These Little Words

literary hoohah

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, two of the founders of the Women's Social and Political Union, in 1906

To say that feminism is ‘still’ an issue is like saying that we ‘still’ have to pay for the bus. It’s pointing out the obvious. People (both men and women) say it’s ‘still’ an issue because it’s been an issue for almost a hundred years – but in the grand scheme of things that really isn’t that long. I say a hundred years because suffrage really started to take off at the start of the 20th century; but for time immemorial before that women had a shit deal. Most still do.

In my 9-5 life as a marketing assistant for AIDF, I am made more than aware of the atrocities committed against women in the developing world – these are extremes that must be addressed on a global political scale. But still we must not forget the trials of sexism we face at home. Sure, lack of respect at work, getting judged for using contraception (let’s not even get started on Rush Limbaugh) and receiving lower wages are important issues, but they are pretty small fry compared to women all over the world who face monstrous violence and extreme injustice on a 24-hour basis just for being women. We can donate our time and money to these women, and raise awareness; but we must also deal with our own issues and problems when it comes to gender inequality.

I attended the same private girls’ school for my entire school life, so I had little awareness of gender issues. We were all girls. It was a question of popularity, not gender. In life beyond school – real life – gender became an issue. Shoved in next to boys in lectures (ew) and being taught by men (weird) brought the issue of gender to the fore, coupled with the prejudices of academia. Not only was I a know-nothing first year, I was a girl. That’s not to say that there was a sexism problem at my university – one with 3 boys for every 5 girls – but exposure to the co-ed academic world meant that I became more aware of how women were perceived intellectually. Now, for me, this is a key thing. To be thought stupid is one of the things that annoys me the most, in any situation. To be be undervalued and not respected intellectually because you are a woman – now I’m really getting mad. Being appreciated for one’s intellect, when one is a lady, is being appreciated not just because you are pretty and nice but because you are clever, educated (to whatever level), thoughtful, intelligent, sensible, independent, responsible, mature, and basically well worth being respected. You are a woman but you are also a person, and should be viewed intellectually regardless of gender.

Throughout the years of not being able to vote, being kept at home in a corset – not exactly practical for housework – and being told who to marry, women had the outlet of writing. Shut away at home, bored and unchallenged, supergals like Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters got to work creating their own worlds and using their brains for something other than the best way to get out jam stains. This of course still happens today. Sexism is an issue in literature – yes, ‘still’ – but headways have been made. The Orange Prize is just for us ladies and some of the most respected writers now and in history are women. For my own and hopefully your interest also I have compiled a list of the writers I respect, admire and enjoy the most, and waffled on a bit about their best works. Enjoy!

JANE AUSTEN made the most of her short life by writing about the society in which she found herself. There is a character in each of her novels that is arguably based on herself, and expresses her frustration at the marriage-centric, shallow world of 18th century England (and in Persuasion, Bath in particular. Luckily it’s much nicer now). Pride and Prejudice won us all over with a brilliant TV adaptation in the 90s which brought us not only Colin Firth (THANK GOD) but also a wonderful embodiment of Elizabeth in Jennifer Ehle. And who can forget Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennett. Dear Lord (on a side note, if you have any respect for good writing, good film-making and good acting, please don’t watch the Keira Knightly/Matthew McFadyen film of P&P - just deny it exists, as I try to). Personally, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility are my favourites of Jane’s novels. Anne and Elinor are Jane’s incarnations of herself that I most admired and never tire of revisiting.

DAPHNE DU MAURIER was a complicated woman. ‘Too close’ to her father, haunted by JM Barrie as a child, a lesbian married to a man, a not-so-perfect mother – and a brilliant, intelligent writer. When she died in 1989, Margaret Forster praised her by saying that ‘she satisfied all the questionable criteria of popular fiction, and yet satisfied too the exacting requirements of “real literature”, something very few novelists ever do.’ (Quoted from the About the Author bit in VMC editions). I couldn’t agree more. Her novels grip and thrill, but they challenge and move the reader as well. Rebecca is the classic, for good reason, but My Cousin Rachel will also fail to disappoint. A funny little story that persists in the reader’s mind for days after reading is finished, du Maurier constructs a novel that justifies her reputation as a dark and brave writer.

CHARLOTTE BRONTE, I’ve decided, is my favourite Bronte sister. Ok so I’ve only read Wuthering Heights and nothing by Anne, but Jane Eyre was enough for me to decide Charlotte is The Best One. It is known and sold as a love story, which it is, but it is much more than that. Jane is a wonderful, wonderful character. Her life is hard and she suffers immensely, but her stubbornness and determination mean that she survives it all. I was moved and overjoyed when she found the confidence – after being insulted and told she is being sent to a boarding school – to tell her aunt that she is in fact not a liar and that she has never loved her. Her friendship with Helen will move any girl who ever had a real best friend (a real one – not the one who later became a bitch) or a sister, and then she gets to Thornfield… and oh my, does it get good. That’s the thing about Jane Eyre – it grips and scandalises the reader, but it is a dark story at heart, desperately sad but triumphant in the end. I heartily recommend visiting the Brontes’ cottage at Haworth; to see the table at which they sat and wrote, to walk on the moors and sit quietly in the little church where they are buried – Charlotte and her sisters were intelligent, brave and remarkable women.

After reading Jane Eyre, I simply had to read Wide Sargasso Sea. I had read JEAN RHYS before, but this book was something else. Rhys’ version of Bertha/Antoinette’s backstory, this novel was published in 1966, years after Rhys had last published anything, and when most of the world thought she was dead. Like Rhys’ other novels it is surreal and quiet, with a narrative voice leading us along without question; but with the knowledge of Antoinette’s fate in Jane Eyre, and the years of heartache to come, Wide Sargasso Sea takes on a life of its own. Narrated first by Antoinette and then by Rochester as they marry and her mental health begins to decline, the book is drenched in the pair’s sense of hopelessness and fear – Antoinette’s of a strange life in a strange land, and Rochester’s of how on Earth he will ever be happy. Revisiting Bronte’s novel after reading this (even in the form of the excellent recent film with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, who are both perfect for it) highlights the anguish and sadness of the ill-fated marriage, and the tragedy of the whole situation, right up to Jane’s arrival and Antoinette’s death. Read Jane Eyre first, soak it up, and then read this. It is a must.

Lastly, the author of possibly my favourite book ever, DONNA TARTT. My boyfriend doesn’t like her work – I will never ask why. I read The Secret History because it was just one of those books that ‘everyone’ has read, but dear me it was wonderful. I have read it twice, but not for some years now, and I can still quote bits from it (I can never quote anything). When I read it, I feel calm. I feel satisfied, both emotionally and intellectually. Tartt is capable of creating a world so vivid and characters so deep that the whole thing becomes real to the reader. This is not simply ‘the power of the imagination’. It is something to do with the reason that we all read books in the first place, with why we need stories and other people and a satisfying life. I realise all this sounds rather over the top, but I find this novel to be the embodiment of everything I love about books. Her second novel The Little Friend was another that ‘everyone’ was reading. It came out in 2002, but I only got round to it in about 2004, after I’d read The Secret History for the first time. It was a completely different world, but one that Tartt knew as equally well as the setting of The Secret History in the northeast of America. Like Truman Capote divided between New York and the South, Tartt is divided between Vermont and the South. The writer knows about and belongs to both worlds. Little Harriet and her friend Hely are perfect examples of how children can have as much depth as adult characters. Another vivid, almost-real world, the South seems equally fascinating and terrifying, and Tartt captivates as before. Her first two novels were published ten years apart, and now, another ten years later in 2012, there will apparently be a new novel released this year. We’ve waited long enough Donna. It’s time.

So there you have it. Feminist rant, list of greatest gals in literature. Not bad for a bunch of girls, huh?

All books mentioned are available from Amazon, Waterstones and everywhere else.

Lizzi Thomasson

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