The Many Ways in which we are Wrong about Jane Austen

She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.

No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.

My favourite paragraphs from Helena Kelly’s fantastic essay, The Many Ways in Which we are Wrong about Jane Austen 

2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

The Books that I Loved

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony.  As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together.  I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `

A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances.   Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible.  The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)

Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall.  This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.

Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)

Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course.  The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end).  It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.

Continue reading

5 Things – This is Halloween edition

The Jack O’ Lantern is carved. The lentil soup and roast sweet potatoes are cooking. Time to post a few things I’ve been saving for Halloween.

Ada Calhoun, The Sisters Who Spoke to Spirits

The spirits are the least disturbing thing in this essay about the Fox sisters, whose table-rapping ways kicked off the phenomenal popularity of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century. So much weirdness here.

Documentary, Ghosts on the Underground (2006)

This documentary about spooky experiences on the London Underground terrified me when I first saw it several years ago. I hunted it down last year for a Halloween watch with my partner and was pleased to find it just as creepy as I remembered.

Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts, 500 Years of Hunting for Proof

Roger Clarke’s book is an enjoyable ramble around the last five hundred years of belief in ghosts. Most of the hauntings get debunked, but what they reveal about social history and the psychology of the people involved is fascinating.

M.R. James, ‘Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious

I love the ghost stories of M.R. James and re-read them all every few years, but I think these two are my favourites. They have given me a life-long dislike of sleeping in twin-bedded hotel rooms and walking along misty beaches on my own, but I feel they are worth it.

Vitamin String Quartet, This is Halloween

Just a great cover of a great song.

What lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-century nuns

I saw the new Ghostbusters with my 11-year-old daughter. It was the first movie she’d ever seen in which a team of female heroes are never subjected to the male gaze—in which they are always the agent, never the possessed. It was the first movie like that I’d ever seen, too.

There is spirit possession in the new Ghostbusters: you’ve seen one scene in the trailers, where one of the Ghostbusters is briefly possessed an evil ghost but quickly saved by one of her colleagues. Female friendship, female cooperation, is enough here to drive out evil. When women’s bodies are the battleground, women just as quickly become the warriors. Nor are women uniquely susceptible to possession: the hunky male receptionist is possessed, too, and must be saved.

The first Ghostbusters movie suggested to boys that if they just hung around long enough, women would see that their other options for possession were far worse than just giving in. The newGhostbusters movie tells girls that there’s another option. They can possess themselves.

What Lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-Century nuns

Bank Holiday Mixtape

Case, Lang Veirs, Atomic Number

Beth Orton, Ooh Child (alternative version)

Carina Round, You Will be Loved

Joan Armatrading, Help Yourself

Al Green, Love and Happiness 

Laura Nyro, Eli’s Coming

Corinne Bailey Rae, Diving for Hearts

Joni Mitchell, Tin Angel

Bjork, The Dull Flame of Desire

KD Lang, Season of Hollow Soul 

Mariee Sioux & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Loveskulls

Joseph Arthur, Love Never Asks you to Lie

Brandi Carlile, Raise Hell

 

Making Lesbian History Visible

At this point I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and life long experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace. The conversations that did happen and did not. The words permitted, and those uttered without permission. The invitations refused and accepted. The fears. The imaginations, erotic and projected. The walks in the woods, the fucking, the pleasure of the company acknowledged and refused. The meals, the conversation, how and what conversations provoked, the actions, the artworks, the articles, books, tears, orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered, caresses, tendernesses, the refusals of tenderness, kisses that were and should have been, and how this moved the earth, the culture, the society or even just one or two people’s small lives. I propose that we call this whatever we want to call it, but that we not let it fall by the wayside, because when those of us creating queer history and culture display a reluctance to go deeper and transcend the artifice of restrictive thinking, the mainstream representations are handed a convenient model of hesitant obscuration. Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret. It doesn’t have to be clean, neat, safe, compartmentalized, or expected. Show it all and let the chips fall where they may.

Sarah Schulman, ‘Making Lesbian History Visible: A Proposal’ at Out History