structurally through their chattel position as wives and mothers, through their socialisation by older women, and through the domineering behaviour of men. Very overt features of gendered hierarchies which tend to hide in plain sight are kept in view, and Tan writes very cleverly to reveal more subtle aspects, making them evident in countless interactions, punctuating these little revelations with pauses for contemplation. Below the surface swim slow thoughts lightly veiled:

Even the old ladies had put on their best clothes to celebrate: Mama’s aunt, Baba’s mother and her cousin, and Great-uncle’s fat wife, who still plucked her forehead bald and always walked as if she were crossing a slippery stream, two tiny steps and a scared look

This is surely an intimation, from a child’s perspective, that the woman has bound feet. The treatment of An-Mei’s mother, who has become a concubine to a rich man after being widowed, illuminates some of the distinctive features of (pre-communist) Chinese heteropatriarchy. However, Tan is not about to aid the cause of USian supremacy and White saviourism by setting stories like this against a mythical American equality; her depictions of marriages and relationships in the US reveal a different but hardly better situation for women, especially Chinese/immigrant women for whom White husbands feel entitled to speak.

My favourite mother-as-girl story is Lindo Jong’s. Trapped in a marriage that places her in servitude to an exacting and heartless mother-in-law, she nonetheless uses great ingenuity. The moment when she recognises her impressive inner resources is striking; few girls can rely on such self-confidence and awareness, but even so armed, her empowerment is very limited, so the story throws light on the real plight of girls like her. I was even more fascinated though, by the ways that Chinese cultural values and traditions played out in her scheming. This happened throughout the book; modes of modesty, influencing of feelings and events, showing love, all revealed ways of knowing and being rooted in different soils and waters and fed by different suns from those that have nourished me.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, is inevitable in the meeting of USian directness and the more subtle, artful Chinese manner of expression, heedful of hidden feelings deduced through the fine filaments of perceptive empathy only a combination of shared culture, affinity and thoughtfulness can forge. Careful reading reveals that supposed ‘directness’ leaves many things sadly incommunicable. Much humour is made at the mothers’ expense:

One day, as she struggled to weave a hard-toothed comb through my disobedient hair, I had a sly thought. I asked her ‘Ma, what is Chinese torture?’ My mother shook her head. A bobby pin was wedged between her lips. She wetted her palm and smoothed the hair above my ear, then pushed the pin in so that it nicked sharply against my scalp. ‘Who say this word?’ she asked without a trace of knowing how wicked I was being. I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘Some boy in my class said Chinese people do Chinese torture.’ ‘Chinese people do many things,’ she said simply. ‘Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.’

This kind of intimate mockery is hilarious, but a risky thing to gift to an outsider like me. I had the feeling that I must be careful not to generalise beyond time, place and particularity, to find myself thinking ‘I know this about Chinese mothers, because I read it in The Joy Luck Club’. Another difficulty I had was with disturbing aspects of anti-Blackness and homophobia which I wanted to chase up, but which had to be let drop, presumably for the next generation, the grandaughters, to decolonise. I enjoyed, on the other hand, the wry laughs minted from the thoughtlessness self centredness of ignorant White men.

Degrees of integration vary, but all of the mothers are at some stage shocked by the extent of their daughters’ assimilation into USian culture, while the daughters feel to some extent cut off from their Chinese heritage. If I wanted to extract a lesson, it would be: maintain your culture against Whiteness! Whatever is in you or known to you that is not White, honour it, nourish it, tell it, create with it, share it, weave it into the new stories you live and make. It takes, surely, deep effort and much energy to resist the action of White supremacy, the hollowing out of living cultures into exotified fetishes, consumable and subsumed.

I recommend this book especially to those who like reading about food, as I do. Tan presents a culture relentlessly attentive to good eating, the comforts of the table, and the expression of love through cooking. The demythologising fortune cookie story, brilliantly conceived, is, to me, this book in a nutshell.

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cold war medicine

CeremonyCeremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There are some things I have to tell you,” Betonie began softly. “The people nowadays have an idea about the ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slip-up or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed.” He was quiet for a while, looking up at the sky through the smoke hole. “That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants… At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. She taught me this above all else: things which don’t grow are dead things. They are the things the witchery people want. Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.”

I found myself in the book, in the story about witch* people and how white settlers were created in a contest to show off the scariest thing possble. I’d already heard Thomas King’s version of this story, but it meant something else to me then, it had a different emphasis. In this story I myself come into being, a destroyer’s vampire ghost. From the backs of my thighs to the base of my spine to my stomach’s underside I felt a chill crawling up to my chest, I felt myself blur into the world, fibres of my being knitting into the half-poisoned London air. I am not outside this story. It has no borders. Its materials, its hero, Tayo, are only one cycle of the sun, one fold of the skein.

They live, these materials of the story, these people and lands, written with the clarity of morning light and changing rhythm of a dance that made me read slow, slow, fast, slow. Written with ferocity and calm. Some of what is real is what I know, and some I am not ready to know and have to pass over as mystery, magic shaken out of a story like sand from a shawl. The teachers with their books of science trying to shout over everyone sound so reedy, weak and distant. They are inside too, not encircling nature but encircled. Outside Plato’s cave is the cave of the sky. But as usual I am getting carried away, let me stay earthbound, let me stay with our storyteller who is making the dry land of the southwest so sonorous with its mesas and arroyos, cousins so distant from the drizzle-rinsed and misty hills that I know…

(view spoiler)

*in my culture many of the stories about witches are lies spread to prevent women from disrupting white male power as propagated through the church and state (the divine right of kings). As a feminist, and since in Britain ‘witches’ were often what Silko might call medicine people, those in touch with and learned in ways of healing that involved herb lore, an ethics of care and community, and practical wisdom derived from an oral tradition and personal experience of observing the cycles of nature, I myself am very fond of the word witch, and I appreciate the literature that seeks to rehabilitate it. This literature includes Phillip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
series (feminists, give your teens these books)
Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks and…
Room on the Broom
. It is significant that the witch people of Silko’s story are not gendered. The one who calls the horror into being is described thus: no one ever knew where this witch came from/which tribe/or if it was a woman or a man.

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angry white women: feminist lit crit on classic women writers

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary ImaginationThe Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The imagination of the title is the boundary of Gilbert and Gubar’s reflections, and some qualifications might be added to define the limits and orientation of that imagination, such as whiteness and the English language. All of the women writers they discuss as foremothers and proponents of a specifically female literary culture are white and either English or USian (correct me if I err). Of course it is necessary to have a focus, to delineate a subject for enquiry, but it is important to note that we are not only examining white material but examining it through whiteness, thus Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist readings make seemingly uncritical use of the ‘dark’ Other against whom white women are defined:

Bertha is Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress… ‘The novelist who exploits psychological Doubles juxtaposes two characters, the one representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the other externalising the free, uninhibited, often criminal self’

Apart from a parenthetical remark about Betha’s origin/colour, discussion of the issue of race does not enter this section at all. The very title of the book thus finally serves to erase race as a feminist concern, since the figure of the madwoman in the attic, a direct reference to the character (in Jane Eyre) of Bertha Mason, who is black, is made to stand for a group of white British and USian writers, who in turn represent women in general as maddened by the circumstances of the period.

Another trope discussed at length is the aesthetic, often fetishised illness and feebleness of the nineteenth century young woman both in life and literature, but the authors miss the fact that this effectively disabled body is a white body specifically defined against the able, fertile, working body of the black woman, a distinction that enables the denial of femininity/womanhood/humanity to black women.

In their excited introduction to this edition, the authors acknowledge rather than answer the critique of their work from this kind of angle by Gayatri Spivak. My intention is not to castigate them or to warn folks off this impressive and enjoyable book! But I do want to suggest that there is a lot of decolonisation left undone for the reader to be aware of…

Because really, you wouldn’t want to miss out on reading this, if you’ve ever read Austen, Eliot, Emily Dickinson or the Brontes. Especially if you’ve ever watched an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and thought oh no, no, no! It really isn’t all about the desirability of a rich and handsome young man! There’s so much more to it. Because Gilbert and Gubar have carefully excavated and investigated the so-much-more of the great women writers of the so-called golden age, revealing explicit and latent themes that speak to feminist consciousness.

Their approach is to ‘trust the tale not the teller’ in reading feminist meanings into characters and interactions, but their discoveries never feel arbitrary and in general I found them convincing, even where they evidently disagreed with other critics. Their method is close reading, generally working text by text, but also interlinking to flesh out an image of each author’s (often changing and evolving) sensibilities and concerns. The personal is hugely important to them, and the preliminary discussion of women’s anxiety merely about merely assuming the heavily male-defined mantle of author is crucial for all of the writers they discuss. There is much biographical content, and an air of empathy that only strengthens the overall impression of rigour. Comparative comments seem rare to me, and I appreciated them as treats:

Every negative stereotype protested by Charlotte Bronte is transformed into a virtue by George Eliot. While Bronte curses the fact than women are denied intellectual development, Eliot admits the terrible effects of this malnourishment but also implies that emotional life is thereby enriched for women. While Bronte shows how difficult it is for women to be assertive, Eliot dramatises the virtues of a uniquely female culture based on supportive camaraderie instead of masculine competition. While Bronte dramatises the suffocating sense of imprisonment born of female confinement, Eliot celebrates the ingenuity of women whose love can make “one little room, an everywhere. And while Bronte envies men the freedom of their authority, Eliot argues that such authority actually keeps men from experiencing their own physical and psychic authenticity.

I also enjoyed the highly imaginative and poetic discussion of weaving, sewing and embroidery, presented in the concluding chapters on Emily Dickinson, but relevant to other authors too. I came back to this exploration when reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers describes men knitting and sewing in different contexts, and I saw this as part of her disruptive re/unwriting of gender. The men in question have characteristics that might be seen as wifely or feminine (cooking daily for another man, design skill, attention to detail, pleasure in homemaking and beauty, desire to care for children) and their weaving-work draws attention to these attributes.

References to classical mythology abound, but the authors constantly look beyond simplistic parallels and look for half-submerged layers of meaning that often seem to have been deliberately veiled (veiling is another theme afforded scrutiny) by the authors under discussion. The tradition Gilbert and Gubar claim to have defined and traced seems to have this rather coy mode of concealment as a key tenet.

Perhaps the most affecting passage, for me, is their comparison of Emily Dickinson with her contemporary, Walt Whitman, foregrounding again female anxiety of authorship, about taking up space

As most readers know, the cornerstone of Whitman’s epic meditation is a powerful assertion of identity now entitled ‘Song of Myself’ and in tat first edition [of Leaves of Grass, published 1855] called ‘Walt Whitman’. Because the 1he edition appeared without its author’s name on the title page, some critics have spoken of the work’s near ‘anonymity’, and perhaps, by comparison with those later editions… which were decorated not only with the poet’s name and photograph but with facsimilies of his signature, this early version was unusually reticent. But of course what was modesty for Whitman would have been mad self-assertion for Dickinson […] He didn’t need to put his name on the title page because he and his poem were coextensive…

Whitman’s expansive lines, moreover, continually and swaggeringly declared the enormity of his cosmic/prophetic powers. ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself’ his poem begins magisterially, ‘and what I assume, you shall assume’ promising in bardic self-confidence that if you ‘stop this day and night with me… you shall possess the origin of all poems.’ While Dickinson, the ‘slightest in the House,’ reconciles herself to being Nobody, Whitman genially enquires ‘Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).’ While Dickinson trembles in her room, with the door just ajar, Whitman cries ‘Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’

Next time I find myself folded up on the tube between men seated legs so far akimbo they block my path I shall remember Emily and Walt, and push back.

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