A Few Good Women

I wasn’t sure exactly how I would start my entries and then I got a letter from my grandfather. For as long as I can remember biweekly clippings of articles and book reviews annotated and addressed in my grandfather’s archaic pointed cursive have shown up in our mailbox.  Usually the articles have been clipped out carefully along curling margins, notes scribbled and passages marked. Sometimes, if he thinks it will appeal to multiple grandchildren, we get photocopies. When I visit my grandparents I can go through the piles of newspaper on the dining room table, unearth the articles before he has clipped them. The last packet I got contained a photocopy of an article about William Deresiewicz’s book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.

My research this summer is on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf–names I have watched my grandfather write into his datebook so he will be able to remember them during our phone conversations–but I’ve always loved Jane Austen, and almost everyone in the family knows this. I grew up reading my mother’s collected works of Austen. I’ve been stealing her grey beat up copy of Love&Friendship for six years. She still steals it back. So an article on Jane Austen was quite popular among us.

And it doesn’t take much to understand the premise of the book. I understood why someone might feel that Jane Austen’s books are educational, interesting and relevant to modern life. So are Tolstoy’s, Faulkner’s, the Bronte’s and Morrison’s –the list goes on. Even Bulgakov’s fantastical retelling of the crucifixion in The Master and Margarita could teach someone about “love, friendship, and the things that really matter.” So why aren’t we reading, “A Bulgakovian Education: How one novel taught me….”  because the cover art would be oddly disturbing?

I wouldn't want to completely dismiss this theory but...

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About the Blog: Having your “room”

One of my "rooms"

My research was on Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and their textual and physical relationships to the space around them. It was really interesting and obviously I enjoyed it but your research could be about anything.  So we’re going to look at the blog  I kept, but mostly I wanted to talk about the experience of research

  • public-private nature of the internet
  • lack of performance in academic space
  • finding a non authoritative audience
  • re-writing the blog experience from personal-public to academic-public
  • bringing in elements to your research that are unexpected (visual elements, links, popular culture)
  • granting yourself the privilege of “infinite” space

The main point of the academic research I did actually wasn’t that granting space allows authority. But that was a main part of the research process. I could go to the library everyday. If someone bothered me I could say I was working—because I was working.

And so while a lot of people use the HHG to thesis, I think it’s important to consider the summer as a different kind of experience even more broadly. It isn’t just that there is more time and room for research it’s also that there’s more time and room for you. I had friends working on papers with professors and those papers might get published and they would get to add that to their resume but they were jealous of my self directed reading.

The blog really helped because:

  • it was a portable flexible accessible research space
  • I could go on tangent, I could still post
  • the form of a blog entry was especially interesting b/c it meant I could easily archive material either in posted or draft form
  •  I could also link the articles together easily
  • I could link sources around on the web  (Virginia Woolf Online for example)

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Speaking to the Audience

When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own)

To go back to a metaphor an old classmate of mine recently used, doing research is a bit like getting on a plane, eventually it lands and you have to disembark. A lucky few have connecting flights but the rest of us take a shuttle bus to our car, or walk to the taxi queue.

But what we’re doing today is talking about how to get on a plane. What you should pack, if you can bring nail clippers, that sort of thing. (I would advise nail clippers.)

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They Do it With Mirrors: Active and Inactive Agency in the Text

I’ve had trouble ending this partially because I enjoyed it but also because almost everything I have learned about research from the beginning to the end urged me to avoid the dichotomies of beginnings and ends, questions and answers. Certainly information can be arranged in this pattern but at times there seems to be much more worth fighting for in a show-and-tell kind of discovery process than one regulated by firm organization.  But there was a beginning.

Ultimately I was started with the premise that space empowers and the question of how it had specifically empowered these two women. And a few days into reading it became obvious that gaining access to physical, textual, intellectual or even social space never ended the problem.  Space grants power but asks a price in return. The publication of a book, even its popular sales, never meant that Wharton was allowed “in” to the boys club. If she was popular she wasn’t intellectual, if she was intellectual men were helping her—and at the end of the critic’s article she was still always a woman. Ultimately it seemed like the mirror, capable of revealing identity, but only one part of it and –once revealed—exacting it’s own price over that.

The connection I made then was with Elizabeth Montgomery’s Displaying Women, that the clothes, the rituals, and the spaces of New York both granted women a new degree of physical and intellectual freedom, and represented the ties that held them back from other liberties. I realized that a room could be the same thing—a liberty and a prison.

Wharton and Woolf’s own awareness of space then becomes centered on manipulation, they are not involved so much with a meditation on the nature of empty rooms, but are involved instead with an extensive project of decoration and ownership. I ended up reading a lot of biography to find out when Virginia Woolf started to purchase her own furniture and how Wharton decided to decorate her house.

Of course there’s a lot to be done with the actual physical rooms. With, for example, Virginia Woolf’s peculiar arrangement in London, splitting a house with a legal firm and enjoying the division of floors so much that when the Woolfs moved to a different part of London they took the law firm with them. There’s the question (wonderfully explored by Judith Fryer) of Edith Wharton’s rooms at the Mount and the fact that all of her spaces were larger than her husband’s.

And there’s the conflict between the figure of the muse and the artist and how one claims space if one has already been defined as an object in someone else’s space. If critics reduce Wharton to a Henry James character then her entire life and work is derivative down to the times she may have paced across the floor or stood at a window. Her writing? even more so. If Virginia Woolf is just part of a long literary tradition she loses her own identity as a writer and remains a daughter.

And I didn’t have time to focus on these aspects, though the blog meant I could moonlight a bit. And neither does it seem profitable to waste time explaining why Wharton and Woolf are worth time and study. The hours I’ve spent reading this summer proves that quite a lot of people agree with me, even if various modern writers, students, and journalists don’t.

I ended up looking closely at two texts: A Sketch of the Past (Woolf) and  Life and I (Wharton) Interestingly I ended up working with two texts that were never really finished, not published  widely until the last 50 years and—while they aren’t fiction—as unfinished texts, what genre do they belong to? Memorabilia? I wondered if their agency more or less powerful because in these two texts it was not exerted beyond the manuscript?  But beyond those questions, both texts were involved with the exorcism of transmuting life to prose. I started out looking for similar tactics but I think this was a mistake since after all they are two different writers.

Woolf practices a kind of evasion so severe in some instances I am tempted to call it a disappearing act and she does it, as they like to say, with mirrors: reflecting her reflection into but not out of the prose. Wharton commits the same kinds of disappearing act most noticeably about her love affair with Morton Fullerton—left out of A Backward Glance just as Woolf leaves out explicit statements about her struggles with mental illness even when A Sketch of the Past focuses so closely on the time of her first major collapse ultimately what both women are doing in these sketches is a presentation of identity/justification of behavior through circumstance.

What Woolf is best at seems to me to be the creation of empty space and this she does through her speculative creations, i.e. Judith Shakespeare all of these characters—the uneducated women of Three Guineas – gather detail, momentum, force and most of all matter drawing the attention away from the speaker even though—as letters and speeches—the author of Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own is presumed present in the text.

            But Woolf negates herself to a premise– she has received the invitations to speak,  she received three letters, and so she speaks, she answers letters. It is her fictional and historical characters that take on the flesh the blood –and the causes.

            All this is very understandable until we reach her memoir A Sketch of the Past.  Memoir has very clear associations with its writer. The author admits her presence, her ordering of events, there is a great deal of power to be gained through telling a story, it could even be a case of exorcism, as Woolf knew from To the Lighthouse. In many ways Wharton’s brief but fiery text of “Life &I” is useful in the fact that Wharton’s rebellious child’s voice, her descriptions of her body and thoughts, are so much more on the surface than Woolf’s.

            I would hesitate to dismiss similarities they both locate a kind a sensitivity to vision and words, to the mystical, the poetic, the drug like lure of books and reading that I think represents the subtle assertion that they have been called to Parnassus.

The question remains after all how best to leave the subtle message/imprinting n the text ‘I am the author” when you’re a woman. Simply writing the book, signing your name, is not enough.  Once the text is published the authority is constantly under siege.

It rather seems that for Woolf and Wharton the trick was to attempt to not exist exactly as one appeared, to take advantage and control of the performance—just as Montgomery suggests a woman was capable of doing with the complex social code in new York. . Both in the text and as social entities, the creation of owned private space in the home and empty/mirror space in the text, allows them a greater certainty though still their authority will be questioned.

It is not a “success” it is a manipulation. And so while the action may result in successful outcomes, they do not “win” they do not sweep the board. It is not an answer to the problem of women’s authority as authors and subjects and objects. But it was, and is, an example worth study.

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Your Own Room

People are always surprised to find out that I played with Barbie dolls growing up.

I had a very certain kind of upbringing, the kind that results from  a lot of late Victorian Literature and The Baltimore Catechism. A lot of my friends met me in college and based off their reading of my current position they cast backwards and assemble something that doesn’t quite match up with the truth. My mother encouraged reading but she also encouraged play. The real surprise about the Barbie dolls to me has always been that we played with them even though they were such damaging icons against women. My mother went to a women’s college. She was in the ROTC. She worked with groups who tried to get women into the priesthood. She cared about women and she loved her college.

So I grew up knowing that such places existed and that if I was very good one day I might be able to  go to one. As much as my eventual path to Bryn Mawr came from my mother’s love of strong female characters –see my post on Scarlett O’Hara– I was raised in a family where women’s colleges were considered natural, wonderful things.  And while she wasn’t very encouraging about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton that I can rememeber, the novels of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen were displayed prominately throughout our house. And she wasn’t afraid of hiding things from me if she thought they would affect my view of women. She wrote feminine pronouns into Dr. Suess.  She taped together the pages of books when she felt that women had given into sex and lost power. She restricted our television hours to one hour a day if we behaved and she chose the program which was usually, for better or worse, Dr. Quinn Medicine Women. We went to museums. We looked at Mary Cassat paintings. We heard about Queen Elizabeth I.

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Going back again

This morning I called my mother and asked her if she could find my copy of Second Sex. Since my mother had specificly assured me, as I stood over a giant pile of books in my room trying to pack to go back to school, that she could send me anything I needed, this phone call wasn’t exactly a difficult one. Except of course, I have no idea which book shelf this book is on.

To clarify matters my room at home has I think six book cases that I have either inherited from my sisters or that my father has constructed in the basement in an attempt to support my unfortunate habit. It could be worse, they tell themselves, their daughters could be collecting beanie babies.

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How to Own your House (in the 1890s)

As shown in previous entries,  Woolf’s Three Guineas suggests cultivation of a places for education away from the home. Wharton’s perspective, on the interior of the private home, is not as far away from this position as may be supposed. Ultimately, she also argues that aesthetic education comes from a cultured environment and encourages it. Still, to unnecessarily simplify their two perspectives into one just to avoid the mistake of assuming they are disparate, over looks a great deal of Wharton’s individual perspective. Because so much work has gone into escaping the private home and invading the public world, the intensity of Wharton’s focus on interior spaces seems backward and conservative. Ultimately Wharton reads and writes interior spaces in a manner not liberating so much as illuminating—the very awareness I believe Three Guineas calls for.

To begin with, interiors are overtly important in The Age of Innocence. The procession through Beaufort’s different rooms to get to the ballroom, Ellen’s social faux-pas of crossing a room to sit with Newland—all this alerts us but even earlier, from the beginning of the novel, which opens:  “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at The Academy of Music in New York.” not the new opera house, but the old one, the small, exclusive Academy of Music.  The Metropolitan Opera House did not open until 1883 and when it did, it brought more people into the exclusive setting of New York’s elite. A man’s mistress and his wife could now attend the same opera the very same night with little difficulty. With more space created, restriction became more difficult and more necessary. Society defines social space and custom through exclusion. The New York 400 were especially adept at coming up with ways to restrict the wealthy women of their time in an effort to conserve their elite group.

Engraving of the Academy of Music 1866

From the 1860s onward women may have socially moved into the public world more and more, at the opera, at restaurants like Delmonico’s, but this was an acknowledged risk. The movement between private and public spaces did allow women to become more powerful. It gave them new dominion, but the tension of public-private remained. As Wharton remembers, “The New York mothers of that day usually gave a series of “coming-out” entertainments for debutante daughters, leading off with a huge tea and an expensive ball. My mother thought this was absurd. She said her daughter could meet all the people she needed to know without being advertised by a general entertainment” (BG, 77) The key words to understanding the conflict I think are “general” and “advertised”. Society required leaving the private house but Wharton’s mother wished her daughter to go from private house to private house, as proper women did. To be paraded in public spaces was to enter into a “general” world, the whole point of being Lucretia Jones was that that other world did not really exist. For what else was all the effort but to conserve and construct society? Society loses all its power, indeed its very definition, when it becomes popular. If the Joneses hadn’t known the social set they might have had to, like Wharton’s characters, scrounge for invitations. But they knew people with private ballrooms they didn’t have to exert themselves to significant spectacle and considered such exhibitions crass.

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The Voyage Out?

Taking the position that I have in the past, that one of the best ways to think about the masculine forces of society is to think of them as Alpha-type heroes in romance novels, or teen-age vampires in popular YA Science Fiction, I have to raise the question, what does it mean in this kind of world to write a book on interior design? Is Wharton just giving in, helping women take more and more subservient roles under their Victorian patriarchs. It’s not so simple. The Decoration of Houses might not be as obviously campaigning for women’s education–and Edith Wharton certainly wouldn’t have applauded the printing of Three Guineas —but in the end both authors suggest education.

While Edith Wharton wrote The Decoration of Houses with Ogden Codman Jr. as a manual for design and an argument against Victorian design principles I would argue that it does a great deal to show how Wharton thought women could control their environment and establish influence. While not as radical or resolute as Woolf’s Three Guineas Wharton was concerned with the question of women in public space, if only because her social situation meant she had to be.

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