Category: feminism

Biography: Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd

book cover for Ursula Tidd's study of de BeauvoirI absolutely loved this study of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and famous women writers and activists. It is the single most trenchant and insightful of the intellectual biographical studies of de Beauvoir.

Nothing of value in de Beauvoir’s life is overlooked. Context and circumstances are fully considered and the widest range of resources and key relationships are thought through: the influence of her parents, sister, lovers, friends and, of course, Sartre. Besides which you’re made aware of her serious reading of intellectual writers and philosophers such as Levis-Strauss, Hegel, Heidegger, Aquinas, Marx, Husserl, Leibniz, Kant, and the existential phenomenologists. A lengthier work would of course have had the space to consider the reading she did for The Second Sex alone, that included hundreds of historians, anthropologists, biologists and sociologists, but this is meant to be a brief study and its success as such is not diminished by this.

Tidd also sheds light on some of the influences on her growing sense of intersectional feminism and the lesser known yet critical influences for her magnum opus on women, The Second Sex, by reference, for example, to her strong interest in Gunnar Myrdal’s classic 1944 study American Dilemma, on race in America.

She doesn’t shy away from the complex and often troubling relationship Beauvoir had with Sartre: namely the ways in which it was supportive of each other, while often exploiting the affection of other lovers and writing about them and betraying their lovers’ confidences to each other.

Importantly, she quotes well from all Beauvoir’s work, so you get to appreciate her strengths as a memoirist, diarist, philosopher, essayist and polemicist, novelist, travel and letter writer, feminist and political activist.

I’ve read the full-length biographies by Deirdre Blair and Toril Moi, and this short study says everything of value while missing nothing of significance.

The highest praise I can think of for a biography of a writer is to say that it excites and compels you to want to go and read or reread the writer’s work. This brilliant study merits that accolade.

Ignorance is bliss – Mayer, Sandberg & the attack on feminism

So the gist of this article in Slate is that white privileged, successful middle class women don’t like the word ‘feminism’, and they’re successful and those not informed or educated about the history of feminism think it’s unnecessary or negative and man-hating.

And if successful women like Mayer at Yahoo dislikes feminism and being called a feminist, and Sandberg thinks mentoring younger women is “therapy” and excludes, ignores and rejects the value of feminism because of these flimsy excuses, should we accept it just because they’re female CEOs? (What’s the difference between an ignorant/sexist statement coming from a woman instead of a guy? Answer: no difference at all.) To accept their arguably anti-feminist and frankly sexist and stereotypical characterisation of feminism and feminists would not only be blindly ignorant but self-loathing of women as a whole class of people.

It is precisely only thanks to the countless women over hundreds of years who have fought for women’s rights that Sandberg and Mayer are able to be in the privileged, elite position they are at now. Without feminism they wouldn’t have had access to education (and their white, privileged, middle class backgrounds must surely have enabled an easier route to elite education) and no path to such power as they have now.

The other irritating thing about the article is that its author as well as Mayer and Sandberg seem to think equality of the sexes is a given. There’s also no mention of impact of those in poverty, on impact of the double bind of racism coupled with gender, of challenges to access quality education, of violence against women everywhere (irrespective of class, sexuality, race or views; and of all types: physical and sexual and racist assault, psychological, and killing), of the everyday sexism women and girls face everywhere: home, at work, school, travelling, on public transport. There’s no reflection in the article or by Mayer or Sandberg of women having to deal with and fight against the pressures of right wing, conservative sexist politics that deny all women full health care choices and the many challenges that involves and – well, the list goes on.

Ignorance is bliss, clearly, for those too privileged to care about the majority of women not having equality compared to men with regard to freedom of choice, politics, class, gender, race, sexuality, environment, geography or economic circumstances — or a conflation of these dynamics.

The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

Click on the image to buy this book for a penny, excluding postage & packing.

Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

Tony Rudt: A brilliant mind in a great collection of essays

Absolutely terrific. This collection of amazing political essays will provoke, stimulate and engage you, whether or not you agree with the insights that unfold herein.  These are insightful critical appreciations of keynote thinkers in the 20th century, including brilliant essays on Hannah Arendt, Leszek Kolowkowski [that incorporates a deliciously scathing attack on the historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s blind allegiance to communist regimes and communist thinking] and Primo Levi. Also compelling critiques relating to Israel, Tony Blair and others. Wonderful writing, provocative and well worth the read. Highly recommended. Obviously (if it is not clear already!), you will hate this collection of essays if you are at all: right-wing, homophobic, evangelistic (politically), ignorant, hateful, hate minorities, hate full stop, hate everything, etc. But, if you are open-minded, passionate about everyone having the right to decency, to the ideas and principles of care, reciprocity, universal education, social justice… Well, you will – like meLOVE this wonderful collection of essays from one of the most wonderful, passionate, caring, decent, clever minds of the 20th-21st century. You decide.

How to challenge sexist men’s thinking

Below is a link to a brief list of books in easy PDF format that I recommend for those who may know sexist men in their lives – be they teenagers, adults, friends, relatives, partners or work colleagues – and who wish to challenge their thinking (if you reckon they’re even up for considering such a radical move – sadly, we know most won’t be but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to open a door even if they insist it should remain closed).

Hope you find one or more interesting/of value. They cover a range of topics/issues and it is far from comprehensive – frankly, it’s a teeny-weeny list, but then size shouldn’t count. Ahem. (Groan, I know, I know – but the obvious ones can be fun, unlike obvious or subtle sexism!)

If you have other recommendations, whether fiction or non-fiction, please do let me know and I’ll add them to the list and be sure to acknowledge your contribution.

Click book recommendations for men against sexism for the list.

Really? A clever, witty, FUN movie about the US Supreme Court?

Click on the image to buy (multi-region/US version only)

While some hold the view that Hollywood is mostly incapable of producing worthwhile, meaningful films on important matters, First Monday in October  is one of those glorious exceptions that would engage even the most cynical critics of Hollywood.  In other words and in this instance: Yes, this really is a clever, witty, fun movie on the  US Supreme Court.

Made in 1981, this wonderful film addresses serious issues in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The script and the acting are sharp, focused and entertaining and the plot is, interestingly, actually subversive of the view held in the 1980s by male-dominated politics – well nothing’s really changed on that score – ahem – that a woman shouldn’t hold a place on the US Supreme Court of Justice:  This fab film sets the record straight with a firm ruling, and makes clear that such a notion is absurd as it is sexist.

Not only is this a deeply intelligent, humane, funny, well-thought out movie – it is also, continuously, wonderfully engaging – most especially from the star performances of Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh – besides how it addresses the issues of politics, gender and power.

The great dialogue races along, all the while covering a range of subjects as they’re presented in legal form before the Court, in turn thereby addressing genuinely important matters, US capitalism and free speech among them.

First Monday in October is a joy from beginning to end (and, as with all great Hollywood movies, all supporting roles are entertaining and well-cast), besides being a marvellous way of learning about the machinations of the Supreme Court, constitutional politics and the  ‘battle between the sexes’.  The one disappointing note is that it’s only available to buy in the NTSC/US/multi-region DVD version – a great shame and it doesn’t seem to be online (please do let me know if you find a version!).

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – A moving meditation on love and personal choices

Book cover Hotel du Lac
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Despite Anita Brookner winning the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, and her publishing a literary novel once a year – sort of like Woody Allen with movies, except in Brookner’s case the quality rarely falters – and excellent reviews, there still remains a view of her fiction that it is not quite literature. That is a false criticism and applied only because she doesn’t ‘do’ brick-sized, sprawling Franzen-type fiction. She’s also criticised for publishing the ‘same’ thing each time – true only in the sense that she always explores certain distinct themes certain – as do most of literature’s best novelists.

And then there’s the tiresome refrain that her middle-class female characters are too ‘minor’ to sustain a fiction or its hold on you as a reader. Again, not true: they are fully realised, complex, always true to life and well-drawn.

These contentions, all of which seem absurdly unjustified, remind me of the type of pejorative remarks you get about Austen’s and other female writers’ work as being lightweight and usually from those who’ve either read only Austen’s Mansfield Park (atypical of her oeuvre) or none and hence based on nothing but a sort of blinkered tenacity to insist on what is not evident at all.

So let me reassure you that if you do take the time out to enjoy her fiction, you should be rewarded.  She is superb at capturing the quiet, troubling, complicated patterns and moments of women’s lives, of feelings often unspoken but pervasive, of psychological depths to her characters and the closed world environments that they at times struggle within but none the less manage stoically.

You can expect from her the delicate, fine touch of a miniature portrait artist, rather than the broad brushstrokes of some modern fiction, and an appreciation of her style that is intelligent, reflective, understated and elegiac in tone, with a pervading sadness that runs throughout the story and its characters’ lives – arguably points which could apply just as well to most of Anita Brookner’s oeuvre.

Hotel du Lac is a charming and thoughtful novel focused on Edith Hope, a successful middle-aged novelist of romantic fiction (though a realist about the world of the living, she never denies her heroines the mythical joys of true romantic journeys and endings), who comes to stay at the genteel, select Hotel du Lac, an old world establishment in Switzerland, to reflect on recent events in her life.

Through the course of the novella, Edith comes to engage with the hotel’s other residents, all beautifully drawn. There’s Monica, with her tiny dog that she passes her hotel food to (she has an eating disorder, and focuses mainly on cakes, coffee and cigarettes to keep her going), while vaguely thinking about her marriage that has come to an impasse.

There’s the relentlessly self-obsessed, rich, always-on-display and well-dressed, elegant Mrs Pusey and her shadowy daughter, Jennifer (acting as a short-form silly Greek Chorus to Mrs Pusey’s endless exclamations about her own life and opinions).

We have stalwart, sad, alone, Mme de Bonneuil, dumped by her only son to live for part of each year at the hotel; and Mr Neville, charming, devilish, always insightful, but without sentiment or love.

He intrigues Edith and is her catalyst to consider making radical changes in her life. He does this by questioning her way of living, and the way she thinks about love, relationships and self – but from his self-interested yet disinterested viewpoint only (such that he proposes marriage but would never declare love).

Faced with a pattern and routine in her life that Edith finds both comforting and sad, including her affair with a married man, Mr Simmons, and for which she is typically pigeon-holed, she is seen by her friends and others as less than she really is in terms of character and depth.

These conflicts act as triggers that, combined, conspire to a decision that ultimately leads her to the Hotel du Lac.

The dialogue and characterisation are consistently rich, entertaining and often provoke the reader into reflecting on her or his own approach to love and a life worth living, and what this says about ourselves.

At the end of the story, Edith’s decision and next step reflect her complete self-awareness and the options available to her, including that of taking a radically different, perhaps more positive (self-interested) approach to her life. 

Her decision is very much feminist in spirit and likewise in action: it is solely her own and she is true to whom she is and what she needs in her life.

A thoughtful, moving meditation on personal choices, love and life-changing decisions and ways of living. If you haven’t read Brookner before, this is a great place to start and, I hope, you’ll enjoy it as much I did enough to read some of her later work.

Twelve 20th-Century Women Writers – a great book by Lorna Sage

Book cover Moments of Truth by Lorna Sage
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A wonderful collection. Sage, sadly no longer with us, was a phenomenal and thoroughly well-read essayist, journalist and critic of literature, not just about writers of the 20th century period, but from the 18th onwards. She not only understood what the writers and their work were about, but also knew about the culture and society within which they lived, engaged and often struggled.

This collection of some of her literary criticism/essays/journalism (there’s another fab, even larger selection titled Good As Her Word, also published by Fourth Estate) focuses on a number of great women writers of the 20th century. They’re not linked in any way, other than the writers are all female and brilliant each in their own way, and the fact all these articles reflect Sage’s tremendous insight, appreciation and sensitivity for the work of these writers, leaving you always with a deeper understanding of their psychological, intellectual and literary viewpoints as well as a passionate interest in the novels she discusses.

From an obituary of Iris Murdoch (both as a novelist and philosopher, and the relationship between these two), to intelligent essays on perhaps lesser known novelists Christine Brooke-Rose and Djuna Barnes (and certainly this applies to Violet Trefusis), to the well-known Edith Wharton, Angela Carter – I think she’s the best critic on Carter’s work and has written a book on her and edited a collection of essays on her – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, and Simone de Beauvoir, you will finish this collection with a passion to read the novels Sage discusses. What better recommendation is there for a literary critic’s work?

Facebook treats rape page as ‘pub joke’

WOMEN’S VIEWS ON NEWS MEDIA RELEASE: Monday 26 September 2011

Facebook treats rape page as ‘pub joke’

Over 3,000 people have signed a UK petition asking Facebook to delete a page that contains ‘joke’ posts about rape against women. The page –  ‘You know she’s playing hard to get when your chasing her down an alleyway’ (sic) – contains posts such as ‘I have raped many women….no lie’ and ‘I rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome’.

The petition was launched on Aug 19 2011 by student Orlagh Ni Léid after Facebook issued a statement likening the page to a pub joke, despite thousands of people protesting against it through the Facebook report mechanism:

“It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining – just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” (Facebook statement 17.8.11.)

Orlagh commented:

“I stumbled across this page and was shocked to see not only rape ‘jokes’, but outright advocacy and even apparent confessions.

I started the petition when I found out that Facebook refused to take the page down and the UK mainstream press proved unresponsive to a letter from Rape Crisis England and Wales.

To date, thanks to articles on sites like ‘Women’s Views on News’, the petition has drawn strong support from around the globe and is building on a US petition against similar pages that has attracted over 170,000 signatures.

Facebook is an influential social force and in a world where 1 in 5 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape, these pages are more than a ‘pub joke.’ Surely Facebook should not be perpetuating rape culture?”

Facebook appears selective about how it applies its rules – for instance, a policy against breastfeeding pictures is upheld, indicating that breasts are offensive, but that rape is not. In doing so, Facebook has made it clear that it does not consider groups that condone rape to be in violation of its own hate speech rules (terms and conditions, section 3 safety, point 7).

The petition can be signed here.

Information for Editors:

1. Contacts

Email: Steffi1965@googlemail.com2

2. Selected screenshots from Facebook rape page

3. Facebook rape page: You know she’s playing hard to get when your chasing her down an alleyway’

4. UK Petition

5. US petition

6. Facebook bans pictures of breasts (Reported by LA Times newspaper) and Facebook bans Topless Statue of Liberty

7. Facebook statement: Given to the Annie Othen Show, 17.8.11, BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire:

‘We want Facebook to be a place where people can openly discuss issues and express their views whilst respecting the rights and feeling of others.

We have now more than 750m people around the world of varying opinions and ideals using Facebook as a place to discuss and share things that are important to them.

We sometimes find people discussing and posting about controversial topics

It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining – just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

8. Facebook terms and conditions

9. Background on Women’s Views on News

10. Stats on rape

‘Worldwide, an estimated one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime’ (UNFPA state of the world population 2005 report)


Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just uppity, loudmouth feminist?

Jane Eyre book cover image Penguin 2006 edition
Click on the image to buy the recommended Penguin edition with free worldwide delivery

It’s astonishing to think or imagine that, of the two most intense, passionate heroines of 19th century literature, both are written by offspring of the same family. But this, as most readers of literature know,

Book cover of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
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is indeed the case, given we have Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and her sister Emily’s  Wuthering Heights (1847).

Immediately you’re drawn into a first person narrative (and it stays entirely first person throughout the entire novel), which, from its beginning, is compelling and becomes evermore powerful, emotionally complex and engaging.  Many things have been written about Jane Eyre as a character: to me there is no doubt that reading her story from her own perspective means that you easily identify and empathise with this highly intelligent, independently minded personality.  Such identification includes specific psychological, intellectual and emotional experiences from her own female point of view (such a view nowadays should rightly be described as feminist, but I mean the term to be worlds away from its popular

“Now where’s my feminist shopping list for the day? Ah, yes: (1) find a man (2) cover him in honey, butter and herbs  and (3) feed him to the pigs, the bastard, cos I HATE MEN. AAAAAGH.”

mischaracterisation and just plain wrong definition as it’s used by the mainstream in today’s society, whereby it has sickeningly and sadly become synonymous with ‘man-hating’ and/or being a destructive and inflexible force in society.  Actual real-life feminists know, of course, this is sheer nonsense; an urban myth that is relentlessly perpetuated by a right-wing, conservative, sexist media, including a number of female journalists, academics and authors and which is accepted on such terms by what appears to be a majority of young people — not all, I hasten to add (I’ve met a number of great young feminists who are politically active and challenge the anti-feminist, sexist status quo).  Unfortunately, such widespread misunderstanding is further compounded by there appearing to be little or no basic education in schools about the history of women’s rights, their works both creative and academic, besides their hard-fought, hard-won political battles.

So what is a feminist viewpoint  of Jane Eyre?  Don’t worry — I’m not going to get all Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on your brain and induce a violent headache by talking to you about “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (quoted from The Spivak Reader, 1996).  Nope, rather I think it’s actually straightforward and reasonable to characterise it as the following (which may sound suspiciously contemporary and akin to popular self-help literature written for women and men!): Be true to your own sense of integrity; manage your circumstances as best you can — but don’t give in to compromise that undermines your own authentic sense of self lest you are reduced to a shadow of yourself; speak up however and when you can, if possible, about circumstances and events that really matter to you; assert your independence of heart and mind; maintain your self-respect against the odds and the social/political/societal status quo and adhere to your own high standards, not ‘theirs’.  And how could I forget this one?  Never let the bastards grind you down (or at least not long enough for you to stay down).  Having said that, Charlotte unfortunately seemed oblivious to the implications of what little effort and depth she put into portraying the character of Bertha Mason, the white Creole heiress who is the ‘madwoman in the attic’.  The brilliant novelist and short story writer, Jean Rhys, with her own Creole background, felt Mason’s character reflected Brontë’s English imperialist, racialist attitude towards Britain’s colonies and its indigenous populations; hence Bertha is not a woman as such in her own right: she is disembodied; never having a voice of her own (apart from the occasions when she cries out like an animal) and is effectively silenced once forever to Mr Rochester.

Penguin student edition book cover for Wide Sargasso Sea
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I won’t go into further detail here about Rhys’ position on this matter, because I address it on this website with my review of Jean Rhy’s novelistic response to Jane Eyre, with her own award-winning novella, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which gives a voice and full identity for the first time to the original Mrs Rochester, from childhood to her death. That work also contributed to what became known as ‘post-colonial’ fiction (a term that you will see from the link embedded within it that has itself come under critical scrutiny for a number of reasons, including its Eurocentric approach) and, interestingly,

Maryse Conde’s novel interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

Maryse Condé, the celebrated, distinguished Guadeloupean feminist writer, wrote Windward Heights (1998), a novelistic response/reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights (it is excellent, with an evocative atmosphere, characters and richly poetic, rhythmical prose.  It also challenges bias on race, gender and traditional relationships, while having her own distinct voice and perspective; in fact, for all these reasons, I was reminded of Zora Neale Hurstons fiction).

1857 photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous British civil engineer, in front of the launching chains of the ship he designed, The Great Western. As Mr Brunel reportedly said on the occasion, to one of his favourite Gilbert & Sullivan songs: “I am the very model of a modern Englishman, I’ve information technical, metal & engineerial.  I know the Queen of England Her Majesty the magisterial, to whom I often cite dazzling feats  original,  historically citing pyramids to Chinese walls imperial.” To which Robert Howlett, the photographer, replied eerily sincere and ill: “Erm, that’s nice, dear chap, you’re the  classic 19th century man with vision & a Master of all he does with will…Now can you bloody well hold still for the camera?”

To put Jane Eyre into a social and literary context, the 19th century in the West, while being an age of great industry and innovation, was essentially a deeply moralistic society, pious, conformist and judgemental on the surface and corrupt and compromised and hypocritical from within its own outspoken values.  The norm for women was that they had no independence, no rights, nor an identity or life of their own; society (read: men who dominated in power both at work and home) prescribed and enforced women (whether upper, middle or working class) to rigidly defined manners, conduct and employment (as governess, wife, spinster, worker, house maid, cook, cleaner, etc.). Jane, being poor and without parents, is forced into a tyrannical charity boarding school, the Lowood Institution — more a prison than a school; in fact, you could say that the headmaster, Mr Brocklehurst, in his demeanor and treatment of the children, as compared with the spoiling of his own brood, encapsulates all the horrors and hypocrisies of the 19th century.  If he is representative of all that is bad about the 19th century, by stark contrast, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (see the picture on the left, here) is the very epitome of what is right in that period (read: Empire); brilliant, a visionary, a pragmatist, a man of action and achievement always wanting to scale greater heights.

Even before Jane’s arrival at Lowood, Brocklehurst makes it clear what he thinks of her, calling her a child of the Devil (a charming man, eh?) and in no uncertain terms she must accept and obey all of his rules and regulations, while half-starving from the meagre portions and poor-quality of the food.  Yet while she conforms on the outside, she remains resilient and always inwardly defiant; in fact, even before  she is abandoned to the school by her loathsome aunt, when Jane is barely 10 years old, Jane’s intensity, integrity, independence of mind and action are already well-established; especially her passionate, deeply intelligent articulation of her perspective in conversation with her aunt; with her departing words to her comprising only devastating criticism that will haunt her aunt for years afterwards.  Keep in mind that Brontë published this during a time when it was absolutely unheard of for children to be seen and heard, never mind for them to challenge, criticise and protest to adults, but protest she does.  For these reasons in particular, and the way such behaviour and her honesty and integrity grows, as does her confidence, throughout the novel, Jane Eyre is a marvellously unprecedented, radical departure as a portrait of a heroine compared with novels published before 1847.

That last point may be seen as contentious or perceived as doing a disservice to the many superb women writers who came before Charlotte Brontë, when taking into account the marvellous female heroines of Jane Austen in the early 1800s — the most well-known, course, being Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (1813); besides those of other wonderful novelists who bridged the 18th and 19th centuries in their lives, including in the work of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Lennox, and indeed those who published before them.  All of these writers in various ways, both through their fiction and non-fiction, challenged male preconceptions of women’s roles and their prescribed social/intellectual identities.  You could say, in fact, that they were challenging what is now called ‘evolutionary psychology’, which increasingly strikes me as being an excuse for anti-feminists to insist that women who speak up and work are distorting the ‘natural order’ of the sexes.  What gargantuan bollocks.

A superbly researched study of 100 women novelists before Jane Austen. Click on the image to do an instant search for secondhand copies of the title on the Bookfinder website

(BTW, an outstandingly well-researched and -written  book on neglected pre-19th century women novelists was published by Dale Spender in 1986, entitled Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen; sadly, it’s out of print, but you can click on the image of the book, on your right here, and the link will automatically take you to a search of the title on the excellent Bookfinder website.  It’s likely you’ll be able to buy it for pennies, and it remains a fantastic work in the field of literature studies.)

But I think within the 19th century, Jane Eyre is the novel most noteworthy for expanding the possibilities and potential of what women’s characters could do and be, how they could behave and talk, what they could become, in novels by both men and women (William Makepeace Thackeray, for one, was decidedly impressed and influenced by the novel).  I also think you can see some of the psychological qualities inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing in later Dickens and George Eliot.  Both Charlotte and Jane, together, as it were, became a benchmark to contrast and challenge traditional attitudes and thinking about women’s lives; in particular for two key reasons: that women do indeed have their own interior lives and consciousness and, of equal importance, that women had legitimate viewpoints and intelligence to express on equal terms with men.  While it may be overstating the case, I believe Jane Eyre’s character was one of the many social contributing factors for women increasingly to recognise opportunities for and empowerment of themselves; to express themselves using their own voices with their own thoughts; to be passionate and determined to challenge their straightjacketed lives that in turn evolved into the suffragette movement.

The only other novel that springs to mind in the 19th century that is as passionate and as vivid as Jane Eyre, is Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, and her character, Catherine Earnshaw (and anyone who’s read that will know the passion reflected through the characters and descriptions of nature are far more vivid and intensely alive than that of Charlotte’s/Jane’s own viewpoint; certainly Emily’s/Catherine’s intensity of expressed feelings about nature and Heathcliff are far more radical and deeper when compared with Charlotte’s/Jane’s.  As one critic put it, Emily Brontë “captured the zeitgeist of romanticism despite her physical and cultural isolation”.  Nevertheless, Jane Eyre’s  sense of her own integrity and character remains intact, despite her circumstances and the many challenges she has to suffer and overcome; whereas Catherine, according to Emily’s narrative, is never given such a choice, or options of such freedom; the fatalistic qualities that drive Wuthering Heights are both one of its huge strengths and its claustrophobic weaknesses as a novel (but it’s still brilliant).

Jane Eyre is an astonishing novel and, besides her sibling’s unique work, it remains one of the most vivid, dramatic, compelling and emotionally rich fictions published in the 19th century.  I suspect if you’ve read this far, you’ll already know my answer to the question-posing title of this article: Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just an uppity loudmouth feminist?  She is, of course, a wonderful, feminist radical heroine; there’s nothing whatsoever that is uppity or loudmouth about her and she is only perceived that way by those who themselves are obnoxious and badgering.  I suspect the evolutionary psychologists would present a different answer, but then I’m bloody well jolly delighted to say I’ve never believed in the ‘natural order’ of things; to paraphrase de Beauvoir, we are made, not born, into our gendered lives, and what we make of them is, ultimately, up to us.  Who better for us modern readers, than Jane Eyre as the representative motivational standard-bearer of this truth, who ultimately achieves true happiness in her life by learning, always thinking and, when she can, challenging the status quo on a journey defined not by any sense of achieving an ultimate goal, but by finding meaning and understanding in response to the journey itself by being true to herself.  Jane Eyre the novel, and Jane Eyre the character, are remarkable achievements, irrespective of genre, sex of author or century and, as with all classics, remains in print and continues to be lovingly read and widely loved.

Note on a Great Edition
First, if you don’t mind, let me highlight an important point about the choice of what particular edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to buy/loan.  Obviously there are a number of perfectly respectable cheaper paperback versions available, instead of the one I’m recommending to you — the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2006 (not earlier; see the image on your left, which you can use to buy the book) — such as this one from the wonderful Wordsworth Classics publisher and which is less than half the price of the Penguin version, even after discount.  Sorry!

However, the very good reason I’ve selected this one is because of the excellent and unmatched introduction and other editorial material, commissioned by Penguin Classics for its 2006 edition, written by Stevie Davies, the well-respected novelist and academic.  Not only does she write with grace and style, but also she delivers much insight, wisdom and appreciation about the novel, its themes, symbolism, psychological perspectives, as well as on Charlotte Brontë and her historical, social and literary contexts; in addition to which, as you’d expect from an authoritative edition, Davies provides excellent notes, further reading, appendices and more besides. Okay, so moving on …

On ‘Ho*ney Money: The Power of Er*otic Capital’ by Catherine Hakim, plus Cristina Odone’s celebratory book review of it. Or: Golly Jee, Mr – Fancy a Flirtatious Smile & a Metaphorical BJ with That?

Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery & find out you can succeed in the workplace & in life just by using your feminine charms, make-up, fluttering eyelids, smiles & —why gosh! — yes, even by wiggling your bottom. Oops! I mean by being flirtatious.

Ah, the joys of women pandering to men’s needs; now there’s no “sex discrimination”, according to writer and journalist Cristina Odone. (Or is she paraphrasing Catherine Hakim, academic sociologist at the prestigious, world-renowned London School of Economics and who is, it seems, known for “criticising feminist assumptions about employment” it says in her Wikipedia profile: No doubt Hakim’s proud of that fact, as any right-wing thinking woman should be.  One also wonders whether Hakim wrote the copy for it, or just had one of her devoted disciplines write it, with her permission?)

My review here is a type of Russian nesting doll-in-a-doll set, in that I’m critiquing both Odone’s own women-denigrating review of the book in The Daily Telegraph; a book which in itself comes across as equally women-denigrating, sexist-supporting, anti-women, by Hakim in Honey Money.

A few years ago I saw Cristina Odone a couple of times on the serious talk-panel programme, Question Time on the BBC, and I thought then: well, clearly she’s a hardcore conservative; unsurprisingly —not a good thing, in my view.  In fact, she reminds me a lot of David Starkey, the historian whose expertise is the Tudor period, is a bestselling author and popular presenter of his own TV series based on his own bestsellers and — unfortunately — is often invited to spout right-wing nonsense on TV about issues in modern society.

Odone comes across as an intelligent person, but she seems to have zero emotional IQ and certainly no empathy for those she judges: take the recent furore she just caused over her criticism of NHS nurses on Question Time on 14th April 2011, and in her follow-up blog comments the next day in The Daily Telegraph.  As if NHS nurses are in charge and to blame for the way the NHS operates.  I’d love to see Odone, no doubt on a great salary and living happily in a beautiful home, try being a nurse just for a day.  I suspect she may be prepared to revamp her comments radically in favour of the difficulties and challenges and stresses all of them face.  But then, maybe NHS nurses, along with any other woman who happens to be hardworking in a poorly paid job, need only take heed of the counsel dished out to women in Honey Money by Hakim: just use your ‘erotic capital’ and voilà, you may find a rich man, but certainly life will become easier because men will treat you better.  The whole Waldorf Salad-enchilada-Nine-Yards fandango. So that’s how to be successful modern woman of the Noughties. Wow! Who’d have it could be so utterly straightforward as that?  All you need to do is smile, maybe wear high heels, dress in body-shape-enhancing clothes, flutter your eyelids and definitely use a certain appealing you-know-nudge-nudge tone of voice and — oh!  — please don’t worry if you or others think you’re not pretty; no, says Hakim, erotic capital is really all about your attitude.

Eva Longoria, here as a Stepford Wife in © Desperate Housewives; a ma*le fant*asy sexist man's dream version of the perf*ect woman. Or (no ref to Longoria — rather this idealised woman'!): "Can I get you suds with that, big boy? Or maybe a sprinkling of Er*otic Capital from my Hakim Ho*ney Money Pot?"

Radical thinking?  Does this sort of tripe even merit publication (and by the respectable Allen Lane publishers in the UK, no less!).  Hell no: this book in most ways reflects a pre-90s-typically 1950s/60s/70s attitude towards and about women all over again. It perfectly echoes Ira Levin’s 1972 bestselling satirical fiction, The Stepford Wives, and the films it inspired. (The first, in 1975, was great — script by William Goldman, directed by Bryan Forbes, and performances by Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss; the second simply over the top silly, directed by Frank Oz (never very subtle anyway; he should have stuck with movies for kids), and with Nicole Kidman — ghastly in it — and Bette Midler, who is entertaining in it and milks the role for all the camp it’s worth and she could muster, both of which are a lot, bless her.)

In Levin’s novel, the men’s sexist attitudes have led to their desire for and then creation of ‘the perfect woman’ in an equally perfect, secluded gated community. The robotic-type women are always smiling, the perfect hostess, submissive, forever wanting to please her man and doing so, at his bidding, and most of the time before it. I think this all sounds remarkably similar to what Hakim is advocating in her book and Odone endorses, though both may argue otherwise, namely: A woman should always please the men in their lives, whether co-worker, boss or husband, potential partner or just a guy serving you in a shop or wherever else. Give him a smile, be demure, flutter your eyelids. Paint your face. Massage his tense shoulders from being stressed at being a man in the modern age. Just glow with your erotic capital, m’dear, then all will be well in your world. I mean, jes*sus H frickin unbelievable that this sort of vomit-inducing nonsense is being spouted by a senior academic at one of the leading British universities and is further endorsed by Odone and her absurd statements.  Take one such example of Odone, where she says Hakim is:

at her best when she provides a refreshing antidote to the boiler-suited, shaved-head thinking that keeps masculinists from reflecting ordinary women’s ambitions

Who on earth can she possibly be thinking of who is in real life at all like this “masculinist”, as she defines it; who, to take her metaphor seriously, even metaphorically dresses/acts/speaks like this — and with a shaved head, too! My goodness, but they must be female monsters, foaming at the mouth, head-butting charming men (for there is no other kind), with their extraordinary women’s ambitions!  (And even if some women did really dress like that, and really have a shaved head, that Odone wasn’t writing metaphorically well — who frickin cares — aren’t they still women, with rights and voices to be heard?!)

I suppose this is Odone’s pathetic attempt at being witty – but at the expense of whom?  Women who speak up and challenge the sexist status quo, that’s who. God forbid that a woman, to cite Rebecca West, differentiates herself from a doormat; suddenly you’ll be thought of as being shaven-headed and boiler-suited in your attitudes (of course, West really said ‘feminist’, not shaven-headed etc!).  Ah, but her metaphor also is a criticism of any woman who doesn’t use her femininity to her advantage, be at work, home or elsewhere; if you aren’t, the metaphor seems to imply that you must be a pastiche for a guy; a fake female; even a fake sort of guy.  Perhaps not so oddly, I’m suddenly reminded of Lady Gaga’s exhaustively relentless efforts at being radical/leading, when in fact she copies her idols and tiresomely takes on an easy target, i.e., the traditional, Catholic religion (Madonna), or attempts sad nonsense in the form of Joe Calderone, her alter-ego (that alter-ego link will take you to a fantastic critique by “Robin”, an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte, USA; there’s also an entertaining critique/review of Calderone’s performance in an LA Times blog. BTW, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying I think Gaga is without talent; far from it; some of her early songs were great in The Fame Monster and showed she merited her fame and success; especially via Poker Face and Bad Romance, her videos of those songs and her amazing costumes).

The assumptions made by Odone are sexist in themselves, derogatory, and a stereotypical portrayal of women and their rights. As an academic, Hakim really has no excuses; I’m sure of that. In the book review, Odone talks about the gratitude felt towards feminists for “getting rid of sex discrimination“, but clearly she’s clueless that one such fundamental part of sex discrimination that remains rife and is a global issue, is gender pay disparity. On this alone, there is a mass of research and reports readily available for anyone who has access to the web.

On the subject of pay disparity alone, since it is important and that discrimination continues to be faced by the majority of women in the workplace across the globe, despite the backing of their rights in most if not all Western countries through legislation for equal pay, such as with the UK’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, here are a few research reports to illustrate how rife such discrimination is.  First, a Google search alone brings up a wealth (sorry for the bad pun) of pay disparity reports/material, here.  There’s also the World Economic Forum’s Global Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 and, as one example into a specific, global major industry, financial services, there’s a 2009 report published by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission,  called Sex Discrimination and Gender Pay Gap Report (that link is just for the press summary of the report; but you can also find the full report on the site, too; and there’s also a fascinating 2011 report from the same organisation, this one on women being passed over for top jobs – just click here).

As anyone who is even half-awake about the realities of the world knows, sex discrimination is far from over and Hakim’s Ho*ney Money and Odone — far from celebrating women and helping to challenge sex discrimination, objectification of women and trivialisation of them by the appalling notion of “ero*tic capital” — reinforce such objectification, discrimination etc. (And you can just see the consequences of Ho*ney Money-type thinking in the City/Wall Street/the financial services industry, or frankly any other male-dominated workplace. Such trivialisation will go down a treat with the guys in power/control, over women who work with or for them, as the women will be at the mercy of their being charged with using such capital, when in fact the women are being sexually harassed by the men. You can just imagine a future law court scene in which the male defendent uses the defence of ‘ero*tic capital like this:

“I’m not guilty, m’Lud – she was using erotic capital on me, so I couldn’t help but rub my gen*itals against her bu*m in the office. She made me do it – she wanted it, when she smiled at me in that way, massaged my shoulders and gave me a metaphorical BJ.”)

Most people, I reckon, unfortunately, have enough to contend with: either being in crap jobs, if you’re fortunate enough to have a job in the first place and, with women, they have the double-edged sword facing them unlike the majority of men, even now in the Noughties, given most still do all or most of the shopping/cleaning/cooking as well as be a co-wage-earner. Hakim and Odone point to such hardships and question whether or not it was worth it for women to win the fight for the right to work as equals to men, rather than be forced into only one option, that of being a stay-at-home-mum (obviously for those women who choose this, all well and good, but for those who want other choices as well, to be deprived of other options is far from good).  Surely one of the key points of feminism was and is to make sure women have equal access to all industries and all jobs available, just as it is to make sure such access exists for education and equal pay, based on talent, qualifications, experience, etc.  Hakim, however, seems to be saying that adopting a Ho*ney Money attitude towards the men in your life – and Odone clearly endorses this view in her book review — will likely give you a far better chance at a better quality of life than the misery of modern work. Why golly gee — you could may be lifted off your feet by a rich, dashing, non-gay Rock Hudson, and escape from the drudgery of common working life.  But I think we can count such women on one hand, or perhaps one digit, unless you watch the rich women in Orange County and/or already happen to be rich.

As for Odone and Hakim – well, they need not worry – one’s a successful journalist and the other an established academic who seems to sneer at women’s rights at least as far as employment is concerned.  All while they have their own delicious cake and also get to eat. “Do as I say, not as I do”, in other words.

Ultimately, Ho*ney Money’s credo, its advocacy of erotic capital, will be seen for what it is: a sexist revisionism of genuine women’s rights and self-empowerment— the Empress’s New Clothes, to paraphrase the cliché.  It is intellectually dishonest, morally bankrupt thinking that wholeheartedly pejorative towards women; it is, therefore, explicitly anti-feminist,anti-women’s rights in the workplace (to be treated as an equal to men, not to be slathered over because of flirting with them), and echoes back to a denigrating time, culture and thinking that is, at most, pre-1980s, and frankly smacks, as indicated earlier, of the 1950s and before.  I’m reminded of an age-old sexist chant by men, typically drunk when they sing it, that would agree wholeheartedly with the essence of Hakim’s and Odone’s arguments. Namely, it seems to me,whether you use your body, tone of voice, eye contact or some such other, you are effectively doing what supposedly funny but only pathetic, sexist drunken men want you to do, when all they chant together at women: “Get your t*its out for the lads.” Awful, right?  (Unless you’re a drunken man with a snout, but then you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?!)

So Hakim and Odone not only seem to disapprove of modern feminism, but worse, think there’s no need for feminism or feminists anymore; after all there’s no more “sex discrimination” ! Well, I for one don’t approve of their characterisation of women as sexual Stepford Wives of this decade or any other.  Talk about backwards, sexist thinking.  Even shallow pop culture trivialisations of feminism for young women’s consumption — by characterising women’s rights as “Riot Grrrl” and, before that, “Girl Power”, are genuinely more meaningful, in-depth and useful to women, young and old,  than the nonsense of the reviewer and this sociologist; both of whom, via their views, bring shame to the history of women’s struggle, and the women who have fought in every sense for their rights.  There is nothing to celebrate in two bright women celebrating as a way to get ahead an encouragement for women to focus on their appeal to men via their own looks/consideration of them/flirting with them/body language/tone of voice/femininity. In short, god, let’s say that awful phrase one more time: ero*tic capital.  It’s as if I’ve just swallowed a cup of cold sick thinking and writing about this.  Let’s hope you don’t feel the same way from reading about it.

Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi – A fable-like novel of feminist power and revenge

Do you love and relish great opening lines to fiction?  Then how about this:

“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough . . .”

Fantastic, eh? This is strong, provocative fiction whose style is reminiscent of such distinctive writers and their fiction as — sadly many of whom are now either discarded or vastly under-appreciated — Gordon Lish (Peru: A Novel, Dear Mr. Capote), early Jenny Diski (Nothing Natural) and Andrea Dworkin (Mercy, Ice and Fire), in terms of its honesty to consider and portray the disturbing realities of society through the experiences of its female characters and the chameleon forms of violence perpetrated against women. Dirty Weekend, an account of 48 hours of violence against one woman, and her retributions, is by turns bizarre, poignant, powerful and empathetic.

The plot

From the outset, the story of Bella takes on the level of a fable or parable. By the opening pages, she has already been threatened with sexual violence by a man who lives opposite her. He promises to pour acid on her skin. But then ‘Fate found Bella one night … and whispered in her ear. And when she woke up, she knew she’d had enough’. It is from this point that she is empowered; no longer wishing to stay persecuted and victimised by the ignorance and violence so common in so many men. She decides, with the help of a mystic, that – since men seem only to view her as a victim – she is unable to at least act even as a bystander and avoid their glare, so concludes that she has no other choice than to take action.

In a series of explicitly and clinically described episodes, Bella enacts her ideas of retribution upon one violent man after another. If these extreme scenes are powerful, it is because of the brutal honesty in the evocation of Bella’s pain and outrage, and the attitudes of the men that only wish to threaten and oppress any iota of self-regard that she may have.

Recommendation

It is an uncompromising, powerful novel, working as it does within the ugly, hypocritical shadows that our supposedly moral society casts.  Occasionally clichés do spill over the overall quality of the writing, yet Zahavi’s key strength and great talent that is to be celebrated — and ridiculous to deny — is in her fluidity and razor-blade precision to evoke a dark vision; a sinister fable-like version of feminist understanding and empowerment.  Unfortunately, this novel is sadly, unforgivably, out of print, but you can buy it from Amazon as a Kindle edition (for the US and UK markets). However, for those without a Kindle, you should be able to borrow a copy from your local library (or through their inter-library loan system), or otherwise buy a low-cost copy from one of the online secondhand dealers, such as abebooks. com/.co.uk, alibris.com/.co.uk, or one of Amazon‘s marketplaces.

26 reasons why some men are such dogs – woof! . . . .

1.They love to sniff their fingers after doing unsavoury things

2.When you cry, they freak out, get frustrated, fcuk off or turn into a lamp post/tree/post box (erm …well, anything that sorta just stands there, doing nothing, you know?)

3.When they cry, they are pathetic, self-pitying and worse than kids (say the kids)

4.When you’re ill, they consider it an infringement of their freedom and needs … whereas …

5.When they are, they make out it’s Doomsday and the four frickin horsemen are riding their backs, and

6.They become more demanding than babies in wanting to be molly cuddled over their poor wittle cough/sore wittle toe/and wittle tummy wupset

7.They want all the benefits of a relationship without making any effort (unless they want s*ex)

8.They’re as sincere and devoted as their bo*ink-on lasts

9.Even when they know others after them use the same toilet as they do, they still go ahead and make as if they’ve just visited Water Park Adventures

10.They insist they’re right 100% of the time, even when they’re wrong 95% of the time

11.Unless they’re part of some remote tribe of the Amazon or some such, their only demonstration of emotional sensitivity is when they miss the TV remote

12.As a rule, they’d rather go to bed smelling a bit (or a lot: euyuw), than make even a smidgen of effort to have a quick wash first before getting into bed with you

13.When they know you are right in a point of argument, they still frickin argue with you (but only until you’re reduced to tears, and then they’ll apologise … if you’re lucky)

14.Lifting the toilet seat to have a pee is a Herculean task for them; they’d rather climb Everest (don’t ask why; it’s unfathomable and they don’t care, but they do like it easy, right?)

15.They love you, but they love it more when you make it very clear you love them

16.But j*esusH, godforbid don’t say you love them too much, or at the wrong time, cos otherwise you’ll suffocate them and they need their space, alright?

17.Their bo*ink-on is justification enough to do it, irrespective of how you feel or what you want at the time

18.They behave with their friends in front of you as if you’re simply an object or a target or invisible

19.And then they wonder why you’re so p*issed off with them afterwards?

20.They are relieved when you stop crying, irrespective of caring or knowing why you’ve cried or why you stopped

21.And you’re lucky if you’ve found a guy that does understand why (see 20) cos most don’t and you need to spell it out in six-foot-high neon letters (and preferably with a rubber hammer or tattoo on their forehead, or a kick to their rubber parts to drive the message home)

22.When you say you don’t want to be bo*inked there, they continue to insist with their bo*ink-on there

23.They don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet

24.They can be supportive of you, but please don’t expect it during a footie match/other sports on TV, cos that’s just selfish, innit?

25.Their idea of comforting you when you’re upset/ill/troubled is as short-lived as their memory of why you were p*issed off with them in the first place.

26.One more drink in the pub means “I’ll see you six hours later, darling, post-kebab shop, with donner stains all over me and the freshest breath since kitty litter, and if you can be ready for a drunken sha*g, that’d be great, cheers love!”

And more besides, god bless em. (Cos no-one else will. Ahem.)

Do, please, zap me a comment/tweet or whatever’s easiest to let me know what else to add to the list so I can do another update – all suggestions welcome!

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – an amazing re-interpretation of Jane Eyre

Jean Rhys wrote this as a novelistic, literary response to Charlotte Bronte‘s classic and brilliant 19th century novel, Jane Eyre. (If you haven’t read the latter, it is not necessary to do so first, to appreciate Rhys’ work; however, if you do read it first, and Wide Sargasso Sea afterwards, inevitably, I think, you will gain a richer, deeper appreciation of just how clever and powerful Rhys is in this novella and will see it as a sort of dialogue across the centuries between two brilliant novelists from two vastly different childhoods and life experiences.)

The reason Rhys felt compelled to write this sort of creative response to Jane Eyre, was because she wanted to re-position and put to the forefront of her readers’ attention the character of Mrs Rochester, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s original novel. Rhys felt that Bronte had treated Mrs Rochester poorly, not only because she remains in the background, like some scary Gilmanesque wallpaper, but also because of her portrayal there as somewhat two-dimensional – if you think this is unfair, just remind yourself of the depth and complexity Bronte gives her other secondary characters in Jane Eyre). Instead, we meet only disembodied madness, in lieu of any literary effort to convince the reader that she possesses a real identity (and is not simply being possessed!), of her comprising flesh and blood and having her own thoughts and feelings; she certainly has no voice of her own in the original and Bronte seems to think nothing of this (perhaps because of her being influenced by Gothic novelists, as so many 19th century writers were, and in such fiction, mad characters were usually ghoulish and unreal; absurdly so, even). But Rhys, whether rightly or wrongly, also attributed these problems of characterisation to Bronte’s own ideological viewpoint and socialisation (educational and social/societal upbringing): namely one where many of her own class, and others besides, in the 19th century society, were typically pro-colonialist/pro-imperialist and often racist, too (so Mrs Rochester’s Creole history is innately attributed to her madness).

Rhys challenged such perspectives by writing her own interpretation in fiction, a novella that in part is a ‘pre-history’ of the events in Jane Eyre (although, significantly, her last section corresponds to a major event in that novel, with the burning of Mr Rochester‘s house). Most importantly, Rhys focuses her attention on the female white Creole, Antoinette Cosway – in Jane Eyre we know her only, first, as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, when we know her as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. (By the way — if you’re interested in the subject of how women and madness – and mad women! — is represented in literature in the 19th century and beyond, by male and female writers, there are two truly outstanding, landmark literary feminist studies readily available: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary ImaginationElaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980.  And for one focused on the sexual politics of literature, I still think the landmark feminist literary classic, Sexual Politics by Kate Millet, is the best.)

As a result of Antoinette/Bertha’s character being placed front and centre in Sargasso, Rhys creates a range of reader perspectives, understandings and emphases that contrast sharply with Jane Eyre — not least in that, with Rhys’ fiction, Antoinette at long last has been given her own voice and thoughts, as a result of which she gains her own identity and humanity for the first time, instead of being relegated to the status of symbol, and ‘only’ being imprisoned in a space of madness and silence, one that for which — in both fictions — Mr Rochester is responsible.  But Rhys is no optimist as a writer — see below for further comments on this matter – more a ‘negative realist’ to Bronte’s ‘positive realism’ and so Antoinette/Bertha’s outcome remains the same in both fictions. However, in Sargasso, we none the less have something else, too – something fundamentally richer and more rewarding in one important regard: when it comes to Antoinette/Bertha, unlike in Jane Eyre, we have gained an in-depth understanding of and insight to the character’s original circumstances and motivations that lead to her madness and death.

This is a powerful, haunting, hallucinatory and deeply poetic fiction (the style, in these terms, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story, split into three parts, has the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, is about the marriage and is from both Mr Rochester’s imperialist viewpoint and patriarchal sensibility — he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette’s sizeable dowry and land – as well as from Antoinette’s perspective. Through both of them, we come to understand her troubling, unbearable circumstances: not least, that she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of her female servants, while all the time supposedly being devoted to her.  Meanwhile, you experience Rochester’s own confusion and growing revulsion towards the local people and their way of living, his loathing of the heat and the tropical intensity of the Caribbean, so alien to his upper-class English background. The last – and most dramatic part — has the reader returning to ‘Antoinette’, now Bertha, who is not only left without anyone who cares and feels for her plight, but is imprisoned, literally — the original ‘mad woman in the attic’ — in Rochester’s house in England; a terrifying, distressing world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor communication – and symbolically, too, in silence and her nightmarish visions; she is effectively made persona non grata as a result of her being locked away and out of sight, before she commits her last act of desperation.

Throughout the story, you experience the intense feelings and views of all those involved, and the stifling physical environment of Antoinette’s original home; you also feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles and psychological and material motivations of Antoinette and Mr Rochester, as well as the locals, including the servants.  There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; and for Mr Rochester there is only unremitting nature of the patriarchal power structure and his troubled self, such that it deprives him of any meaningful identity, beyond that of his family’s expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority.  Sargasso is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.

It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre. Frankly, it is remarkable and, also, it is genuinely unique in Rhys’ oeuvre – nothing else she wrote before compares with it in terms of its poetic, hallucinatory atmosphere; yet what is consistent ever-present in her writing, including within this novella, is the depth of Rhys’ psychological understanding of female isolation, anguish, subjugation and survival (in her oeuvre, her women characters, sadly, rarely have the opportunity to live and enjoy themselves; in this way, interestingly, she echoes Anita Brookner’s women, though the latter writer’s own seem always to have some ‘room of their own’, of financial independence, and often find some way eventually to live on their own terms, all be them compromised in some way from experience as a result of their dealings with men).

RECOMMENDATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE, BUT INTEND TO

Even though there are cheaper, decent editions available, such as the one by Wordsworth publishers, I highly recommend instead that you buy/read the Penguin Classics 2006 edition, especially because of its outstanding, wonderful introductory essay — both insightful and wise — by Stevie Davies, the novelist and academic.  Please note that it must be at least 2006 copyrighted/publication date, otherwise you won’t find Davies’ essay in it, as there are several other Penguin editions before this one, with Davies as editor.

RECOMMENDATION FOR STUDENTS:

If this novella is on your reading list, then I recommend Penguin’s Student Edition, edited by Hilary Jenkins. This is a genuinely worthwhile and helpful edition for students. Jenkins has written quality editorial material from start to finish: she provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author’s life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you’d expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story’s geographical, cultural and historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading. None the less, do please try to read Stevie Davies’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition. Frankly, either edition would suit you as a student, and both editions’ introductions are worthwhile to all other readers interested in a more in-depth approach that explain clearly both Sargasso and Jane Eyre in terms of their respective literary histories, authors and themes.

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