My romantic streak has received a series of blows to the head recently. Last month I read A Passionate Sisterhood (Virago) by biographer and friend Kathleen Jones, and now I have to re-evaluate my life-long passion for poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge because they were, essentially, male chauvinist pigs. It’s a great book, brilliantly written and painstakingly researched, but it’s left me feeling slightly bereft, as though I’ve lost old friends. Their poetry is still as amazingly beautiful and mind-blowing as ever, but the way they treated their wives, sisters, daughters just isn’t. In depressing detail, the author lays bare the extent to which these women, meek, self-effacing and downtrodden, simply put up with a lifetime of unremitting abuse. Because that was their place, as pretty adjuncts to men.
Then last week I read Celia Brayfield’s angry article “Dark Matter” which appears in the current issue of Mslexia. As far as she’s concerned, in the literary universe, not much has changed. With a few notable exceptions, what the vast majority of women still write about and want to read about is other women in essentially submissive, stereotypical roles, leading inoffensive little lives that are “all tinkly tea-cups and nice chats with the village postmistress” instead of fighting back and running with the wolves.
According to Brayfield, the rhyme “Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of” has been attributed to Robert Southey, another ‘romantic’ poet, who once wrote to Charlotte Bronte (after she’d sought his approval and endorsement) that “women had no business writing because it would distract them from their domestic duties.” And we know the story of why George Elliot took a man’s name.
Back in the seventeenth century, Charles Perrault collected wild European folk tales and sanitised them into fairy stories. We gained happy-ever-after endings, and a “heroine” who was almost exclusively in the kitchen about her domestic duties. Cleaning, cooking, a saccharine romance! Move forward four centuries, and the winner of the 2013 Romantic Novel of the Year award is entitled “Rosie Hopkin’s Sweet Shop of Dreams”, beating the similar genre-sugary “How to Eat a Cupcake.” Yes, truth really is stranger than fiction.
So, what should we conclude? What should we do?
Well, perhaps if we genuinely consider ourselves to be “writers unchained” it’s time to throw off the shackles and wind in there. Write honestly. Aim a few punches at the patriarchy.
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