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Women and Writing:


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This topic is planned to be about women who write.  The writings could be fiction, non-fiction, news reporting, philosophy etc.  As before I encourage people to contribute to this topic.  

My favorite all-time author is Jane Austen.  She was born into a large family at Steventon, Hampshire, England on  December 16, 1775.  Her six full-length novels are Sense and Sensibility (published 1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Persuasion (1817) and Northanger Abbey (1817).  She also wrote Lady Susan (published 1871) a short story in epistolary form and two unfinished novels - The Watsons and Sanditon (The Brothers).  In addition, from age 12 or so to age 19 she wrote what are referred to as her Juvenilia.  These are short, mostly unfinished “experiments,” sometimes silly.

Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are my favorite of Jane Austen’s stories although for different reasons, but I enjoy all of them and have read them multiple times.  Many people may think of Jane’s novels to be “Love Stories” in the sense of a woman and a man falling in love and getting married and they are, but to me they are mainly stories of the relationships between women and that men are in the stories to give the women something to talk about.  I’ve read that Jane Austen never, within her novels, wrote a discussion in which a woman was not present and while I don’t know if that is absolutely true it seems very likely.  So, to me Jane Austen’s writings are stories about women with men thrown in, to round things out.  The one possible exception to this is Mansfield Park.

Further, the people in Jane’s books are neither all good or all bad, which is like real life for the most part.  For example she said this about her character Emma “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  This again is a difficult thing to do.  One character that she writes about is a very caring self-centered person.  

Jane and her one sister, Cassandra, were very close and except for brief trips apart, lived together for all of Jane's life.  This is reflected in her novels, all of the heroines had sisters, although not all of these sisters were close.  The sisters that were closest were Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility and Elisabeth and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  In the later book there were five sisters, but not all were equally close.  Even in stories in which the sisters are not particularly close, the heroine is, with the exception of Fanny in Mansfield Park, close to other women.  While there are certain similarities among Jane Austen’s heroines, they are all single during most of the stories, there are also variations.  The oldest is Anne Elliot from Persuasion while the youngest, at least at the beginning is Fanny Price from Mansfield Park.  Emma Woodhouse from Emma is the richest while Fanny Price is the poorest.  Persuasion is the most romantic story, in the way that word is usually used.  Northanger Abbey (Catherine Morland) has a “cute” story that is most like Jane’s Juvenilia and has a mystery in it.  Emma also has a mystery in it.  The two most confident heroines are Elinor Dashwood, the Sense in Sense and Sensibility and Elisabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.  

In four of the stories the heroines have experienced a setback in their financial status or are in danger of experiencing such a setback.  Pride and Prejudice in particular deals with the need for many women at that time to marry for financial support.  In a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, Jane Austen wrote: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.”  (The path taken by Charlotte Lucas.)  However, in an earlier letter to Fanny she wrote: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”  (The one favored by Elizabeth Bennett, although Lizzie had the best of both worlds.)  Jane Austen didn’t have to marry for that reason because she was supported by her father and brothers.  Other of her stories also touch on the idea of marrying for money or status.

What is amazing to me is that she could write such intriguing stories (look how much they are still being read), yet nothing truly bad happens in them.  The reader might learn of something sad that happened in the past or to someone far away who was not “present” in the story, nothing truly bad happens to a character who we have gotten to know well and gotten to identify with.  That is difficult to do.  It seems to me that in many other stories, both from print and in the movies, sad events, such as innocent people dying, are put in with no other purpose than to raise the emotional level.  That is no purpose as to the plot.  Now people in Jane’s stories do get sad and upset at times and are disappointed in life, but in normal ways.  I want to make a point here.  Jane Austen’s father was a reverend and that put her and her family into the class of the gentry and while they weren’t particularly wealthy a number of brothers were successful and able to support Jane, her mother and her sister.  These were the people Jane primarily wrote about.  She rarely wrote about servants or the very poor, again the one major exception being Mansfield Park,  So, while Jane wrote about normal people’s lives, with their ups and downs, these were normal people among the upper class, the gentry, not servants and not the poor.

Tom,

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Tom47,

Your post just reminded me of an elective I took in my senior year of high school back in 1975, "Women in Literature."  We ended up reading Madame Bovary, Sons and Lovers, A Doll's House, Tess of the D'ubervilles and a bunch of others.  There wasn't a single female author on the syllabus, not a George Sand nor George Elliott, nor a Bronte in sight.  It still amazes me.  Many of us were reading Erica Jong's Fear of Flying on the sly.

Edited by lmspear
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I remember Silas Marner being read in high school and Emily Dickinson much discussed in third year English. My community college English teacher admonished us for not all having read Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding – Mrs. Baker lived nearby and her daughters "Cassandra" and "Judith" had been our high school classmates.

My favorite Austens are the "autumnal" Persuasion, and Mansfield Park, which is a big novel, almost like one of Henry James. I liked how the narrative switches towards the end to an exchange of letters and you follow it thirdhand, through a kind of telescope. The Crawfords are not particularly "nice" or "good" people, and the father may be a bit compromised by owning a plantation in the Bahamas, but both he and Fanny Price seem to be pretty clear-sighted.

After you ran out of Jane Austen books to read, you were supposed to  go on to Barbara Pym as a kind of dessert.

Recently I came across Charlotte Brontë's impressions of Jane Austen in her friend Elizabeth Gaskell's biography that Brontë's father commissioned. Brontë writes to G. E. Lewes, George Eliot's partner, on January 11, 1848 and says:

Quote
. . . Why do you like Miss Austen so much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have written Pride and Prejudice, or Tom Jones than any of the Waverley novels?
 
I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fence, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a  bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
 
Now I can understand admiration of George Sand: for though I never saw any of her works which I admired throughout (even Consuelo, which is the best, or the best that I have read, appears to me to couple strange extravagance with wondrous excellence), yet she has a grasp of mind, which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect; she is sagacious and profound; – Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant . . .

 

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Thank you Imspear, Quiggin and Helene for your comments.  

Imspear, your comment on the elective you took is interesting and telling in regard to how female creators are neglected.  I haven’t read any of the books you mention except Silas Marner, a long time ago.  I did read George Ellot’s Romola and enjoyed the parts about the developing relationship between the title character and Tessa.  The ending is very good.  

Quiggin, what I like more in books is the actual writing as opposed to the story itself.  That means that in Jane’s books it is the conversations and the insight they give as to the character’s personalities that I enjoy the most instead of how the story ends and that is why I enjoy reading the stories again and again even when knowing how it will end.  I looked up Barbara Pym and plan to try and find some of her books.

Tom,      

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In 1792 *Mary Wollstonecraft*’s (born on April 27, 1759 in London, England) book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects was published.  Quotes from this book include:

“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.  I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists – I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men.”

“I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint, which I mean to pursue, some future time for I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.”  (Chapter 9)

Chapter 6 - “The Effect which an Early Association of Ideas has Upon the Character” - is particularly interesting to me.  In part in that chapter the author writes “Educated in the enervating style recommended by the writer on whom I have been animadverting; and not having a chance, from their subordinate state in society, to recover their lost ground, is it surprising that women everywhere appear a defect in nature?  Is it surprising, when we consider what a determinate effect an early association of ideas has on the character, that they neglect their understandings, and turn all their attention to their persons?”  Thus, Mary Wollstonecraft is not excusing women’s faults – their defects in nature, – but is saying that these faults are the result of the associations made by women early in life.  That is the way they are informally or formally educated.   

She goes on to write “The association of our ideas is either habitual or instantaneous; and the latter mode seems rather to depend on the original temperature of the mind than on the will.  When the ideas, and matters of fact, are once taken in, they lie by for use, till some fortuitous circumstance makes the information dart into the mind with illustrative force, that has been received at very different periods of our lives.”  This I feel shows great insight on the part of the author.  A simple example is saying the alphabet.  One can easily and quite quickly say the alphabet forward if that person had been taught to say it from childhood, but for most people saying the alphabet backwards is difficult, if they have not practiced it that way and while saying the alphabet forward is simply a matter of habit, saying it backwards involves thinking.  Here is a nice short video by Kastra M. Strauss (3 minutes long) illustrating that idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjalBmkmkvE.  So, based on what Mary Wollstonecraft is claiming early associations of ideas could have a long lasting effect on the character and behavior later in life and the behavior and even the beliefs of women and men could be, at least in part, a result of the associations they were taught early in life.  

Starting in 1937 Gallup Polls asked people in the US whether they would vote for a woman for President.  In 1937 and in 1945 only one third said they would.  This means that even as late as 1945 some women would not vote for a woman for President.  However over time the percentage who said that they would vote for a woman increased until in 2015, 92% said they would vote for a woman for President with only 8% saying they would not.  Then in 2016 a woman, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for President and in 2020 a woman, Kamala Harris, was elected Vice President.  Why would there be such a dramatic increase in the percentage of people who would vote for a woman for President?  One explanation is that most or all of the adults who were polled in 1937 were born before women in general could vote and most were born before the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, was elected to Congress, so generally men were more likely to be involved (associated) with politics and women weren’t.  With time more and more women became involved with politics and more and more women were elected to congress.  So, the people polled in later years had grown up at a time when women were more involved (associated) with politics and these people were more and more likely to say they were willing to vote for a woman for president and eventually did vote for a woman.  We can see this process happening in various cases such as civil rights, fashions, music, gender norms, even preferences for ballet etc. 

Mary Wollstonecraft was a very important and influential person in history and does not get the recognition she deserves.  I have not been able to write every outstanding thing about her so here are two short videos to fill in the gaps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tYv3w4rZxI, 4 minutes by Hailey and here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7YPdheQISw 5 minutes by Tamar Gulian and Tani Zurnaci.

Tom,

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