Feminism & Jane Austen

Well, now that I’ve tried to recover from all the excitement of Virago Reading Week (I was staying up late and waking up early, eager to read what everyone had posted!) and have only spent the time with my thoughts about literature and feminism jumping about more and more in my head, it seems time to discuss a few more things.

There are still a few Virago reviews popping up, including this one by Rachel at Flowers & Stripes, about Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street, which she tried for ten years to get published and was constantly turned down because it was considered too bleak and depressing. It’s about working class women living in poverty and violence, from what I can gather. But haven’t men written about the working class before, why should this have been so unpublishable? Angela Carter was the one who encouraged Barker to submit it to Virago and so began her career, as a Booker winner! (Though she won the Booker for writing about men and male themes, namely soldiers and war. I’d like to read the Regeneration trilogy, I’m just saying.)

I was amused and awakened by this part of the review:

It’s the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definitely not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the ‘we used to be rich but now we’re living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny’s fur stole to keep us warm’ type poor. This is ‘thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don’t too’ type poverty.

As a matter of fact, I did read a bit of I Capture the Castle recently (comic yet heartfelt coming of age in tumbling pile), which I enjoyed more than I expected to and most of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I didn’t really enjoy. Horrors, but it seemed that her life was actually unfulfilled, with a husband who doesn’t pay attention and endless envy of those better off, or else that it’s just British humour exaggerating things, in either case, the life described seemed small and I couldn’t see the meaning in it. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood and feeling restless?

To be fair, I’ve also got a library stack of more feminist books like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood and honestly… I’m not reading them either. I considered Elizabeth Bowen, since I own most of her books in beautiful editions and have only read two (but what fantastic two: The Death of the Heart and The Last September. I highly recommend her as another great early 20th century female author! Darlene of roses over a cottage door is also reading and loving To the North right now.) — I really want to read and promote more of her books, but none of them were quite right just now.

I tried to read some Proust again, since I keep longing to think more deeply and privately like that, but it began to seem too ornate and also too male, with his mother obsession. (I have read In Search of Lost Time before, I’m just not always in the mood for that much neurosis!) I tried to read Thoreau’s nature journals and fell asleep. They are beautifully written in places and I do enjoy good nature writing on occasion, but better for skimming than linear beginning to end reading, is all I can conclude. (I’ve tried to read them before and was even then, quite rightly distracted by Virago books!)

As for Virago books, I’m definitely wanting to read more, especially Rosamond Lehmann and so was happy to find this article by Jonathan Coe about her and other Virago authors and how he discovered them and is inspired by them in his own writing.

Thinking further about Dusty Answer, I realized it has many of the same basic elements as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — both extremely nostalgic stories about a lost upper class British way of life, with the outsider main characters completely enamoured of a rich and glamorous troubled family. Both main characters also go to one of the big British universities, Judith Cambridge, Charles Oxford. They also both form sudden and extremely intense relationships with one beautifully charming person, who takes a liking to them for no real reason. These relationships both hint at going beyond simple friendship, and indeed both of their charming friends are involved with other homosexual characters. What else, other love affairs don’t work out as well as hoped, although for different reasons. And let me add… Lehmann’s book was written in 1927. Waugh’s? 1945. Waugh’s novel has never been out of print, while Lehmann’s was and remains almost forgotten. Personally, I wasn’t quite a fan of Brideshead (more horrors?), the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life. Dusty Answer has a more uncertain ending, but also one that gives freedom and opportunity to women. The future is open, not reigned in by platitudes and dead duties.

I’ve now picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to be what I want. I read it for the first time last year without ever knowing how to properly write about it, there was so much beauty but also so much sadness. As someone who’s been through an at times suicidal depression, I didn’t know what could be said that wouldn’t seem too personal. I’d like to explore it more here this year, there’s so much that is fresh and joyful and so lyrical about it. It seems I could read the first few pages over and over, for sheer pleasure. Woolf was very influenced by Proust, but there is nothing overly ponderous or self pitying about her work, there is such a celebration of life. And yet she shows the darkness too. I have a lovely Mrs. Dalloway Reader, edited by Francine Prose, which also includes the short stories that developed into the novel, as well as selections from her diary about writing it and essays by other critics about it, of her time and ours, I keep wandering into these parts and learning more about Mrs. Dalloway instead of reading it at times!

The real unedited Jane Austen. Deal with it.

I’m still thinking about how to see Jane Austen as a feminist, although I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about it, for fear of feathers and ruffling and all that. But the gist of my idea is — what if Jane Austen didn’t marry not because she never met a man who could be her Mr. Darcy but because… she wanted her freedom? To continue writing and thinking for herself. My romantic self would think it so sad she remained single and yet wrote these classic romances and yet, that image of her as a pining romantic didn’t gibe with the lively sharp witted and even at times spiteful author I sensed in the books themselves, who would never tolerate any such sentimental nonsense. The truth is, if a woman did marry in that time, they’d be worn out from having babies All The Time. They wouldn’t be able to write and they wouldn’t be having endless fancy love times either! Sex would likely be frightening because of the endless pregnancies. And Jane gave up in a large and poorer household, she knew what it would be like for her.

Being single and relying on her male relatives for support wasn’t easy either, but at least she had that metaphorical room of her own. The other idea I had is that maybe she did slip the reality of women’s lives into her novels, but it was hidden under the necessity (for a woman writer at least) of a happy conventional ending. Most men then and now, are more likely to be either like her bad men, and Wickham, Willoughby, Crawford, Mr. Collins etc do seem completely realistic in their self-centeredness or they’d be a more realistic version of her heroes. In reality, Darcy would continue to be an arrogant snob, Tilney a know-it-all tease, Knightley a scold, always wanting to fix Emma, just as she wants to fix others, Wentworth is resentful, Edmund Bertram blinded by infatuation. And both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars are nice, but bland. (Honestly, read the book, Colonel Brandon is never sexy. I’ve tried and tried to read him that way and it just won’t work.)

I think the realistic sides of these men are shown in the first three quarters or so of the books before their completely abrupt turn arounds, with often very sudden and unlikely proposals all around at the end. (Tilney and Catherine, really? Fanny and Edmund, come on. Also anyone, have you ever heard of a real Mr. Darcy changing that much?? Well, have you, I’d like to know! Usually they are far too aware of their elevated positions to go after anyone less than perfect. In women’s novels the richer man tends to love the poorer woman. In men’s novels the hard to get girl suddenly falls for the nerd. It’s all a fantasy without any equality, and equality, a meeting of equals, is what’s needed in a balanced relationship. It’s just not as exciting…)

Dead inside Jane Austen who never actually existed.

If you read Austen’s juvenilia, she satirizes romance and romantic expectations in novels to no end. I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that! Also that movie Becoming Jane? What kind of sentimental tosh is that, that her doe-eyed princess diary juvenilia was sloppy and horrid trash until a man came into her life?! This trivialization and infantilization of female authors is truly appalling (you can bet if there was a bio pic of Hemingway the facts wouldn’t be so badly distorted). Go read Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach (rare link to actual book included, because it really is that good), where she discusses how Austen’s image has been tampered with over the years, from the first memoir written about her by her nephew, to make her look more pretty and safe and sweet, just good old Aunt Jane. The actual painting of her by her sister Cassandra, which looks cross and fed up and but also perhaps privately amused, looking critically at the world behind her folded arms (the first picture above), has even over the years been changed into things like the second picture I’ve included, which wasn’t an actual painting of her, just a prettified tidying up of the first and only painting of her!!! Now she wears nicer clothes, she’s not critical or even laughing, she just looks bored.

Similar things have happened to the Brontes to downplay that they knew how revolutionary their writing was (fancy women writing about alcoholism and revenge and madness, how shocking), their misery and seclusion on the moors was played up to heighten belief in their docility and innocence. The book to read there is The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller and now I’m done. I know it’s fun to read and watch Jane Austen (and the Brontes) as escapism, but it’s also good to look more deeply sometimes too and I think there are plenty of hints in the novels that lead towards that idea, that the Regency era wasn’t one glamorous party time of romance and that women were, as usual, getting the short end of the stick. Just a thought.

Perhaps — just one further thought! — she does hold out some hope that men (and women) can change and that women can have more equal and satisfying marriages built on love and mutual respect. But to my mind the transitions between her selfish ‘heroes’ suddenly becoming good men ready to marry the poor but plucky heroines are far too quick and unlikely. Perhaps in time, when more women refuse to be blinded by social conventions and write more openly about reality and are less willing to jump through sexist hoops, just as Jane Austen tried to do, then these kind of equal relationships can happen.


Why I’m beginning to love Virago Modern Classics

I’ve been thinking of how to express everything this week has meant to me, all the new insights into literature and life and being a woman that it’s given to me. I want to write about three different posts at once, to review Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann which I finished very late last night and very much enjoyed, I want to write about how Jane Austen can be seen as a feminist and of course, I want to just express my new love and appreciation for Virago books!

So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about. We’ll start with the ‘how I became a feminist’ part and then move on from there.

I grew up in a very christian (think of the documentary Jesus Camp here, loud modern American christianity that is still very conservative and militant) and sheltered home, on a farm on the Canadian prairies. I found old books lying around and read them, I discovered more in libraries. I’ve read the entire Bible, more than once. Old books aren’t that hard for me to relate to, in some ways, I was raised like a girl in a 19th century novel, without the corsets, but with plenty of ignorance about what the world at large was really like. I went to Bible College for a year after high school and it was jokingly called bridal college. My mom expected me to become a teacher because as far as she knew, women could either be a teacher, nurse or secretary, end of choices. That or get luckier and be someone’s wife. (She wanted my sister, the one who’s now a brainy scientist, to be a pastor’s wife.)

But I had a way out of that — books. I wanted to go to university to study them and finally worked up my courage to do so. I discovered Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse was the best literature I read in all of university, the stream of consciousness style and the focus on the thoughts of women a revelation), although more often than not, male authors were the main focus. In my third year, I took a class on the history of the world wars. And I discovered feminism at last when I wrote my paper on women joining the army for the first time in WW2 (mostly to take the desk jobs so more men could fight). I found that women had to face a lot of sexism, if they were in uniform, as they were often seen as just being there to sleep with the soldiers. I talked to my great-aunt, who had joined the Canadian navy and traveled the country performing in recruitment drills. She said she’d be felt up on trains because she was in uniform, while other civilian women weren’t. I read feminist historians, beyond just listening to testosterone driven lectures of how many troop ships and planes had been sent to Japan.

I finally felt a rage about my own sexist christian upbringing, that because I was a girl who happened to be born first in my family, I was constantly told I couldn’t be bossy. I could take care of my brothers as babies when I was only four years old myself, but I couldn’t tell my siblings what to do or they’d hate me forever, my mom said. My drive to be a strong woman pushed underground, my personality bent into a more compliant form. That my sister and I had to do chores while my brothers did not (we were being trained to be wives, after all!); that only men could be leaders in church, could preach and tell everyone what to do; for my mom’s expression that the husband was the head of the house and the wife just the neck — then she’d chuckle and add, the neck that turns the head, and I’d think, you want to be only a brainless muscle?? I finally started thinking for myself.

I still didn’t read many feminist books though, I stuck to Jane Austen and the 19th century because that was still all I knew. I eventually read some Anais Nin, shook off some of my excessive innocence and soon after met my husband (I didn’t want to party in university, but reading the sexy books is the way to meet boys in bookstores!) but there was such a dichotomy in my mind between Jane Austen and Anais Nin, the one a virgin, the other almost a whore, between what I was expected to be as a woman, saintly wife and mother or sexy man-catcher. I had grown up with horror stories of my aunts sleeping around and the dangers of abortion and adoption that had awaited them. I didn’t see the link between these women writers, I just saw, you can try to be all good or you must be all bad.

Last year I began book blogging and felt a little lost at first, until I discovered Persephone Reading Week and all the great people who loved these nostalgic, more innocent books. I had found a book home. (And here’s my post from that week about ‘why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books‘.) I soon began to hear about Virago books too, since the same people loved both. And as Persephone books were expensive to order online and impossible to find elsewhere, I began collecting a few Viragos as surrogate Persephones. They’ll be just about the same, I thought, just as innocent and cosy. The first Virago I bought was actually Dusty Answer (and here’s my post about it), I thought it would be sweet and nostalgic. What I didn’t know was that it was actually a sexual coming of age story. I felt unsettled by what I read in it and set it aside.

That continued to happen throughout the year, I’d begin various Viragos, hoping to be able to join other bloggers in raving about them, only to stop. They weren’t safe. They showed life as it really was, un-sugar-coated, unromanticized. I didn’t like reading books like that. I wanted the moral certainties of Jane Austen or at least the lush sensuality of Anais Nin. I didn’t want… reality. Facing the reality of women’s lives, in realistic marriages, being slighted and overlooked, or horrors, remaining unmarried, rather than the perfect fantasy of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Big.

I finally made myself finish one Virago and while it wasn’t happy, it was good. True. I thought a whole Virago week might give me the motivation to read more, to finish all the Viragos I’d started. I didn’t imagine I’d end up hosting the week, as I wasn’t even a fully converted fan yet, just curious enough to want to try more.

Now to return to Dusty Answer, that sexual coming of age story I shied away from last year. This year I found that it provided the link for me between Jane Austen and Anais Nin. It showed that women are allowed to have sexual feelings and experiences, not as a virgin or a whore, but as human beings. Girls are allowed to grow up, to develop, not to become servant wives and mothers who are just as ignorant as ever, but to become women. Adults. Aware, knowing. Thinking for themselves. Seeing the truth about life.

Near the end of the book, the main character finally realizes that the man she’s been obsessed with since childhood “had not once, for a single hour, become a part of real life. He had been a recurring dream, a figure seen always with abnormal clarity and complete distortion. … She had tried to make a reality out of the unreality… She seemed to wake up suddenly. [He] himself had been passing in the street outside. She could have seen him, and, instead, her eyes had not wavered from his reflection. A shadow laid on a screen and then wiped off again…” She’s been in love with an illusion, with her own romantic illusions.

I realized the glass of illusions we bring to romantic relationships. I say my husband is like Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey, but really — he’s only himself. I need to learn to see more clearly, see through my happy romantic fantasies to the reality of other people. Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel also definitely showed me that, this week. I cannot stay blind or short-sighted as Angel was, also caught (that time for life) in her romantic, false and harmful view of life. These books have woken me up. Shown me how to be an adult as a woman, a writer.

I don’t want to spend another year just reading ‘comfort books.’ I don’t want to close my eyes to the reality of other women’s (and men’s — as Jonathan Coe notes in his introduction of Dusty Answer, all of the men are realistic!) lives. I don’t want to live in a safe imaginary world of romance and fantasy forever, where everything’s ok if we only just believe. That sounds just like the christianity of my childhood, and believe me, everything was not all ok. I was physically abused by my mother when I was five and she had a nervous breakdown over having four children in five years living out in the middle of nowhere, with only her in-laws to judge her for not being a good enough mother. That’s my story. A dominating mother still trapped in her Bible and in her own past, trying to keep her daughter from being strong or ever growing up. That’s the reason I wanted to hide from life, to read nice books, to avoid conflict. But Virago tells the stories of women like me. They aren’t pretending life is magic and we’re all princesses. And I can’t hide from reality if I want to get better.

I am excited to read more Virago authors this year, to keep seeing more clearly, to take down my illusions. I have a reading project in mind now, to read honest, unromantic books. I need to leave the 19th century behind in some ways and come into the change and growth of the 20th century (and maybe eventually even the 21st!) Sometimes I need to leave safe comfy British books behind and read about my own country and continent. Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Winifred Holtby, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Margaret Laurence, George Eliot, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and more. Because that’s how I’ll grow strong and learn to survive.

Thank you everyone, for your participation and enthusiasm in Virago Reading Week and for helping me find and learn to love such great eye-opening books!

London Calling

I’m proud to say I bought my first Virago Press book today! It’s Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, which I’ve been hearing is a cosy coming of age story similar to I Capture the Castle and Mariana by Monica Dickens. Now that I know to look for the green Virago spines, I’ve seen lots of them at my local secondhand bookstore. Here’s the opening two sentences:

When Judith was eighteen, she saw that the house next door, empty for years, was getting ready again. Gardeners mowed and mowed, and rolled and rolled the tennis-court; and planted tulips and forget-me-nots in the stone urns that bordered the lawn at the river’s edge.

My husband and I have been talking about how much we’d love to go back to London — it’s all the British reading we’ve been doing bringing on the nostalgia. For me it was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, she writes London so well in general (in Mrs. Dalloway too), it brought my previous trips there in the spring back again.

What books bring back a place you’ve been or evoke a place you want to go to?