I don’t think I’ve gotten though a single feminist research project without seeing a reference to Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. As I bummed through a mall bookstore on a rare day off last week, I picked up my own copy, designed in purple, in true Alice Walker fashion, and sped home to start reading.
I had known that this was a book about womanism, Walker’s term for a deeper shade of feminism that embraces black heritage, love, curves, food, camaraderie, and joy. What I did not understand is that the book is an excellent source of literary criticism in the feminist world, particularly with respect to how black culture has often been marginalized. Reading Walker’s critical work gives deeper perspective on both her creative work and the works of other women who have faced marginalizing forces in their own literary production.
Rather than go into the whole book (the entire thing is an enjoyable and critical read), the best place to start learning with Walker’s book is in the very first essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” In the piece, Alice Walker discusses a key problem that she and other womanists and black woman writers have faced in writing creatively. She mentions Toni Morrison’s famous advice to write the kind of books that you, the writer, want to read. Walker takes this advice a step further, detailing how many of Toni Morrison’s works are without a clear influence because of the canon’s marginalization of black women’s stories, told from their own perspectives. Walker digs deeper, recalling her own discovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been out of print by the early 1970s. This discovery sparked a need in her to uncover other black woman writers and storytellers to help establish a literary tradition that subverted a canon that is ultimately sexist and racist.
The first time I picked up Zora Neale Hurston, it was 2001 and she was back in print and featured on high school summer reading lists, thanks to contemporary writers like Walker and Morrison. For me, it wasn’t strange at all to see a black womanist tradition forming before my eyes, but for Walker writing her essay in the 1970s, that canon needed some help to emerge. Walker’s main point in the essay is to draw on Morrison’s advice to become your own role model in writing creative work, breaking down fences in literary style in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s unique unfolding of magic realism or Toni Morrison’s girlhood perspectives on beauty, sexuality, northern racism in The Bluest Eye. Today's literary canon is still far from perfect, but it's been refreshing to track the re-emergence of fascinating writers like Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria, who lost traction for a while mid-century.
Walker’s essay on creative bravery sparked my own thought process in a very strong way. Her analysis is framed within womanist fiction but urges all writers to go beyond trend or established literary models and discover new ways of doing things. For someone like me, a new-ish creative writer operating in a world of glittery vampires, swooning love stories, and other market-driven tropes, it’s enormously helpful to begin thinking of story and narrative not in terms of how other people do things but how I want to do something. Alice Walker gives me and writers of all backgrounds permission to pull in all corners of our lives—the mundane all the way to the fantastic—to come up with a new tradition. As we take new steps, particularly in the world of making feminist literature more widespread, we also lay the path for others who might otherwise lack influences to join us. By saving our own literary lives, we make tremendous strides in creativity and in forging new avenues of literary thought.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
Most feminist book lovers I’ve met can’t get through a top-five list without gushing about a Brontë, and I’m not going to be the one to change that stereotype. Having fallen in love with Charlotte the semester before, I started reading into the lesser-known sister and her two modest novels during year one of graduate school. Agnes Grey appealed to me, with its Anne Shirley–esque theme of the independent, working governess, but the moment I skimmed the back of a dusty copy of Tenant I fully recognized myself. The book is about a crappy, failed marriage to an oppressive A-hole and the heroine’s steps toward independence, new love, and even a budding art career—practically the story of my life after college. While there are some points of plot that are a little bit cringe worthy by modern standards—like the trope of the angelic, long-suffering wife who for moral reasons should not officially divorce her abusive, philandering husband—the novel holds so many questions that would have been crucial for me as a wee middle school girl about to walk right into the trappings of patriarchy, the cultural marriage mandate, and sub-par male-female relationships.
The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan
In a similar vein to Brontë’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife braids together a rich historical setting with a feminist narrative that can be an enriching place to start for teen girls. A few scholars I’ve read, including Karen Dodwell, talk about removing the feminist discussion to a faraway culture or time period to help newcomers to feminism understand and process it better without getting all tangled up in their own cultural scripts. (Think in terms of modern-day conservative students shying away from Shulamith Firestone but fully embracing Charlotte Brontë.) In pedagogy—or in my reading recommendations to my former teen self—this suggests potential for a historical Chinese diaspora novel like The Kitchen God’s Wife, which shows old and new, East and West, while bridging those gaps to illustrate the universality of the themes without reinforcing orientalism or cultural chauvinism. This book was an eye opener for me to pick up as an adult due to its domestic violence themes, especially on the emotional front, so a teenager could do much worse than to learn about good and bad relationships in the milieu of Japanese-occupied China during World War II, from one of the best modern American writers out there.
The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
I’ll just come out with it: I am a dystopia junkie. Dystopia, plus any other iteration of Foucault’s –topias, for that matter, from Thomas More’s Utopia or Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, to heterotopias like Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, to downer dystopias like The Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler’s novel about US societal collapse in the not-too-distant future is an engaging piece of ecofeminist thought that is age appropriate for teens. Unlike many teenage dystopias, Butler does not focus on the constructed totalitarian society but examines California life as it crumbles from unsustainable environmental, economical, and social practices. Aside from the mind-spark messages that would have been new to me as a middle schooler, the book is simply well written and engaging. A book like this one, if read early, would have opened the door for me to engage with ecofeminism as well as a canon of dystopia writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy, or Ursula K. LeGuin—some of my now favorites, who I didn't even know about until college—a little sooner in the coming-of-age process.
The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea
This novel wasn’t around back when I was in middle school in the late-1990s, but I wish it had been, and I wish I’d had the foresight to pick it up. As it happened, I was 25 when I bought the bargain hardback, which I’d judged for its striking foil stamping and for the title’s proclamation that this was a novel about girls. I started reading it on a rainy day in my study and didn’t put it down until I’d turned over the final leaf. Unlike so many of the books I’d read so far, this book was not written from the Western perspective, and it served as my introduction (as a mostly Christian American from a tiny midwestern town), post-9/11, to what real Muslim women’s lives are like in a place like Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t a Westernized reactionary piece, out to “rescue” all Middle Eastern women, and it wasn’t an outright vindication of the godliness of Islam and the evils of the West. Because this book failed to fall into either stereotype of how Americans tend to see Islamic life, it affected my reach into world literature and global feminism in a deep way. In short, Rajaa Alsanea’s perspective on being young and educated and fashionable in an Islamic state helped elucidate for me the real feminist questions happening in the Islamic world, outside of the blurred contexts of Desert Storm, 9/11, and other East/West battlegrounds. The novel is written in the form of an e-mail publication, with teen-accessible language in the English translation. If this book had been in my hands in the late nineties, I would have been able to skip all the Western-born stereotypes about Islam and jump into something useful.
Originally posted May 1, 2015
In just under a year, Charlotte Brontë turns 200. It feels appropriate, to me, to be gearing up for her birthday celebration as I launch a zine exploring feminism and girlhood from a textual perspective. Birthdays are—if nothing else—a mark of time well spent, a simple increment on the trip from being a kid to being a grown up. And Charlotte certainly had a lot to party about.
But she wasn’t alone in her literary greatness. A lot of people know that Charlotte wrote her tales of female stars alongside her two sisters, Emily and Anne, but a lot of casual readers miss out on the whole package when they just remember the Brontës for Jane Eyre. Even Charlotte herself felt like her sisters deserved wider credibility:
“I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers, less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.”
It’s safe to say the Brontës wrote a lot from experience, and a lot of that had to do with each other. Their sisterly collaboration in the creative sphere remains, even today, prime fodder for girls to soak up between basketball practice and math homework. Reading Anne and Charlotte, it’s apparent that the feminist utopia, or females gathering around for mutual influence, meant a lot to their idea of bringing up stellar girls. Charlotte has Jane spy on a group of Brontë-esque sisters as they bat ideas back and forth by the hearth and sets parts of Villette and Jane Eyre in girls’ academies. Anne shows Agnes Grey opening a girls’ school with her mother and even has her heroine Helen Graham adopt her mother’s maiden name and set up house and shop with her lifelong female servant and good friend. Something about the community of women and girls clearly fed the Brontës and gave their stories a uniquely girl-positive light. Both in their fiction and in real life, the sisters explored their mutual creativity through words and art, leaning always on each other for support, criticism, and muse.
The trio’s childhood home and ground zero for their work is now a museum, operated by the Brontë Society, and their communal writing table is now a fixture there once again thanks to a generous grant. Sitting around that table, these literary sisters brought so many of us our first awakenings of a raised consciousness, and even more still a recognition of our maturing selves. Even though not all books dwell at great length like Jane Eyre does on girlhood, all tackle the coming-of-age progression and show strong girls who notice wrongdoing, work hard, and make a mark, eventually evolving into strong women. For that, the novels are detailed roadmaps for navigating girlhood. We readers find in these books a critical eye cast toward the pressures on girls and women, and if read carefully, they’re a great primer on growing up.
We don’t have to dig too far at all to find glimmers of how to be a successful girl in the novels, and at the same time, there are countless hints toward the restrictions these brilliant women faced as they made their way as writers. After all, the three wrote mid-nineteenth century, all publishing originally under masculine—or at least neutral—cover. The world didn’t know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne for some time, but they ate up Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Brontë scholar Winifred Gérin attemps an explanation. She ties at least Charlotte and Anne’s pen names to female figures that were objects of their admiration. This feels a bit more positive than calling themselves by random masculine names, but even so, it remains that the sisters could see the need for some kind of unobtrusive cover in the first place. Like Malala Yousafzai writing under the name of her favorite Pashtun heroine to protect her identity, the Brontës lived in a world beset by backlash anytime women tried to do something public. The feminine-masking pen name concept feels retrograde in twenty-first century Anglo-American society, where we have things like Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the United States, but it feels pretty brave, looking backward, to take on even male-sounding names if it means getting your work out there for people to read. The Brontës didn’t dismantle the father’s house, but they did rework the tools to build the addition.
A lot of the positive girl buzz generated in the Brontë novels stems from the fact of the family’s lower middle class station. The family wasn’t rich, but they had education and each other. One could do much worse than to take Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre as instructional booklets on owning girlhood. Anne writes Agnes in a somewhat autobiographical way, giving her an education and a job of her own. Agnes moves away from home while young with a thirst for earning her bread. She uses her humble and industrious upbringing (with parents encouraging her to be an actor in her own fate) to land a governess position over girls in much fancier positions than she’s used to.
When Agnes cares for a well-to-do Rosalie Murray, she looks on as the girl makes vain choices that ultimately land her in a less-than-happy situation. Rosalie likes the finer things and dreams of being a titled lady above all else—not unlike the vacuous Lady Lowborough of her other cautionary proto-feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Agnes, though, comes from a set of parents who married for love over money. She grew up hearing her mother say she’d rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man, and she finds out later that her mother was disinherited from a sprawling fortune because of the marriage. While so much girl fiction—contemporary and otherwise—seems to focus on the marriage plot and the pursuit of a prince, Agnes’s story dwells at length on the folly of thinking in terms of marital gain alone. Agnes knows she has to work hard right from the beginning, and she feels her social disadvantage at not belonging to the well-primped and wealthy set, as well as her gender disadvantage at not being born male and able to be an agent over every aspect of her happiness.
In a strikingly modern passage, Agnes looks on as Rosalie is showered with happiness, all because of her beauty and her willingness to play into the scripts that dictate how girls should perform their femininity. Rosalie is raised to value flirting and love matches over bookishness—Agnes’s strong suit—and the double standard between the Christian ideal of inner beauty and the reality of outer beauty’s power is not lost on our heroine:
“It is foolish to wish for beauty,” muses Agnes. “Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?”
Agnes is understandably bitter at how unfairly things are shaking out for her, despite her hard work toward the ideal of cultivating her brains over her looks. She goes on to say that if a girl is pretty and good, she is praised for both, while a plain and good girl scarcely makes a mark on anyone. Likewise, pretty girls who are awful on the inside get away with things that a plain girl never would. It’s a stark lesson and an interesting assessment that still holds weight for girl readers today. Girl culture critics Susan Douglas and Joan Jacobs Brumberg are right at home with Agnes in their dissection of why we value pretty over good or smart. What’s disappointing is that almost immediately after Agnes’s bold critique of beauty standards and performing femininity in exchange for happiness, she admits that she’s begun to take a page from Rosalie in dressing prettier for her crush, Mr. Weston.
The societal compliance ends up working out for her. Agnes ends up with Weston in the end (he shows up out of the woodwork to marry her, as so many nineteenth-century heroes do), so Anne has just proven through Agnes that women have to make concessions if they want certain kinds of happiness. Agnes Grey is a very clear criticism of what too much money and vanity can do to people, but she applies an inversion technique to show—quietly and without rocking the boat—why that kind of thing still short changes women in the long run, just like she shows Tenant’s Helen Huntington nearly undone in the end by following the good girl trope all her life. It all feels a lot like awkward teenager Daria of the 1990s MTV series, whose defiance of acceptable teenage girliness is met with awkward moments on the show, but for the purpose of asking us to re-evaluate the way we think about girl scripts. Daria is a feminist with one outfit in her closet, but when faced with her crush, she still ends up getting her belly button pierced—against her normal judgment—to appear dangerous and sexy. It’s a way to show that girlhood is a minefield of double-standards and forced compromises, even within feminism, and that it’s human to get sucked into what you’re fighting.
All of this Anne talk is not to diminish Charlotte. In fact, Jane Eyre feels like a companion read with Agnes Grey. Both star governesses who rose from modest means, dealt with spoiled wealthies, did their work demurely, and ended up with some variety of happiness. Unlike Agnes’s “prince” though, Jane’s is loaded—but blinded—at the end. I hesitate to position Jane Eyre as a road map for girls because Jane’s relationship to Rochester feels more like a caretaker role, something Nel Noddings might endorse for its care ethic and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar might decry for its angel-in-the-house female martyrdom. Both novels seem flawed in that neither Jane nor Agnes seemed to have much choice over whom they fell in love with, and they do both circle back to a convenient ending served with wedding cake. On the other hand, they are also alike in that they show strong girls rising up and doing something in a world that says they should probably be written under pen names. The novels aren’t perfect, but then feminist scholars have been squabbling for decades over what makes a text feminist. Ideas range from female authorship to womb allegories, and it feels like there will never be a quickie answer to how exactly a text can be feminist. And that’s why it’s so exciting to study.
With several semesters of women’s studies behind me, I revisit the marriage plot in the Brontë novels and start to think of it as more of a reward for doing the feminist thing than a damning tell of non-feminist writing. In a highly matrimonial world, it makes sense that a writer has to show her readers that they can paint, write, teach, work, and be strong while still attaining the socially acceptable happiness of marriage. The message to girls seems to be that it’s okay to be both subjects and authors; feminists don’t have to end up alone with their work, and their generative power doesn’t have to stop with childbearing. While the fantasy of “having it all” needs some work—via squashing gender bias in the K–12 classroom and creating a world where women have access to childcare and equal pay—it’s heartening to see books written in the 1840s with something to contribute to that ideal besides, “all that satisfaction will be too much work.”
So for that, I praise the Brontës. They may not have been as overtly polemical as Mary Wollstonecraft or rocked as many boats as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they did something that in the right light feels a whole lot more effective than being an ardent proselyte for feminism. They took themselves and their ideas and wrote them into a narrative that many girls can relate to. They drew politics from the public world and made them comfy within the personal. Call it the power of storytelling. Through fiction, the Brontës reached girls and women of all ages, many of whom had no previous care or idea of what a feminist looks like. And in their vast and enduring impact on girls’ coming of age experiences, I totally agree with Charlotte—they were genuinely good and truly great.
Originally posted May 1, 2015
Which would you rather be: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw? Your answer can say a lot about you, aside from revealing your Team Charlotte or Team Emily leanings in the world of Brontëana. On the face of it, picking Jane makes you sharp and independent, and siding with Cathy betrays your fierce romantic streak. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, opens with that in her literary memoir How to Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much. She played this unassuming “would you rather” game with her best friend and unwittingly went down a bookish road that began with revisiting the greats and ended up revealing whole new layers to some of Ellis’s favorite literary ladies.
More than literary criticism, How to Be a Heroine is about a word nerd’s journey from girlhood onward. Raised by Jewish Iraqi refugees in England, Ellis blends her personal coming-of-age story between witty commentary and in-depth analysis of her favorite literary girls and women. Beginning with the Little Mermaid and Anne Shirley, and moving to Esther Greenwood and Franny Glass, Ellis shows how re-reading her favorite girl characters allows her to parse her own lived girlhood scripts and reveal entire new truths about her womanhood.
“Because I started reading again the books that had meant so much to me, I remembered how I’d felt as a four-year-old wishing I was the Little Mermaid, or at twenty, wanting to be Lucy Honeychurch,” Ellis writes in the introduction. “It was hard to confront my mistakes, and I had to ask myself difficult questions. But I discovered that I did have an arc and a journey after all. I wasn’t just reading about my heroines, I was reading the story of my life.”
Ellis approaches her literary life map with a keen sense of feminist criticism, and the message is a strong push for a revision of how girlhood is presented to readers. She learned young, like Toni Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove, to envy the likes of Sleeping Beauty for their blue eyes and blonde hair, begrudging her own heritage and brand of beauty in the mix. On the other side, her adult reading of Pride and Prejudice shows that men can be into smart girls like Lizzy Bennett, even if they don’t seem attractive at first glance across a dance hall. L. M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott gave Ellis and the rest of us strong girl characters who defied dashing love interests for the better of their writing and intellectual journeys. And Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen gave us all-too-real girl analogs for how to deal when life throws an invisible weight on your shoulders.
On the whole, the book is a smooth read and an excellent run-through of half a lifetime of reading femininity. Ellis doesn’t cover girl heroines alone, but all her subjects reveal quite a lot about what it means to be born a female and—as Simone de Beauvoir would put it—to become a woman. I for one am achingly jealous of the ingenuity behind How to Be a Heroine, but I feel like all of this is better coming from Ellis than from me. Because now I have one more heroine—Ellis herself—to raise my consciousness further, to be my guiding light into peeling away the improvised layers of life one by one, again and again.
“I don’t know where I’m going next, and for the first time in forever, I don’t want to,” writes Ellis on the final leaf. “I want my life to be picaresque. Fantastical. I want to say yes and.”
Walking through a bookshop recently, I did a double-take as I passed a modest grouping of spines boasting a familiar author. I’d heard of Willa Cather before, even tried to read one of her books. But that was back when I was yet too immature to tear myself away from reality TV. Looking back it’s sad that I chose the glow of would-be actresses lasting a full minute in a sarcophagus teeming with roaches over a weathered literary classic, but what can I say—there’s no competing with primetime droll when it comes to winning a child’s esteem. So my little-kid mind did the only thing that seemed right in the face of temptation: I dragged my eyes across the pages of my novel without retention, marked on my homework slip that I’d had a book open for a full twenty minutes, and then settled in to watch the future of entertainment unravel.
Back at the bookshop, my maturing hand picked up the copy of My Ántonia—three dollars, used—and brought it home. Since my first try with the novel, I’ve loved, learned, and transplanted myself a world away from my roots. It seemed the perfect mindset to recapture a gem I could have had in youth, this well-penned story to linger in my mind. Love, loss, mobility, and moving on share the leitmotif of the piece. So it’s almost funny now, having read the book clear through, just how much of its clarity and fierce destiny lay in wait for me to come along at twenty-seven, having lived a little and at last eager to see.
The narrative follows Jim, a discerning country boy growing up on the Nebraska prairie shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His story is interwoven with the novel’s namesake, a rugged and vibrant Bohemian immigrant affectionately called Tony. I hadn’t braced myself for the reality of what I'd assumed would be a fanciful and bumpkinesque book. In the first chunk, Cather deals with the trying themes of immigration, poverty, regret, and suicide. As affection builds between Jim and Tony, the story takes on the nuances of growing up and the resolution that all things, good and bad, are bound to rise and wane as the world spins madly forever.
As with any well-told story, the romance never develops to fruition in time for either of them to get a word in edgewise. Before we know it, Jim is off to Lincoln and then Boston, while Tony meets her own fate on the prairie. Without letting slip a spoiler to those who have not read, the story does not wrap up as you might think. Or at least not as I had thought, knowing that the book is considered a romance and catching on the note of possession in the title. What we get at the end is not the kind of neat wrap-up that satisfies you all the way into a warm bubble bath. The story’s culmination reveals an honesty of living that sends you reminiscing fondly while cursing all your lost opportunities as they pass before your eyes in stark and living color.
Throughout the novel are glimpses, from a variety of perspectives, of human value and its place in the grand drama of progression. On the final page, Jim walks the fields and roads of a youth spent with Ántonia and feels her shadow, nearly forty years distant, egging him on to play.
“The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
As I scribble my thoughts on My Ántonia, my playlist has circled around twice to “Do You Realize,” by the Flaming Lips. Its fury and simple lyricism make it one of my all-time favorite songs. Along with its opening cadence the second time through I was struck with an aha notion that nothing else could sum up Cather’s novel more concisely or more completely. Did Tony realize all the beauty radiating from her singular face? Did Jim ever let her know, in time, that he realized that the fast clip of life makes it all the more important to make the good things last? Did either of them realize that all things must pass way and be borne forever to the eternities?
Smoothing over the many dog-ears that work assignments and buzzing dryers have laid on the pages these past few days, I set the finished book aside and marvel once again at all the humanity I snubbed when I chose horse rectum over honesty. Some books have nothing to tell us but story, but Cather's is brimming with a life so universal that its recognition strikes you as lightning even a hundred years later.
Luckily for anyone in my shoes—anyone reading this story in the prime of life—it’s a reassuring marvel that the sun doesn’t really go down. Through it all, it’s just an illusion, caused by our worlds spinning ‘round.
Between December's gauntlet of holiday festivities and several stubborn bouts of illness, I finally managed to soldier through the second half of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Thoughts . . . I've mentioned before that I rarely get fired up over romance in the "classical literature" sense, and that's mainly because the books tend to be either neat, little bedtime stories that are best served with the final chapter torn out, or cautionary tales that paint doom and hurt for anyone who tries to cast off convention. In reality, we all know that the relationships we build are complex and run the gamut from despair to sheer bliss, so it hurts my pretty little head to see the romantic ideal forced into one of two extremes without showing the nuance of something so fierce and complicated. Easy storytelling has sent more than a few of the classics back into my donation pile, anyway.
Lady Chatterley's Lover was a unique read for me because it is one of the few oldish novels I've read that doesn't fall into either camp—at least not very neatly. The second half takes Connie and Oliver from casual lovers to devoted partners and elaborates on the shortfalls of industry, classism, excess, and the Machine that perpetuates it all. Some dicey stuff happens, and in the end the situation ends up as complicated as any daytime soap. To put a fine point on it, the book calls to question what we live for—what we have built our lives around—and sort of asks us to get back to what makes us human. Are you motivated by progress or by happiness? It's really a lot of little questions that add up to the bigger picture. And in the end, the plot doesn't end Jane Austen-style with everyone finding someone and riding off into the sunset. It's more of a mellifluous cliffhanger—satisfying, but far, far from resolution—just like life.
Written nearly a hundred years ago and an ocean away, this book has a hippie streak that still has a lot to say to a twenty-something career girl with a heap of bills and way too many shoes. Whether you're looking at the philosophical message or strictly the romantic arc, the book takes the whirlwind of life, love, and progress and kind of snaps it all into perspective. Are you living for what's important, or are you simply racking up the points?
And now, a purely feel-good line from Oliver's letter to Connie on the closing page: "Well, so many words, because I can't touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle."
So with that, I finally say good night to this book, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.
So, I swore I'd scribble an update on my most recent read once I ran across the title of the book in line. Lo, on page 150 of the Barnes and Noble 2005 edition: "And this night she was wondering who Lady Chatterley's lover was." Blaring horns! Sweeping violins! If this were a movie, my friends and I would be leaning over one another to whisper much too noisily, "They said the name of the movie!" I picked up Lady Chatterley's Lover in part because I have a thing for banned books. There's just something enticing about a story that has to be translated into a language that wasn't the author's first choice and then marketed only in more permissive foreign lands (Rajaa Alsanea's The Girls of Riyadh sweeps immediately to mind). It's hard not to get sucked in by the hype of subversive literature; like anyone else with an Area 51 fetish, I can't help but die to read about what they didn't want me to know. I don't like people choosing my reading material for me or even painting over the ugly parts to shelter me from life—it's just not my style. Besides, if you rob a book of its humanity by cleaning up what you might consider vulgar, then what do we have but just another tome about the felicity of young marriage followed by a marbled endpaper and nothing more? Totally not my style. So Lady Chatterley's Lover appealed to me (both the book and the actual hunky lover), and so far I don't regret the time I've spent in its now-uncensored pages.
Of course there's the other reason I picked up the book: it's a tad trashy. See, I have never actually finished a romance novel—no, not even Twilight. Books with romance in them are fine (see previous posts), but I find pure romance to be too neat and too unreal. The only time I allow myself to read anything with a horse or a heaving maiden on the cover is to poke fun at the dime-store prose while reading aloud in a bad cowgirl accent. It just doesn't do it for me if the story isn't there, so Lady Chatterley's Lover is the perfect excuse to read something fleshy while asserting my book snob streak. My aversion to sexy romance makes this story relatively virgin seas to me, and it's kind of cool to see what I've been deliberately missing, but in a way that doesn't force me into titles like Love is a Horseshoe or Enter the Countess. No, thank you.
I already have plenty of guff though—Lawrence can be repetitive in his storytelling and word choice, the woman's struggle is close to truth but told from a male perspective, and the conflict is a little too easy since the husband is physically unable to perform and mentally detached from his wife. It's not the novel I would have written, but since there are no glittering spines boasting my name, I'm happy to charge ahead and see what this little book can do. I'm halfway through, and so far what I'm taking from the various characters' conflicts is a universal thread that tells us it's okay to be frustrated when you're in your twenties and thirties and feel like real life has forgotten all about you. It's revealing to see what people in all times might do with what we're experiencing today, in 2012, so I'm eager to see what unravels in the second half.
And now, some passages:
Of Mellors, the roguish keeper and namesake of the book: "What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing. Yet he could live alone, in the wan satisfaction of being alone, and raise pheasants to be shot ultimately by fat men after breakfast. It was futility, futility to the nth power. But why care, why bother? And he had not cared nor bothered till now, when this woman had come into his life. . . . The connection between them was growing closer. He could see the day when it would clinch up and they would have to make a life together."
And an opening passage so brilliant that I'm still kicking myself for not thinking of it first: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up the new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen."
Was I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn't until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I'd discovered it as a budding thirteen year old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I've been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think... If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there's a reason why Austen's sparkling language has endured—though it's surprising that she wasn't more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn't afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she's been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it's understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family's reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women's suffrage was but a twinkle in John Stuart Mill's puerile eye.
What's more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you've got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as old-timey literature.
That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book by two stars for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we've all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.
So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that in 2012, or whatever year it is now, it's hard to swallow such a neat ending. It's as if we don't need to know any more about the well sketched characters once they've passed through the marriage veil. It's tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India. On the other side, it's tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.
Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman's life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I'm grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it's heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there's something about Happily Ever After that screams "cop out," and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.