Women of Note

Vanishing Women

Buckley 1911I was writing yesterday about Yoi Pawloska, also known as Yoi Maraini, a travel writer and free spirit who I became aware of because of a brief connection to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s literary executor and one of the main characters in my forthcoming Oscar’s Ghost.

Her connection to my story is a society scandal in which the young woman, then known as Edith Buckley, left her husband and two children after she fell in love with Coleridge Kennard. Robert Ross was one of the people who tried to intervene to prevent a larger scandal.

The young lovers did not marry, and after her divorce a broken-hearted Yoi traveled Europe and wrote the first of many books.  They received mostly positive reviews, albeit reviews that used feminine adjectives like “charming” which denote something other than seriousness. Was her work really more lightweight than that of the many male poets who populate the edges of Oscar Wilde’s narrative? She was more prolific than many, and also worked as a journalist interviewing Mussolini for the Saturday Review.

Her granddaughter, the Italian novelist Dacia Maraini, would one day write, “…after two generations, the silence about her was more tenacious than the desire to remember her. She was surrounded by an aura of scandal– a solitary traveller, and adulteress abandoning husband and children to follow the man she loved, but with whom she wasn’t able to build a family, remarried later to a man ten years her junior. Things our family did not speak much about. Actually, to tell the truth, we did not speak of them at all.”

There was no great desire to remember Yoi.

Today I was reading a book and a reference came up to Dame Hariette Chick. She lived from 1875 to 1977.  One of the leading microbiologists of her day, she was instrumental in finding a cure for rickets. I had that moment of surprise, that I always do, to learn of an accomplished professional woman from another era. Each time I discover a woman like this she stands out as exceptional and singular.

Why is that? A few weeks ago, I watched a program on our local PBS station about the Van Hoosen farm, near my home, and the sisters who eventually ran it. One of them was Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, a pioneering obstetrician.

I find myself wondering, how many “exceptions to the rule” do I have to encounter before I start to question whether “the rule” accurately reflects history?

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever… Or a Bit Before That…

Marie CorelliSome people seek fame as a way to achieve a sort of immortality, but being hyper-known in your own time doesn’t guarantee that people of the next generation will remember your name.

I’m always fascinated to discover long-forgotten celebrities. This is Marie Corelli. My guess is you have not studied her works in your British Lit class, but she was at the turn of the last century one of the most successful writers alive. (She was a Victorian J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steel.) Her book sales were greater than those of contemporaries H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling combined.

As with most things popular, her works were often criticized for being too sensational and low-brow and her success annoyed some of her arguably more talented but less successful peers. Oscar Wilde, when in prison, was asked about Corelli and he responded “Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be in here.” (Wilde’s publishing track record was far less successful than Corelli’s. He had only one book that could be said to have achieved best-seller status in his life time. It was not, as you might expect, The Picture of Dorian Gray but The Ballad of Reading Gaol.)

The wonderfully named Lilli Loofbourow wrote about Corelli’s fame in the Los Angeles Times:

It’s difficult to reconcile Corelli’s current near-total obscurity with her once vast literary footprint. Loyal readers named their children after her. Pages of her novels were found in the Boer trenches. Her fan base began with the eccentrics at society’s lower end and went all the way up to Queen Victoria. Corelli was the monarch’s favorite author, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense: her books are high flown, aspirational, unsubtle, workmanlike, idealistic, rich in pseudo-Shakespearean ruminations, pleasurable in an instructive way, siding with the virtuous but fully understanding — and reveling in — the value of a good villain: perfect bedtime reading for English queens.

Struggling writers have traditionally found comfort in the knowledge that the hacks who are celebrated today will be forgotten tomorrow and while an obscure poet like yourself might be the focus of English departments a century from now. Charles Dickens was nearly bankrupted, the thinking goes, and I am nearly bankrupted, so there is hope for my work yet. This is true, so far as it goes. Although there is certainly as much luck in what writers works survive as there is in which strike a chord in the present day. What is more, being appreciated posthumously may be better than not being appreciated at all, it doesn’t do much to improve the writer’s life. You won’t be around to know there is a journal where scholars debate your use of the word “and.” It doesn’t improve your standing with your friends. (“Hey, could you buy me a sandwich? I’m waiting on royalties.”)

It is good for writers to remember as well the wisdom of Bernard Shaw, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”

So, sadly, it is not a choice of appreciation in this world or the next. Nothing is guaranteed at all, and you just keep on writing. [I just discovered a book with the title The Honorably Obscure Handbook. I appreciate the title and the sentiment, although the links on this blog page to actually buy the book do not work, so I can’t vouch for the text itself.]

I learned something even more interesting from the Los Angeles Times article. Did you know that female authors were more popular in the 19th Century than male authors? I did not.

[As an aside, did you know that historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women? I learned this fact only recently.]

Female-authored fiction was enormously popular throughout the 19th century (more so than male-authored fiction, in fact), but many more male than female authors have been rescued from obscurity by scholars, usually by being retrospectively credited with founding a subgenre. Tolkien and Haggard fit together roughly into one category (male-authored “high fantasy” adventure), and the gendering of their novels is so strict that it makes recognizing feminine predecessors all but impossible — not because they’re not there, but because the logic of the genre itself renders them unthinkable.

Loofbourow’s article argues that Corelli influenced Tolkien.

The audience for fiction has always been more female than male. Until recently, academia was made up almost entirely of males. To be popular in your own time was to strike a chord with women. To be studied as a serious artist meant to strike a chord with men.

Has this changed and will it change?

I don’t know. I’ll keep writing.

Oscar’s Wife

ImageI recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.  Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.

He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas,  taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father.  The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.

For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome.  Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.

“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”

Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad.  Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.

What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover.  His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend.  Constance was furious.  This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.

It didn’t last long, of course.

The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially  on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting.  After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes.  It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.