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...

By “A Lady”:  The Uses of Jane Austen’s Pristine Reputation

To start with, Jane Austen holds a coveted place in the literary canon. Her position has a lot to do with her talent but also connect to how women have been approached and positioned as authors. After all women are cast into very specific roles when they become authors and not only is Jane Austen one of the most talented writers ever to manipulate the English language she is also perceived as one of the “safest”. Her novels move under the polite veneer of drawing room etiquette. Austen’s characters rebel, but they march down the church aisle all the same. This makes her literature well written and no as immediately terrifying as Wuthering Heights (which S. Gilbert aptly called “Emily Bronte’s Bible of Hell.”) Austen’s books are considered “literature” and she has generations of admiration to bolster up her reputation. Her fans include Ezra Pound, who in 1938 advised:

kick out every sentence that isn’t as Jane Austen would have written it in prose. Which is, I admit, impossible.”

Edmund Wilson:

There have been several revolutions of taste during the last century and a quarter of English literature, and through them all perhaps only two reputations have never been affected by the shifts of fashion: Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s.”

and Chief Justice Marshall, who– in perhaps one of my favorite literary recommendations of all time– chided Justice Joseph Story saying:

I was a little mortified to find you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites.

It is frequently reported that Marshall always kept a copy of Persuasion in his desk.

It’s rather clear then that generations of readers have been left with the idea of an old spinster writing safely in a drawing room, dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent and serving tea to her brother. More than that though they consider her a Writer. Like Joyce and Dickens are Writers. And because she has the reputation of the polite, benign, social, sweet woman with an art for romance and propriety, Austen can be a powerful force in marketing without endorsing a feminist or really even feminine agenda. Search Jane Austen on Amazon and you’ll find not only her novels, biographies, letters, but also bewildering texts like Jane Austen Guide to Dating, In the Garden with Jane Austen and The Jane Austen Cookbook. I am half tempted to give up my current research and see if I could market a Hunting and Fishing with Jane Austen or perhaps How to De-clutter a Closet with Jane Austen. Austen’s power as a woman mean she appeals to a whole new market, has sway over it. Her distinction as a writer gives further cache and the gender politics of literature mean she has few well supported competitors.

It’s this that enables—in fact encourages—authors like Deresiewicz to sell their books with Jane Austen’s image even though equally compelling life lessons have probably been culled from the pages of War and Peace, 1984 or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I don’t doubt the authenticity of Deresiewicz’s experience, but I think that admitting the level of marketing is important. Especially because it is exactly this quality, Austen’s privileged and perilous membership to the boy’s club of literature that reveals the unease with which women are granted the cache of authorial prestige. So whenever Austen is brought up, in an argument or to sell a book, there is more at work than the marketing of literature and romance. She gets pulled out at very telling situations.

Master of the House: V.S. Naipaul’s statements at the Royal Geographic Society 

One such situation occurred about two weeks ago when Booker Prize Winner and Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul was asked if he thought any women were his literary equal and he said no, he was asked about Jane Austen.  Naipaul stuck to his guns declaring he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” A lot of reporters and bloggers have reacted to this “interview”. (It seems to have been more of a retrospective conversation with the Royal Geographic Society, some kind of event more than a formal interview.)

It’s a poor question to ask in the first place. I’m not sure, for example, if Anthony Trollope has a literary equal but that hardly means I think he’s one of the greatest writers. What anyone is doing asking that kind of question in the first place is completely unclear to me but their selection of Jane Austen seemed quite pointed. Why Jane?

Because, as we have established, she has a reputation. Because even if women do write “sentimental tosh”, to quote Naipaul, even if they can’t help it, surely, anyone can agree that Jane Austen could write well?  Even in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out though the men recommends Gibbon and Edmund Burke to Woolf’s young heroine and her Uncle asks, “What’s the use of reading if you don’t read Greek?”, even in this world Richard Dalloway still recommends Persuasion to Rachel. It’s his favorite book he says. Yet in one of Woolf’s sharpest moments of character, he cannot stay awake when his wife reads it to him. Still it’s Austen! As revealing as Woolf’s writing is about her characters, here she clearly reveals something about English Literature. Mr. Dalloway, English politician, member of parliament, part of the british system of diplomacy and imperialism– approves of Jane Austen. Then,  surely everyone does?

What this illuminates is that in instances like the conversation with the Royal Geographic Society,  Austen isn’t really chosen because of universal admiration and respect. She has that yes but  Naipaul is not her first critic. Neither is he the first male writer to claim that women can’t write anything. I’m not sure who that would be but I think Normal Mailer gets points for effort. Austen’s selection for the follow-up question was based on her talent, her prominent standing as an economic and aesthetic success, her national and international success but also– again– her safety. She did not drown herself. There are no proven torrid love affairs. Her rebellions were quiet or hushed up. Her brother dealt with her publishing and she didn’t, unlike Mrs. Radcliffe, begin publishing under her own name. She appears immaculate.

She then appears to be the perfect foil for Mr. Naipaul’s skepticism.

Evacuating the Canon: Women and Children First?

And the cloud that briefly overtook the internet certainly speaks to the strength of her reputation. I’m not 100% surprised that the literary implications of this argument have gone largely ignored in the articles. It is much more interesting to see V.S. Naipaul attacking Austen than to admit that he probably would have said the same thing about most writers–even the men. Maybe even Tolstoy?

Yet I would not agree, with some bloggers, that Naipaul’s argument is simply hot air and has no real potential for damage.  Austen’s reputation is safe from Naipaul’s attacks.  I’m relatively certain she’s sold more books than he has and she has the advantage of a safe legacy in literature (if there is such a thing.) But her selection says much about how frightened and unsure we are of our literary giants. It says much more about the people who ask these questions than about the man who answers them.

Part of the reason I think that reactions like this are possible is because students of literature and people in general tend to hold onto two or three female novelists (Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen) at the expense of other writers (Emily Bronte, Nancy Mitford, Frances Burney, Georgette Heyer, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Hilary Mantel, Djuana Barnes, Joan Didion, Amy Hempel…) In a similar way we may hold onto Dickens, Henry James, James Joyce, Tolstoy, and Marquez at the loss of writers like Dashiell Hammet, Borges, Turgenev, Stendhal, C.S. Lewis (despite the popularity of The Chronicles of Narnia I doubt many people read Till We Have Faces) or Chekov. Yet all these writers are still much further ahead than George Eliot because even if they are consigned to the margins of some reading lists, they are still present as “writers” not “women-writers.” As I think this post shows (in multiple places) making lists is about as useless as making broad comparisons. Yet that’s exactly what happens when we attempt to define Literature.

What it reveals is the unfortunate relevance and permance of the glass ceiling, the double standard. the fears of a “woman novelist” some horrible kind of monster, someone who writes (like the Ms. Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) three volume novels and worse, someone who reads them. Henry James “women, with their free use of leisure, were the chief consumers of novels and therefore were increasingly becoming producers of them.” Comments like this were not meant as complements. Anxiety over publication and authorship bled into gender and class anxiety. Henry James’ concerns over women reading novels and writing them is uniquely connected to his own publications, his lack of popular success in comparison to Edith Wharton’s popular bestsellers. And she was hardly the only successful female novelist of his time. He humorously nicknamed her “Angel of Devastation”, but there’s fear and unease there.

No one could call Jane Austen an Angel of Devastation, the biographical and literary material isn’t there. But she can be called an “old maid” or an “old aunt.” And so, marginalized, she is safe. At the heart of this entire issue what hasn’t been examined is the force of culture to pick one good woman or even a few good women who are admitted to be just as good as the men. This at once articulated the anxiety of successful authorship—the fear that there is only so much room for authors of any era and only so much room in “literature” for authors of all eras—and reveals the way that women were warned to make themselves scarce and keep to the edges.  Gilbert and Gubar’s three volume No Man’s Land makes this point, and expand well on it, perhaps best in the first volume where they quote Swinburne’s praises of the Brontes. Yet where he praises the Brontes he scorns George Eliot. Warning the Brontes that while they might survive along with the masters, they do so at the failure of another woman. This makes it a competitive, tight enviroment where women first fight one another, and then the victor is either allowed into the inner circle–to fight, or sit sweetly with laurels.

If only the little backstabbings and trippings were the worst difficulty that women face writing. They are shown to the door first, if they are even let into the room. And this is where Naipaul and I, surprisingly, agree. (for about two seconds) Naipaul expanded on what he felt was inferior in women’s writing by saying that  “she [the female novelist] is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Then it’s what his remarks reveal, and what they will allow that is of interest. The entire premise reveals a lot about Jane Austen and the scene of literature. Moreover, the claim that women who aren’t masters of their houses have trouble writing is actually one I would support, thus far in my research, but the implication that they never overcome this is about as troubling as Naipaul’s use of the term “Master.” Though many female authors lived –and live still–in worlds that dominate and limit them because of their gender, their ability to overcome these restrictions and write has usually been trumpeted as a display of their powers, their true talents. That they still lived in limited or narrow spaces is true, but there was art there for the making. And women made it.

When Virginia Woolf moved out of her father’s house after his death she would remark that the blue china, the oak cabinets, all gleamed in the street. Everything looked different once she and  her sister Vanessa were allowed to decorate their rooms as they liked. And Virginia Woolf’s exploration of modern aesthetic principles in painting and the visual arts was closely connected to her examination of her craft. She wrote often to Vanessa about how painting and writing might be similar.  Furthermore,  Emily Orlando reveals the multiple levels of interaction Edith Wharton had with the imagery and poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Wharton’s reaction to the consumptive Ophealia’s and Beatrice’s is quite comparable to Woolf’s reaction to Victorian gloom and décor of her father’s house. Wharton and Woolf reflect back on their Victorian gloom in different ways. Wharton attacks the poor artistic sensibilities of her parents and social set quite effectively in The Decoration of Houses, French Ways and Their Meanings and very pointedly through her characters in The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence and Custom of the Country. Woolf responds beautifully to the Victorian tradition of women in her “Professions for Women” where she declares that novelists must murder the Angel in the House.  An especially effective argument for Woolf, since her mother was not only a Pre-Raphaelite model, but published articles on how to best care for the sick. Woolf lived her life, as Wharton did, in full knowledge of these models and expectations. And they were, as Naipaul’s statement suggests, fully bound to the houses they lived in.

But just because these boundaries exist doesn’t mean women must entirely fall prey to them. If the political mastery of Augustus has dominated Vergil there would be no Aeneaid. If Victorian sensibilities had prevailed, what of Bleak House or Ulysses? Having followed the Naipaul articles through their various points of anger, annoyance and grief, I have finally come to a kind of regret. Regret that his statements seem to so ignore the only interesting part of the debate. Yes, women lived in houses that they did not own. And even though a woman may hold her own house now, she still faces perceptions and challenges when asserting her own identity. Yet there is a who history of circumvention that begind far before Jane Austen, one that probably even pre-dates Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. Women are not supposed to be authors, agents–and yet, they are.

Naipaul revealed and brought a central point to my argument, to the forefront of twitter for about five minutes. I should probably thank him. Maybe I’ll take up a collection and send him the complete works of Ayn Rand.

This entry was posted in Links!, Pop-culture/Historical, Reflection, Theory, Uncategorized, Wharton, Woolf. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Few Good Women

  1. magnificent publish, very informative. I ponder why the opposite
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