Archive for February 12th, 2010

Angela Japhet (born 1962, Nigerian artist), Instrument of the Act (watercolor, a razor)

Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams as heroines in The Heart of Me, film adaptation of Rosamund Lehmann’s masterpiece The Echoing Grove, (1953)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been way over a month since the Admiral and I attended the after-Christmas MLA conference in Philadelphia, and if I don’t type up some of my notes soon, by mid-March I’ll have two sets of sten notebooks from the ASECS conference at Albuquerque where I am to give my paper, “Rape in Clarissa.” I had been trying to finish a set of blog-reviews on Andrew Davies’s films first, and now think I’ll hold off on his 1997 Vanity Fair, and instead write a thumbnail sketch of what I’ve done so far on Reveries under the Sign of Austen since after all my interest in Davies began because of his Austen movies.

So this evening I begin a new series of reports on a conference, this time the MLA one. As I did for the EC/ASECS this fall, I will keep the reports shorter, and only report on those papers I enjoyed and feel had strong merit. This means four blogs on the sessions. It was very cold while we were there and while we went to three decent restaurants (an Irish bar was one), they were close to the hotel, nothing out of the ordinary so nothing to report on.

For tonight I report on two Sunday sessions, Girlhood and Nationhood (5:15 – 6:30 pm), and the other The Death of the Heart (7:00 – 8:15 pm), named after Elizabeth Bowen’s novel and about fiction in Britain after WW1.

The chairperson of the Girlhood and Nationhood panel opened with a truism about how girlhood and adolescence as it is really experienced by females has been often been ignored by feminist and other groups. The focus is on early and mid-childhood, partly because it’s easier to talk publicly about these areas and schools of psychology which look upon the earlier period as so pivotal, and partly because when seeking power this younger period of girls’ lives seems to be a pre-awareness past, one hard to get it since at this age girls are strongly coopted by their cultures and (paradox this) little truth has been told so far. Few novels which tell any serious truth. Particularly what is avoided is how a girl is turned into a woman; what is done to her, how she really reacts except in a few sociological studies (noble exceptions are Mary Piper’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wolff’s Promiscuities) In memoirs the realities are elided over (again exceptions come to mind, e.g., Anne Frank’s diary). I found this eliding, ignoring to be true in a recent memoir I read: Susha Guppy’s Memoirs of a Persian Childhood. Guppy managed not to write about her intimate life from ages 9 to 17 and then the book stopped.

The three papers were excellent.

The first paper was by Jane Dougherty, “This Girl is Not a Girl: The X Case and the Limits of Irish Female Subjectivity.” Ms Dougherty concentrated on the case of a girl who had been raped whose reaction did not fit pre-existing agendas of anyone. It was much discussed and led to women’s right to have an abortion in Ireland if the her life was at risk from the pregnancy, and risks included the possibility she’d commit suicide. The name of the girl is still not known. In 1983 an amendment or law had been passed which provided equal rights for women, leaving strict regulations against abortion. The media constructed images of the girl as an innocent, virginal child, and the girl was said not to want an abortion. Her identity was never revealed. She was never presented in a way that validated what might have been her feelings or thoughts; the statutory rape law says what the girl feels is invalid. While her paper concentrated on European women, she showed an analogous erasure of girlhood as well as a lack of concern for what the adolescent girl might want or need that is found in women’s African texts and lives.

Nuala O’Faolain (1940-2008), Irish writer/journalist who fought for womens’ rights

Tobe Levin’s paper was the ironically titled: “Female Genital Mutilation Transforms Girls into Women.” Ms Levin said she didn’t want to utter words, but rather shrieks. A huge (scary) percentage of African muslim women have this barbarity inflicted on them. She cited many legislatures which ignore what continues to happen. The alleged respect for culture is a cover-up: the respect ceases when moneyed groups are thwarted. Books written about it are not translated into English (a hegemonic language).

She described the detail of this excruciating procedure which insists on gratutitious suffering — they cut with razors and rough needles; hot sand is poured into the gash; dry dung waste applied; tying; lice; no washing allowed. A girl has no rights in societies which inflict this on them, either to her body, not to any joy; they are often married off very early to pre-chosen man as sexual object. The wedding night is often a rape, a criminal act. She cited texts where women write of falling into a coma, hating themselves, blocking emotion by becoming ferocious within. Others become intensely timid; the norm of modesty and a demand they have a chaperon is used to keep them from seeking real help from doctors. Doctors themselves can be insensitive, brusque, not want to involve themselves in real care of these women.

She was particularly upset by nationalist feminists who seek to silence the truth as they insist this defames their culture and puts them and it in a bad light. (This made me recall lines by Forster in A Passage to India where he talks of the many evils that come from nationalism.) She gave out a booklet, Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists, from which the above depiction of one of the cruel weapons used to inflict FGM on women comes, as also the next:

Helen Idehen (Nigerian artist), The Unfulfilled

The third paper, “Tough Girls: Dancing in the Dust” by Denise Handlarski was about how during apartheid in South Africa since girlhood was defined as between recognized states, girls were pushing into being politically active locally and never recognized for their efforts nor protected. We see them in Dancing in the Dust by Kagiso Legeso Molope as looking to get outside of South Africa; while there they live in female-centered networks, which include (unacknowledged) lesbians.

Everyone is regarded as heterosexual at the same time as girls are not supposed to desire anything sexually. What we find in books by or about these young women challenges the idea femininity is seen as weak since they were burdened with important tasks, at the same time as they are erased afterwards.

Molope’s book is a coming-of-age memoir-novel where girls are highly vulnerable “accidental activists.”

The discussion afterwards was passionate and unusually informative. It did turn on the importance of paying attention to girlhood. This maiming for life is usually done when the girl is 7. They are inculcated into an emotional attachment to those who do this to them. A few African countries have made only limited progress. The repressed rage goes down deep. They are forbidden to speak of anything by their mothers, and trauma is not reached. I told of the young woman in her 30s who was a nurse when in my class; she wrote a paper for a class I taught, and how she feared her daughters could be kidnapped and taken back to Sierra Leone and have this terrible thing done to them, and how she and I put her paper on my site. Other people told of how shame and impotence shapes the lives of these women later on when they have escaped. Again a counterproductive backlash of African scholars resentful at the depiction of the nation they are born in was described as another obstacle to change.

There was not much explicit talk about abortion rights, though apparently obstacles are put in a woman’s way; people discussed how much (or little) effect on women’s rights in Ireland a woman Irish president had had. Also arms manufacturers who make huge sums of money from colonialist wars in Africa, the corrupt regimes which run the countries, and how small boys as well as girls are exploited and (in effect) thrown away.


Harold Pinter’s film adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949), starring Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York

The chairperson of the Death of the Heart opened the session by explaining the papers would be about the uses of emotionality in mid-century novels by women. The session was useful and enlightening because so many of the novels had similarly themes, were similarly misunderstood or mischaracterized by critics until recently, were by women I had not heard of until a couple of years ago on WWTTA we began to read books about them and the books themselves (e.g., Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyns). A definition of them as “intermodern” was proposed, one which could fit many another women’s novel which has been marginalized or seen as second rate (not “great” the way say Graham Greene’s novels are described).

Stevie Smith’s autobiographical novel, The Holiday (1949)

Kate Flint’s paper, “Telling It to Strangers: Anger, Evasion and Form in Postwar Feminist Fiction” dealt with novels which confront domestic entrapment fiercely. She showed the picture of more or less contented women one sees in Ruth Adams’s A Woman’s Place is contradicted utterly in novels by women from before WW1. In particular the short story or short fiction lent itself to telling incidents of rebellion and disruption without having to openly deal with the consequences of explosions. The novels depict a world of grey ordinariness, a form of stultification. The women live in large houses, with servants, but strive for autonomy. She cited many names — those I am familiar with from Nicole Beauman’s study of mid-century novelists, A Very Great Profession, but I was unable to take any down beyond Minnie’s Room (a collection of short stories) and One Fine Day (a novel set in the countryside) by Mollie Panter-Downs. As with Alison Light’s reading of novels in Forever England, Flint contended the usual way of talking about Panter-Downs’s fiction and describing it mischaracterizes the experience and misreads it as complacent.

I enjoyed this talk — and admit I was startled to see she has a posh British accent, is a high tenured type (Chair) now at Rutgers (pay much better); she has written well on and edited novels by Trollope and often taken a feminist and egalitarian point of view, reading them as subversive critical books. Somehow I did not think she would be upper class British, the sort of people who can afford the high prices of the Trollope Society, and within that group many read him as conservative, endorsing them, their privileges, their lifestyles.

Interpreter cover illustration for Bowen’s Death of the Heart

Patricia Laurence’s “Capturing Emptiness: Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen” concentrated on the two writers’ masterpieces, The Death of the Heart and The Years. (I love them both.) Laurence suggested that The Death of the Heart captures the emptiness, the devastation of the era; The Heat of the Day is a book haunted by time and sordid treacheries. Woolf had said she wanted to break the traditions of novel art, and Bowen imitates Woolf: private lives are subsumed by war; the wall between living and dead thins out, the streets seem filled with the already dead, sleeplessness, fatigure, a vivid recreation of what it’s like to live where you are continually bombed and day by day watch other die and wonder when you will. It’s a book about things once unnameable (women who have affairs with men while their husbands are fighting elsewhere is made natural).

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in the film, The Hours, an unsympathetic rewrite of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

In Woolf’s The Years, time is a healing presence; the alienated self finds comfort in memories of a life no longer lived, a past gone. Laurence did not talk of Mrs Dalloway, but some of the images of the three heroines from Michael Cunningham’s novel seem to me to make visible memories and associations people might have of Woolf’s desperate characters in their nonetheless upper class privileged environments.

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn

It was Kristin B. Bluemel who came up with the term “intermodern” and defined this kind of novel as feminine (men write them too, though much less) and filled with grief and loss, an unbearable misery at the same time as they invite wacky laughter. She began by concentrating on Stevie Smith’s autobiographical, The Holiday (1949)

Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith in the movie adaptation, Stevie (1978)

Smith implicates history as a sequence of griefs and loss; the style of this and Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s is dry and restrained on the surface, but a kind of horror, terror, desolation story lurking just below.

Laurence covered Olivia Manning’s School for Love (1951). It resists binaries and also the kind of austere T.S. Eliot metaphysical interpretation many men’s novels can be fitted into. Manning presents an ideology which resists modernism, challenges it. Intermodernism also suggests a group of aesthetic qualities, highly literary, subjective (thus Lehmann belongs here, Elizabeth Taylor), and sometimes filled with quiet ironies and self-deprecating wit (so Patricia Duncker’s Miss Weeton and Cherif belongs here too). Mostly she insisted on how much we weep when we read these books. She urged us to embrace our real and valid emotions.

I love this sort of book myself and was cheered enormously to see it so frankly described and praised with high comic enthusiasm.

Marilyn Zeiber took a different tactic: while her subject was a woman novelist, Muriel Spark, whose novels belonged to this group (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Loitering with Intent, The Driver’s Seat, also outright gothics), she was determined to place them with men’s much-respected books, like Nabokov or Joyce. She too, though, said her subject was misread and misunderstood. Spark is deliciously chilly, uses the light touch to present a radically different perspective on what makes life worth while; she loves to shock with horror special affects. To find herself she had to exile from Scotland and her books present a world that is hollow or without obvious meaning in the center. Writerliness is her aim (as also Nabokov and Joyce).

She discussed The Driver’s Seat as a terrifying novel using traffic to show the absurdities of life. Apparently at the end the heroine wants to be raped and murdered and is; the novel shows a response to experience made up of humiliation, despair and anger, wild laughter too. A mordant book.

There was little time for discussion afterwards but there were so many people in the large room listening and some seemed as excited and interested as I felt so very quickly interesting comments were made. Does this new sort of fiction invent a new art of lamenting? some people once again can’t stand to have to identify themselves with victims in books, the powerless. Are mockery and ridicule together with crying an appropriate response or are there paralyzed visions? One should not apologize for these books. Since a number of these particular books and the type book they all represent are among my favorite subgenres I’m in no danger of that. And so on and so forth.

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown (the name is iconic) who gives up home, husband, and son, to become a librarian in Cunningham’s The Hours (and is much blamed for it): reading away


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