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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 11 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 13 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 23 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’

January 12, 2013 32 comments

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy 1873 French title: Les yeux bleus.

Although I haven’t read a Thomas Hardy for a while, I’m still in my project of reading all his books chronologically. So, after Under the Greenwood Tree came A Pair of Blue Eyes. What a delight!

Hardy_Yeux_BleusElfride Swancourt is the daughter of a vicar who lives in a remote village in Wessex (of course). Her father wants to have the church renovated and hires a London architect to come and have a look at the place and propose renovation plans. When Stephen Smith, sent by the said London architect arrives at the vicarage, the vicar is stuck in bed by gout and Elfride has to welcome the visitor on her own. Stephen is rapidly smitten by her pair of blue eyes, her easy manners and they quickly fall in love. Stephen is nice and a bit mysterious, which kindles Elfride’s imagination. He behaves strangely and has curious manners sometimes. He’s educated but pronounces Latin wrong. He seems to be a gentleman but can’t ride a horse. Elfride’s father encourages their time alone and enjoys the young man’s company very much but when he discovers that Stephen is actually the son of a working man from the nearby domain, he doesn’t want him to marry his daughter or to accept him as his acquaintance. Stephen and Elfride try to elope but she refuses to marry him secretly. Stephen leaves England to take a position in India in the hope to come back wealthy and marry her with her father’s consent.

Meanwhile, Mr Swancourt has secretly courted his neighbor, a widowed rich lady. He goes on a trip and comes back married to her. Elfride’s life changes, moving to a nicer house and staying in London during the season. It’s precisely there that Mrs Swancourt gets reacquainted with her cousin Mr Knight. He’s invited to stay some time with them in the country. When he eventually comes, he becomes close to Elfride, enjoying her conversation. Mr Knight is a bachelor who doesn’t intend to get married. He’s the contrary to the Austenian assertion that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. He’s not flirtatious but Elfride wins him over with her quiet beauty and her personality. He enjoys teaching her things and challenging her. He falls for her in spite of him. (The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love., that’s as nicely put as a Flaubert sentence). She’s in awe with him and falls for his personality. Stephen Smith can’t measure up with Mr Knight.

How will she sort this out and who will have her in the end?

As always with Hardy, the plot description may seem nice and proper, 19th century equivalent of chick lit. Sorry if that blunt comment shocks the purists. And as always, it’s deceptively simple and romantic. While I was reading, I started noticing that roles were somehow reversed: Elfride behaved like a man and Mr Knight and Stephen had women’s traits. Let me explain this curious thought but beware that there will be spoilers after this part. Here’s Elfride explaining Stephen why she loves him:

I know, I think, what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.

What? Stephen is nice-looking, docile and gentle. As he notices himself, these are more qualities sought for in a woman, aren’t they? And there’s this incredible scene where Elfride saves Mr Knight’s life in quite a manly manner, a scene that seemed the exact opposite of the one where Willoughby helps Marianne. Knight is suspended in a very dangerous way to a cliff and she makes a rope with her clothes to pull him up. How ironic that a character named Knight (like the best man character in Emma by Jane Austen, btw) is saved from a horrible death by a young girl. So the Knight in distress is saved by a damsel in shining amour. Interesting. Even more interesting is the following paragraph:

On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her.

Hmm. Now the man is more delicate than the girl. Hardy doesn’t push as far as putting Knight to bed with a fever or a headache but still, the girl’s resistance is stronger. Elfride keeps her head and wants to be loved for her mind and not for her nice looks. She’s realistic in her love for Stephen:

Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’

It’s like A Pair of Blue Eyes is a negative from an Austen novel. Stephen doesn’t forget her during his stay in India and his love is unshakable. Usually, you would have a poor girl pining at home for a man who doesn’t remember her. Mr Knight is jealous of the other men who courted her. He would like her to be untouched territory, as he is himself. He behaves like a virgin; he has never sought the company of women before. He’s the innocent person in their couple while Elfride appears to be the more experienced. Quite a change of scenery from other books. We’re far from men corrupting innocent women; Elfride is the one with a secret that backfires on her.

In addition to characters that don’t seem extraordinary at first sight but are if you think of them twice, Hardy excels in describing his beloved Wessex, like here, on a grey morning:

It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar, and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown; the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect, the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come.

The book is full of lovely descriptions of the countryside and the seaside. Peasants speak patois and I had sometimes a hard time understanding them but I’m getting used to it. I noticed that ladies and gentlemen use French words when they speak (“honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind” or “‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’”). In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos explains that at the time, speaking French was the trademark of a good education. Translators always left French words in their English translations from the French because they knew that either their readers would know enough of French to understand them or they would be flattered to read a bit of French and attach themselves to the life style of the upper classes. Hardy’s style gives life to social differences and aspirations through accents and the choice of the words he puts in the characters’ mouths. Clever and realistic. Comments about the English society escape from his pen, taking the novel as an opportunity to write down the changes he catches in his environment:

‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen” nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘”Ladies and MEN” always.’

Or:

‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs. Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father. The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’

It seems that the middle class was climbing the social ladder, mimicking the language and manners of the upper class. Necessity led the aristocracy to trade titles against money (women must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father) and the aristocracy tries to abandon old ways to the middle class and find new standards to differentiate from common people. Hardy is a keen observer of the world he lives in and uses it as raw material for his literature with a cheeky angle. I love that, it’s both enlightening and entertaining.

As I said before, this novel sounds like a simple romance but there’s a lot more to it than an easy read, although it is also that. Next step: Far From the Madding Crowd.

PS: I chose the French cover for this post but I read the book in English. I like the English covers less than the French one. I didn’t see Elfride in those.

Hardy_Blue_2Hardy_Blue_1Hardy_Blue_3

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

September 4, 2011 22 comments

Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. by Peggy Orenstein. 2011

What do you think of this picture? It was taken in a souvenir shop in Paris. Shocking, isn’t it? This explains why I had to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein when I first heard about it on Caroline’s blog. The mother of a 10 year old girl and a 7 year old boy had to read it. Peggy Orenstein admits that she hoped to have a son because she didn’t know exactly how to put into practice the feminist approach of education she preaches. I liked her honesty and the general tone of the book, half-memoir, half-research. I agreed with almost all her views on what she wants for her daughter and how she wants to raise her. She started this book when her daughter Daisy was confronted to mass marketing for the first time. Her aim is to decipher the codes imposed on us when we raise a girl. She points out very well the impact of marketing, the tendency to gender division and the general ground swell that being a woman is being pretty, a shopping addict and a chatbox. I’m not going to repeat what Caroline has already summed up in her review. (As an aside, she published today my answers to her questions about this book.) I’m just going to comment it and share my thoughts. It’s only my experience and my opinion and it isn’t backed up by researches.

Orenstein’s first shock was when Daisy started pre-school and got interested in Disney Princesses. “Is that harmful?” she wonders. After all, they teach to little girls that their goal in life is to be pretty and rescued by a handsome and brave prince. And they’re everywhere. In Europe too. I paused to think about Disney Princesses in our family. My daughter has a towel, a plastic glass, a drawing notebook. She had a princess dress but not a Disney one. She loved her plastic heel shoes that make noise when you walk, like Mom’s shoes. But she never really identified with the princesses. We don’t have those Disney DVDs and as pre-schoolers, my children liked other cartoons. My son was more hooked by Lightening McQueen than she was by Disney Princesses. And that was perfect for me. As a feminist, I view Cinderella and Snow White as pretty housewives waiting patiently for a prince to rescue them. Not really the kind of active women who take their destinies in their hands I’d like my girl to become.

Is it worse than when we were children? Peggy Orenstein thinks it is. I’m not so sure. The media has changed but the message is the same. We were fed by the same stories, only they were in books. We also learnt that what you need most as a girl is to be pretty and gentle and that your best achievement is to catch a prince. And there was no Dora the Explorer. What has changed is mass marketing and the loss of decency and good sense. I was astonished by casual sentences like this:

“Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with Two Mommies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown.”

Or

“About two-thirds of the audience at our local multiplex had been African American—parents with little girls decked out in gowns and tiaras—which was undeniably striking, even moving.”

When did costumes become regular outfits? In France, people will stare if your child is dressed as Cinderella, unless it’s Carnival. Don’t even think to bring your daughter to school in such attire. These clothes are not dresses, they are costumes. Children are smart. They make a difference between games and real world but if princess costumes become everyday clothes, it’s normal that they start thinking they are actual princesses. You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure it out. So you can say whatever you want about aggressive marketing, the Marketing VP of Disney is not the one who dresses your daughter in the morning, right? Just say No.

Then there’s the chapter on pink and how marketing imposes pink a THE girls’ colour. Incidentally, when I started reading the chapter about pink that I was wearing a fuchsia miniskirt with pink sandals. Am I a victim too? Pink is everywhere for little girls and it’s difficult to find cheap clothes that aren’t pink. Orenstein explains very well how splitting genders make families buy twice the same toy, once for their girl and once for their son. My daughter had her pink period but it’s over now.

I was appalled by the passage in the toy store in Manhattan, when Orenstein’s friend ends up spending more than $200 on toys. Again, the problem is not marketers, they’re doing their job. The problem is parents who can’t say no. In our family, children get toys for their birthdays and Christmas. In the meanwhile, they get books and small gifts on holiday. That’s it. If they ask for toys in a store, the answer is no. Always No. Even if they throw a tantrum and everybody looks at me like I’m Snow White’s wicked stepmother. Who said being a parent was always fun and nice? We have to hold our ground. We adults decide and frustration is part of growing up, part of life, actually.

Now about make up. I was surprised to read that “Close to half of six- to nine-year-old girls regularly use lipstick or gloss, presumably with parental approval; the percentage of eight- to twelve-year-olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 18 and 15 percent, respectively.” Call me old-fashioned, but for me, make up isn’t until at least 13 and the question “Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool?” doesn’t require more than a 10 seconds thought. No is the answer. In France, girls don’t go to school with make up before Collège (Junior High)

How about this one: “So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy” In my experience, cooking a chocolate birthday cake with Mom and eat it with friends at her birthday party is what makes a six-year-old happy. Spa birthday parties are for teenagers at least and they’re toxic because they comfort girls in the idea that to be happy or feel good you have to do something for your body and because they promote non-mixed parties, as you can’t invite boys.

All these tendencies have strong consequences. First, “Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”. And I think she’s right and this is a pity. I regretted that the author didn’t question more our consumer society. Everything is based on buying things. Becoming a woman is learning how to consume what marketing has decided to be woman-oriented goods and services. For me and Peggy Orenstein, raising a girl isn’t teaching her how to choose nail-polish. Second, it puts girls in ghettos and separates them from boys. She describes gender segregation in classes and there’s even a survey to try to develop mixed playing in school. In my experience, the segregation is not as strong here. Take birthdays. We’ve always had boys and girls at birthday parties. My daughter has boy-friends (in the sense of friends that are boys) and my son has girl-friends. I asked to other parents and we have the same experience. Things have also improved. My daughter plays football with boys in school. When I told her that when I was a girl, boys wouldn’t let girls play football with them she replied “They let me play because I’m good at it”. Sweet melody.

The following passage also struck me:

Hormones, genes, and chromosomes, then, aren’t quite as powerful as we tend to believe. And that has implications for how we raise and educate our children. “If you believe it’s all immutable, then what is the harm in plunking girls in a pink ghetto or letting boys get by without doing art or singing or all the things they used to like to do before they got associated with girls?”

For me, this is very American and I’m glad that Orenstein stands against it. From my French window and from books and films – how much they reflect reality is another debate – genders are more differentiated in America than in France. And there’s a deep tendency in America to believe in fate and genes are just a scientific name for fate. The difference between XX and XY is what defines female and male behaviours. Here, we tend to think it’s cultural. Of course men and women experience sex differently because their bodies are different but the way we raise children is what matters. I don’t believe that a girl is programmed to like pink, to chat, have mother instinct and other clichés about being female.

About growing up faster.

We have the impression that nowadays children grow up faster but I’m not so sure. I think we know better what they have in mind because they have a wider freedom of speech. True, they are exposed earlier to things like sex and sometimes school programs enforce the early knowledge. My daughter learnt everything about human reproduction in school. I didn’t have time to explain what periods are, the teacher beat me, he explained everything in class. (She’s 10, remember?) But do they understand it better than we would have at their age? Orenstein also notices:

As it is, girls are going through puberty progressively earlier. The age of onset of menstruation has dropped from seventeen at the beginning of the twentieth century to barely twelve today; pediatricians no longer consider it exceptional for an eight-year-old to develop breasts.

An acquaintance who lives in America told me that American paediatricians recommend giving organic milk to children to avoid the hormone doped regular milk. Early puberties can stem from too much of that milk and since American kids drink milk like ours drink water…

When I reached the chapter on social networks and on line BFFs, I was in an area I haven’t experienced so far. But I admit it worries me. I don’t know yet how we’ll handle that aspect of their adolescence and I agree with Peggy Orenstein when she states:

Gossip and nasty notes may be painful staples of middle school and high school girls’ lives, but YouTube, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and voice mail can raise cruelty to exponential heights. Rumors can spread faster and further and, as the case of Phoebe Prince illustrates, there is nowhere to escape their reach—not your bedroom, not the dinner table, not while going out with your friends. The anonymity of the screen may also embolden bullies: the natural inhibitions one might feel face-to-face, along with any sense of accountability, fall away. It is easy, especially among young people, for behavior to spin out of control. Further, this risks exposing them to consequences they did not—or could not—anticipate.

That’s the cause of my worry. But let’s take one step after the other, right?

I thought Peggy Orenstein’s experience with looking for positive girl models in books and films fascinating. I never tried to look for them. Instead, I pay attention to buy neutral magazines and books. She isn’t satisfied by the experience either. The girls are strong and active but a little too active. They don’t need boys or men. They do everything on their own. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wants for her daughter.

I may want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma. I do not want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, a fish who loves and respects her and also does the dishes, his share of the laundry, and half the child care.

That’s exactly what I want for my daughter too and I hope she has a good example at home.  

All in all, I think there are two different bad influences on our daughters’ development: the ones you can control and the others. I thought Orenstein talks too much about the ones you can, not avoid, but control: Disney Princesses, beauty pageant, make-up and sexualisation, Hannah Montana. As a parent, you have the power to say No. Plus, you are aware of these influences and you tend to think them through. As least I do. When my daughter receives a silly magazine named Julie which is a ten-year-old version of women magazines, I’m alerted and I talk about it with her. I’m not so preoccupied by those. It takes times and explanations. Yes, it’s not easy in everyday life and I don’t always spend as much time as I should talking to her. But then, do I want her to fear that every time she asks a question or talks to me, she’ll have a lecture?

I’m more concerned by the insidious representations of women that I don’t notice any more or those I can’t fight against. The T-shirts on the picture. Advertisements where half naked women seem always necessary to sell anything. The images in books in which the parent who cooks is always the mother. In cartoons and children albums, mothers wear dresses and are stay-at-home mummies. Fathers don’t wear pink shirts, work and don’t do housework. The neurologist Orenstein interviews explains that all these permanent images influence the way the connections are made in the brain in the same way that hearing French all the time makes of you a French native speaker who will never pronounce “th” like English-speaking people do. That worries me. A lot.

After reading this book, I’m decided to pay even more attention. It’s difficult to avoid constant lectures and not let it go at the same time. I didn’t succeed in explaining why I didn’t want her to subscribe to that Julie magazine. I don’t know what kind of adult she’ll be. I’m happy that she finds Hannah Montana uninteresting but I have to say no every day to gloss or nail-polish. Sometimes I think that my son has more pressure about what it is to be a boy. I’m also afraid that men are becoming as objectified as women, as the following picture shows:

It’s an advertisement and I took that picture in a grocery store. Men, fight against this!

The Learned Ladies by Molière

April 27, 2011 17 comments

Les Femmes savantes by Molière (The Learned Ladies). 1672.  

Recently, I’ve watched The Learned Ladies for the first time. As often with Molière, it was a thought-provoking comedy. In the 17th C imagery, the “Learned Lady” is the female of the Pedant.

In that play, the main family is composed of two parents and two grown-up and single daughters. The mother, Philaminte and the elder daughter, Armande are the learned ladies. They’re under the spell of a ridiculous pedant named Trissotin. He acts like a guru; they think he hung the moon and swoon over every single verse he writes. The father, Chrysale and the younger daughter, Henriette have more matter-of-fact concerns, are far from well-read and totally accept it. In between stands Clitandre, once infatuated with Armande and now in love with Henriette. The plot is centred on Clitandre and Henriette who want to get married and need to obtain her parent’s consent. Chrysale agrees with the project while Philaminte would rather marry Henriette to Trissotin.  

Several themes are quite modern in this play. In the opening scene, Armande and Henriette argue about marriage. Armande can’t understand why her sister rejoices in marrying Clitandre. She thinks she should have higher goals than taking care of a family and run a household. She preaches an interest in philosophy, that Henriette should study to improve her mind. But Henriette is perfectly satisfied with the fate of a housewife.  

Chrysale is the model for the bourgeois vision of life when Philaminte would be more the spoke-person of the Parisian literary salons. The play reflects the discussion of the time, the bourgeois being despised and the salons praised. (The spectators of Molière’s plays did come from the court and he was their protégé.)

Marriage was abundantly discussed in salons: was it an honest or a degrading situation? The question was also debated in the famous novels by Mlle de Scudéry. Philaminte and Armande want to promote a mind-over-matter attitude. Love must be ethereal, without physical contact and the mind must overcome instincts and natural desires. Armande lost Clitandre on the Map of Tenderness because she fancied a cerebral love. He gave up on her. However, she can’t help being jealous when she realizes that her former lover eventually fell in love with her down-to-earth baby sister. Molière seems to remind us that it’s not easy to shut out feelings, perceptions and act rationally all the time. I also saw in this attitude a disguised critic of Cartesianism. On the contrary, Henriette is happy with every day life routine and she doesn’t want to ignore the needs of her body. As she points out, Armande should be happy that their mother followed her desires at least twice or they wouldn’t be here to talk about it. She also states that someone needs to give birth to the future scientists and philosophers.  

The other great issue is the education of young girls. In the foreword, we are reminded that in 1672, a girl would be hardly taught how to read and would receive a religious education. Things were changing in the 17th C as scholars began to write in French instead of Latin. Their work became accessible to women who wanted to study and in fashionable salons, women became more educated. Molière mocks the Learned Ladies, not because he thinks women shouldn’t be educated but because their excesses make them ridiculous. He mocks their blindness, the way they worship Trissotin. It could be sexist but I didn’t think it was since he also makes fun of Trissotin himself. Clitandre is the most sensible character who manfully holds the middle ground: flesh and mind should live in harmony; temperance in everything is the key; learned women are respectable and even desirable. He only criticizes pedantry. Trissotin represents the old school of thought: he refers to Ancient philosophers like Aristotle; Clitandre represents modernity.

Another theme is followed all along the play: the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. Chrysale argues that the man should command but he’s not the master in his own house. Philaminte wears the trousers and he’s afraid of her. His challenge will be to gain power to impose Clitandre as his choice of a husband for Henriette. There are enjoyable scenes during which he tries to re-gain the lost ground and face his wife. He needs a lot of encouragements from his brother and his daughter to do it. 

In the foreword and afterword of my edition, it is explained that the condition of women was abundantly discussed in the 17th C. The ideas that women were doomed to ignorance and servitude, that marriage wasn’t always fair, that the education of young girls needed to be improved started to stem from these discussions. The roots of feminism were born in that century and will be developed in the 18thC.  

The Learned Ladies is a play in “alexandrins” which are to classic French theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. I hardly noticed them when I watched the play. It is full of comical devices which are Molière’s trademark. It’s funny, witty, thought-provoking. The questions regarding the position of women in the society, their access to education and the opposition between motherhood and work still exist nowadays. This play talked to me as a woman, despite the time distance. Obviously, in our Western world, the situation of women has improved immensely since the 1970s. However, in some countries, women still have to choose between their job and motherhood. And there’s a lot to do in developing countries to promote equality.

London Caller

February 20, 2011 16 comments

Promenades dans Londres, by Flora Tristan. (122 pages)

Flora Tristan (1803-1844) was a French activist. She was a feminist and a socialist. Her life was a novel in itself. She is the daughter of a Peruvian officer and a French woman. When her father died, her mother wasn’t able to prove that they were legally married. As a consequence, Flora Tristan became an illegitimate child and could claim no inheritance from her father’s fortune. She married young, in 1821. Her marriage was a failure as her husband, André Chazal, was a violent man (1). In 1839, he was condemned to 20 years of hard labour, after he tried to shoot her. They had three children, the youngest one, Aline, will be Paul Gauguin’s grand-mother.

Flora Tristan got involved with people defending the cause of workers and women and was against slavery. She travelled a great deal, considering her time. She travelled to South America, to meet her father’s family and claim some financial support and to Great-Britain, several times. She travelled all over France to spread her ideas. She was restless and eventually died of exhaustion in 1844. Nowadays, we would call it a burn out.

In 1839, she was in London again and wrote chronicles about her trip. This edition of Promenades in London is a selection of these chronicles. England was ahead of other European countries in many ways at the time. The industrial revolution had started earlier and Flora Tristan was prejudiced against England’s economical system. Her ostensible aim was to warn people on the continent against the effects of the industrial revolution. She wanted to let people know what was happening in England behind the curtains in order to prevent the same things to happen in France. Futile effort. In the second part of the 19th C, industrialisation in France will have the same consequences as in England. (cf Zola’s Germinal) All this to say that she didn’t go to London to marvel at the gas lit streets – even if she actually did – but to visit the darkest sides of the largest city in the world.

 She started by describing the size of the city and the time lost in transportation for any minor errand. Follow the inevitable chapter on the climate (“so irritating that many Englishmen cannot get used to it”) and one on the Londoner, that I didn’t like because generalizing about so many people without even living in the country can only lead to absurdities, such as:

Le Londonien est très peu hospitalier. La cherté de la vie, le ton cérémonieux qui règle toutes les relations s’opposent à ce qu’il le soit. The Londoner isn’t very welcoming. The cost of life, the formal tone which rules all relationships prevent them from being so.

I don’t like those kind of gratuitous assertions. Edith Wharton didn’t do better with French people in 1917 after living 12 years in France, but that will be another post.

I enjoyed her account of how she entered into the Parliament dressed as a Turkish man because women weren’t allowed. Of course, she was irritated by this, “half of the Nation is deprived of his civic rights”, she said, but the situation wasn’t better in France at the time. MPs quickly discovered she was a woman and she was outraged by the way they treated her.

I was more interested by her industrial tourism. Since “beer and gas are the most important parts of London’s consumer society”, she visited the brewery Barclay-Perkins. Her description of the machines, the noise, the danger and the poor working conditions in the factory are breathtaking. She couldn’t help marvelling at the mechanisation of the activity and already imagined how it could be profitable for the workers:  

Si d’abord je ressentis de l’humiliation à voir l’homme annihilé, ne fonctionnant plus lui-même que comme une machine, je vis bientôt l’immense amélioration qui ressortirait un jour de ces découvertes de la science : la force brutale anéantie, le travail matériel exécuté dans moins de temps, et plus de loisir laissé à l’homme pour la culture de son intelligence ; mais pour que ces grands bienfaits se réalisent, il faudra une révolution sociale. Elle arrivera! At first, I felt humiliated to see men annihilated, only working as machines. Then I quickly grasped the huge improvements that these scientific discoveries would bring one day: the destruction of brutal strength, material work accomplish in less time than before, more time left to improve one’s mind. But, these great benefits will only happen thanks to a social revolution. It will come!

 I don’t know how things went in England, but in France, her wish will eventually come true in 1936, a century after she wrote these words.

 She also visited the Irish and the Jewish neighbourhoods. She walked into the poorest places, describing an unbearable poverty and an appalling stench. She was outraged by the cynicism of merchants and captains of industry. Her analysis was that the workers had worse living conditions than slaves. Indeed, slaves had a value for their owner, who’d rather have slaves in good health to maintain the value of the capital they invested. But workers were provided for free by the Nation. So why should the employer bother to give them decent wages? When they died, they were replaced by others, always for free. Contrary to slaves, workers were free but this freedom is of no use to them as their wages didn’t make a living. (And here we find again the Maslow pyramid of needs : as long as the basic needs aren’t covered, men can’t reach the next stage).

After a little research, she wasn’t as objective as she should have been. For example, according to Wikipedia, a law was voted in England in 1801 regarding children at work. A child had be 8 to work. The same kind of law was be voted in France in … 1841. Maybe the delay between the two laws was only due to the fact that England was more industrialized and the problem occurred earlier. But maybe not. 

The section about Ascot Racecourse is priceless. She marveled at how the traffic was perfectly smooth despite the incredible number of carriages.

J’étais stupéfaite et ne pus m’empêcher de réfléchir que, si de pareilles courses avaient lieu en France, trois compagnies de gendarmes à cheval ne suffiraient pas pour maintenir l’ordre parmi ces trois mille voitures. I was flabbergasted and couldn’t help thinking that, if such races took place in France, a great number of mounted gendarmes would be necessary to to police these three thousand carriages.

I suppose it would still be a terrible mess in France today. Is queuing quietly and orderly an English quality? She pictured the social event that these racecourses were (still are, if I’m right).

As a feminist, she couldn’t not write a chapter about the Englishwoman. “One only needs to live a few months in England to realize how intelligent and sensitive Englishwomen are.” despite their education and living conditions. I’m not sure that what she described (impossibility to do anything without their husband’s consent, social life in a limited circle) was really different in France at the time. I was more interested in her thoughts about female writers:

Il y a en Angleterre plus de femmes auteurs qu’en France, parce que les Françaises ont une vie plus active et sont moins exclues que les Anglaises du mouvement social. There are more female writers in England than in France because French women have a more active life and are less excluded from social life than English women.

I always wonder where the French Jane Austen, Brontë Sisters or Mary Shelley were. This is Flora Tristan’s explanation. The French women who were educated enough to write were too busy running their salon to have the time to write. If she is right, then it’s a shame. All the witty words they must have told and the brilliant ideas they may have had have vanished in the air of their salon or – who knows – have been plagiarized by the male writers who visited them frequently.

Flora Tristan had quite a temper. Her prose is full of exclamation marks, O!s and Ah!. She was fighting for a cause, so you can’t expect her to be neutral in her account of what she witnessed. Even if what she says is only half true or exaggerated, it’s still interesting to hear.

I admire her for standing against what society expected from her. She had the courage to live according to her convictions, sacrificing her comfort and her health to her fight. I learnt something about London in that time. It was an agreeable and interesting read.

I’m a little uncomfortable with writing this post because I can imagine her thinking isn’t flawless. It’s difficult not to be on such a matter and with such a goal. But I’m not educated enough to contradict her point by point and I honestly don’t have time to study, even if it would be really interesting. So readers who know better will probably be irritated by this post but instead of ranting about my ignorance, I’d be grateful if they took time to share their knowledge in the comments.

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(1) Louis XVIII had abrogated the law allowing divorce in 1816 previously voted in 1792. Divorce will be impossible in France until 1884.

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? (Anne Brontë)

July 5, 2010 1 comment

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was published in 1848. It is Gilbert Markham’s letter to his best friend and telling him how he married his wife. The novel is divided in three parts. The first one is told by Gilbert and relates how he met and fell in love with Mrs Helen Graham, a widow newly settled in the neighbourhood, in Wildfell Hall. In this part are described both Mrs Graham’s temper and Gilbert’s increasing regard for her. The reader soon understands that there is a mystery in her presence in that isolated and gloomy house, alone with her child.

The second part reveals everything about this mystery through the means of Helen’s diary. It relates her miserable life from the moment she meets and marries Arthur Huntington until her arrival at Wildfell Hall. She tells all her misfortunes and describes the pain she took during these years and how she eventually escaped with her son.

The third part is narrated by Gilbert again, from the moment he ends up the reading of the diary to his wedding with Helen. During this period, she returned to her former house to take care of her dying husband and lost her uncle.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be linked to Gothic novels, as it is about a distressed young lady obliged to overcome all kinds of misfortunes to reach happiness. I noted that since Jane Austen’s chaste prose, lovers kiss, hold hands and take their fair lady by the waist. The change of narrators and tone gives a freshness to the story. Each part of the novel ends with a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Helen. Each of these three scenes is a step in their relationship. First Gilbert declares himself and receives hints that his love is requited. Then Helen acknowledges that she loves him but cannot marry him and concludes they must part. Eventually she takes control and proposes to him.

I liked the two first parts better than the last one, because they show Helen’s rebellion against general admitted principles and her confidence in her own judgement. The third part disappointed me because of its religious and virtuous tone. I didn’t like Helen going back to his husband to take care of him. It seemed unnatural and a compliance to social rules. I thought it was there only to ensure the society of the time that she really left her husband to protect her son and not for herself. It would have been too scandalous to write otherwise, I suppose.

 That book had me thinking “Every teenage girl should read this novel because it contains valuable lessons about love relationships”.

When Helen meets Arthur Huntington, she disregards all warnings upon his temper and marries him against her better judgement, thinking that her constant goodness will improve him through a sort of capillary action. To me, believing to have such a power on someone as to change them is vanity. People don’t deeply change and most of the time have nothing “behind the face”. No one has the power to change someone, unless unwillingly. Bad boys are not tortured souls in want of rescuing by a pure gentle lover, they just are bad boys who want to have fun.

It is also a very unsteady soil to build a relationship on, as it breaks the equality between the two members of the couple. His behaviour may have been highly reprehensible, but what a pain it must have been for Arthur to be constantly lectured ! Loving someone means accepting them as they are. Constantly expecting them to change for our vision of themselves is not love but alienation. Bluntly said, you’d better quickly turn your ethereal romantic young love into a more earthly but nonetheless deep feeling if you intend to happily share the same bathroom with someone “for as long as you both shall live”.

 But is accepting your beloved spouse the way they are the key of a successful marriage? The relationship between Milicent, Helen’s friend, and her husband Ralph Hattersley is interesting for that too. She is constantly physically and mentally molested by her husband and always yields. She pushes the acceptance of his temper to the farthest and he thinks she doesn’t resent his treatment of her as she never complains. It would even push him to torment her, to obtain a reaction. Helen finally convinces him that Milicent is hurt by his behaviour and having thus realised his error, he improves. Let’s imagine that such a radical change is possible. But the third relationship, between Annabella and her husband Lord Lowborough, proves that Anne Brontë was not so naïve as to think every one is reformable. This relationship could be the mirror of Milicent and Ralph’s, the wife being the torturer this time. This one doesn’t end well and it kinds of level the playing field between men and women, equally able to hurt their spouse. Here comes the second valuable lesson : a relationship cannot bloom without respect and communication.

Another defective relationship is the one of Eliza Millward and Gilbert. Gilbert is in love with Eliza and is thinking of marrying her at the time he meets Helen. He is blinded by her physical appearance and cheerfulness and doesn’t see clearly her flaws, despite his mother’s kind warnings. He gradually discovers a littleness in her and a lack of principles which drains his love for her. Third valuable lesson : the necessity to share the same values.

The relationship between Helen and Gilbert is the one that brings them happiness. But they almost missed each other because of Gilbert’s pride and because of his prejudice against the difference of wealth between them after she inherited from her uncle. He was too proud to ask her brother if she sometimes inquired after him, too proud to ask him her address and write the letter she expected. He was too prejudiced against her wealth to show up at her home, though he had travelled a long to time to reach it.

Anne Brontë seems to say to her contemporary girls: don’t hurry, take the time to know each other before marrying and don’t surrender to parental pressure to accept a man for his title or his wealth. She shows how women are abused in their marital life but she is clever enough not to describe women as only pure and innocent. She also pleads for women to be the master of their destiny. Helen makes her decisions herself and doesn’t complain about the consequences. She takes control of her life and she is a very modern woman. Anne Brontë’s novel is a cry for equality between men and women. A feminist novel.

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