Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader

I want to buy this book. (Per my usual routine, I read this from the library and I only buy the ones I really really like and think I’ll refer back to). Almost every chapter is dog-eared with a reminder to go back and scoop up a bit of wisdom or an amazing work of art to investigate further. Maura Reilly edited this collection of Linda Nochlin’s essays on women artists from 1970-2015 and begins with an extensive interview with her. I first discovered Nochlin in the epic Women in Sexist Society, which included her clarion call, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?

After she wrote that 1970 essay (included in this collection in its expanded form), she put on an exhibition, Women Artists: 1550-1950, but explains that they weren’t claiming to find some hidden Michaelangelos. “For a variety of socially constructed reasons, there had really never been a female equivalent… Our goal was not primarily to prove that women really had an art history as successful as that of the men, despite overwhelming odds, a history silenced by male conspiracies.” She reminds us that “Those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.” She asks “What proportion of painters and sculptors, or more specifically, of major painters and sculptors, came from families in which their fathers or other close relatives were painters and sculptors or engaged in related professions?”  She notes that Rosa Bonheur had to get authorization from the police to wear “masculine clothing” appropriate for visiting the slaughterhouses where she studied horses’ anatomy.

I really enjoyed her 1999 essay Mary Cassatt’s Modernity, which brought all sorts of disparate threads in my life to one spot: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is extensively quoted, and I returned to my obsession from a few years ago with the Chicago World’s Fair mural by Cassatt (now missing) commissioned by Bertha Potter Palmer. Nochlin uses Richardson’s Miriam to explain that women make atmosphere:

[Women are emancipated.] Through their preeminence in art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other… Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly… so is the bad art of men. At its best it is absolutely life-giving. And not soft. Very hard and stern and austere in its beauty… Just as with ‘Art’… It’s one of the answers to the question about women and art. It’s all there. It doesn’t show, like men’s art. There’s no drama or publicity… It’s hard and exacting; needing ‘the maximum of detachment and control.’ And people have to learn, or be taught, to see it…

Mary Cassatt’s In the Loge, 1878

While reading Nochlin’s essay on Florine Stettheimer, I noted an article in the New York times about Stettheimer, sending me down a rabbit hole from which I’m finally emerging.

Mostly, this collection of essays was an incredible crash course in art history, filling me with info about Kathleen Gilje (whose X-ray reproductions show what she imagine to be underneath Artemisia Gentileschi’s work), Joan Mitchell, Jenny Saville, Liza Lou, and many many others.

Joan Mitchell’s Cous-cous (1961-2)
Liza Lou’s life-size Kitchen (1991-96) made entirely of beads

The life and art of Florine Stettheimer

The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer

A thorough biography of Florine Stettheimer by Barbara Bloemink, paired especially well with the 2014 Munich exhibition book with its richly rendered reproductions of her work. Her best work was done in the last two decades of her life, from age 50-70, the universe seems to be glowering down at me to make my life stretch at least that long.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in Rochester NY in 1871, her father abandoned the family after her younger sister was born, and the five children and mother headed to Stuttgart Germany for the early years of upbringing. They bopped around to various cities, Berlin, Paris, New York, but for most of her first forty years, Stettheimer lived abroad. WWI changed all of that, and she returned with her mother and sisters to live in New York for the remainder of her life, mostly in NYC but with rented summer homes.

With her return, she accepted her first and only solo exhibition which surprisingly didn’t sell any paintings; at this show, she contrived to make the gallery space look very much like her home in order to show her work in context. From that point on, she refused to sell her paintings and would only send a few pieces in for exhibitions. With her wealthy family, she could paint and exhibit what she wanted, exploding the myth of the starving artist.

She and her sisters set up quite the salon, encouraging conversation among their celebrated friends. They took French lessons from Marcel Duchamp even though they spoke French fluently, just to support him with a weekly stipend.

After her mother died in 1935, she finally moved out on her own, alienating her from younger sister Ettie (although Carrie didn’t care or understood?). Imagine living with your mother and sisters for the first 64 years of your life and then only having 9 remaining years to yourself. Florine died in 1944, and sister Carrie died unexpectedly six weeks later. That left Florine’s estate in the hands of Ettie, who then ravaged her journals with scissors, excising any bits that were “personal.” The biography does what it can with the tattered remains, but you can feel her seethe at the destruction wrought by a possibly jealous younger sister (Ettie published two books but was not as well-known as Florine).

Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer

This gorgeous book accompanied the 2014 Munich exhibition of Stettheimer’s work at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau. I gathered up everything I could find in the library system after recently having the universe reach down and tell me to investigate Stettheimer. Along with this book, I also perused the exhibition catalogs from the 1980 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the 1973 exhibition at Columbia University, where many of her paintings ended up. These catalogs tried their best, but don’t hold a candle to the vivid, full-color reproductions of her work alongside a dozen essays plus a section of her poems from Crystal Flowers. For anyone wanting to dive deep into this amazing artist, this 2014 book is the best guide to her work, showcasing her portraits of sisters and mother, party and picnic recaps, love letters to NYC and George Washington, and populating her pictures with pals like Marcel Duchamp and Carl Van Vechten and Leo Stein.

Note to self: next time I’m in NYC I need to see her sister’s dollhouse at the museum of the city of New York (Carrie Stettheimer). Also, the Brooklyn Museum has Heat on the 5th floor.

In SF, apparently the de Young has a copy of Still Life with Flowers (not currently on display).

Papillon

Papillon (P.S.)

I was sweetly given a copy of this book by a friend in Asheville who said it changed his life. Henri Charriere captures the true (?) tale of his imprisonment and two escapes from French Guiana. His first escape in 1933 had him sailing with a tiny boat and flimsy sails all the way from French Guiana to Trinidad, then Curacao, then Colombia.

In the first four notebooks, we learn Henri (Papillon, for the butterfly tattoo on his neck)’s crime is murder, which he didn’t commit, and is sentenced to life. He gets ahold of a “plan” (metal cylinder carried in the lower intestine filled with money) and jams it up his butt with thousands of francs. He seems to make friends very easily and always hook up with the right people. For the 1933 escape, he plots with Clousiot and Maturette to distract and club the guards (Maturette gladly seduces a few), then jump into a waiting boat piloted by L’Enfle who dumps them in a secluded spot and tells them to stay put for a few days and good luck if he’s captured. Papillon realizes what a shitty and non-seaworthy boat they’ve purchased, and what luck! they run into the Masked Breton who guides them to the island of lepers where they buy a nicer one.

I was slightly touched by the generosity of the leper colony, everyone jumping in to fund the escapee’s plan with money or food or a discounted boat. But does this really happen? Pap always seems to run into either really good people or really bad people. There are no indifferent people. Outfitted with a decent yet tiny boat, they make it to Trinidad where they can only legally stay for two weeks. They meet (shock!) a ton of awesome people who help them out with whatever they need. But they’re sent on their way with a few extra passengers who they try to dump on the Colombian coast after a brief stay in Curacao (where again they meet with wonderous people who love them even after they were accused of theft when they jangled a purse on a wall filled with coins). The handoff goes badly on the coast, and the boat is smashed up, the men are taken prisoner in Colombia.

But Pap escapes again! He makes another friend, Antonio, who chews cocoa leaves for energy, and they walk all night, hide during day, walk all night. Eventually Pap winds up in the arms of some friendly natives, Indians of Guajiraos in loincloths who welcome him, who immediately mate him with one of their young daughters (age 16). She (Lali) senses that he might not be happy with her, so she thrusts her 12 year old sister into his arms in order to keep him there. At first he rejects this, but old Pap can’t resist a little statutory rape so soon he has two wives and has impregnated the 12 year old. He tells one Indian interpreter about his plan to escape, and the guy suggests that he develop a stammer because people will get bored listening to him and not notice his accent. He also finds out that if the 12 year old has his son, then it will hold a place of honor in the tribe (“if it was a son, of course.”); we also find another woman having a child in the rocks near the beach and carrying it back triumphantly in the air– it must be a son because a daughter would have been scurried back to the village. Oh really. Why are women so devalued when they’re the ones diving for oysters?

*** Three weeks later, picking up this review ***

I’ve finished twelve other books since I wrote the initial part of this, which speaks volumes for how much I was enjoying the book (not much). Finally cranked through the remaining pages last night and it feels like I’ve gone on a cavale of my own (escape from prison). He is captured after the brief sojourn in paradise with the Indians and spends another block of time at the prison, hatching various schemes to get away. Eventually (mein Gott he needs an editor) he floats away on a bag of coconuts with another prisoner whom he later watches get sucked into quick sand as they are about to be free.

My next task is to read Genet’s The Thief’s Journal to see how much of it might have influenced Henri Charriere’s telling of this tale (both involve prisons in French Guiana. My suspicions were roused when reading Patti Smith’s M Train where she discusses Genet.

The Massarenes, in two volumes

The Massarenes

Oh delicious Ouida! I kept hearing about this writer in dribs and drabs, a confession from someone about having read her works, scandalous behavior 100 years ago. This lovely two volume set winged its way to me via the Link+ system, depositing at my doorstep two red leather books with gold-tipped paper published in 1897 with the note to “Handle with care.”

The 700 pages of the story sweep you along with the normal highs and lows expected of a Victorian novel. An man returns to England filthy rich having made “his pile” in the Dakotas of America, a very coarse ill-bred man but everyone is in love with his money. His one wish is to blend into the best society, so he and his bumpkin wife enlist the help of/are ensnared by Lady Kenilworth (aka Mouse), who proceeds to sell him her relatives’ estates and pockets a nice commission along the way. She’s of the finest oldest English stock, and her brother (Ronald) is constantly coming to her rescue to bail her out with money, since her husband, the to-be-duke is a drunkard. Her four children are not sired by this husband, but rather by the hanger-on, Henry, whom she also bleeds dry. The up-and-comers (the Massarenes) have a daughter (Katherine) who has been raised in English boarding schools, has impeccable manners and a keen sense that her father is trying too hard to buy his way into society.

Hijinx ensue! Mouse thinks nothing of borrowing thousands of pounds from her American “friend” who she bullies to death and disrespects. Eventually the tables are turned when her husband dies and she has to hand over the jewels she’s already pawned. Boorish Massarene to the rescue, but he holds it over her head and virtually imprisons her.

Turns out that he didn’t quite make money the honest and honorable way, and when a sick man writes for help whom he had swindled long ago, he dismisses it. The man jumps on a boat from America and sails over to shoot him through the heart, which leaves Katherine the immense fortune (and snidely offers a tiny portion to his wife, insulting her from the grave). She begins to go through her father’s papers, sending back all the IOUs to people, forgiving the debts, giving back the estates he had purchased, and sailing to America to donate all of his fortune to the people he’d done wrong to. At this point, Ronald declares himself for her, but Katherine denies him. Six months later and her mother dies, he comes back to restate his case, and does a much better job.

Meanwhile, the subplot of Mouse continues, she stages a boating accident to gain entry into a rich man’s secluded house but fails to attract his attention. He’s never gotten over his wife, from whom he is separated. Another man whom Mouse wronged vows to never let him marry her, and sets about to undo the evil he wrought when he spread lies about his daughter, causing the rich man to divorce her. On his deathbed, Mouse steals these letters and presents them to the rich man as something she pulled from him. In exchange, he gives half his fortune to her and her new hubby, a German prince. The news of Ronald’s marrying the penniless and low-born Katherine enrages her, but her husband cautions sense. The book ends with her touring the London home of her former American friend, this time in the company of its new owner, a rich Australian whom she flatters. The beat goes on.

Lord Framingham (her friend in India) waxes eloquently on money:

Aristocracy in its true sense exists no longer. War in its modern form is wholly a question of supply. The victory will go to who can pay most and longest. The religious orders, once so absolute, are now timid anachronisms quaking before secular governments. Science, which cannot move a step without funds, goes cap in hand to the rich. Art has perished nearly. What is left of it does the same thing as science… What remains? Nothing except trade, and trade cannot oppose wealth, because it lives solely through it. For this reason, money, mere money, with no other qualities or attractions behind it, is omnipotent now as it never was before in the history of the world. It is not one person or set of persons who is responsible for this. It is the tendency of the age, an age which is essentially mercenary and is very little else! In politics, as in war and in science, there is no moving a step without money and much money. The least corrupt election costs a large outlay… You see there is no power left which can, or dare, attempt to oppose the undisputed sway of money. A great evil, you say? No doubt.

Mrs. Massarane has some rare words of wisdom about men after her daughter asks her if her father doesn’t realize how ridiculous Lady Kenilworth makes him:

My dear, a man never thinks he is ridiculous. He says to himself, ‘I’m a man,’ and he gets a queer sort of comfort out of that as a baby does out of sucking its thumb.

Today is a very Florine Stettheimer day

photo

Maybe it’s just me, but I found this a jarring coincidence that as I’m making my way through the extensive Linda Nochlin Reader filled with essays on women in art, I read the essay tonight about Florine Stettheimer, just a few hours after I finished reading today’s New York Times, where an article by Susan Mulcahy features one of Stettheimer’s works as controversially sold by Fisk University to pay its bills. The painting in question is Asbury Park South, finished in 1920. Fittingly, Nochin finishes her 1980 essay, Florine Stettheimer: Rococo Subversive, by quoting one of Stettheimer’s poems:

Art is spelled with a capital A
And capital also backs it
Ignorance also makes it sway
The chief thing is to make it pay
In a quite dizzy way
Hurrah—Hurrah—

 

M Train

M Train

A dreamy work from Patti Smith, more enjoyable than Just Kids which garnered her the National Book Award. In M Train, she fully unleashes her poetic prose, willing a book to flow from her fingers by sheer habit of going to the same Village cafe to write every morning (which eventually closes, much to her dismay), flustered if anyone sits in “her” spot, a chair at a table somewhat hidden away from the rest of the cafe.

Once again she taps her past for stories, but these weren’t centered around Mapplethorpe, thank god. She tells of traveling with husband Fred to French Guiana to retrieve stones from the jail to be placed with Genet (who served time there and documented it in The Thief’s Journal, queued up for me because I’m also reading Papillon and wondering if any bits are ripped off from Genet) in France, enlisting the help of William Burroughs whom Patti knew since her early 20s.

Throughout the book she peppers photographs of objects of interest: Roberto Bolaño’s writing chair, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Sylvia Plath’s headstone in winter, Tolstoy’s bear for calling cards, Frida Kahlo’s bed. Fred’s early death is also a constant ghost in this story, popping up to remind her as she ages, turns sixty-six.

Other tales range from giving a talk as the newest (and last, 23rd) member of the Continental Drift Club (CDC) in Berlin, plus the time she sang songs with Bobby Fischer, chess legend, all night in Reykjavik, Iceland. When a flight delay in London depresses her, she decides to stay on in the country for a few weeks, holed up in her hotel watching detective shows. Coffee drinking and the pursuit thereof is a favorite theme. She purchases a dilapidated house on Rockaway Beach a few months before Hurricane Sandy devastates the area (but leaves her house standing, just with tons of mold and rot). She gets transported by The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and makes her way to Japan to pay homage to some of the dead authors, see the post-earthquake reconstruction, and meet with her Japanese publisher.

Liquor License: An Ethnography of Bar Behavior

Sherri Cavan was my neighbor until a few months ago when she died from cancer. I never knew her, but B stumbled onto her remarkable life after dipping into an estate sale that held pure gold from the 1970s and 80s. After reading her recollections of studying sociology at Berkeley in the 1960s, I was convinced I wanted to read this work.

This book is an outcropping of her 1965 PhD thesis, Social Interaction in Public Drinking Places, in which she spent a few years bopping around San Francisco bars, nightclubs, etc. doing field research.

How much have things changed since the 1960s! The Alcoholic Beverages Control (ABC) statutes in eleven states “categorically deny females the right to work in liquor establishments. In California, women are permitted to work in public drinking places, but the tasks they are lawfully permitted to carry out are limited. Unless a woman is the licensee or the wife of the licensee of the establishment, she is prohibited from working behind the bar unless she restricts her activities to serving beer and soft drinks.” Punishment was either $100, 3 months in jail, or both. That’s about $800 in 2016 dollars.

Beyond the restrictions around work, there were several bars that did not allow women as patrons, assuming they were all prostitutes. Or if they’re permitted access, they are not allowed to sit at the bar. Conversely, many bars employed B-girls (bar girls) to coerce drinks from male patrons that they were later given bonuses for by the bar.

As a subject of sociological field research, Cavan strikes gold with studying bar behavior. She notes that the bar itself creates an open region where strangers are allowed if not expected to interact with each other. Just by coming in the door signals that you are open for conversation. Of course, you can also use your posture to connote otherwise:

Unlike those who are open for interaction, the solitary drinker typically minimizes the amount of physical space he takes up at the bar. He will sit with his forearms either resting on the edge of the bar, or flat on the bar before him, his upper torso hunched slightly forward over the bar, with all of his drinking accoutrements (drinks, cigarettes, change, ashtray, and the like) contained within the area before him. The area delimited by teh inner sides of his arms defines his visual focus as well, for transitory eye contact is not defined as civil inattention in the public drinking place; if the solitary patron is caught in eye contact by another, his whole posture may be discredited.

Within the bar context, you can recreate your biography at will, becoming greater, wiser, richer (more Trumpish) and no one will expose your sham. Besides conversation, attention can be granted to other things like the jukebox, or other activities. Bars offer various types of amusements, ranging from pinball, bowling machines (?), pool tables, cards, dice, darts, radios (!), television sets, silent movies, shooting galleries, and “in one establishment on at least one occasion, pencils, paints, pastels, and drawing paper.”

Little Women

Little Women (Puffin in Bloom)

Simply charming, a must-read for anyone who has forgotten the power of Alcott’s storytelling. Harmless morality tales inside that teach without being overly preachy, resolve to be good, etc. etc. The unnamed Mrs. March, mother to the four sisters, reveals her own struggle to be good when Jo comes to her for advice for overcoming her temper: “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.” The unnamed Mr. March is conveniently away from home fighting for the Yanks in the Civil War, but he does make an appearance later in the book after being nursed back to health.

Jo is the star, the independent whirligig of energy who channels her creativity into stories that she sells to make money for the family (and later hones to art after abandoning the cheap thrilling trash that she was paid to write). Amy is the visual artist, sketching and sculpting, lucking out into a European tour with her aunt after Jo rashly said she doesn’t enjoy taking favors from people. Meg is the oldest, settling into a family of her own way too soon for Jo’s liking. Beth is in the middle, the musician who dies early after being weakened by scarlet fever that she never truly recovers from. Jo discovers Laurie, her next door neighbor, is a capital chap, and they horse around for years until it seems likely that Laurie has fallen in love with her. Jo takes a governess job in NYC in order to create distance and possibly get Laurie to love Beth. In the end, Laurie and Amy start their own family, Jo marries her German friend, the professor.

Alcott was pressured into marrying Jo off, and did not want to. (From her journal in November 1868: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.”) She churned this off in ten weeks, ending part one with a plea, “So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it rises again depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called ‘LITTLE WOMEN’.”

Parts of the book seem to spill directly from Alcott’s soul: “Then she tried a child’s story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it.”

Despite Alcott’s loathing of marriage, her book isn’t quite the underground feminist novel that it could have been. While Jo cavorts around with the freedom of a boy, when it comes to describing Meg’s twins, Demi and Daisy, Alcott caves into the cultural baggage of the sexes by making Demi (the boy) precocious, adventurous, inquisitive, and educated while Daisy (the girl) learns to stitch and “made a galley-slave of herself and adored her brother.” Puke.

The version I read (Modern Library, pub’d 2000) had terrible notes compiled by Random House, and they truly were random. On one page, they’d explain a character name, but make no reference to who Madam de Stael was. But then they’d insert a footnote to explain something that was entirely clear by context, that Killarney was in Ireland. I did pick up that there was an earlier Speed the Plough play (Thomas Morton) by references to the frequently mentioned Mrs. Grundy. (I recently saw the Mamet play Speed the Plow and am getting a copy of Morton’s to compare/contrast)

can’t and won’t

Can't and Won't: Stories

Lydia Davis is usually a palate cleanser for me, her spare sentences telling a complete story in the least amount of space imaginable. But I found this 2014 collection to be disappointing, jammed full of dreams and re-enactments of what Flaubert would say. Perhaps she says it best in the piece Not Interested: “I’m simply not interested in reading this book…. That’s how I’m feeling these days, anyway, maybe it will pass.” A tiny bit from the piece I enjoyed most, I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable:

I’m tired.

The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.

A man is coughing during the concert.

All the Single Ladies

Meh. Some interesting stats, but this one could have been condensed into an article.

  • Since the late 1800s, women’s median age of first marriage was between 20 and 22. It’s now 27.
  • The proportion of American women who are married dropped below 50%  in 2009.
  • In the 1970s, only 10% of women ended their childbearing years without producing a kid. In 2010 it was 20%.
  • For the first time in American history, single women outnumber married women. Number of adults younger than 34 who have never married is up to 46%.

A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One's Own

I hate book clubs. My latest attempt was an aborted one at the Mechanic’s Institute, I felt sure that I could handle it because it was the launch of the Virginia Woolf book group, dedicated to reading her work over the next few months. Instead, it’s the cast of (older) characters you would expect—the old white man who knows everything and whom I had to correct occasionally after he loudly declared some false statement about VW, the old white woman who loves to hear herself speak and who doesn’t listen when others are speaking. There was a core group of four people who are all in another book group at the library dedicated to world literature, their voices amped up and overpowering those of us who weren’t accustomed to the over-talking and pontificating.

But all this is beside the point. For the above-mentioned book club, I re-read A Room of One’s Own, and I am delighted to have done so. My first write-up a few years ago covers a lot, but I did uncover one area in this read that I had overlooked before:

Woolf suggests several areas of scholarship that need to be completed, perhaps by some brilliant scholars at Newnham and Girton, including a rewrite of history to include all the information about women that has been suppressed, the life of the average Elizabethan woman (at what age did she marry, how many children did she have on average, what was her house like, did she have a room to herself, did she do the cooking, did she have a servant); a book on the discouragement of the mind of the artist; a history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation (“more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. An amusing book might be made of it if some young student at Girton or Newnham would collect examples and deduce a theory, but she would need thick gloves on her hands, and bars to protect her of solid gold.”); and the effect of men’s value of women’s chastity on their education (“That profoundly interesting subject, the value that men set upon women’s chastity and its effect upon their education, here suggests itself for discussion, and might produce an interesting book if any student at Girton or Newnham cared to go into the matter”).

Also the question of anger. In the book club, one man mentioned that he didn’t feel like it was an angry book at all. I referred to her restrained and reined in feelings that were necessary to get her message across, but there are definitely flashes of pure rage, especially in the section about Professor von X whose book was entitled The Mental, Moral, And Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. As she reads the newspaper headlines on her lunch break, she says:

the most transient visitor to this planet, I though, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor…With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry… it seemed absurd that a man with all this power should be angry. Or is anger somehow the familiar, the attendant sprite on power? Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth. The professors, or patriarchs, might be angry for that reason partly, but partly for one that lies a little less obviously on the surface. Possibly they were not “angry” at all… Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hotheadedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.

 

Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing

Michèle Barrett selected and introduces these essays by Virginia Woolf on women and writing. Paired with A Room of One’s Own, you have a hearty mix of thoughts on women writers and the challenges they faced/face. She points out that throughout history, ‘Almost without exception women are shown in their relation to men,’ e.g. they don’t exist except as Other. In this collection of essays Woolf dives deep into Austen, the Brontës, Aphra Behn, etc. She also touches on (to my interest:) Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Olive Schriener. Not to mention: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mrs Humphry Ward, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Elizabeth Browning, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Haywood.

In Women and Fiction, published 1929 in The Forum, she asks why there was no continuous writing done by women before the 18th century:

Thus it is clear that the extraordinary outburst of fiction in the beginning of the nineteenth century in England was heralded by innumerable slight changes in law and customs and manners. And women of the nineteenth century had some leisure; they had some education. It was no longer the exception for women of the middle and upper classes to choose their own husbands. And it is significant that of the four great women novelists—Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot—not one had a child, and two were unmarried.

Later, she also calls out the fact that women were not exposed to the adventures and sights and travel that male authors were:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience. That experience has a great influence upon fiction is indisputable. The best part of Conrad’s novels, for instance, would be destroyed if it had been impossible for him to be a sailor. Take away all that Tolstoi knew of war as a soldier, or life and society as a rich young man whose education admitted him to all sorts of experience, and War and Peace would be incredibly impoverished.

Beyond this, novels by women were sometimes affected by the rage that boiled beneath the maltreatment.

The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly two-fold instead of single…. The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations and to hold on their way unperturbed by scorn or censure. But it needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger. The ridicule, the censure, the assurance of inferiority in one form or another which were lavished upon women who practiced an art, provoked such reactions naturally enough.

In 1920’s Men and Women, Woolf touches on the root of it all: “From her [Helen Pendennis] we learn also that when one sex is dependent upon the other it will endeavour for safety’s sake to simulate what the dominant sex finds desirable.” Thus you have women reluctant to embrace their strength, pretending delicateness and muddle-headed-ness.

In 1918’s Women Novelists, she mentions one of the core causes for why there has been so much terrible writing by women: imposed purity of thought. “The effect of these repressions is still clearly to be traced in women’s work, and the effect is wholly to the bad. The problem of art is sufficiently difficult in itself without having to respect the ignorance of young women’s minds or to consider whether the public will think that the standard of moral purity displayed in your work is such as they have a right to expect from your sex. The attempt to conciliate, or more naturally to outrage, public opinion is equally a waste of energy and a sin against art.” (Emphasis mine).

In Indiscretions (1924), Woolf writes one of the most brutal takedowns of Byron that I’ve ever read:

But no woman ever loved Byron; they bowed to convention; did what they were told to do; ran mad to order. Intolerably condescending, ineffably vain, a barber’s block to look at, compound of bully and lap-dog, now hectoring, now swimming in vapours of sentimental twaddle, tedious, egotistical, melodramatic, the character of Byron is the least attractive in the history of letters. But no wonder that every man was in love with him. In their company he must have been irresistible; brilliant and courageous; dashing and satirical; downright and tremendous; the conqueror of women and companion of heroes–everything that strong men believe themselves to be and weak men envy them for being. But to fall in love with Byron, to enjoy Don Juan and the letters to the full, obviously one must be a man; or, if of the other sex, disguise it.

Aphra Behn’s section from A Room of One’s Own was pulled out for separate inspection in this collection, giving credit to one of the trail blazers. “Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance… The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women–the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays of Shakespeare, the translating of the classics–was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (My emphasis)

In her review of Mary Wollstonecraft, she mentions Godwin’s belief that “if two people of the opposite sex like each other, they should live together without any ceremony, or, for living together is apt to blunt love, twenty doors off, say, in the same street.”

Pilgrimage (Vol 1: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb)

Pilgrimage: v. 1 (Virago Modern Classics)

Dorothy Richardson is a miracle. Her epic thirteen chapter book, Pilgrimage, is made up of thirteen individual novels that she continued publishing from 1915 steadily until 1938 (then the last book/chapter, March Moonlight, tacked on awkwardly after her death). If she’s known at all (and she is not, sadly), she’s known for pioneering stream of consciousness writing, predating Woolf and Joyce. More importantly in my mind, she is the first to assert the narrative rights of a female consciousness. Her writing is breathtaking in the way it transports you into Miriam’s mind. While the book relies heavily on autobiographical material from Richardson’s life, she insisted that we view it as a fictional piece.

In the first book/chapter, Pointed Roofs, we’re immediately thrust into the throbbing current of Miriam’s thoughts as she bids farewell to her sisters and travels to Germany to teach English and to continue her studies, her father’s fortune having dwindled to nothing and having to adjust to a life of poverty after enjoying the carefree lifestyle of the British upper class. She thinks and feels intensely, playing piano, embracing the moment of life right now, “what a perfect morning… what a perfect morning.” She’s summoned home to celebrate her sister Harriet’s engagement and never returns to Hanover.

Backwater picks the story up with Miriam and her mother having tea with the three Pernes sisters, all old maids, who run a school that Miriam will teach at in the fall. She has three glorious weeks at home where she meets a man (Max Sonnenheim) that perhaps she will marry, and then heads to the gloomy North London school to teach. Here she has her first experience reading the newspaper, and waits until everyone is out of the room before she attempts to read it, not wanting to look foolish about how to fold it.

No wonder people read newspapers. You could read about what was going on the country, actually what the Government was doing at that very moment. Of course; men seemed to know such a lot because they read the newspapers and talked about what was in them. But anybody could know as much as the men sitting in the arm-chairs if they chose; read all about everything, written down for everybody to see. That was the freedom of the press—Areopagitica, that the history books said so much about, and was one of those new important things, more important than facts and dates. Like the Independence of Ireland. Yet very few people really talked like newspapers. Only angry men with loud voices. Here was the free press that Milton had gone to prison for. Certainly it made a great difference. The room was quite changed. There was hardly any pain in the silent cane-seated chairs. There were really people making the world better. Now. At last.

At the end of Backwater, she leaves the school so she can take the more lucrative job of governess. This is where we find her in Honeycomb, headed toward the wealthy family with two children she will teach, Sybil and Boy. (The boy remains unnamed, but is once called Boy by his sister…) Miriam becomes more and more confident in her thoughts, boldly offering up ideas and conversation to the men as she plays billiards with them while their wives flutter about like decorative birds. On one occasion the woman she works for (Mrs. Corrie) decides to head into London to buy a hat and begins gossiping about one of her friends not having any children.

Miriam mused intensely. She felt Mrs Kronen ought to be there to answer. She had some secret Mrs Corrie did not possess. Mrs Corrie looked suddenly small and mild and funny. Why did she think it dreadful that Mrs Kronon should have no children? There was nothing wonderful in having children. It was better to sing, She was perfectly sure that she herself did not want children… ‘Superior women don’t marry,’ she said, ‘sir she said, sir she said, su, per, i, or women’—but that meant blue-stockings.

Later, at a party at the Corrie’s house, Miriam has a moment of truth:

The men of the party were devouring their food with the air of people just about to separate to fulfill urgent engagements. They bend and gobbled busily and cast smouldering glances about the table, as if with their eyes they would suggest important mysteries brooding above their animated muzzles. Miriam’s stricken eyes sought their foreheads for relief. Smooth brows and neatly brushed hair above; but the smooth motionless brows were ramparts of hate; pure murderous hate. That’s men, she said, with a sudden flash of certainty, that’s men as they are, when they are opposed, when they are real. All the rest is pretence. Her thoughts flashed forward to a final clear issue of opposition, with a husband. Just a cold blank hating forehead and neatly brushed hair above it. If a man doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree he’s just a blank bony conceitedly thinking, absolutely condemning forehead, a face below, going on eating—and going off somewhere. Men are all hard angry bones; always thinking something, only one thing at a time and unless that is agreed to, they murder. My husband shan’t kill me… I’ll shatter his conceited brow—make him see… two sides to every question.. a million sides… no questions, only sides… always changing. Men argue, think they prove things; their foreheads recover–cool and calm. Damn them all—all men.

Delicious insight into the state of mind that Miriam had after realizing her options were to be trapped in a marriage or to be desperately looking for work all her life.

I’ve already gone down a rabbit hole on where to find the other 3 volumes that contain the remainder of the books, contemplating buying them but thinking I might hold off on purchasing when the scholarly edition hits the shelves in a few years. In the meantime, the library is my friend and I will pluck the next volume from its shelves. This book is woefully forgotten, neglected, abandoned, and we must take up its cause.

The Long-Winded Lady

Sad to say, this Maeve Brennan collection of short tales she published in The New Yorker in the 1960s left me cringing and wishing for Joseph Mitchell. It should have been like manna from heaven, these bursts of eavesdropping and observation from a single lady moving about NYC, but she never carried through on any of them. Notes that fell flat, words I wondered why I was reading. Lots of late afternoon restaurant dropping-in to avoid crowds and to ogle books she’d snapped up at a discount while swilling a martini. Lots of moving around from two rooms in a hotel to apartment-sitting in the Village for a friend back to hotel rooms, etc. I hope this isn’t jealousy on my part, envious of the life of a single woman writer with no entanglements set free to record (and be paid for!) her thoughts on the city. But it seemed like none of the stories really contained any meat, any bloody flesh for us to tear onto.