Monthly Archives: October 2007

The Fair Triumvirate of Wits

Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel has an intriguing chapter on “The Fair Triumvirate of Wits” — Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, and Eliza Haywood, all writers of the late 17C and early 18C who made their living from writing. None of them had particularly good reputations — and by that I mean their sexual reputations were suspect — and Spender makes the point that sexual reputation and writerly reputation get conflated when we’re talking about women writers of the time (and later times). The reputations of these women as writers have suffered, even though (or because?) their writings were very popular, in part because their behavior was “questionable”:

In trying to explain why it is that Aphra Behn’s novels have been ‘ignored’ and that pride of place has been accorded to Daniel Defoe, it emerges that there have been clear links between Aphra Behn’s ‘immorality’ and her expulsion from the literary mainstream. Her work has not been fit for study.

Spender devotes a lot of space to analyzing why these three women’s contributions to the novel have been ignored, and at times this can get a bit repetitive. Also, I’m reading the book from the perspective of 20 years later, when much critical writing has tried to give these women their place in literary history, so the book feels dated at times. But still, her account of what these women accomplished is interesting.

Of Aphra Behn, for example, she writes:

In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour — which frequently makes men the butt of the joke — contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Behn is important in the development of the novel because her writing moved the genre toward a new kind of realism; it is not that she’s writing the kind of realism that we are familiar with today, but that she “has a talent for minute observation, astute assessment, the portrayal of fine realistic detail.” She brought a new level of believability to older forms of writing such as the pastoral romance.

Delariviere Manley was famous for her “scandal chronicles” — works that were set in far-away, exotic places, but were clearly about local high-born people and their exploits. Spender argues that Manley’s writing furthered the novel by taking realism in yet another direction — this time instead of writing realistically about fantastical people and places as Aphra Behn did, Manley “introduced a fantastical rendition of real-life happenings.” In fact, she went to prison briefly for writing about the scandalous doings of powerful people in government. It’s in these various ways of mixing up fiction and reality, Spender argues, that a comfort with and acceptance of fiction — lies that are somehow true — as we know it today developed.

Eliza Haywood was hugely prolific and wrote in just about every genre available at the time — and in a number that weren’t:

The growth and development of the novel can be illustrated with reference to the writing of this one woman, who reveals an extraordinary creative ability, who freely experiments with form and style, and who produces an unprecedented and perhaps unparalleled range of novels. Every enduring and exemplary feature of the new genre is to be found in her writing, and yet she has never been given the credit for her contribution.

Spender argues that Haywood realized she had more and more potential readers among the middle classes and so began to write with their interests in mind. Interestingly, she claims Haywood anticipated Samuel Richardson’s “innovations” to the novel form in Pamela by writing about a middle-class heroine battling an aristocratic villain and thus introducing the kind of class warfare that would preoccupy many novelists after her. Here is how Spender sums up her achievement:

She was among the first to assert the validity of middle class experience, among the first to insist on the significance and the humanity of ‘ordinary people’ and among the first to explore the conflict of interest between the classes and sexes. And in so doing she helped to modify the very essence of a story and its meaning.

I haven’t read enough of the writings of these women! I like to think I’ve read a lot in the 18C, but reading Spender’s book makes me realize how much I’ve missed. I’ve read Behn’s Oroonoko, her play The Rover and some poems, and that’s it. I’ve read Haywood’s novel Love in Excess, but nothing else by her. And nothing at all by Manley. We’ll see what else I can add to the list.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

19721423.JPG I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women. It tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her 30s whose life is taken up with part-time work helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” attending services and volunteering at the church, and maintaining friendships with the vicar and his sister. She also finds herself endlessly caught up in other people’s business:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

She is one of the “excellent women” of the novel’s title, women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time to — and are expected to — devote themselves to taking care of others.

As the novel opens, a new couple is moving into the flat above Mildred’s; they are Helena and Rocky, and Mildred does not know what to make of them. Helena is an anthropologist and not terribly interested in her marriage; she spends her time with fellow-anthropologist Everard, working on writing up their field notes. She is a terrible housekeeper, a fact that disturbs and intrigues Mildred. Rocky is utterly charming and perhaps a trifle fake; Mildred quickly falls for him, but also wonders, as she does, whether Rocky really means to charm her, or whether he simply can’t help but make women fall in love with him.

Helena and Rocky disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. She is quickly doing things she has never done before, such as attending lectures in anthropology and mediating marital squabbles. Her life is further disrupted when the vicar — her close friend and up to now a confirmed bachelor — begins a flirtation and gets engaged.

The novel is told in the first person, which Pym uses very cleverly to capture Mildred’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, but also to make clear to the reader her naivete and lack of experience; Helena, for example, hints that the vicar might be gay, but this passes right over Mildred’s head. And yet Mildred knows she hasn’t experienced much — she’s very aware of her limitations, painfully aware at times. She does her best, wading into the deeper waters recent experience has led her to, but she also longs for things to be the way they once were, quiet and comfortable.

As much as she is aware of her lack of experience, however, Mildred has a strong sense of identity; she knows who she is, what her social role is, and how she wants to live. As an “excellent woman,” she accepts that many people expect her to help them out — why shouldn’t she, after all? What else does she have to do? She tries to be useful, but also to keep from being used — and here she fails now and then, as each of the main characters takes advantage of her at one point or another. It’s frustrating at times to watch Mildred trying and frequently failing to maintain the balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself.

For me, the pleasure of reading this novel lies in Mildred’s astute understanding of her small world; she knows it’s a small world, but what’s important is that it’s hers and she wants to enjoy it. She’s capable of viewing it with a critical, satirical eye, but also of loving it. She strikes me as courageous — both in accepting her life as it is and in remaining open to the ways it can possibly change.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Women Writers and Virago Modern Classics

Thanks to The Literary Saloon, I came across a fabulous article by Jonathan Coe in The Guardian called “My Literary Love Affair,” about how he discovered Virago Modern Classics. The article is fabulous for a couple of reasons: because it’s got information on the history of the series and because Coe’s story of encountering these books is a good one. He describes coming across the series in a bookstore in 1982 and being intrigued by the phrase “modern classics” connected with names he hadn’t ever heard of before — May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, Rosamond Lehmann. He says that calling these books by largely forgotten women authors “modern classics” was a powerful political statement at a time when the term “classic” meant a little more than it does today.

So, he reads some of these books and finds himself and his writing changed. This is what he says about the experience:

Before long, the Virago novels would unseat some of my deepest assumptions as a reader, and also alter my course as a writer. It was under their influence, in my mid-20s, that I abandoned straightforward autobiographical writing and chose a female protagonist for my first published novel, The Accidental Woman; while my latest, The Rain Before it Falls, is intended (among other things) as an hommage to the whole list and the authors which it reintroduced.

He talks a lot about Dorothy Richardson’s long, Proustian-like novel Pilgrimage (Pointed Roofs is the first part). Pilgrimage was considered hugely important in its day, but around the time of World War II fell out of favor and has never returned. Coe describes how Richardson experiments with style, trying to produce what she termed “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.”

He also describes May Sinclair’s work and says of Rosamond Lehmann that he has had a decades long literary love affair with her writing. Lehmann is an interesting case study in how women writers get marginalized for taking up supposedly “female” subjects; one male reviewer wrote of The Echoing Grove that “so prolonged a voyage in an exclusively emotional and sexual sea afflicts a male reader at least with a sense of surfeit” and another that “entirely, exquisitely feminine readers, trousered or otherwise, will probably receive the book with rapture.” Coe points out that Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, published at the same time and with a similar tone and theme, did not receive the same treatment.

Coe argues that the Virago series was and still is important in countering critical bias against women writers, but that work still needs to be done, and he points to the relatively few women who make the Booker prize shortlists as evidence. But he does recognize that attitudes are changing, and he makes his point with this intriguing argument:

But there is a sense that the crude gender bias in British literary culture which Virago challenged so effectively in the 1970s and 80s no longer exists. Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Marina Lewycka, Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, among others. And these writers are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels, not voyaging in “an exclusively emotional and sexual sea” – a phrase that might rather be applied (accurately, but non-pejoratively) to a novel like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny.

Interesting, isn’t it? Reading about how important these women writers were for Coe made me quite happy, and I realized that I responded so positively because I don’t often hear male writers saying such things. Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but doesn’t it seem to be the case that it’s rare for male writers to acknowledge the importance of a specifically female tradition of writing for their own work? Coe isn’t merely pointing out one or two important female influences; he’s pointing to a tradition, and it’s one that taught him to write in ways the male writers he was already familiar with hadn’t.

Has anyone read Coe? I liked this article enough I’m curious about his own fiction.


Filed under Books, Reading

Friday ramblings

This is going to be a rambling, pointless post because I’m feeling rather like Danielle is today, without the headache (although that may be on the way). I spent all afternoon in an intense meeting on testing procedures to place students into the proper English class, which was, as you can imagine, not so incredibly thrilling. I like my job, except for all the meetings. (Isn’t that true for tons of people? How many of you agree with me?)

I do, however, have the pleasure of picking up Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger this evening. I began it last night and after only a few pages I could tell it’s something I will like. It’s got an older narrator, a woman in a hospital with cancer, who is looking back at her life. She’s an historian, and so she’s thinking about her life as history and about history itself; it sort of flows through her head and out onto the page in a random, rambling way. But themes are emerging, especially having to do with archeological metaphors and rock strata — the idea of digging through the layers of history, one’s own history and world history.

I’m determined to finish Waverley this weekend; one good push should do it, as I have fewer than 50 pages left. Believe it or not, I’m not entirely opposed to reading another Scott novel at some point in my life. I guess you could call me hopelessly optimistic, but I just might like Ivanhoe or some of the other ones. I’d kind of like to find out.

I’m working my way slowly through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel and am finding it fascinating; look for a post on Aphra Behn and/or Delariviere Manly and/or Eliza Haywood sometime soon. These are the “fair triumvirate of wits,” three writers often mocked by other, mostly male, writers of the day for their hugely popular, often scandalous writing. They all seem to be very prolific, energetic, courageous writers determined to make their living from writing in a time when it was very hard for a woman to do so.

Okay, off to the books!


Filed under Books, Life

Seneca on exercise

I’m enjoying read Seneca’s essayistic letters, although I frequently come across passages I don’t agree with. This makes it fun, though, as I can argue with Seneca, both in my mind and here on this blog.

I’m not buying his thoughts on exercise:

For it is silly, my dear Lucilius, and no way for an educated man to behave, to spend one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs. Even when the extra feeding has produced gratifying results and you’ve put on a lot of muscle, you’ll never match the strength of the weight of a prize ox. The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.

I can’t say I’m at all interested in broadening my neck and shoulders, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is that Seneca sees large amounts of exercise as detrimental to mental and spiritual health. The body and the mind are in competition, in his view, and devoting energy to one automatically means harming the other.

I suspect Seneca’s belief about education and large amounts of exercise — that they don’t belong together — continues to this day. But I don’t see it. As far as I’m concerned, exercise, even large amounts of it, contributes to mental and spiritual health rather than detracts from it. I don’t believe mind and body are in competition with each other; rather, as the body gets stronger it inspires the mind to get stronger. Exercise leaves me with more energy to devote to mental tasks, not less. To think that having a stronger body crushes the spirit strikes me as absurd — I’m more likely to see exercise as a spiritual activity in and of itself. So what our disagreement comes down to, I suppose, is a different view of the mind/body relationship. Seneca seems to be much more of a dualist than I am.

It’s not as though he’s against all exercise, though; he does say this:

There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging weights about and jumping — either high-jumping or long-jumping … pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.

Given his list of activities, I’m guessing he would approve of cycling if he knew of such a thing, but I don’t think he’d approve of hours and hours and hours of it. I can’t agree that shorter exercise is necessarily better, but he does have a point when he talks about time. Because I ride so much I have less time to read.

But for me, the benefits of spending all those hours on the bike outweigh the drawbacks. I need time away from books in order to enjoy my books. My job involves a lot of reading, after all, and if I didn’t ride, I’d be in danger of living a completely sedentary life and overstraining my eyes.

And, ultimately, I recognize I’m not interested in being as rational as he is. Because I know I’d stick to my view even if Seneca had the most overpoweringly logical arguments ever. I do try to be reasonable, but sometimes I just refuse to listen, and this is one of those times.


Filed under Books, Essays

Blogging every day

As you may have noticed, I’m pretty much back to a daily blogging schedule. Most of last year I wrote every day, but last January I decided to cut back a bit, so for a while I wrote 5 or 6 times a week, mostly 6 times. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this blogging schedule, and I’m coming to the conclusion that, at least for now, I’m happiest writing every day. I reserve the right to skip days now and then when I feel like it — usually when life is so busy I simply don’t have the time — but mostly, I’ll be here all the time.

I’ve read people who call a daily posting schedule crazy, just too much, and for a lot of people I’m sure it would feel that way, but for me it feels natural. I take pleasure in coming up with ideas every day, and, for the most part, the ideas are there. Sometimes I find myself casting about a bit for something to say, but not often.

I’ve read other people who call daily posting a mistake because it means the posts can’t be terribly well-developed or well-written. This critique I’ve considered a lot, because I think, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s true. Other people may be able to produce brilliant essays daily, but not me (leaving aside the question of whether I can produce brilliant essays ever!) By posting, say, three or four times a week, I could probably produce better writing and longer posts, and I could probably write real reviews of the books I read, reviews that are a bit closer to publishable quality. Or at least I could try.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about myself: if I posted three or four times a week, I still wouldn’t write the longer, smarter, more thorough, more thoughtful posts. I’m fundamentally lazy, you see. I like dashing off posts in a half hour or so, maybe a little longer for my better ones. The thought of sitting down to write a formal review, of the sort you see over at Eve’s Alexandria, for example, leaves me feeling weary. I admire those of you who write long, detailed reviews and full, thoughtful posts, but I don’t think I’ll aspire to join your ranks.

So I’m trying to accept my blogging style for what it is and to stop wistfully thinking it should be something else. I’m happy doing the kind of post I can do on a daily basis, and I’ll leave it at that.


Filed under Blogging

Eating in books

I’m in the middle of listening to the third Maisie Dobbs novel on audio for the second time; I listened to it about a year ago, and then listened to the first and second novels in the series last spring and this fall. I decided to listen to the third one again partly for the pure pleasure of it, and partly to get the whole story in the proper sequence. I’m trying to get the fourth one from the library (although my library system is a little skittish about sending CDs from one library to another, which is annoying). I wonder what it would be like to read one of these books … I’ve come to associate them so closely with a voice speaking to me as I drive to and from work.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think in the third installment Winspear is ridding her prose of some of the tics that annoyed me a bit in the second book. One of these is the habitual list of clothing her major and minor characters, and even those who are too minor to count as minor characters, are wearing: e.g., “the assistant, dressed in a blue cotton dress and matching cap decorated with yellow piping ….” Everyone seemed to get this treatment.

A little more serious, in my opinion, is the way Maisie never eats. In the second novel, she’s always picking at her food, skipping meals, realizing she’s hungry and then losing her appetite, asking for just a bit of dry toast, please. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t play into any of the novel’s themes in any way; it’s just a habit, and one Maisie seems to have lost by the third novel. I hate it when people don’t eat! As I was listening, I was trying to figure out how Maisie made it through her days with no food in her stomach and why she didn’t pass out from hunger at least once. I believe in all the other ways Maisie is a perfect character — I’m happy to believe in her amazing intuition, her ability to read body language, her way with setting people at ease — but I don’t believe she can make it through a day without eating.

I realize I may sound a little odd complaining about this. I’m kind of sensitive about my sensitivity about food. But as someone who can’t stand (can’t stand!!!) to be hungry, ever, even for a short while (I think my illness has made this worse), I got so distracted by Maisie’s refusal to eat. When I don’t eat, trust me, you should stay far, far away.  I don’t quite get why other people aren’t the same way.

The not-eating thing feels like a quirk, but it also feels like a way of getting across the idea that Maisie is simply too important and too busy to spend much time or energy on food. It’s a way of saying she’s too wrapped up in her mind to take care of her body. Eating is too gross, too physical, and all Maisie’s energy has to go toward more ethereal things such as the mind and the emotions.

But, thank heavens, in the third novel, she’s finally recognizing she needs food; I just listened to a scene where she declares to her friend Priscilla that she’s starving and wants her lunch. Much better.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Likes and Dislikes

I’m in the middle of two novels right now, and let’s just say that the experience of reading these books has been quite different.

One of my novels is Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which, I’d like to say, is a truly excellent novel. I’m about 2/3 of the way through, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll write more about it when I’ve finished, but for now, here’s the opening paragraph:

“Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there’s something happening!” The voice belonged to Mr. Mallett, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door.

This opening captures the tone of the novel perfectly. The phrase “ah, you ladies” suggests that we are going to be dealing with gender stereotypes, which we certainly are — the “ladies” of this phrase and the “excellent women” of the title refer to unmarried women who find themselves wrapped up in other people’s lives. The narrator’s startled guilt is perfect too; the narrator turns out to be Mildred Lathbury, and she never feels quite at home anywhere. She takes silly accusations like Mr. Mallett’s seriously, does her best to please everybody, but still never quite finds herself fitting in anywhere. The reference to churchwardens is a clue that the novel has much to say about the church; Mildred is a clergyman’s daughter and her best friends are the vicar and his sister. The novel is so delightfully English.

The other novel is Walter Scott’s Waverley, which is very English in its own way, and not nearly so delightful. I’ve tried my best with this novel, people, and it’s just not working for me. I’m going to finish it, but that’s only because I simply must read Walter Scott, since I study his time period and he’s so important in it. But oh boy, is this a tough one. I thought it was just the beginning that was slow and that it would improve as it went on, and I suppose it’s improved marginally, but only marginally.

Part of the problem is the slow pace of the action, but that’s not it entirely because I really don’t mind books with slow paces. I like them, in fact. I love books like Clarissa, which is exactly where you turn if you want the slowest pace possible. The other problem is the Scottish dialects Scott uses and the quirky forms of speech he gives his characters. What do you make of passages like this one:

I crave you to be hushed, Captain Waverley; you are elsewhere, peradventure, sui juris, — foris-familiated, that is, and entitled, it may be, to think and resent for yourself; but in my domain, in this poor Barony of Bradwardine, and under this roof, which is quasi mine, being held by tacit relocation by a tenant at will, I am in loco parentis to you, and bound to see you scathless.

Or this one:

“It represents,” he said, “the chosen crest of our family, a bear, as ye observe, and rampant, because a good herald will depict every animal in its noblest posture: as a horse salient, a greyhound currant, and, as may be inferred, a ravenous animal in actu ferociori, or in a voracious, lacerating, and devouring posture. Now, sir, we hold this most honourable achievement by the wappen-brief, or concession of arms, of Frederick Redbeard, Emperor of Germany, to my predeccessor, Godmund Bradwardine …”

and on and on. I can only handle so much of this before I put the book down and move on to something else. Sorry, Walter Scott.


Filed under Books, Fiction