#20BooksOfSummer Book Two – James Baldwin, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955)

A e-reader with a picture of the cover of Notes of a Native Son. It shows a black and white photograph of the author as a young man wearing a white shirt with his arms crossed.

I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin, ‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son (1984)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright and a social critic who was active in the civil rights movement. He spent many years of his life in France where he went to escape the racism and homophobia he had experienced in the United States. Notes of a Native Son was his first book of non-fiction. It was published in 1955 when Baldwin was just thirty one, two years after his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The essays in Notes of a Native Son are grouped into three parts. The first considers representations of African American people in literature and film. The second is based on Baldwin’s experiences of life and politics in the US. The third is made up of reflections from his early years in France. It feels like this structure is quite deliberate and is intended to take the reader on a journey with Baldwin.

The book’s ‘Preface,’ written thirty years later in 1984, is fascinating. Here James Baldwin reflects on what he was trying to achieve when he wrote Notes of a Native Son. He discusses how the essays reflect his struggle to locate himself within his inheritance because, ‘one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance’. It’s unsettling to see that some of his observations in the Preface (itself now over thirty years old), could easily still be applied today. Baldwin talks about the way African American people are always told to wait for things to change and to be patient. He speaks of the ‘panic stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned’, something I think we have seen recently in the ‘debate’ over removing the statues of slave traders from public spaces.

For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend

‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son

As a white, British reader, one thing that feels a little strange to read is Baldwin’s use of the word ‘negro’ to refer specfically to African American people. It isn’t language we would use now, but it is important. Baldwin doesn’t use it as a neutral term to refer to black people; it seems intended to convey something uniquely American and highly symbolic, an identify, or perhaps a figure, that has been created through an immense weight of history and cultural meaning (Black people as seen by the white culture), meaning that Baldwin wants to engage with in these essays.

Quite a lot of the content in the first three essays went rather over my head because I haven’t actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Native Son by Richard Wright. Nor have I seen the film Carmen Jones. It’s still comprehensible, though, because Baldwin is discussing what these texts tell us about beliefs that underlie the representation of African American people. The essays in this section remind me a little of Roland Barthes’s book, Mythologies, which was published a couple of years later in 1957. Here Baldwin was already talking about the way certain ‘signs’ and ‘mythologies’ are created and imposed upon people. He is critical of all three texts and wrestles most, I think, with Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It’s clearly an important work, which on one level Baldwin identifies with, but he argues that it turns its subject into a monster and leaves him nowhere else to go. Baldwin’s friendship with Richard Wright did not survive the essay.

The next section is based on aspects of Baldwin’s life in America. ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ is about ‘the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet’. It considers the role of black leaders, newspapers and religion in the struggle for civil rights, including the difficult subject of anti-semitism in the culture of Harlem at the time. ‘Journey to Atlanta’ is about Baldwin’s younger brother’s experiences of working for (and being exploited by) the Progressive Party. Again, as a white British woman, a lot of this went over my head! But it was an interesting read which uses humour to tackle the way Black people were being used by the party at the time.

The middle section contains one of the most powerful essays in the book, ‘Notes of a Native Son’. This is an incredble, searing piece of writing about Baldwin’s father who died when his son was nineteen, on the same day as his youngest sister was born. His father’s funeral took place on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. The essay’s place at the centre of the book, its doubling with the title, and the dedication of the work to Baldwin’s youngest sister, Paula Maria, indicates its power and central importance.

I’ve read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on The Mountain, which fictionalises his experiences as a child preacher and his difficult relationship with his father, so I knew something of the story. Baldwin’s father was a deeply troubled and damaged man who simply could not connect with other people. Baldwin says hauntingly, ‘there was something in him ‘groping and tentative which was never expressed and which was buried in him’. His father encouraged his son’s brilliance, as long as it manifested itself as something he approved (preaching), but he was also controlling and oppressive. As Baldwin leaves Harlem and encounters the racism of the white world, he begins to understand his father’s rage and trauma. This experience brings him to the point of breakdown and a confrontation that endangers his life. As he says towards the end of the essay, ‘I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain’.

The essays in part three are told from the perspective of Baldwin’s early years in France. There is an essay about encounters between the Aftrican American people living there and people from various countries in Africa and how hard that meeting is. There’s an essay about American students living in Paris while studying on the G.I. Bill which probably feels the most dated in the collection now. There is a funny and horrifying essay about Baldwin’s kafkaesque experience of getting arrested for stealing a bedsheet, being put in a French prison for eight days, and finding himself unable to communicate with the criminal justice system.

The final, and brilliant essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ brings the collection full circle. Here Baldwin uses reflections on his time spent living in an entirely white Swiss village to delve into the relationship betweeen white Europeans and Africa and how this has played out in the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. In the Swiss village, Baldwin finds himself treated as ‘a living wonder’, a creature that is hardly even human, and realises that the people there have no idea about the history with which he lives: ‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’, he says. He discovers startling racist customs, such as ‘buying souls’ in Africa for conversion to Christianity (something my own mother did at school in the 1940s) and people ‘blacking up’ during carnivals. He considers the difference between being the first white man to be seen by black people in Africa and being the first black man to be seen by a village full of whites; the difference is conquest and power, what it means to be controlled by white culture and the inescapable rage this creates. As he says,

‘this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarecly Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconqured continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle’.

A decision which has shaped history and from which there is no way back to the ‘simplicity’ of this European village, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’.

Baldwin talks about many things in Notes of a Native Son, but there are two striking silences. Women are almost entirely absent from the essays and Baldwin avoids talking directly about his sexuality. Women are mentioned here and and there, but Baldwin seems to be referring almost exclusively to men and addressing a presumptively male audience in which women appear to be subsumed and have no separate voice. Maybe it’s a 1950s thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with his personal attitudes because he was a close friend and supporter of many black women activists and creators, including Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansburry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, so I’ll be interested to see whether he addresses this issue in later works.

The biggest silence, though, is the silencing of Baldwin’s sexuality which clearly couldn’t be spoken about openly in a book published in 1955. There are only shadowy hints beneath the surface of the text. It does feel like a big ommission because no doubt his sexuality had an enormous impact on his life experiences. He went to France to escape homophobia as well as racism. As with many LGBTQ people throughout history, sexuality can provide the motivation to get out and create new lives elsewhere.

Notes of a Native Son is a powerful collection which gripped me despite gaps in my knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading Baldwin’s later essays and novels now to see where his thinking developed, especially The Fire Next Time.

Read for #20BooksOfSummer20


Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

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 care less about.

Literary fiction

Favourite work of literary fiction: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

Wolf Hall is a huge achievement in making a well-known story fresh again. I knew exactly what was going to happen and yet found myself utterly gripped from beginning to end.  I really liked Mantel’s direct style and this would be on my list of books that aspiring writers should read to see what can be done with prose. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Shirley Jackson’s chilling collection The Lottery and Other Stories (1949) is another book on my “must read list” for aspiring writers, especially for aspiring writers of short fiction.  Jackson has an amazing ability to encapsulate a situation or a character in the opening paragraph and is a writer absolutely in control of her material.

Toni Morrison’s Love (2003) was another tremendous read. I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it.  Love packs a huge amount into its 202 pages: civil rights, racism, patriarchy, relationships between black men and women, the nature of good and evil and more. I’m not someone who hangs onto books as a rule, but my copies of Toni’s Morrison’s works are going nowhere.

Alice Munro’s A View from Castle Rock (2006) is a sort of fictionalised memoir which I didn’t like as much as her other short stories. I thought the historical parts imagining her family’s move from Scotland to Canada were the best, but the ending dragged a bit and wasn’t as satisfying.

The only nineteenth-century novel I read this year was George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874). Reading it for the second time I was struck by just how funny it is, something I didn’t really notice the first time around. I still think this is one of the best novels ever written, just a beautiful book with a quietly devastating ending.

As for the rest, I enjoyed Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and even managed to write a post about it.  Michele Robert’s Daughters of the House (1993) is the sort of literary prize winning book that tends to end up filling the shelves of charity shops, but I found it pretty compelling, gorgeously written, and it just about managed to avoid pretentiousness. Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004) was a very entertaining historical novel about the eighteenth-century sculptor, Anne Damer, not Donoghue’s best work, but I’d recommend it as an excellent lesbian holiday read.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Favourite Book: Gardener Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth book of Best new SF 21 (2008)

This was my favourite simply because it turned me on to a whole range of science fiction writers that I haven’t read before. I’m now looking forward to pursuing the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, James Van Pelt, Alastair Reynolds, Vandana Singh and Pat Cadigan, among others.  It also contained Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ which makes my best ever short stories list and actually took up quite a large portion of one my therapy sessions.  Like most SF anthologies this suffers from a white, male bias but the quality is very high and there was at least an attempt at showing diversity.

Samuel R. Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon (1979) was an absolute joy to read. I loved the way Delaney wove critical theory and philosophy into his story in a way that was delightful rather than pretentious and didn’t get in the way of the narrative. Check it out for an example of how to write women as people as well.

The strangest fantasy novel I read last year was Clive Barker’s Imajica (1991). It was also probably the longest at over 1,000 pages. I found it too long in the end and didn’t think the male hero quite strong enough to sustain the epic narrative, but I really liked it too, especially the take on the suppression of female divinity by patriarchal religion.

I read and enjoyed two of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels: Inversions (1998) which had a sort of Ursula Le Guinesque feel and the more straight-up space opera of Consider Phlebas (1987) the first in Banks’s ‘Culture’ series.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling (2000) was a strong science fiction story with a lesbian woman of colour for a protagonist – it’s not her best, but it’s very good. Her young adult novel, Voices (2009) didn’t grab me and I won’t bother reading the third book in the trilogy, but it’s well written and would make a good present for any young teenager. It was refreshing to see a female character for whom “growing up” doesn’t equal romance, but rather coming into your own and exploring the world.

As for the rest, Caitlin R Keirnan’s excellent The Red Tree (2001) was quite terrifying and had a lesbian protagonist, one to check out if you like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  C.J Cheryh’s The Pride of Chanur (1981) was a bit of classic SF fun. I liked the way it imagined the arrival of humans in space from the point of view of the aliens.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I’m glad I made the effort to read it.

I was disappointed by George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (1998). It kept me reading, but it was more misogynist, racist and padded out than the first book. I mean, really, it felt like there was a rape in almost every single chapter.  Also, Cersei Lannister is one of the worst written female characters I’ve come across in some time. I may give the next book a go because I sort of want to find out what happens, but it did turn me off this series.

However, the worst book I read in this category was Celia Friedman’s Black Sun Rising (1991).  I don’t know why I persevered with this since I’m way past the age of forcing myself through books I hate, but for some reason I wanted to give it a chance.


I only read two poetry books this year, both by lesbian poets, and I can’t choose between them in terms of my favourite.  Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World (1988 – 1991) is challenging and difficult and I think one of her best collections, whereas the poems in Mary Oliver’s Dream Work (1986) are deceptively simple, but lead into disturbing territories. Both are haunting collections.


Favourite book: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2010)

I read quite a lot of popular science books in an attempt to compensate for the appalling science, technology and maths education that I received at school.  My education may have denied me the opportunity to ever have a career in any of those areas, but I can still enjoy reading about them.  Bryson’s book puts the history of science into a narrative that is both hilarious and moving.  It’s another big book, but I tore through it in a few days.

The next best non-fiction was Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) by Kate Summerscale. This is a fascinating and often disturbing look at the position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century, when changes to divorce laws and developments in ideas about sex began to impact on British society

I read two books about Shakespeare, James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2011) and Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare (2012).  Shapiro’s book considers where the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him comes from. I really enjoy books that take this rather Foucauldian approach of taking a step back and instead of answering a question, unpack the politics that lead to the question being asked in the first place. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a delight and puts Shakepeare’s life and works firmly back in the historical contact that produced them.  Both these books renewed my interest in Shakespeare and sense of why the plays are so important.

My least favourite non-fiction was Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feud’s(2010). This is not a criticism of the book itself, which is very good, but reading about the appalling behaviour of Emily Dickinson’s selfish, money-grabbing, narcissistic relatives really quite upset me.


I only read one book that could be called religious this year, Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening (1979) which is a book about Buddhist insight meditation. I found some of it quite useful, especially the parts on mind, but it’s very ‘70s’ and got it bit weird towards the end.

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

In Search of our Mother’s Garden’s 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, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher 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.  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 The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft 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 rather biased.

Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (2008)

I’ve always really liked Maitland’s short fiction.  There is something about the way she rewrites mythologies that I find particularly elegant.  Over the last year I’ve been feeling the need for more silence in my life, so when I saw that Maitland had written an entire book on the subject, I ordered A Book of Silence from the library.

Until quite recently, Maitland lived a very noisy life.  She comes from a large family, was educated at boarding school and Oxford, married a vicar active in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, had two children, got involved in feminism and became a relatively well-known author.  Everything went well for her until she hit a crisis in her late forties: her marriage disintegrated, she ran out of steam as a writer and, most frighteningly, began to hear voices.

She started to crave silence and decided to try and incorporate more of it into her life.  But as she cut out the noise, she was surprised by the alarmed reactions of friends and family, who interpreted her desire for quiet as some of kind of mental breakdown. She began to notice the negative associations that silence has accrued in our western capitalist society – silence is frightening, dangerous, oppressive, a possible source of madness, the place of death and chaos, something that is waiting to be broken. There is less and less space for positive silence in our lives, but what effect, she wondered, is all this noise having on us, physiologically speaking?

Maitland decided to try and expound the positive qualities of silence.  She spent an ecstatic forty days alone in a cottage on Skye and then visited a range of silent places, the most extreme being a spiritual retreat in the Sinai desert. Eventually she built a little house on a moor in Northern Galloway where she still lives alone. One of the most interesting chapters is the one entitled ‘Silence and the Gods’ in which she discusses a number of creation myths, comparing those that depend upon silence bring broken (i.e. Genesis; the “big bang”) and less well-known ones that depend upon the maintenance of silence.

Maitland does acknowledge the dark side, the dangers of silence.  On a symbolic level, in a world in which entire groups of people are “silenced” by various forms of oppression, it is important not to romanticise silence, or forget that in order for silence to be a positive experience it must be freely chosen.  More literally, imposed silence can indeed be dangerous.  Maitland recounts one frightening experience of being snowed in alone and losing all sense of control.  She also experiences a certain amount of accidie, the lethargy that has plagued silence-seekers all the way back to the desert hermits. She finds the silence spiritually fulfilling, but then it makes it harder for her write fiction.

Still, all in all, I felt she made a convincing case for the experience of silence as a necessary aspect of human life and for silence as “multiple” – there are so many different kinds of silence.  I have a very noisy life – I’m a loud person, with a loud family and lots of loud friends living in a noisy inner-city area. While I have no desire to go to the extremes of silence enjoyed by Maitland in this book, I do intend to make more effort to create silent spaces in my life.

The fact that I’m writing so much here shows that A Book of Silence also got under my skin and troubled me.  This is not least because it has its own deep silences.  I knew that Maitland was a Christian feminist; what I didn’t know is that after her marriage ended she converted to Catholicism, but she glosses this decision in about two sentences when it must have created some conflict for someone who is in many respects a radical feminist.  I also became a little concerned that I was about to be unwillingly plunged back into Catholic theology.  This wasn’t really the case, as Maitland is careful to keep her book generally spiritual rather than specifically Catholic in nature (she makes efforts to explore the silences of Buddhism and Quakerism) until, that is, the chapter on the ‘Desert Hermits’, which I did find uncomfortable reading because it put me back in touch with that extreme, uncompromising, anti-modern strand within Catholicism.  And I couldn’t help but feel that Maitland actually regards this kind of silence as her ideal.  She now aims for eighty percent silence in her life and prays for three hours a day. She is practically a hermit.

Class is also silenced in the book. After all, Maitland’s ability to carve out a silent life for herself is largely based on the privileges enjoyed by an upper-middle-class white woman from a wealthy background, who has had a lot of doors opened by a public school and Oxford education.  As a result, Maitland is able to do things that simply would not be possible for the majority of women.  Despite her “voice hearing”, for example, she is well able to stay out of the mental health system which I very much doubt would be possible for a working-class woman reporting the same experiences. She occasionally complains about not having much money, but she is able to build her own house so I’m not sure that her conception of being hard up is exactly the same as mine!

Perhaps the greatest silencing in the book is the silencing of gender.  As I read, I had an increasing sense that there was something unusual about Maitland’s narrative. I couldn’t put my finger on the source of the strangeness until Maitland decides to experience the silence of the stars by driving into the Derbyshire hills for a few days and sleeping in her car at night. Then it dawned on me: there was no fear in the narrative? No fear of doing any of this as a lone woman, no fear of being attacked, or robbed, or raped, of the car breaking down and being stranded in the middle of nowhere?  If I spent forty days alone in a cottage on Skye, there’s no doubt that gendered fear would be part of my experience.  The fact that I felt the lack of such fear made me realise the extent to which the expression of gendered fear has become a part of the cultural construction of femaleness.  A narrative that absolutely refuses to express fear comes across as oddly de-gendered.  When Maitland does experience fear (when she’s snowed-in for example) she still keeps gender strictly out of the picture and gives a lot of examples of men having the same kind of experiences.  The fear she experiences is not articulated as having anything to do with her being a woman in this situation.  This may well be deliberate of course.  She doesn’t express any guilt either, although I very much doubt that she has totally escaped the accusations of “selfishness” and “self-indulgence” that generally accompany any attempts by women to behave in ways that are traditionally reserved for men.

Although Maitland repeatedly identifies herself as a feminist in her book, the role that feminism plays in her journey into silence is also oddly silenced, which I think is a shame because I suspect it’s actually fundamental to this journey. Maitland places herself in a tradition of radical female Christian mystics who have rejected their gendered responsibilities and adopted male spiritual prerogatives.  If you think about it, what Maitland has done is refuse the kind of gendered responsibilities that she would probably be expected to shoulder as a woman in her fifties, particularly the social responsibilities of caring for other people. When her family do make demands on her, she becomes deeply frustrated and feels burdened. I think it’s very interesting that one of the first things that goes while she’s on Skye is any care for her personal appearance, something she gives up with evident joy and relief. On consideration I began to feel that this spiritual odyssey is also the logical culmination of Maitland’s own radical feminist journey, an utter rejection of culturally constructed femininity and a radical attempt to live an uncompromisingly authentic life.

Fascinating and disturbing.

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

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 workforce. 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 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.