At the age of twenty-eight, Laura Willowes is quite content with her life. She feels no interest in marriage and lives with her father on the country estate, spending her time reading, brewing and indulging her fondness for botany. But then her father dies and she finds herself prevailed upon to move in with her brother and his wife in London.
There she lives passively, tucked away in the “small spare room”, helping to look after the children and being “indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations”. As Laura herself will observe of another woman later in the book, she has become the “typical genteel spinster” who spends “her life being useful to people who don’t want her”.
Gay’s the Word is an essential stop for us whenever we visit London. This time around, we picked up Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) in the used section for £5. The used shelves also yielded up a couple of good lesbian short story collections: Anna Livia and Lilian Mohan (eds.) The Pied Piper: Lesbian Feminist Fiction (1989), which contains stories by the likes of Gillian Hanscombe, Patricia Duncker and Mary Dorcey, and Ruthann Robson’s Lambda nominated Eye of a Hurricane (1989).
Andy bought a new copy of Lolly Willows (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This is a novel about a middle-aged spinster who abandons her family responsibilities to become a witch. She also got Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and had the shop assistant raving. Apparently, he’s bought it for all his friends.
Jean: “So the act of writing can be an act of pleasure, of reparation?”
Sara: “I’d go further than that and say an act of power. You invent these people, you can make them do what the fuck you like, if you are fed up with them you can bloody kill them off. They’re absolutely mine, I created them and I control them. Writing is a real act of power which I achieve nowhere else”.
Jan Radford, ‘Women Writing’, published in Spare Rib, 76, November 1978.
This week we’ve seen a lot of feminist discussion about issues of speech, silence and oppression, so I decided that now would be a good time to post some thoughts on the poetry of Judy Grahn.
Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.
I’m not a girl
I’m a hatchet
I’m not a hole
I’m a whole mountain
I’m not a fool
I’m a survivor
I’m not a pearl
I’m the Atlantic Ocean
I’m not a good lay
I’m a straight razor
look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness
– Judy Grahn from Edward the Dyke and Other Poems
We regard each other
we who have so much
to forget or at least forgive
in unconscious diplomacy,
with that old grace
that so often came
between you and your consequences
You stretch your hand
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
and and in silence,
recovers the power
From Kindling (1982)
For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.
It is a razor blade of a novel: the blade is carefully hidden, but it is there inside the packaging, and, fifty years later, its capacity to draw blood remains unaltered, Sally Beauman, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.
Phillip Ashley has been raised by his wealthy, bachelor cousin Ambrose within the insular all-male world of an unnamed Cornish estate during an unspecified time in the past. Phillip adores his cousin and fully expects to inherit the estate in due course, but the smooth progress of this narrative is interrupted when Ambrose travels to Italy where he meets a distant cousin called Rachel and, much to Phillip’s alarm, suddenly marries her. Phillip waits for the happy couple to return home as promised, but they never appear and Ambrose’s letters become increasingly disturbing – Rachel’s financial affairs are troubled, Ambrose suspects Rachel of something, Ambrose is ill. A final desperate plea spurs Phillip to set out for Florence, but he arrives too late to find that Ambrose is dead, supposedly of a brain tumour. Rachel’s villa has been shut up and the lady herself has disappeared. Angry and grieving Phillip returns to Cornwall where a few weeks later Rachel arrives, claiming to want nothing more than to see the place that her husband loved so much. At first, Phillip’s only intention is to punish Rachel and try to catch her out as a con-artist, perhaps even a black widow, but he quickly finds himself becoming obsessed with her.