“Women and fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, “remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” Eighty years later, women and fiction no longer seem so problematic. Indeed, they are now so closely entwined—both in production and consumption—that it is difficult to imagine one without the other. This is a 21st-century assumption, however, and as Elaine Showalter demonstrates in her literary history, A Jury of Her Peers (Knopf, 2009), the history of women and fiction has certainly been fraught. Indeed, up until very recently, few people would have admonished Nathaniel Hawthorne for his opinion that, “ink-stained women, are, without a single exception, detestable.”
Women writers of his era would have at least partially agreed with him—if not detestable, they would have described themselves as unnatural. Literary women were mostly in despair over themselves: Torn between the ideals of demure femininity and the reality of literary production and competition, they were plagued by self-loathing and doubt. “Sometimes I think I am a monster,” the 19th-century novelist Mary Wilkins Freeman wrote, “and the worst of it is, I certainly take pleasure in it.” As late as the 1950s, Dorothy Parker prayed to be other than she was: “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman. For Jesus Christ’s sake, amen.” Women writers considered themselves mutants, perversely bred for unhappiness and doomed to find satisfaction only in unwomanly things, like writing fiction.
Augusta Jane Evans, another 19th-century novelist, summed up the experience best when she admitted that, “Literary women as a class are not as happy, as women who have husbands and children to engage their attention and monopolize their affections; yet…they experience a deep peace and satisfaction, and are crowned with a glory such as marriage never gave.” The tension Evans points to is between happiness and glory, between private satisfaction and public recognition. Showalter too frames the history of women’s writing in these terms; the tradition of American women’s writing has, Showalter says, come “from pressures on women to lead private rather than public lives, and to conform to cultural norms and expectations.” The lives of Jean Rhys and Flannery O’Connor, while irrevocably different, only serve to confirm the influence of these pressures.
Rhys (1890-1979) and O’Connor (1925-1964) could not have been more dissimilar, and had they ever met, they probably would have despised each other. Rhys, who was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica and relocated to London in her teens, was a consummate hedonist. Her life story reads like a novel, and a new biography of Rhys, The Blue Hour by Lilian Pizzichini (W.W. Norton, 2009), recounts the tale with relish. The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Dominican Creole, Rhys grew up to be a beautiful and unstable alcoholic. She collected a bevy of lovers and married three times (first a conman and later an inveterate gambler), and was the kind of girl who fell in love with a man because he could whistle the love duet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, never mind that he was whistling the tune to another woman. Rhys’s family largely ignored her, and after her father’s death in 1910, she worked as a chorus girl, manicurist, artist’s model, and governess, never quite managing to rise above poverty. In her thirties, she moved to Paris and became the mistress of Ford Madox Ford, who helped her discover her talent for writing confessional fiction. But it wasn’t until 1966 that Rhys found widespread critical acclaim with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, a modernist prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
O’Connor, on the other hand, was a life-long ascetic and a resolutely professional writer. Very little has been written about her life, and a new biography by Brad Gooch, Flannery (Little, Brown and Co, 2009), is one of the first to be published. Born and raised in Georgia, O’Connor, a self-described “13th-century Catholic” and “hermit novelist,” was trained at the prestigious writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa. Described by her college composition teacher as “warped, but brilliant all the same,” O’Connor was very precocious. At 24, after having her short fiction published in the Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, and Mademoiselle, she was diagnosed with lupus, and returned to Milledgeville, Georgia, to live with her mother. Despite her illness, O’Connor wrote two novels and two short story collections, while maintaining long-distance correspondence with literary intellectuals like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Giroux. She died, at 39, having won two O. Henry awards.
Few contemporaneous writers would appear to be less similar, but as women novelists, Jean Rhys and Flannery O’Connor have quite a few things in common. Both were frankly ambitious from an early age—Rhys initially pursued fame on the stage before she started writing fiction, and O’Connor went to Iowa, to the displeasure of her mother, to find literary recognition. Raising children, the most important female accomplishment of their era, was also never much of a concern for either of them—O’Connor was determined to remain single even before her lupus diagnosis, and Rhys, after one abortion, left her only daughter to the care of friends, and then her first husband after he was released from jail. Confronted with pressure to get married and have children, they traveled in opposite, but similarly radical, directions. O’Connor traveled inward, living as a monastic intellectual and writing esoteric, allegorical fiction, while Rhys traveled outward, marrying often, drinking excessively, and writing, in large part, autobiographically. For both women, what Augusta Jane Evans referred to as “public recognition” decidedly trumped conventional “private happiness.”
Rhys and O’Connor represent two extremes; many women writers were better able or more inclined to compromise in the face of competing social pressures. Few have achieved as much success as Rhys and O’Connor, however, and there were none that didn’t face a choice between family life and literature at some point. Writing requires time, and more importantly, solitude—neither of which married women with children could reliably achieve until the late 20th century. Catherine Dickens, the wife of Charles, gave birth to ten children while her husband was writing novels; had Charles been saddled with the housework, it’s fair to assume none of those novels would ever have seen the light of day. Solitude and space are not, of course, the only things necessary for a successful literary career, but to write a brilliant novel without them is exceptionally difficult. It isn’t a simple coincidence that many of the most successful female writers—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather—have been childless, and often unmarried.
Aside from the personal choice to remain single or childless, women authors also had to make difficult decisions about how to reconcile their private femininity with their public fiction. “How did you ever dare write a portrait of a lady?” Constance Fenimore Cooper asked her friend Henry James in 1882. “Fancy any woman’s attempting a portrait of a gentleman! Wouldn’t there be a storm of ridicule!” The idea that even for a prominent male writer to write in a woman’s voice on intimate matters was risqué suggests that at least there was a kind of gender parity in Victorian prudishness. Nonetheless, women writers attempted to skirt the storm by writing almost exclusively on feminine subjects, and the private lives of their own sex. Novels by women were most often set in drawing rooms and kitchens, rather than battlefields or factory buildings. While these novels could be both brilliant and commercially successful, for many ambitious writers, being confined to women’s subjects chafed badly. “I have not much faith in women in fiction,” Willa Cather wrote, despite being one of the first American women to write frequently from the male perspective. “They have a sort of sex consciousness,” she went on, “that is abominable.” Cather’s contemporary, Edith Wharton, who also dared to write from a male perspective, felt similarly, and objected strongly to the label of “woman writer.” Though sex consciousness could be an asset, allowing women to write about the female psyche and experience in ways men couldn’t, even brilliant writers like Cather and Wharton could be disdainful of femininity in fiction. The tension between public work and private concerns influenced a woman’s writing as much as her personal life.
Despite the lack of faith displayed by Cather and others, Showalter argues that the history of women’s writing has been truly progressive. Each generation of women writers has achieved more and set their goals higher than the last. Showalter divides her history into four phases, and in the final phase, “free,” which begins in the 1990s, she concludes that there is no longer a need for “women’s writing as a separate literary tradition,” because women are “no longer constrained by their femininity” and are free to define and express themselves however they wish. The assumption is that women no longer have to choose between literature and family, that it is now possible to acquire private happiness and public recognition. This may be true for some, but such a neat conclusion to such a fraught history is unlikely. The situation of women has improved, but surely there are still some loose ends?
Do contemporary ideals of femininity no longer clash with literary ambition, as Showalter suggests? Have the tensions between professional success and motherhood been totally resolved? Are there no longer women who pray, as Dorothy Parker did, for the ability to write like a man? The answers to these questions are not obvious. Women’s writing is no longer separate from the mainstream literary tradition, but many of the questions and challenges associated with being a woman writer remain.
Femininity may no longer be a constraint, as Showalter argues, but it is certainly still a subject of debate. A 2005 New York Times article and subsequent book by the novelist Ayelet Waldman, where she admitted to loving her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, set off an intense round of discussion; a more recent Washington Post article by Charlotte Allen about how women are “kind of dim,” and naturally predisposed to be caretakers, was even more controversial. Women have even, paradoxically, made careers by writing about being housewives and mothers—Caitlin Flanagan, a columnist at the Atlantic, is a prime example. For the vast majority of American women writers, the choice between fame and family is no longer absolute, as it was in previous centuries, but private happiness and public recognition are still, in some ways, competing desires, and women are still writing about them and learning how to reconcile them. To suggest otherwise is misleading.
Equally misleading is the suggestion that these unresolved questions must, or will, be definitively answered. The 21st-century is a wonderful time to be a woman in the Western world; the freedom and equality is unprecedented. But equality does not eliminate the tensions between public and private life for either men or women. It isn’t necessary to declare women “free” and close the book; women are not men and never will be, and while the difference between genders may spark debate, it does not preclude equality. We have not yet achieved a post-gender world, nor is it clear that we should, but in an age of gender parity, admitting this should not be difficult.
Men and women may be equals, despite lingering questions, but what of women and fiction? Would Jean Rhys and Flannery O’Connor have attained a better balance between their public work and private lives, had they been born in the last few decades? It is impossible to know, of course, but Showalter suggests that the coveted bourgeois prize— “work-life balance”—may have been within their reach today. Yet it is Mary Wilkins Freeman’s contradiction—taking pleasure in one’s “monstrosity”—that best captures the extent to which many women writers, including many of the greatest, sought out and even enjoyed life as pariahs. If the biographies of Rhys and O’Connor demonstrate anything, it is that brilliance is never predictable or conventional. These women were ambitious, talented, and uncompromising, and it’s doubtful that they would have been more willing to conform to social expectation today than they were in their own time. The challenges associated with attaining a balance between public recognition and private happiness are even greater when literary talent, a rarity regardless of gender, is included in the equation. What works even tenuously for most women writers will rarely apply to women like O’Connor and Rhys, Cather and Wharton, or Eliot and Austen, who would probably never fit into any mold.
As the lives of Rhys and O’Connor demonstrate, women and fiction have had a contentious, if productive, relationship—but do they remain, to use Woolf’s phrase, unsolved problems? Showalter would likely argue that a solution has been found, but it seems that, insofar as gender and art remain problematic, so too will women and fiction.
Julia Schwarz is a writer living in Washington, DC. Illustrations by Katherine Eastland.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire