Posts Tagged ‘Writing Women’

Writing Women: Women and Literary History


Welcome back to the Writing Women blog for 2013/4! This time around the course is year long and there are two groups of students participating. In some weeks students will be contributing blogs and I will be humbly commenting upon them.

In this first section of the module we are looking at the following works:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1899) on StudySpace

  1. Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own (1928) on StudySpace
  1. Dale  Spender, ‘’Women and Literary History’’ (on StudySpace)
  2. Mary Eagleton, Feminist Literary Theory:      A Reader, Third Edition, (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2010) All      selections in the first section entitled ‘Finding a Female Literary      Tradition’ pp. 1-56.

Our topic this week is Women and Literary Tradition.

The picture at the top of this blog was the one that came up when I googled “literary history.” Have a look at the names on the spines of these books. Notice anything funny? Thank God for Jane Austen!

Literary tradition not only influences what we read, but also how it is read and with what value it is imbued. While the writers whose works we will examine in this module have been affected artistically by their relations to the literary past, they have been informed politically and ideologically by that past as well. It is these pressures, interacting with each of these artists’ respective creative visions, which produce their written works. Furthermore, such social, political, and cultural forces have power beyond their impact on individual works of art: the same methods of culturally inflected reading have also informed the eventual canonical status of these women authors.


While each of the feminist critics whose work we look at this week (Woolf, Spender, and the various critics in the Eagleton text from Elaine Showalter to Anne Ducille, Paul Lauter, Adrienne Rich, Shoshana Felman) propound very different ideas about the relationship between women and literary tradition, there is one concern upon which all of them have, at one point or another, focused: the notion of language as a battleground in which words become weapons of patriarchy. Some thirty years ago, critic Carolyn Burke, in her “Report from Paris,” argued this idea as follows: “the very forms of the dominant mode of discourse show the mark of the dominant masculine ideology. Hence, when a woman writes or speaks herself into existence, she is forced to speak in something like a foreign tongue, a language with which she may be uncomfortable.”

Here, Burke proposes that women writers can and do feel a constrained relation to the texts they compose, if they attempt (as it seems they must) to employ the language of the father/master. Writing herself “into existence,” as Burke suggests, is an exercise in translation for the woman writer. The act of interpretation, of course, is never able to fully recapture the precise meaning of the original. But perhaps it can offer something more. Indeed, the contemporary writer Salman Rushdie suggests just this in his essay “Imaginary Homelands.” There, while discussing the importance of the English language to the British Indian writer, Rushdie argues that translation need not necessarily imply loss: “[i]t is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained” (Rushdie 17). Let us, too, cling to that notion, and find out over the course of this academic year precisely what has been lost, and gained, in the translated and transgressive writing of women in the 20th and 21st centuries.


Fifty Shades of Romance


Reading the Romance

In 1991 the feminist scholar Janice Radway published a book that changed many perceptions about the role that reading romantic fiction played in the lives of its overwhelming female fans.  As Radway argued, in her intensive period of interviewing a large group of women readers who self-identified as compulsive consumers of Mills and Boon-style romance novels, she discovered that for these women, the pleasure these texts was not linked by and large to specific elements of plot or narrative, but rather, the act of romance reading itself – generally characterised by the readers with the single word “escape.”  Indeed several of the interviewees explained to Radway that “romance novels provide escape just as Darvon and alcohol do for other women” but while the romance readers believed that abusing such substances would be harmful to them and to their families, compulsive reading of romance was, they believed “innocuous.” Nevertheless, many of these women described their reading habits as “an addiction.”


In next week’s session of Writing Women, “50 Shades of Romance” we will be discussing Romantic fiction: its codes, conventions, pleasures, limitations and role in the lives of women writers and readers.   As the title suggests we will also be looking at an extract from Fifty Shades of Grey and thinking about the relationship between women’s growing cultural power as bestselling authors and the simultaneous normalisation of explicit and fantasy depictions of male brutality towards women (as in EL James’s repeated depiction of the “hero” Grey’s pleasure in hurting women and the publishing phenomenon of the success of such a tale). Romantic fiction has always operated within a strict set of plot boundaries, which often included the woman needing to help the man overcome some dark history that forces him to behave badly towards her until her love heals him (think of Mr Darcy’s secret shame about his sister’s attempted elopement and how that makes him nasty and suspicious until Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” bewitch him into chivalry).


But when did those codes begin to allow spanking and bondage to be part of the “hero”’s repertoire?  Moreover, why in a world in which women are killed every hour of the day by violent partners, would women buy, read or write books in which women get beaten and then forgive and/or marry the perpetrator of that beating? Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said, there is a special place in hell for women who fail to help other women.  Are writers like EL James creating a space for themselves there? Or is her success simply evidence of the acceptance of women as active participants in the creation and consumption of forms of sexual fantasy?    

Have a read of some of the reviews of the Mills and Boon book we will be reading this week (The Sinful Art of Revenge by Maya Blake) and see what the consumers think.


The Novel of Ideas: Iris Murdoch Under the Net (1954) Part 1



Published in 1954, Under the Net is Iris Murdoch’s first published novel. As such, some biographical background, some understanding of the book’s literary and philosophical influences, and a short assessment of why it is relevant to the subject of women’s writing in the twentieth century, might be useful to your reading.











Murdoch was born in Ireland but came to London as a baby. An only child, and cocooned in a ‘perfect trinity of love’ with her parents, she had a privileged childhood both emotionally and educationally. Her father was a senior Civil Servant and the young Iris first attended the Froebel Institute in London, then won a scholarship to Badminton School, Bristol and from there went to Somerville College, Oxford.








She was conscripted into the Civil Service on leaving Oxford in 1939 and worked at the Treasury in Whitehall. Between 1942 and 1944 she worked with refugees in the camps in Austria and Belgium for UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association) and was deeply affected by their plight. Deracination – the fear of being stripped of one’s home and one’s identity underlies Under the Net.


On her return she spent a year at Cambridge as a postgraduate student; Wittgenstein taught there – though she did not fall under his tutelage – but his ideas on language are also are fundamental to the book – the ‘net’ is an image taken from his Tractatus, and is an image of the net of language, from under which all writing struggles to emerge. In what ways does the nature of language itself figure in this text?

Women, Writing and Silence: Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier and Me


I haven’t written much on the blog this week as I have been working on a new novel whose themes of women, storytelling and silence are fed by my reading and research into these ideas in the writing of other women. So, with the noise and distractions of the Bank Holiday weekend I thought this was a good time to stop fictionalising and return to thinking about women’s voices and women’s silence.  As I suggested in my last post, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is perhaps best described as what it is not: not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man. Such self-definition through negation is an interesting tool many women writers have used to question the value and authority of traditional definitions. But this approach can also work negatively to erase or at least blue the sound of women’s voices.  Perhaps one of the greatest examples in fiction of the woman who is identified by what she is not appears in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca.

There, the heroine of the tale is literally defined, by herself and by those around her by what she is not: this first person narrator has no name – all the reader knows is that she is not Rebecca, not the first Mrs DeWinter. When, near the climax of the novel this nameless figure hears her husband confess to killing his first wife – she tells him “Rebecca hasn’t won, Rebecca is dead, Rebecca cannot speak!” And in this moment calls to mind not only the central theme of DuMaurier’s novel but of many texts written by women writers whose works remind us to be suspicious of the stories of those who claim to speak for women – even if the speakers themselves are women.

Novels, histories, paintings in which women are represented by the voice or vision of another provide suspect evidence of real women’s experiences: We never get to hear Rebecca’s side of the story. Maybe Rebecca was a perfectly ordinary bored wife and Maxim was a jealous madman.  We can’t know because she can’t speak.

 But what if she could? What would Rebecca say? That Maxim killed her out of jealousy and paid off some retired doctor to spin a tale about Rebecca’s illness? The point is, we can never know – and so like the story that Woolf tells in A Room of One’s Own about Shakespeare’s sister Judith, we can only ever guess at what we might have discovered if women had been allowed to speak publicly for themselves. And what of the nameless narrator of Rebecca who colludes in the disappearance of the tale of Rebecca’s murder only to win for herself a grumpy distant broken down husband who must live in exile from the beautiful home now burnt to the ground?  Is this meant to be a happy ending or DuMaurier’s punishment for the narrator’s insistence upon the benevolence of her patriarchal husband, her refusal to acknowledge the violence he meted out to the wife who challenged him? DuMaurier’s disturbing vision offers both possibilities, and demands that we, as readers are left questioning our safe, romantic reading of the plot. Which is, I suspect, just how DuMaurier wanted it.







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!