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...
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.)
…could you explain what you did this summer? Continue reading
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.
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.