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“velvet nights spiked with menace” – in which Angela and I are reconciled…

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Fireworks by Angela Carter

As a rule, I don’t generally have disastrous reading experiences. Life is too short to waste on books you don’t like so I try to tailor my reading to things I actually want to read or hope I’ll get something from; or to continue the ongoing search for those works which change your life. However, I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with Angela Carter during our week of reading for the #1977club, when I found “The Passion of the New Eve” to be most unpleasant with no redeeming features. This *did* irk me a bit, because I’ve enjoyed her work in the past; so, as Carter is the author of the month on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, I resolved to try again, and picked up “Fireworks” a slim volume of short works.

Sorry Virago, but I really *don’t* like that cover at all – I want a green version……

First published by Virago in 1988, the book collects works that span a number of years, some as early as 1974 (though it isn’t specified which is dated when). I had previously read, and been intrigued, by the opening story “A Souvenir of Japan”; and indeed several of the stories seem to be set there (and apparently draw heavily on the period Carter lived there in the early 1970s). There are nine stories here, all very disparate in subject but all very much in Carter’s style.

I speak as if he had no secrets from me. Well, then, you must realize that I was suffering from love and I knew him as intimately as I knew my own image in a mirror. In other words, I knew him only in relation to myself. Yet, on those terms, I knew him perfectly. At times, I thought I was inventing him as I went along, however, so you will have to take my word for it that we existed. But I do not want to paint our circumstantial portraits so that we both emerge with enough well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality that you are forced to believe in us. I do not want to practise such sleight of hand. You must be content only with glimpses of our outlines, as if you had caught sight of our reflections in the looking-glass of someone else’s house as you passed by the window.

I don’t know if it was just that I was in the right mood this time, but I found myself seduced by Carter’s prose from the very start. The stories cover much ground – the complexities of personal relationships (“A Souvenir…”, “Flesh and the Mirror”); myth, legend and brutality in far countries (“The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”, “Master”); morality (or lack of it) in disintegrating landscapes (“Elegy for a Freelance”, “Master” again); being an outsider, the ‘other’ (“A Souvenir…” again, “The Smile of Winter”); plus strange and haunting works which draw on fairytale and fantasy (“Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest”, “Reflections”, “The Loves of Lady Purple”). These stories are disturbing and beautiful and I found myself lost in other worlds brilliantly created by Carter in astonishing prose.

These tree trunks bore an out-crop of plants, orchids, poisonous, iridescent blossoms and creepers the thickness of an arm with flowering mouths that stuck out viscous tongues to trap the flies that nourished them. Bright birds of unknown shapes infrequently darted past him and sometimes monkeys, chattering like the third form, leaped from branch to branch that did not move beneath them.

I mentioned brutality and yes, there is violence (emotional, physical and sexual); however, I didn’t have quite the problem with it that I did reading “Passion…” Maybe I recognised that it was necessary here for the stories Carter was telling; maybe the storytelling was so strong that I could see the point; or maybe her beautiful writing counterbalanced the darkness and provided a necessary harmony in her work. Certainly Angela Carter’s prose was just stunning in these tales; hypnotic and haunting, it convinced me that I hadn’t been wrong in my belief that I had loved her work previously – and still can and do. The stories are multi-faceted, multi-layered things of beauty and cruelty, and I think that a second reading would pull out many more references and resonances than I saw on my first read.

I had fallen through one of the holes life leaves in it; these peculiar holes are the entrances to the counters at which you pay the price of the way you live.

Picking favourites is always difficult (and maybe controversial!) when reading a collection of short works, but I have to mention in particular “Reflections”; this wonderful and dark fairy tale, drawing on mythology, had the most amazing imagery and the pictures it painted in my head will stay with me.

Carter in the early 1970s

So Angela and I are reconciled. Yes, there is violence and cruelty (and rape, I’m afraid) in these stories, but this time around I felt Carter was using these things for a purpose. The worlds she portrays are beautiful and brutal, filled with vivid landscapes, striking imagery and troubled people, smoke and mirrors, dreams and allegories. I am pleased to say that I will *definitely* be reading Carter again

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“Her execution was used as a warning to other politically active women.” #feminism #frenchrevolution #iconoclasm

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The Declaration of the Rights of Women by Olympe de Gouges
Translated by Allayne Pullen in association with First Edition Translations Ltd

Observant readers of the Ramblings may have noticed a certain tendency over the last few months towards France, Paris and the various revolutions that have taken place (stirred in with an interest in iconoclasm!) I’ve read (and amassed on the TBR) a number of books on the subject, and all of this is so interesting; however, one thing I’ve been looking for and struggling to find amongst all the revolutionary hyperbole is the female voice. Women were a huge part of the French Revolution: from Théroigne de Méricourt who shamed the men into storming the Tuileries Palace* to the tricoteuses, knitting away beside the guillotine (all that blood really must have messed up their work…) Anyway, as I dug into the subject, looking for what women had written during the period, one name kept coming up – Olympe de Gouges.

The Declaration, atop some heavyweight men…. 🙂

A little more digging revealed a woman with a fascinating history: born in 1748, she started her career as a playwright; however, as France edged closer to revolution, Olympe became more involved in politics, initially taking a strong stance against the slave trade in the French colonies. This mutated in pamphleteering and once the Revolution took hold, she wrote a pioneering feminist work, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) challenging male authority and the inequality of the sexes. However, the Revolution was never straightforward and because of her association with a Royalist party she was eventually guillotined in 1793. She had argued that there should be equality for both sexes in every respect and France’s method of execution was to be no exception.

Naturally, I was keen to read Gouges’ work, and I was really happy to find that Ilex Press were bringing out a new edition, and the publisher has been kind enough to provide a review copy. And what a fascinating and inspirational little book it is! The “Declaration” itself is relatively short, so they’ve cleverly decided to enhance it with the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (which drew on much of Gouges’ work for its substance) as well as a marvellous series of illustrations and some stirring quotes from writers as wide-ranging as the well-known Woolf, Beauvoir, Shakespeare and Rimbaud, plus a number of names (often French) new to me. These really do bring the book alive and it makes potent reading.

Yes, indeed, gentlemen – you who are such authorities on the internal workings of the soul and the psyche – reading does give women ideas. What sacrilege! How then are we to stem the flow of pleasure that reading brings to women?
Laure Adler and Stefan Bollman
Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (2006)

I’m old enough to remember second wave feminism in the late 1970s – consciousness-raising groups, Spare Rib and Reclaim the Night marches – and the demands we were making then don’t seem that dissimilar to the ones Gouges made or those in the UN resolution. And although we are supposed to have made great strides forward in equality of pay and work conditions and the like, the recent news stories about the gender pay divide as well as the #metoo phenomenon tend to make me think we have not. When a book like Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” strikes such a chord, it’s certain that we are still far away from equality.

Only a man could launch the idea that the happiness of a woman should consist in serving and pleasing a man.
Margaret Fuller
Women in the Nineteenth Century (1843)

Olympe de Gouges’ eventual fate was tragic, particularly bearing in mind her views and her intelligence. 1793 saw the Reign of Terror and a spate of executions spreading across France, and it’s timely to be reminded that so often a revolution is man-made and for men only – as Wikipedia points out, “1793 has been described as a watershed for the construction of women’s place in revolutionary France, and the deconstruction of the Girondin’s Marianne. That year a number of women with a public role in politics were executed, including Madame Roland and Marie-Antoinette. The new Républicaine was the republican mother that nurtured the new citizen. While politically active women were executed the Convention banned all women’s political associations.” It’s a tendency that’s repeated over and over again; after the Russian Revolution, the women who supported it struggled to get their needs and views taken into account; and in the so-called liberated 1960s counter-culture, the women were meant to take a subservient Earth-mother role (which probably sparked much of the second wave of feminism). However, this was particularly galling in the case of the French Revolution, a conflict in which women were very much to the fore.

Colette’s thinking is guided neither by the imperative of the reproduction of the series, nor by the imperative of social stability assured by the couple and the assurances they make. The only constant is her concern with the freeing of the subject ‘woman’, who wishes to attain sensual freedom in order to maintain her curiosity and her creativity, not as part of a couple but in a plurality of connections.
Julia Kristeva
Colette, un génie féminin (2007)

So this book, with its apt subtitled of ‘The original manifesto for justice, equality and freedom’, is a very timely release from Ilex Press: whilst celebrating Gouges and her early declaration of women’s rights, it also acts as an inspirational rallying cry, showing how women (and men!) writers have over the centuries fought against discrimination and inequality. By choosing to enhance Gouges’ words with the extra material, they’ve shown how ground-breaking and yet still relevant her declaration was. The book is so beautifully put together, with its clever and striking original artwork, as well as the eloquent quotations. If you have any interest in feminism, the constant struggles women have had (and are still having) or indeed women’s contributions to the French Revolution, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Buy it for your mothers, your sisters, your daughters – and especially your sons, in the hope that it will change a few minds and help change the world…

The Declaration of the Rights of Women: The Original Manifesto for Justice, Equality and Freedom by Olympe de Gouges; published by Ilex Press, ISBN 978-1781575673; hardback; £10

*****

* I picked up this interesting factoid from Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, which I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings (after spending far too long trying to decipher what name he was actually saying…) Théroigne de Méricourt was another complex and interesting woman who aroused much controversy during the revolution, and I may well have to investigate her life further. However, I didn’t want to just reiterate Professor Clay’s rather dramatic sweeping statement without checking, and I haven’t actually been able to substantiate her part in the events of 10th August 1792 (apart from a statement that apparently she was in the thick of the fighting) – but then I’m not an academic and I only have a limited number of books on the subject as you can see from the picture above! So – it sounds good but I can’t actually verify it…. 😉

And as an aside from my aside above, I just noticed that “Tearing up History” is having another re-run on BBC4 on 14th May – so you have no excuse not to have a watch either live or on the iPlayer – fascinating documentary! 🙂

Recoding the Patriarchy @wmarybeard

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Women and Power by Mary Beard

Those of you who happen to follow me on Twitter might have noticed my recent excitement at stumbling over a bit of a bargain in a charity shop; namely a lovely pristine copy of Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” for 50p… As I commented at the time, truly some charity shop staff don’t quite know what they’re doing! However, I was happy with my bargain as I’ve been keen to read this since gifting Middle Child a copy at Christmas time, and as I wasn’t feeling like launching into one of the big fat fiction books I’m facing right now, it was the right book at the right time.

Beard is a well-known academic who makes regular appearances on TV as well as holding down an impressive teaching commitment; she’s also attracted a disproportionate amount of negative online comment, which serves to highlight just how far we still have to come with regards to gender stereotypes and expectations, and also how unpleasant certain online areas can be. Nevertheless, she continues to be erudite, outspoken and inspirational, and this book reflects both strands of her experience.

The book has its genesis in two lectures she gave, one in 2014 and one in 2017, for the London Review of Books, and it’s a powerful polemical read which draws not only on Beard’s knowledge of classical antiquity but also her personal experiences of making her way as an educated, intelligent woman in a man’s world. In simple terms, Beard is looking at the struggles women have in taking positions of power, how ingrained the attitudes of men are towards this, and how it is pretty much impossible with the current set-up to attain any kind of equality. The traditional power systems of the modern world are a male construct and Beard’s basic point is that the only way a women can get ahead in the power structure of our world (and indeed in the worlds of the past) is by aping a man; that’s what the system demands and that’s the only kind of behaviour the men in power recognise. So to change the balance, and in fact change the world, we completely need to remake it.

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

In presenting her arguments, Beard quotes some mind-numbingly awful behaviour from the classics (who knew Homer featured such hideously mysogynistic stories???) and then brings the representations of behaviour towards independent women starkly up to date with examples of how the imagery used has been hijacked by modern politicians – the image of Trump as Perseus and Clinton as Medusa is one I hadn’t seen and it’s truly shocking. Beard also takes a look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland”, which despite its pioneering viewpoint has drawbacks in taking on the traditional male power structure. Here, even a successful female utopia has to be made in isolation; its creators regard themselves as failures and once contact is made with the (male) outside world, it isn’t long before this oasis of female good sense unravels.

Interestingly, reading this book straight after the Priestley essays brought me back to consideration of Eros and Logos, the feminine and masculine principles (although in our gender fluid modern world, that’s perhaps a simplistic and naive viewpoint). Just as JBP seemed to be advocating a world with more focus on the feminine way of thinking, Beard seems to be suggesting a complete dismantling of the current system and a recoding of what we expect our power structure to be. There’s a disjuncture between the lip service we pay to equality in our modern world, and the reality of what women still experience. Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, Beard was featuring in the fascinating BBC2 documentary series “Civilisations” (yes, I’m risking dropping into a documentary rabbit hole again…), and was once again being met with ridiculously sexist commentary, in many cases from other women. Have we not yet moved on, people, past the point where we have to have such a rude and judgemental attitude to women that would never be meted out to men?? Plus Ça Change…. 😦

Beard’s argument is a persuasive one, and despite semi-humorous (but very irritating) assertions from members of my family that if the development of the world had been left to women we wouldn’t have any progress (Ada Lovelace, anyone???), I do find myself wondering what it would take to make a radical change in our society so that women can be accepted in positions of power, high up in the working world and generally everywhere they want to go – certainly the dismantling of the political Old Boy Network would need to happen. I should say here that I work in a pretty much all female environment, with intelligent, strong women in charge and it’s actually a wonderful place to be. And it’s interesting to watch the varying reactions of the men who come into that environment which range from admiration, curiosity and recognition to condescension, hostility and outright dismissal. Until we’re all on the same side things will not change.

So I ended this fascinating little book with a lot of questions buzzing around in my head, and also a new way of looking at the world. Unless we dismantle the patriarchy and build something new, will be ever change things for the better? And how will we do that and what will the new structure be? And in this unstable world of conflict how will it be possible to take on a way of thinking that’s ingrained and has been for centuries? All of this is a big ask – but if we want a fairer, better, more peaceful and equal world it seems to be the only way to go. Frankly, though, I just don’t know where we start. 😦

Anyway – that was the most stimulating and thought-provoking 50p I’ve spent in a long time…

“It was a queer, sultry summer….”

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Revisiting The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s getting on for 40 years since I first read the work of Sylvia Plath (which is a fairly alarming acknowledgement!); back in the world of 1970s feminism, she was the go-to author for discussion of the female condition and the changes taking place in women’s lives in the relatively recent past. But it’s a long time since I read any of her fiction; I seem to be reading more books about her than by her recently, and it’s been on my mind that it was time to pick up “The Bell Jar” again, to find out what I made of it at such a distance from my first experience of the book. And so the time was right for a re-read of Plath in my trusty old Faber paperback.

bell jar

“The Bell Jar” is Plath’s only published novel, and it’s widely regarded as autobiographical, telling the story of Esther Greenwood, a young American girl spending a summer in New York on a placement with a magazine. Coming from a New England town, Esther is struggling to cope with the city; she’s naive in many ways, and doesn’t really fit in with the ‘fast’ girls, though she’s too worldly for the small-town girls. Isolated from both groups, she finds herself slipping behind, failing to meet deadlines and beginning to lose the impetus to make a success of the opportunity she’s been given.

Back in her home town for the summer, Esther starts to spiral into depression when she isn’t accepted onto a writing course. Having sailed through her schooling up to this point, failure is not something she’s used to dealing with. As the hot summer plods on, Esther does to, trying to find some kind of direction and focus. Her mental state deteriorates to the point where she can’t sleep and stops washing, and so begins the record of her treatment at the hands of a series of medics of differing talents and sympathies.

The first doctor is a disaster, administering shock treatment incorrectly which leads to a suicide attempt. Eventually, through the help of a benefactress, she is placed in a more sympathetic environment, with a doctor who is more understanding and Esther begins to work through her illness. In the clinic she meets a school friend, Joan, who’s also made a suicide attempt; the meeting will be pivotal as one girl will make her way back to the world and one girl will not.

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

In many ways, I find it hard to talk about “The Bell Jar”; it’s such a remarkable novel, powerfully written and very affecting. Plath builds a convincing picture of Esther Greenwood, the small-town overachiever who finds herself out of her depth and sinking in the Big Apple. She charts the ups and downs of her emotions, her development as a young woman and her struggle to find a role for herself. Running through all this is the dilemma in which many women found themselves during the 1950s – their road through life was no longer obvious, and they were struggling to choose between the traditional role of wife and mother, or the longing for a wider path.

This is particularly exemplified by Esther’s relationship with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Willard, who reappears throughout the book. Initially Esther is bowled over by the fact he should want to go out with her; but as she develops, she becomes more clear-eyed about his faults, about the restrictions there would be if she married him, and she comes back to the same old issue for women – career or family. She articulates it in quite brilliant imagery, which Middle Child mentioned to me when I said I was re-reading “The Bell Jar”:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It’s an issue that’s relevant to women today, despite all the so-called advances; we still often have to make the choice between children and career in a way men never do, and we’re still encountering everyday sexism in the workplace. And it may well be that it’s the strain of being drawn in so many different directions with so many conflicts that exacerbates Esther’s mental decline.

The book also stands, rightly or wrongly, as a strong piece of autobiography from Plath. Despite the fact it’s fiction, Esther Greenwood’s life is seen as shorthand for Plath’s, as it’s based on many events in her own life. It’s powerful and moving watching EG/SP go through these experiences, fighting against her emotional and mental hardships and coming out at the end – well, cured is not the right word, as I still had a sense that she was coping, maybe even playing the game, but remaining at odds with the world.

I’m happy to say I loved revisiting “The Bell Jar” – I was transported back to my first read of it all those years ago, and my reactions were just the same (which means either I haven’t grown up much or it’s a book that really shouldn’t be classed as for Young Adults as I’ve bizarrely enough seen it done). This is a brilliant book which speaks of women’s struggles whatever their age – and I just wish that Plath’s other rumoured novel had survived the destruction process…

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