2012 Reading Round-up

2012 was more of a thinking and talking year than a reading year. I read less than I usually do and didn’t get around to writing about many of the books that I did read, though I’m still intending to write about some of them this year.  My general preference leaned towards large works of fiction, which I think indicates a desire to lose myself in stories.

Book of the Year: Alison Bechdel, Are You my Mother? (2012)

Every now and then you come across a book that changes you. For me, there is a “before Are you My Mother?” and an “after Are you My Mother?” and that’s why it’s my book of the year. This book fundamentally changed the way I think about myself and my relationship with my own mother.  There was also something empowering about reading a book that takes seriously the subject of relationships between lesbians and their mothers, a subject that mainstream heteronormative society really could not give less of a shit about.

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Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

This collection reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, The Murder at Road Hill House (2008)

In 1860, Francis Saville, the youngest son of Mr and Mrs Kent of Road Hill House in Wiltshire was found murdered.  He had been take out of his bed during the night and apparently suffocated before being stabbed and having his throat cut.  His body had then been thrown into a privy in the garden where it was discovered.  The fact that all the doors and windows of the house had been locked from the inside on the night in question made it difficult to see how anyone outside the family could have committed the deed, but who was guilty? The parents? One of Mr Kent’s four children from his first marriage? One of the servants?

The case caused a sensation in Victorian England, not only because it involved the extremely gruesome and violent killing of a three-year old child, but because it struck at the heart of the Victorian cult of domesticity, of the ideology of the loving family, of the home as a safe refuge from the difficulties of the world.  The murder implied that terrible secrets may lurk behind the closed doors of an apparently respectable family.  It’s striking that so many Victorian men jumped to the conclusion that Francis had been killed because he’d seen his father having sex with his nurserymaid, an assumption that I think tells you more about the proclivities of Victorian gentlemen than it does any truth about the case.

Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan (Jack) Whicher, a man who’d joined the Metropolitan Police during its early days and made a name for himself as an exceptional detective with almost uncanny abilities.  Whicher was one of a cohort of intelligent, young working-class men who’d been recruited by the organisation and made their way to the top on merit alone, something that was impossible in most professions at the time.

The endorsements on the jacket are a bit breathless and over-the-top, but if you’re interested in the history of policing, crime and crime fiction, this book is a fast-paced and interesting read.  Jack Whicher contributed much to the development of the figure of the detective.  He was the model for characters like Inspector Bucket in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868).   Whicher played a part in the creation of the detective as a figure of difference, rather set apart from the rest of society, an exteme rationalist who isn’t subject to emotional manipulation like the rest of us.

The impact of the murder at Road Hill House also had an impact on fiction. It can be felt in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which often feature horrible goings’ on within supposedly respectable middle and upper-class families.  It also appears in some surprising places, such as M.R James horrifying ghost story, ‘The Mezzotint’.

From a feminist perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of how gendered discourses shape the way women are interpreted and treated by the criminal justice system.  Summerscale doesn’t really discuss this, but it’s very well illustrated by the case.  Setting his sights on Mr Kent’s 16 year-old daughter Constance as the most likely suspect, Whicher attempts to deploy the popular discourse of the degenerate, insane woman to support his case.  This figure (who was imagined to hide her mental disturbance and jealous rage behind a mask of calm) can be seen in fictions like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).  However, Whicher found himself in conflict with the counter-discourse of the innocent young girl, as Constance’s dignified behaviour inspired sympathy from the public.  Was she ‘mad’ and evil, or simply misunderstood and innocent?

Then there’s the nurserymaid, Elizabeth Gough, who Whicher thought innocent, but who fell under public suspicion mainly because of sexualized assumptions about working-class women.  Gough was pretty and viewed as being a bit above her station.  This led to a general feeling (the prefered version of men like Dickens who loudly and graphically promoted their belief in Elizabeth’s guilt), that she must have been up to something bad, probably with the master, and the poor woman’s life was almost ruined  as a result.

I find this phenomenon fascinating as well as disturbing.  Think of Lizzie Borden and Ruth Ellis.  We’ve seen its effects very recently in the trial of Amanda Knox.  If you’re interested, I’d recommend you read Joan Smith’s essay ‘Unnatural Born Killers’ about Myra Hindley and Rose West in her book Different for Girls.  Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a great fictional take on this issue.  Women, it seems, can never be taken at face value when we enter the Criminal Justice System. We are always read in relation to gendered discourses that pre-exist us and over which we have no control.  Of course this isn’t just an issue for women accused of crimes, gendered discourses are something that every woman who’s a victim of rape or domestic abuse must contend with if she decides to take a case to court and they may very well decide the outcome.

Interestingly, Whicher overplays his hand and loses his case.  His downfall may have been triggered by middle-class offence at the sight of a working-class ‘upstart’ apparently harassing a middle-class girl, and in the process assaulting the middle-class family itself.  Constance Kent was freed, but her story was not yet over and there are several more twists in the tale before the end.

Summerscale attempts to solve the case and I think her conclusion is certainly a possibility, but we’ll never really know what happened to Francis Saville and the Road Hill House murder remains a haunting case.

I’m now looking forward to reading Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)

I found this biography both compulsively readable and quite irritating.  My other books went on hold while I read it, but I read it with teeth gritted some of the time.

Tomalin is a very entertaining writer, one who doesn’t make the mistake that a lot of biographers do, of bogging the narrative down by quoting from too much source material.

However, I do not think this is either a fair or a sympathetic biography.   The author seems determined to depict Wollstonecraft as unreasonable, unstable and even narcissistic, without giving her enough credit or sympathy for the immense obstacles she was up against.  Reading between the lines of the rather snide narrative, all I see is an impulsive, brilliant and all too human woman who made the kind of personal mistakes a lot of us make in our lives (at a time when the consequences for those mistakes were much higher), but who managed to achieve more than most of us ever will.  For example, I thought Tomalin was far too indulgent towards the abusive behaviour of Mary’s lover, Gilbert Imlay. She even implies that Mary was stupid to be fooled by him and was rather unreasonable in her despairing response, but how many of us have fallen for a charmer at some point in our lives?  Only for a woman of Mary’s time, falling for a charmer meant being left a stigmatised single mother with an illegitimate child and no hope of retuning to respectable society.  What Imlay does to her is dreadful and he would have known about the consequences of his actions.

Overall, I felt that Tomalin’s own discomfort with radical feminism coloured her interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s life.  There are a few moments where she lets this discomfort slip.  For example, on p. 198, referring to French feminists during the Revolution:

The citoyennes certainly dealt a blow to the cause of their own sex, helping to build up male resistance to any idea of women’s rights and giving pause even to better educated women (a pattern that repeats itself in feminism whenever there is unruly behaviour from its adherents).

I get the feeling that when she wrote this biography Tomalin was one of those feminists who argue that women shouldn’t be too ‘aggressive’ because that will damage the movement.  Maybe this is why her Jane Austen biography is better – she seems a lot more comfortable with Austen’s more sneaky brand of feminism.

I’m now looking forward to reading Lyndall Gordon’s more recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication which sets out to right her wrongs.

Readable, but biased.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

Cover of the book The Second Wave Reader

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the work force. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.  The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent quite radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote: “For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.