Last July, the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize was announced as Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing and on the back of this the organisers launched a campaign to discover the novels that ‘have impacted, shaped or changed the lives of readers’. The top 20 were subsequently reported in the Guardian and whilst they are inspiring and wonderful books, my list differs greatly as I imagine yours might.
The Baileys list was topped by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird because yes, it is a truly wondrous book but also I suspect a small part of its popularity may be down to the primacy and recency effect: the book has been in the news due to the attempts by Michael Gove to remove it from the national curriculum in favour of books of British origin. Legions of loyal Mocking-birders rose up as one to tell Gove where to go and remind him that ultimately, being read-able is not a literary sin. I had to smile when I read that the super precocious Lisa Simpson of the semi-eponymous cartoon show had also voted it her all time favourite, saying: “This book taught me about the importance of standing up for what’s right. And… Boo Radley. SIGH. Last one.”
Researching this piece made me think that actually, I need to look at the arts in general and include the works of art that I love the most. I’m not sure whether this will result in a cluttered old list but in my mind, books and artworks tend to commingle in my brain, or at least the appreciation of one leads down the road to another. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.
So in no particular order…
(1) Wifey by Judy Blume– This book really blew my fifteen year old mind because there was something viscerally gross about the protagonist Sandy and Norm Pressman and their dreary, suburban second-guessed and second-best marriage. Set in seventies USA, Sandy is tired of life with her social climber of a dry-cleaner husband who is bored and boring and she decides to embark on a few fumbling and inept affairs.
Sandy has developed a literal itch to accompany her emotional general chafing against Norm; her good-housewife life with its country club and yearly holidays in the Bahamas; her timetable of Saturday-night sex, starched cookie-cutter dresses and up-do’s. “So where did things go wrong, Norm?” she thinks, lying in bed. “So what happened? Comfortable. Safe. We had our babies. We made a life together. But now I’m sick….And I’m so fucking scared!…Oh mother, dammit! Why did you bring me up to thinkthis is what i wanted? And now that I know it’s not, what I am I supposed to do about it?”
Sandy ends up settling for her marriage (after a dose of the clap as a moral punishment) and tries to rev things up by initiating regular oral sex with a husband who is put off by her pubic hair. Her decision is not a comfortable one but it is understandable in the face of the social pressures of her uptight New Jersey community. Wifey frightened me with its undertones of seediness and the quiet desperation of a woman going stark raving-mad with unfulfilment. On the surface it presents itself as a comedy of sexual manners and the cover of my original copy reinforces that with its shiny electric blue and titular pop art slash across the front but like all of Bloom’s books it is uncomfortably honest.
Whenever I look at Vanessa Bell’s ‘Still Life on a Mantelpiece’ I feel my throat closing off in sharp contrast to the effect the work is supposed to elicit. For me, the cluttered stillness of all the objects on display mirrors the scatty chaos in Sandy’s mind as she tries to make sense of what she has settled for and then struggles against it with various men, all equally stifled and perplexed as to how they ended up this way. Bell placed great importance upon interior decoration as a reflection of personal identity and believed that the domestic milieu could be as artistically valid as any public (male) space: she’d probably feel be surprised that her painting triggers such negative feelings in me. For myself, it is as smothering an example of her class sensibilities as is Sandy’s Ultrasuede covered couch and mid-century modern pieces is of her own. Sandy’s lack of intra-personal awareness, her inability to elucidate exactly what it is she wants and her subsequent actions are an abstract representation of this domestic sphere that so many women find unsatisfying. I have no doubt that Sandy decorated her newly-wed home with some sense of anticipation and a pleasure at having her own space, only to see it all turn to grey in the end.
(2) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge– If, like me, you are intrigued by Victorian ideas about invalids and the nobility of illness then this book is the ur example of it with the spirited central character, Katy, being cut down by unspecified spinal injuries after defying an order to not play on a garden swing which, unknown to her was faulty. Prior to this, Katy scrambled over gates, through fields and conducted herself with abandoned unawareness of her gender. She was an early depiction of a ‘tomboy’ in literature along with Jo from ‘Little Women’ although Jo, unlike Katy did not have her gender transgressions corrected by disability or ill health. Jo, being older was framed in the corrective context of her suitability (or not) for marriage. Katy’s subsequent fall from high (there’s a nice metaphor for you) placed her flat on her back for nearly four years and subject to the ministrations of saintly Cousin Helen and her ‘School of Pain’-which sounds like something offered by latex clad women wearing gimp masks as they excitedly quote from the scriptures.
In Cousin Helen we have the classic example of the uncomplaining invalid who is an example, not only to Katy but to society as a whole and we see this in similar books of the era: from Clara in ‘Heidi’ to the eponymous Pollyanna, misfortunes were depicted as bestowed by God for the ultimate good of the afflicted character or those around him or her. For myself, I found Katy to be by far the more appealing, lost interest in her after her conversion to saintliness and this book served as an early and introductory lesson in how to spot moral indoctrination when I read it aged nine. As an adult it showed me the importance of clear and open communication with your children- don’t just tell them to stay off the swing, ensure that you tell them why.
The obvious comparison here would be Frida Kahlo whose art very much represented her struggles with the aftermath of an accident that left her with serious skeletal and internal injuries but the artist and work that most comes to mind is Rhythm 2 by Marina Abramović, made in 1974. Abramović sought to test whether a state of unconsciousness could be woven into a public performance and did this in a two part performance. In part one she ingested medication more usually prescribed for catatonia, a state that can cause neurogenic immobility or muscular unpredictability for hours, days or months at a time. As she was not suffering from that condition Abramović’s body reacted violently and she endured painful and uncontrollable seizures. Her mind remained lucid and she was able to observe and document what was happening to her. In the second part, Abramović took another pill, one usually prescribed for people with depression and psychomotor agitation and this had the effect of rendering her emotionally and physically slowed up to the point of immobility. Bodily she was present and still but her psychological and emotional processes were removed from the outside world.
I see a willful bravery in the actions and decisions of this artist with that of Katy who was generally pushing of boundaries in her own small town and domestic situation. Both faced public opprobrium and questioning of their moral character, (Abrmamovic has been very fiercely criticised for risking permanent damage to her psychomotor health) and Katy’s actions resulted in a physically immobilised body which, in turn, caused her to slump into what we would now diagnose as a reactive depression until her cousin came to stay and gave her a transfusion of Christian moral teachings. Abramovic made a very brave decision to put herself on show during a moment of complete vulnerability-not possessed of either her physical or mental faculties, allowing the public to witness whatever happened. Katie used her indisposition to reposition herself as the head of the family and address her depression head on at a time when paralysis must have been a horrendous thing to endure with physical treatments and therapies very few. There must have been very little privacy for her in such a crowded household.
(3) Arial by Sylvia Plath – This is the book of poetry that stopped me from becoming weary of, and intimidated by the form after years of old male poets like Hardy and Lawrence waxing lyrically over mistling thrushes, snakes and sexual frustration from the male perspective, places called Beeny Cliff and fallen women. It also showed me how a popular narrative about the life of a famous person can drown out aspects of character and biography that don’t quite fit, resulting in a very one dimensional depiction, often with a political or cultural agenda.
Speaking personally, when that narrative results in people travelling to the cemetery where Plath is buried in in order to scratch out the name of her then husband from her gravestone, something has gone awry. He treated her terribly but seriously- defacing a gravestone? Grow up. There is no doubt that Plath endured great privation as a result of her mental health problems, her troublesome marriage and her creative drive but she was also capable of great tenderness, hope and joy- read ‘You’re’ to see what I mean in this tremulous and anticipatory poem about her pregnancy and unborn child. I have recently been looking at her wonderful pen and ink drawings too which also show a playful and wry side to her personality, a talent of hers that has been woefully under publicised. This one, ‘Curious French Cat’ is my favourite in the way it is more than the sum of its parts (the title and the drawing) and therefore a metaphor in my mind for La Plath.
(4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith- To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you don’t know the strength of a woman until you put her in hot water and this book is packed with women facing dire straits; financially, emotionally, and culturally in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. We have Katie with her gadabout singing-waiter cum alcoholic husband and Sissy who defies the moral norms of the time with her need for love and passion without the legitimisation of marriage and defines happiness by the men she encounters. Evy, another sister of Katie, is married to an ineffectual and weak milkman and the grandmother Mary is brutalised by her husband and limited by her lack of language yet manages to produce literate children. They grow up knowing that the American Dream will only happen if they hide their savings from husbands who are feckless dreamers. And then we have the protagonist Francie, whose blossoming from childhood into young womanhood forms the central part of the story.
In an interview, Smith said that she didn’t write about the Nolan family for any socially significant reason, but because they were “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like” but at the time of publishing her book drew a lot of criticism for its social realism and depiction of poverty and food hunger, death, addiction and women doing what they needed to do to get by and keep their children alive: aspects of life some prefer to ignore. Smith has such warmth and respect for those she writes of, even the characters leading small and mean lives. She respects the person, their individuality and duality, as she says of Francie: “She was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It’s that “something” that is in “each soul that is given life–the one different thing such as that which makes no fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
The female characters in ‘A Tree Grows in Brokklyn’ have rich inner lives that we are privy to. They never break the fourth wall by addressing us but Francie, especially, reveals parts of herself that seemed independent of the authorial prism. She became alive to me. The haunting photographs of Francesca Woodman also have this quality in their revelations of gender, lives in their contextual spaces and secrets concealed and revealed. Woodman puts herself in the frame but they are not conventional self-portraits as she is either concealed by slow exposures that blur or mar her moving body, making her ephemeral, even ghostly. Like Francie, who offers us a continual frame of perception and insight through experiences, location (Brooklyn is described so vividly via small vignettes) and encounters, Woodman’s photographs are produced in ‘thematic series’, and relate to specific places, props or situations and this reminds us that just like Francies belief systems, a photograph may distort and inadvertently deceive, never offering the whole truth about a subject and its corporeal existence. And in this deception, we see mirrored the rationale behind Francie’s mothers attempts to conceal the unpalatable truth about her father, until she is of an age enough to cope with it.
(5) The Women’s Room by Marilyn French– I borrowed my friends copy and read it until it fell apart and eventually had to buy my own when she demanded it back. I am now, thirty four years later, on my fourth copy and have bought countless others as gifts. The idea of the Fifties housewife was constructed to allow men back to work after they were demobbed- labour saving devices provided manufacturing work and made home more attractive for the women who were lured from their war time jobs (freeing them up for men) back into the home. French exposed the reality behind the ‘American Dream’, of under educated women burdened by creative and intellectual aspiration, encouraged to seek fulfillment solely through the home and the bearing of children, of the sexual double standard and the ways in which women are made responsible for, and boundary setters of, male sexuality and the male sex drive. The stand out scene for me is pretty stunning in its mundanity as Myra and her two sons, Norm and Clark busy themselves in their kitchen on a sunny day, preparing lunch and Myra allows herself to take pleasure in the domestic and shared intimacy they are all enjoying. The sudden realisation that she has ‘nearly bought into’ the American Dream’ as she strings beans at the sink, and is falling into a cosy acceptance of domesticity stops her short. She cannot totally escape her gender conditioning and certainly can never drop her guard: “Outside she heard small children playing….peace cupped her heart and she held it gently. Smiling she stood at the kitchen sink, holding a bunch of string beans in her hand, letting herself be a part of it…She brought herself upright. My God! It was the American dream, female version. Was she still buying it? She didn’t even like to cook. She resented marketing: she didn’t really even like the music that was sweeping through the apartment, but she still believed in it: the dream stood of the happy humming house. Why should she be so happy doing work that had no purpose, no end?”
Myra, Val, Clarissa, Isolde and the other characters embodied the many facets of women’s liberation: Second Wave Feminism emerged in the 1960’s and focused on a multitude of issues ranging from women gaining control over their sexuality to their fight for equality in the workplace. The Women’s Room is a novel suffused with many of its central concepts although in 1977 French stated, “The Women’s Room“ is not about the women’s movement… but about women’s lives today.” Although its ending is somewhat bleak, ultimately this is a positive book for me because it made me begin to look outwards and beyond my own experiences and lifestyle aged just fourteen.
Some books become intrinsically linked in my mind to great works of art and the artists themselves, whether that be music, painting or another form. Whenever I think of The Women’s Room (and especially hot headed, passionate Val), Frida Kahlo comes into my mind and the paintings of hers that chime with French’s writing here the most are ‘Frida and the Abortion’ from 1932 and ‘My Birth’. The latter is reputed to be owned by Madonna who once said that she could not be friendly with anybody who did not love the painting. Whilst I am not so reductive in my choice of friends (I even have Tory mates for gods sake!) I do get where she is coming from here.
(6) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I sighed with affected boredom when I was assigned this to read as a schoolgirl, being in my minds eye, a revolutionary in pupillage and therefore in need of something a little more contemporary. How on earth could a governess and reluctant wife to be of a blind misanthrope with a mentally ill existing wife in an attic have anything to do with me or my life? I wasn’t interested either in the Mr Rochester type of man nor in saving men deficient in social skills even if they did ride a superlative horse. I have always been about mental health activism so I was never going to be well disposed towards him – even if times were different then.
How wrong I was to write the book off though. Injustice and slavery, the right of a woman to earn a fair days pay for her efforts and the social status of the work of governesses; marriage and equality, the hypocrisy of the church and cruelty of its ministrations were all addressed by Bronte decades before first wave feminists got in on the act. A brave book with sadly timeless themes- the good fight for equality is still to be won and Bronte gives great pathetic fallacy too, all dark and stormy, crepuscular and muscular imagery.
When I think of Jane Eyre I am reminded of the knotty strength of Georgia O’Keefe and I can imagine some of you thinking “eh?” at the comparison but let me try to explain. Many of O’Keefes paintings depict the process by which two opposites-idealism and practicality, go on to become inseparable. She simplifies the creative and intellectual processes, and avoids the pitfalls that lie in wait for the religious and spiritual person by remaining humble. In this I see parallels with Jane Eyre who, when in danger of disappearing up her own pious backside, manages to reign it in by developing insight into this. Time, maturity and withdrawal from a busier, more hectic place, both in mind and situation (again parallels here with O’Keefes departure from claustrophobic New York City) brings about a more grown up and thoughtful woman. O’Keefe, Bronte and her character, Jane Eyre all radically simplify the ‘form’ of what they are trying to do: see the artists depiction of the ‘Black Door’ of her Abiquiqu home which she pares down to its abstract elements over time, in her need to find the essential truth of its form. This has similarities with Jane’s own search for veracity in love, of belonging to the right space and the value she places in autonomy and integrity. Jane’s eventual marrying of emotional, spiritual and moral sustenance reflects the sum total of O’Keefes work, rooted as it is in the need for frankness, spiritual integration and acceptance
(7) The Country Child by Allison Uttley- This book is the one which triggered my love of nature writing with its rich descriptions of the wild Peak District landscapes where Windystone Hall, home to little Susan Garland, a farmers daughter was located. First published in 1931, Uttley drew upon her own youth to paint this vivid picture of a year in the life of a farm, the land and the family who eke their living from it. Uttley was a bit of a trailblazer herself becoming the second woman to graduate with honours in Physics from Manchester University in 1906 and in Susan, we see some of the spirit and questioning that must have driven her interest in sciences and explorers nature. Vivid descriptions of food -from everyday meals to the table laden with the food of feast days and religious holidays permeate the book. The Christmas chapter is swooningly evocative from the coiled trail of candle smoke in the air as the excited Susan snuffs it out before bed to her awakening in the cold blue light before dawn to feel the lumpy weight of her stocking at the end of her bed and waits impatiently to wake her parents.
We meet the people who work and live by the land, the Irish haymakers and shearers and the one armed oatcake and pikelet man called Gabriel with his empty coat-sleeve neatly pinned to his chest. The tentative courtship between Gabriel and Becky, their housemaid after she admires the pikelets ‘under their snowy white cloth’ is another winsome moment. Uttley doesn’t shy away from exposing the ugliness of people or the hardships faced by the family either: we see Susan’s struggle with envy over the Easter egg in its blue satin casing belonging to another family and her guilt after stealing a penny bag from the store and the cruel casual comment: “That Garland daughter is a plain child, positively ugly” made by a local in church and overheard by Susan; horses are made lame and winter storms isolate the stone farmhouse on the hill from all else.
Tasks and responsibilities are very strictly allocated in the Garland household and the text is peppered with colloquial sayings reflecting the deeply patriarchal nature of late Victorian society- Farmer Garland’s only heir is Susan and she feels she is a disappointment. Women’s work is never done in a farming family and it is deeply obvious that their work is vital, no less fundamental to the continued wellbeing of their business and because of this, Susan’s interest in art and storytelling and what her parents see as ‘whimsy’ is sometimes barely tolerated. She is a dreamy, imaginative child.
When I start thinking about how labour was divided between the sexes (and still is) I am reminded of the demarcations that reside in art too and the lack of visible female artistic output in our public galleries prior to this century. The tapestry Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum by Hildegard von Bingen is a stark reminder that the needlework that Susan and the female members of her family were weighed down by (darning and other utilitarian tasks), was far removed from the decorative and intricate message of this tapestry. I did some research and found that many centuries before, in the early Medieval period, women often worked alongside men, engaged in the creation of manuscript illuminations, embroideries and carded capitals. These female artists were from a small section of society and in possession of a status that afforded them the freedom to do this. They were frequently from aristocratic families or even nuns and separate from the domestic drudgery that marked the lives of other women, but women also worked in butchery and brewing and they were ironmongers and wool merchants too. ‘Motherhood From the Spirit and the Water’ may have been commissioned to show the people that a woman’s most important role was that of mother to her own children and spiritual mother to the rest of the world but it is an important piece of work nonetheless, created by a German polymath- writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and Benedictine Abbess., take a bow Hildegard of Bingen.
(8) The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan – this best-selling memoir by Ryan describes how her mother raised 10 children by entering and winning competitions made me want to bow down to the strength and resourcefulness of this woman. Evelyn Ryan was an Ohio housewife, irrepressibly cheerful despite a husband who drank away pretty much every penny he (and she) brought into the house unless she could get to it first to spend it on clothing, food and rent. “Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time” said Ryan including the prize which saved the family from homelessness.
They were about to be evicted from a rented house when Ryan won a Western Auto contest, giving her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years. Most of the merchandise she won, she sold in order to increase cash flow, from washing machines and tap shoes to toasters, trips to Switzerland and cars. Upon its publication, the book was a major success with its loving celebration of a truly resourceful woman at its heart. It doesn’t dwell upon the private horrors Evelyn Ryan and her children must have endured, although it seems Evelyn worked very hard to conceal this from from her children but we readers have imaginations-reading between the lines here is not difficult.
Evelyn started off in life as a stringer with a talent for writing snappy headlines but gave up her career to marry her husband Kerry, a failed singer turned machinist. Her talent for writing enabled her to stand out in competitioning at a time when entries relied upon witty and savvy slogans and limericks as opposed to competitions now which require no intellect or ability other than clicking on ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. Advertising in post war USA was booming and the desire to acquire the goods and services that made a housewives life easier was an easy push to women no longer interested in spending all day at the wash board. Many of the brands we now recognise as iconic boomed in this period and it is this, Evelyn Ryan’s skills at knowing what the Mad Men were after and her preternatural ability to mother her children despite the problems her husband caused that makes me think of the work of multi-media artist Soasig Chamaillard.
Merging two or more pop art figures in a marriage of kitsch, Chamaillard’s figures are a playful interaction of societal icons and the resulting improbable combinations ask questions about her (and our) vision of a woman’s role and place. You will note the frequent appearance of the Virgin Mary in her work, something apropos to this book- Evelyn was a Catholic and brought her family up with the guidance of the local priest and church, both of whom encouraged her to ‘do better’ in order to support her troubled husband whilst totally ignoring her needs. His alcoholism was viewed as her fault and a sign of her inadequacy. The competition prizes that kept their family afloat for years made her husband jealous and resentful and his answer was to drink away his pay packet, week in, week out. That became her fault according to the mores of the society she lived in.