Sunday, 25 November 2012

Gender, Women's Writing and Feminism

Cleopatra: Feminist Icon?
Many of my students are interested in gender, women's writing and feminist criticism. I have recently made available a short introduction to this topic.

I have also started to assemble a list of some useful and thought-provoking comments together with some historic quotations.

Reflect and Enjoy! The last quotation on this page of the blog references Cleopatra...

"one is not born, but rather becomes a woman."
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

"Historically social inequality between men and women can be traced to unequal power relations in particular societies [...] But it can also be traced - possibly relatedly - to systems of representation: how women are represented in plays, rituals, photographic images, novels, films, etc." Alan Durant and Nigel Fabb, Literary Studies in Action (1990), p. 43.

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” 
-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

"Feminist criticism cannot be traced to origins in the work of one or more individuals working in  a particular period or discipline at a particular time. Rather, it grows out of the historical experience of resistance and self-definition by women in circumstances of social control by men; it is the gradual definition of a critical field..." 
-Alan Durant and Nigel Fabb, Literary Studies in Action (1990), p. 43.

"[Gender] is a compulsory performance in the same sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings with it ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by those very prohibitions."
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

“Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.” 
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” - Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

"The human species has a biologically fixed, binary sex division between male and female. But superimposed on this are culturally constructed oppositions of gender: masculine and feminine, men and women, etc. It is this system of oppositions which the various strands of feminist criticism analyse and seek to change." Alan Durant and Nigel Fabb, Literary Studies in Action (1990), p. 43.

“A man attaches himself to woman -- not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
 - Simone de Beauvoir

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” 
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values”
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” 
- Jane Austen, Persuasion
“I am not an angel,' I asserted; 'and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me - for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” 
 - Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

"the restrictive gender categories of the nineteenth century imposed on female writers are reflected in the metaphors of anger and madness in their heroines." Doris Bremm, summarising The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

“I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

"One crucial factor in the social construction of femininity is the way literary values and conventions have themselves been shaped by men, and women have often struggled to express their own concerns in what may well have been inappropriate forms." Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1993), p. 215.

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
- Simone de Beauvoir

"Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

 “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself--on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.”
- Simone de Beauvoir 
“A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run through the body with his pen.” 
- Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” - Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.” - Charlotte Brontë, Shirley

"Patriarchy subordinates the female to the male or treats the female as an inferior male, and this power is exerted, directly or indirectly, in civil and domestic life to constrain women. Despite deomcratic advances, women have continued to be coerced by a system of sex-role stereotyping to which they are subjected from the earliest age." Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1993), p. 214.

“Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed

“Now, it is frequently asserted that, with women, the job does not come first. What (people cry) are women doing with this liberty of theirs? What woman really prefers a job to a home and family? Very few, I admit. It is unfortunate that they should so often have to make the choice. A man does not, as a rule, have to choose. He gets both. Nevertheless, there have been women ... who had the choice, and chose the job and made a success of it. And there have been and are many men who have sacrificed their careers for women ... When it comes to a choice, then every man or woman has to choose as an individual human being, and, like a human being, take the consequences.” 
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human?

“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project”
 - Simone de Beauvoir
“And "laids," [=ugly] indeed, they were; being a set of four, denominated in the catalogue "La vie d'une femme." They were painted rather in a remarkable style—flat, dead, pale, and formal. The first represented a "Jeune Fille," coming out of a church-door, a missal in her hand, her dress very prim, her eyes cast down, her mouth pursed up—the image of a most villanous little precocious she-hypocrite. The second, a "Mariée," with a long white veil, kneeling at a prie-dieu in her chamber, holding her hands plastered together, finger to finger, and showing the whites of her eyes in a most exasperating manner. The third, a "Jeune Mère," hanging disconsolate over a clayey and puffy baby with a face like an unwholesome full moon. The fourth, a "Veuve," being a black woman, holding by the hand a black little girl, and the twain studiously surveying an elegant French monument, set up in a corner of some Père la Chaise. All these four "Anges" were grim and grey as burglars, and cold and vapid as ghosts. What women to live with! insincere, ill-humoured, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gipsy-giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers.”

“The Life of a Woman”, from Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge) and Sexual Outcasts 1750-1850 (Four Volumes. Subcultures and Subversions. Routledge). He has recently contributed a chapter on gothic sexuality published in Sex and Death in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Jolene Zigarovich (Routledge, 2013). A new book on Shakesperean Tragedy will be published in 2013.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687

FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony,       
      This universal frame began: 
  When nature underneath a heap
      Of jarring atoms lay,  
    And could not heave her head,         
The tuneful voice was heard from high, 
    'Arise, ye more than dead!'     
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
  In order to their stations leap,   
     And Music's power obey.         
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,        
   This universal frame began:    
   From harmony to harmony      
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,    
The diapason closing full in Man.  

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?     
    When Jubal struck the chorded shell, 
  His listening brethren stood around,    
    And, wondering, on their faces fell    
  To worship that celestial sound:  
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell   
    Within the hollow of that shell,
    That spoke so sweetly, and so well.  
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?     

    The trumpet's loud clangour     
      Excites us to arms,     
    With shrill notes of anger,      
      And mortal alarms.    
  The double double double beat 
      Of the thundering drum         
      Cries Hark! the foes come;    
  Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat! 

    The soft complaining flute,     
    In dying notes, discovers        
    The woes of hopeless lovers,    
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute. 

    Sharp violins proclaim  
  Their jealous pangs and desperation,  
  Fury, frantic indignation, 
  Depth of pains, and height of passion, 
    For the fair, disdainful dame.  

    But O, what art can teach,      
    What human voice can reach, 
      The sacred organ's praise?   
    Notes inspiring holy love,       
  Notes that wing their heavenly ways    
    To mend the choirs above.     

  Orpheus could lead the savage race;   
  And trees unrooted left their place,     
    Sequacious of the lyre;   
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:      
When to her organ vocal breath was given,     
  An angel heard, and straight appear'd 
    Mistaking Earth for Heaven.    


As from the power of sacred lays  
  The spheres began to move,     
And sung the great Creator's praise       
  To all the Blest above;    
So when the last and dreadful hour       
This crumbling pageant shall devour,    
The trumpet shall be heard on high,     
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

John Dryden. 1631–1700

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

52 Favourite Children's Books

Thanks to all the recent contributors on 

Facebook and Yahoo Answers.

I have now compiled a list of 

your favourite children's books:
  1. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
  2. Anthony Horowitz: Groosham Grange; Return to Groosham Grange
  3. Arabian Nights
  4. Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  5. Clive King, Stig of the Dump
  6. C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia
  7. Cressida Cowell, How to train you dragon books.
  8. E. B. White, Charlotte's Web
  9. E. L. Konigsburg  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  10. Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
  11. Enid Blyton, Famous Five or Secret Seven Books
  12. Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl
  13. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
  14. Francesca Simon, Helping Hercules and Horrid Henry Books Series 
  15. Hans Christian Anderson, Fairy Tales
  16. Harry Potter books
  17. Isaac Asimov’s SF Books
  18. Jacqueline Wilson Books
  19. Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid
  20. Jeremy Strong, Books include There's A Viking In My Bed
  21. Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
  22. JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
  23. JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  24. Kate DiCamillo The Magician's Elephant
  25. Kevin Crossley-Holland's Beowulf
  26. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  27. L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  28. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
  29. Lois Lowry, The Giver
  30. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
  31. Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet Series #1) by
  32. Marjorie Blackman, series starting with Noughts and Crosses
  33. Mary Norton, The Borrowers 
  34. Michael Ende,  Momo; The Neverending Story
  35. Michael Morpurgo, books
  36. Nick Sharatt, Illustrator and Picture Books
  37. Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
  38. Philip Ardagh, The Eddie Dickens Trilogy; The Unlikely Exploits Trilogy
  39. Philip Pullman, The Firework Maker's Daughter
  40. Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines series
  41. Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden; Minnow on the Say; Rikki Tikki Tavi
  42. Roald Dahl. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl; James and the Giant Peach; Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes; The giraffe and the pelly and & Me; Matilda
  43. Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
  44. Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins
  45. SF Said, the Varjak Paw series;
  46. Sheila Burnford, The Incredible Journey
  47. Shel Silverstein, Every Thing On It
  48. Spike Milligan's children's stories and poems.
  49. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games [young adult]
  50. Terry Pratchett, Books
  51. Tove Jansson, The Moomins 

Light and Shadow: the Age of Kindle

Light and Shadow: What will happen to books and reading in the Age of Kindle?

I had the opportunity to make use of a friend’s Kindle a fortnight ago.
Dear Reader, you may be shocked at my tardiness in coming to the most fashionable gadget in recent years. Indeed, in 2010, I fought off several offers of Kindle Christmas presents from the many friends and family who know very well my addiction to reading books.


I was aware of the vast library of free books and that was a temptation: having them in my pocket, rather than stuck on the hard drive, or only available with internet access. What struck me was the sleek design of the Kindle, its comfortable lightness and ease of use; but most impressive its screen technology, unglaring and flicker-free.


As my large Victorian terrace house will not accommodate more purchases of books it makes sense to switch at least some of my purchases to electronic copies for certain kinds of work. But I still have reservation and feel that the potential for ebooks is still in its infancy. But I do see astonishing positive opportunities, and fewer but nonetheless noteworthy negatives.


As I gaze into the future I am the first to admit that I have never been very good at prediction. I could not see why anyone would want to queue outside a bank, in the rain, just to gain access to your cash, when you could wait inside, speak to a cashier, and have your money handed to you in person. But self-service is now king in the World of Selves.

Sloppy publishing?

Let me say now that I don’t feel that Kindles and other ebooks will kill of traditional paper and hardbacks. There will still be a market for well-crafted books where the quality of the form matches the brilliance of the content. I would also admit here that many of my recent ‘hardback’ purchases have been poor examples of contemporary publishing: sloppy editing and layout, loose pages, poor paper, lack of illustrations, footnotes, an index, a bibliography …


Considering that production and delivery costs are negligible I see no reason why supporting material and resources, including colour illustration, cannot become an expected component of non-fiction ebooks. Here then is an opportunity for improved quality of content, and more of it.

A fair trade deal for writers

Epublishing and self-publishing also provide opportunities to reduce the role of parasitic intermediaries such as the publisher and shop. It has long been a topic of lamentation amongst writers of worthy but unpopular books that the author is paid a pittance for years of conscientious research, reflection and composition. In contrast to the shop prices, many writers are no better off than the coffee bean grower, paid a few cents from your $4 cappuccino. Surely it’s now time for a fair trade deal for authors too.


Nonetheless, I don’t predict that instantly available, cheaper and more dynamic ebooks will replace their traditional ancestors. There is uniqueness about the book as commodity and artefact which the Kindle clone world cannot utterly displace or diminish. There will also be nostalgia for the traditional product. And an appreciation of the art and craft element in book as object. Similarly Tape and CD looks cramped and uniform compared to the opulent canvas of Vinyl Records. And there will be purists who prefer the ‘warmth’ and glitchy individuality of the analogue to the bland reproducibility digital product.


But ebooks present a range of further opportunities for reading and writing that the traditional forms could not and will not offer.

First, we will see the development of enhanced reading, in which the text is not merely supplemented by, but integrated with other multi-media. If I am reading an ebook on the History of Rap, one click will allow me to place the examples featured in the book. Similarly colour illustration and video clips also become an affordable option for content, citation, and diversity of approach.

Second, improved opportunities for annotation are attractive for the many non-fiction readers who are studying or researching. Again the transition is toward a more active reading process. Of course I can still underline and comment in the margins of my paper copy, but the ease of use for multi-coloured highlighting, commenting, searching certainly facilitates the usability of the text. Add to that the possibility of communal annotation and we have further avenues for creative collaboration which would be a crime against the crisp clarity of the shared library book.

My third observation is that we will see publishers offering discounts to groups of readers who have formed into clubs because they enjoy the shared experience of reading, comment and criticizing texts. For those with minority interest, this affords opportunities for informed discussion across vast distances, and on a global scale. Note how the empowering effects of the technology present opportunities for a shift in human consciousness.

A further development of the third observation would be the book that can evolve through individual or collective participation. We are familiar with books having different editions, but these have become uneconomic for all but the most popular or scientific non-fiction. The ebook becomes a living organism rather than a stable and fixed cultural artefact.

A fifth observation, more radical, and perhaps a little disturbing, takes the openness a stage further and provides books with different openings, middles, or endings. Or characters and locations that readers can alter and transform. The book perhaps comprises flexible and shifting modules, components, and floating memes, susceptible to addition, deletion, or transformation. Books that reform and deform. Texts become deconstructing games, and the balance of creative effort shifts from ‘writer’ to ‘reader.’ What’s disturbing in this case is the demise of our long cherished notions of property, authorship and ownership, guaranteed by the commodity form of the book as a fixed and stable created object. What’s more disturbing, perhaps, is the need to recognize that the period of romantic authorship, which we may be on the verge of abandoning, persisted for less than three centuries in the history of human writing and thinking systems.

A sixth observation proposed an experience even further away from the notion of reader, writer and book as a one-to-one experience. As texts become a form of enriched and enhanced reality, a transition is made to animation and game technologies; to infinitely increased levels of interactivity and engagement. Perhaps the student textbook will prevent access to the next level, until questions have been answered correctly. Books that police our journeys through them and a corporate dream of remote learning beyond physical institutions.


And lurking behind the collective participation is the machine tracking our preferences and choices. Reading interrupted by pop-up ads designed to capitalize and monetize our tastes and preferences. Othello becomes a weekend trip to Venice, The Odyssey a Greek holiday opportunity. In this scenario ebooks and maybe even the readers are offered to us for ‘free’ but are colonized by tracking, tagging and selling; a minor sacrifice and self-willed infringement of the safe and private experience of reading that is now no more than a shadowy nostalgia for a lost time, a lost place.