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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 10 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 12 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 22 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’

January 12, 2013 32 comments

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy 1873 French title: Les yeux bleus.

Although I haven’t read a Thomas Hardy for a while, I’m still in my project of reading all his books chronologically. So, after Under the Greenwood Tree came A Pair of Blue Eyes. What a delight!

Hardy_Yeux_BleusElfride Swancourt is the daughter of a vicar who lives in a remote village in Wessex (of course). Her father wants to have the church renovated and hires a London architect to come and have a look at the place and propose renovation plans. When Stephen Smith, sent by the said London architect arrives at the vicarage, the vicar is stuck in bed by gout and Elfride has to welcome the visitor on her own. Stephen is rapidly smitten by her pair of blue eyes, her easy manners and they quickly fall in love. Stephen is nice and a bit mysterious, which kindles Elfride’s imagination. He behaves strangely and has curious manners sometimes. He’s educated but pronounces Latin wrong. He seems to be a gentleman but can’t ride a horse. Elfride’s father encourages their time alone and enjoys the young man’s company very much but when he discovers that Stephen is actually the son of a working man from the nearby domain, he doesn’t want him to marry his daughter or to accept him as his acquaintance. Stephen and Elfride try to elope but she refuses to marry him secretly. Stephen leaves England to take a position in India in the hope to come back wealthy and marry her with her father’s consent.

Meanwhile, Mr Swancourt has secretly courted his neighbor, a widowed rich lady. He goes on a trip and comes back married to her. Elfride’s life changes, moving to a nicer house and staying in London during the season. It’s precisely there that Mrs Swancourt gets reacquainted with her cousin Mr Knight. He’s invited to stay some time with them in the country. When he eventually comes, he becomes close to Elfride, enjoying her conversation. Mr Knight is a bachelor who doesn’t intend to get married. He’s the contrary to the Austenian assertion that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. He’s not flirtatious but Elfride wins him over with her quiet beauty and her personality. He enjoys teaching her things and challenging her. He falls for her in spite of him. (The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love., that’s as nicely put as a Flaubert sentence). She’s in awe with him and falls for his personality. Stephen Smith can’t measure up with Mr Knight.

How will she sort this out and who will have her in the end?

As always with Hardy, the plot description may seem nice and proper, 19th century equivalent of chick lit. Sorry if that blunt comment shocks the purists. And as always, it’s deceptively simple and romantic. While I was reading, I started noticing that roles were somehow reversed: Elfride behaved like a man and Mr Knight and Stephen had women’s traits. Let me explain this curious thought but beware that there will be spoilers after this part. Here’s Elfride explaining Stephen why she loves him:

I know, I think, what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.

What? Stephen is nice-looking, docile and gentle. As he notices himself, these are more qualities sought for in a woman, aren’t they? And there’s this incredible scene where Elfride saves Mr Knight’s life in quite a manly manner, a scene that seemed the exact opposite of the one where Willoughby helps Marianne. Knight is suspended in a very dangerous way to a cliff and she makes a rope with her clothes to pull him up. How ironic that a character named Knight (like the best man character in Emma by Jane Austen, btw) is saved from a horrible death by a young girl. So the Knight in distress is saved by a damsel in shining amour. Interesting. Even more interesting is the following paragraph:

On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her.

Hmm. Now the man is more delicate than the girl. Hardy doesn’t push as far as putting Knight to bed with a fever or a headache but still, the girl’s resistance is stronger. Elfride keeps her head and wants to be loved for her mind and not for her nice looks. She’s realistic in her love for Stephen:

Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’

It’s like A Pair of Blue Eyes is a negative from an Austen novel. Stephen doesn’t forget her during his stay in India and his love is unshakable. Usually, you would have a poor girl pining at home for a man who doesn’t remember her. Mr Knight is jealous of the other men who courted her. He would like her to be untouched territory, as he is himself. He behaves like a virgin; he has never sought the company of women before. He’s the innocent person in their couple while Elfride appears to be the more experienced. Quite a change of scenery from other books. We’re far from men corrupting innocent women; Elfride is the one with a secret that backfires on her.

In addition to characters that don’t seem extraordinary at first sight but are if you think of them twice, Hardy excels in describing his beloved Wessex, like here, on a grey morning:

It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar, and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown; the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect, the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come.

The book is full of lovely descriptions of the countryside and the seaside. Peasants speak patois and I had sometimes a hard time understanding them but I’m getting used to it. I noticed that ladies and gentlemen use French words when they speak (“honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind” or “‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’”). In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos explains that at the time, speaking French was the trademark of a good education. Translators always left French words in their English translations from the French because they knew that either their readers would know enough of French to understand them or they would be flattered to read a bit of French and attach themselves to the life style of the upper classes. Hardy’s style gives life to social differences and aspirations through accents and the choice of the words he puts in the characters’ mouths. Clever and realistic. Comments about the English society escape from his pen, taking the novel as an opportunity to write down the changes he catches in his environment:

‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen” nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘”Ladies and MEN” always.’

Or:

‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs. Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father. The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’

It seems that the middle class was climbing the social ladder, mimicking the language and manners of the upper class. Necessity led the aristocracy to trade titles against money (women must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father) and the aristocracy tries to abandon old ways to the middle class and find new standards to differentiate from common people. Hardy is a keen observer of the world he lives in and uses it as raw material for his literature with a cheeky angle. I love that, it’s both enlightening and entertaining.

As I said before, this novel sounds like a simple romance but there’s a lot more to it than an easy read, although it is also that. Next step: Far From the Madding Crowd.

PS: I chose the French cover for this post but I read the book in English. I like the English covers less than the French one. I didn’t see Elfride in those.

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