Archive for May, 2012

A Woman’s Sentence

Like Emily Dickinson, many other women writers have been concerned with the unspoken – with the silence of women’s voices in literary history.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” for example, we can see Mansfield’s attempt to describe the secret language of, and between generations of women. In the dreams of the story’s central character, Kezia we see surfacing the language of the symbolic and images of plants of birds and of other animals that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. For Kezia and the other women in Mansfield’s story, the symbolic replaces traditional discourse, and is their birthright as women.

The difficulty, both for the characters in Mansfield story and for her readers, is to find meaning in this secret code:  Kezia does not understand the fearful “It” she sees in her dreams – she only knows to be afraid.

Likewise in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There, Woolf discusses the the literal silencing of women’s words, voices and work in the western canon of literature.  In this text, Woolf is concerned with the lack of female “foremothers” upon whom the modern woman writer can rely for inspiration.

Woolf’s argument in this essay is that women writers can and should turn their exclusion to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

Just what might such a sentence might look like? On this topic, Woolf is less than clear, offering Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a Woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

In Woolf’s own fiction, and perhaps most especially in her fictional biography Orlando,  gender and the effect it has upon the mind of the writer is of central importance. But how far might a work like Orlando be said to cross the boundaries into women’s language, reliant as it is upon critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal forms such as the traditional biography, male literary and military history and even the male body? For Woolf and many women writers before and after her, the overwhelming demand to define oneself against what one is not (ie, Orlando may be best defined as “not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man; I know I am a woman because I am not a man, etc.) led to a kind of frustrating cul de sac of expression, but also to new forms of fiction informed by the symbolic, the rhythmic and by making use of silence itself to subvert meaning. But more on that soon….



Emily Dickinson: Telling it Slant

The 19th Century American literary man Samuel Bowles, who first published a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, (anonymously and highly edited to remove her dashes, unusual capitalization of words and spelling errors) had this to say about women writers in his magazine THE REPUBLICAN in 1860:

 “There is another kind of writing only too common, appealing to the sympathies of the reader without recommending itself to his judgment. It may be called the literature of misery.  Its writers are chiefly women, gifted women, maybe, full of thought and feeling and fancy, but poor, lonely and unhappy. It may be a valuable discipline in the end but for the time being it too often clouds, withers, distorts.  It is so difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears.”

Contemporary critic Harold Bloom repeats this idea that Dickinson’s poetry makes “the visible a little hard to see,” and indeed, her poetry does tend to approach themes of home, love, sexuality, death and melancholy from “a slant” as Dickinson herself called it.

POEM 258 

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-


None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the Seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –


When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

 Throughout poems such as this one, Dickinson offers challenges to traditional forms of reading and meaning – awkward and highly original comparisons ( (IMPERIAL AFFLICTIONS/ THE HEFT OF CATHEDRAL TUNES /THE LANDSCAPE LISTENS/THE DISTANCE ON THE LOOK OF DEATH)  that appear to take the personal outwards, making the particular and specific universal and significant by looking at it sideways.  And Dickinson’s subversive slant strategy allowed her to infuse poetry that appeared to her contemporaries be full of homespun observations, and, as Bowles suggests

“ thought and feeling and fancy” with her complex contrarian philosophy. Dickinson’s business, as she told us, was not to relate “feelings” or “tears” as Bowles believed, but the revelation of a whole new way of thinking through “Circumference” and telling the truth, but telling it “slant” in order to offer the highest gift any writer can deliver:    

internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-


Poem for the Weekend: Tale of Two

Tale of Two

’I hope you care to be recalled to life?’ And the old answer:

‘I can’t say.’  C. Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Monsieur Manette chained to your bench and tinkering.

I hoped I could recall you to life.


Lost love is a malingerer: blows cold air

into your garret.

Numb to all but the pattern you work

the days, the years of your confinement.

I am right outside your door.


In the best of times I conceived a plan of rescue.

Bribes to gain entry.

Axe to release you.

Fireman’s carry, over my shoulder

out to the city our carriage



But revenge freezes keys in locks

my feet immobile, blocks of ice: I too am framed

in longing.


In the worst times, we keep busy.

You with your shoemaking,

me with my knitting.

A coded tale in purls.


Raise your white head, and read

what I have wrought:

No fire to warm you.

No papers for passage.

No guarantee of escape.


Stay Monsieur Doctor, in your cell:

A far, far better thing.

We are alike only in our sentence,

the tyrant of the past.


Man/Woman: Who’s Got the Power?



When I was a university student, whatever literature we were studying, we always knew that on every exam there would be a question related to “gender” or “the role of women,” in whatever texts we were meant to be analysing. Of course the tutors weren’t really asking about “women” – because, however real Elizabeth Bennett may seem she is a character and not a person- but instead they were asking about literary representations of women.

In particular, they wanted to know if we noticed the relative power assigned to different types of people, activities, knowledge in these texts, and if that relative power was “gendered”in some way.
Unsurprisingly much canonical literature not only divides powers along gendered oppositional lines, with, say men on the left and women on the right, but presents a fairly clear hierarchy of power. And this hierarchy itself reflects the relative amounts of prestige that typically masculine and typically feminine forms of power accrue cuturally, politically and economically.   





action films/ chick flicks


In other words, in our culture, we tend to give more weight and value to knowledge (and the texts that convey such knowledge) that is perceived to be: scientific, authoritative, practical  and less importance to that which is emotional, artistic, metaphoric, personal.

My father was an engineer who designed nuclear submarines and was an early member of the American Rocket Society. It broke his heart when I decided to leave behind my earlier ambitions to be a medical doctor, and instead become a Doctor of English.  He liked literature, but did not believe that its value was as great as that of scientific knowledge.  Culturally, he was entirely in sync – certainly I would have earned more money as a medical doctor, probably more prestige, and I imagine a damned sight less condescension at dinner parties (where I have been called “idealistic” because of my literary/academic profession – and not in a good way).

And surely, most of us, enlightened as we are, would tend to be more in awe of a person who has received a Phd in rocket science than with someone who has decided to be an actor or poethowever hard they may have studied to earn their knowledge. Equally, a so-called “hard news” program devoted to the events unfolding in Syria might be taken more seriously by us than an Oprah special interviewing victims of the same events.

Culturally, western society tends to privilege the kinds of knowledge that are associated with masculinity: public discourse that is (seemingly) objective, authoritative, fact-based; and devalues the kinds of knowledge associated with femininity: those that are intimate, personal, related to feelings, perceptions and metaphors.

So, the question for me is: can we learn to value male and female voices equally? Should we begin by valuing what matters to the opposite sex? Stop automatically devaluing chick-flicks and/or boy’s toys and instead just take note of the power and prestige or condescension and derision we are ascribing to certain objects, desires, images, stories, forms of knowledge and indeed kinds of people?  If we did, what we might notice about ourselves and our thoughts would probably surprise us – and not necessarily in a good way.


Writer’s Diaries Part VI: Louisa May Alcott’s Secret Desires



Like the March girls in Little Women, Louisa Alcott seems to have so internalised her father’s demand for self-scrutiny, that by the time she began a regular journal at the age of eleven, listing her sins was an everyday event:

 September 24th [1845] I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart.  If only I kept all I make I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so I am very bad. 

 October 8th [1845]

I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day. (Journals 45-6)

In some sense, the wishes Alcott listed on this day are the same ones she repeats in her journal for the rest of her life: to be rich, to be good, and for her family to be happy (often in that order). A year later, she lists the virtues she most needs (Patience, Obedience, Industry […] Silence, Perseverance, Self-denial) and the vices of which she must rid herself (Idleness, Impatience, Selfishness, Wilfulness  […] Love of cats).  Despite her desire for greater patience, Alcott’s impatience and anger are clearly expressed in an entry recorded soon after: ‘More people coming to live with us.  I wish we could be together and no one else.  I don’t see who is to feed and clothe us all when we are so poor now.’  

By the time Louisa was thirteen the family were in better surroundings and she noted:

I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long, and am very happy about it.  It does me good to be alone […] I can run off into the woods when I like. […] I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins and it doesn’t seem to do any good! (59).

 Throughout her journals Alcott negotiates her private desires and public duties in this way. At eighteen, for example, when she was working as a teacher, Alcott noted that she longed for the solitude she had enjoyed so briefly atHillside.

 School is hard work, and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. […]I think a little solitude everyday is good for me. In the quiet, I see my own faults, and try to mend them.

 In this same entry, Alcott hints at another thing she enjoys: ‘Reading Miss Bremer and Hawthorne.  The Scarlet Letter is my favourite. […]I fancy ‘lurid’ things, if strong and true also’ (63). Louisa’s ‘fancy’ for such things soon found voice in sensation stories in which women use their wiles and acting talents to outwit the surveillance of a patriarchal society. By creating passionate and powerful women in the thriller tales she published under her pseudonym,  such as Sybill Varna in ‘Taming a Tartar’ and Jean Muir in ‘Behind the Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,’ Alcott did more than escape her father’s watchful eye. In such stories Alcott satirized idealised images of still and silent women by portraying such docility as a subterfuge disguising moral corruption.         

Such secretly written stories give evidence of Alcott’s need to critique and escape from her father’s surveillance, and the value Alcott placed on her solitude throughout her life is noted on page after page of the journal.  She was happiest  ‘in the garret with my papers round me, and a pile of apples to eat while I write in my journal, plan stories, and enjoy the patter of rain on the roof in peace and quiet.’ ‘I love luxury, but freedom and independence better,’ she wrote. So important to Alcott was her privacy that she shunned not only her numerous fans—but love affairs of any kind.  As she reflected in her journal ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe’ a sentence with which many a later feminist would sympathise!


Here is one important thing that feminists need – dads who care.


Toys, bike, scooter, bags, I-tunes, Wi.

not enough money or will to run a child like a department

so sit on your blackberry all morning

and decades later , expect all sorts of pain.

Back at work tomorrow, grateful partner keeps exhausted kids home and near the loo.

Or fight it off

Push sunglasses back over thinning hair

Wear too trendy shoes

Move body away as if to say: those are not mine

Cling to singledom in the face of a full nappy

Or let Dadhood dawn

know how to fail

whims cannot be met

Every game is not perfect

You can do a nappy, but thank you for the advice

Dadhood is a state of mind

A state of grace too

Be grateful

When it is ever granted to you

It lasts less than a whisper and then

Their bodies are running away fast

and they know how to…

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Have a look at this and then and then at reblog from Dadhood below.
Feminism needs more dads like this!

Radical Change - A Feminist Blog

A man called David Moscrop has written a paper that was published in The Ottawa Citizen  on March 26, 2012, called Why all men should be feminists – Ottawa Citizen

I agree we need good men to support us in our feminist causes and to speak up for us to other men. We need good feminist men in our  relatinships, our lives and our world. Here is an excerpt from David’s paper;

But these comforts (for men) come at far too high a cost to both men and women. The sexist ideas, words, and practices mobilized by some men and bolstered by eons of encoding into both the visible and hidden structures of our society, don’t just do harm to women. They also turn men into stunted stereotypes who, like lemmings marching along a path laid out by years of misogyny and ignorance, will eventually parade right off the edge of the…

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