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6 Degrees From Fleishman to Women’s Rights

It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.

Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.

It’s  Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..

Let’s start again shall we.

Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.

Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.

I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.

The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.

The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.

As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.

Bly Manor, the setting  for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.

The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.

Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.

Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?

Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.

So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.

Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s.  Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.

And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..

Life and Times of the Novel: Women Writers

Part 4 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at the reasons for the growth of women as novelists in the Victorian era. 

Portait of domestic ideal of Victorian motherhood

From Austen to Ann Radcliffe and the Brontes, and from Gaskell to George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant; women writers seem to have been a dominant force in the novel market in Victorian Britain. It’s remarkable that they made such an impact given the strength of feeling in the nineteenth century that the proper place for women was at home, looking after the children and the family’s comfort, not dirtying their hands with any form of work.

Many of these women took up the pen because they needed the money.  Who can blame them? There were few other options available, particularly for middle class women who were expected to maintain a certain respectability befitting their status. They could have, like the Bronte sisters, become governesses but such a prospect wouldn’t have been all that attractive. For one thing, governesses occupied an uncomfortable middle ground where they lived with the family and were intimate with their domestic rituals and yet were not really one of the family. As unmarried women they were expected to exhibit behaviour above reproach and beyond even the hint of wayward behaviour.

There’s a passage in Jane Eyre in which the Ingram sisters recollect the way they tormented a series of governesses:

I have just one word to say of the whole tribe; they are a nuisance.  Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.  But poor Madame Joubert!  I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities—spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons.

Faced with that kind of daily torment, it’s not surprising that some women chose instead an occupation that could be pursued quietly and without the need for them to leave home. They could even write while rocking the baby’s cradle. Unlike poetry, the novel genre was also more accessible  to those without a classical education since it wan’t considered to be of the same high literary status.

Even then, many of them felt the need to hide the nature of their activities (including of course publishing their works under a male-sounding name as the Brontes felt compelled to do with their early works).  Charlotte Bronte  in fact wrote to the then Poet Laureate Robert Southey  that:

 “I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity which might lead those I live among to suspect the nature of my pursuits….. I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them.

That last phrase may hold a clue as to why the output of women’s writing proved to be so popular. As the idea of the new ‘realist’ form of fiction took shape, ordinary domestic lives and settings became of greater interest – and who better able to understand and convey that domestic dimension than those for whom home and hearth was considered their natural milleu? It was a subject on which they could speak with natural authority acknowledged by both men and women readers.

Provided they stayed within that space, their literary efforts would be socially accepted and even esteemed. But woe betide those like Mary Wollstonescraft who stepped outside those boundaries and refused to be confined within the moral, domestic and emotional perimeters of their allotted sphere. Such writers found themselves on the receiving end of severe criticism and condemnation.

About this article

This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

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