Tag Archives: Mary Wollstonecraft

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!