Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing as a Feminist Act in Novels for Girls

One of the first subgenres that fostered feminist writing was the girls' novel, or more generally the coming-of-age novel when it concerned girls. It was (and to a certain extent still is) dominated by women writers and was written almost exclusively for a female readership, particularly an intellectually malleable readership. By concentrating on girl protagonists, the genre, ipso facto, examined the questions young women face(d) upon entering the world as an adult, questions about romance, sexuality, work and career, moral agency and development, familial duty and duty to the self, friendship, and sisterhood. In cases where these questions were dealt with outside of novels for young girls, the writers and the books often faced intense ridicule from male critics. Elizabeth Gaskell was derided for her portrayal of labor unrest and reform in North and South (1855), male critics insisting that as a woman Gaskell was unfit to write politically. When the books were aimed at a young female readership, they often escaped similar critical ire because most of these books were (and in some cases still are) dismissed as lacking in true literary merit, mere works of moral instruction of no importance to "serious" literature. Of the most common threads that link the girls' novel with feminism, writing aspirations are quite prominent.

In one of the earliest feminist novels (not a girls' novel - it was written before the advent of the genre), Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) by Francoise de Graffigny, Zilia is a Native American princess brought to Europe as a curiosity. She finds her center of gravity in writing, first with a Native American form of documentation with knots and later with Western writing. Zilia is surely one of the most unusual characters in Western fiction. Her status as a woman of color already makes her rare, but, as depicted by de Graffigny as profoundly intelligent, justly proud, and critical of European social customs, Zilia is an utterly unique presence in European literature. The book is radical above all because it is not ultimately Zilia's fate to bend to the patriarchal custom of marriage - instead, she becomes a writer, self-supporting and no longer bound to any of her male benefactors.

In Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924), Prue Sarn, born with a cleft palate, does not expect to be able to marry, although she is both physically strong and intelligent. Her difference is marked even further by her pursuit of education, an unusual ambition both because of her sex and her class (she belongs to a family of farmers). Though Prue does not seek out education for professional gain, it is nevertheless significant that she wants to learn to write above all else, that is, to exercise her own identity through language. This pursuit is an expression of self-worth, even with the crushing duress of being female in a patriarchal culture and being deemed valueless by that culture as a result of her cleft palate.

The theme of the girl writer is nowhere more prominent than in the work of L. M. Montgomery. In Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels, Anne Shirley, though she works primarily as a teacher, writes romantic fiction, some of which is published (most memorably, by the Rollings' Reliable Baking Powder Company), while Emily of New Moon (1923) and its sequels are at their core the story of Emily's development as a writer as much as of her coming-of-age. While Anne does not achieve her adolescent dream of literary success, she never stops writing to please herself even as she navigates marriage and motherhood. Emily, on the other hand, achieves a great deal of success and her eventual relationship is based upon a partnership between two artists. She makes significant sacrifices for the sake of her career and doggedly pursues both financial and critical success even in the wake of personal tragedies.

In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), Judy Abbott sets herself the task of writing and publishing her novel, a thinly veiled account of her brutal childhood in a foundling home, with the express purpose of both earning her living and paying back her college tuition, paid by the benefactor and correspondent whom she affectionately refers to as her Daddy-Long-Legs. This classic girls' novel has endured quite the firestorm, derided as sentimental, regressive, and maudlin, and while I will freely admit that it is indeed quite a sentimental book, it has surprisingly radical implications. Judy, far from being the fainting wallflower or the alluring Gibson girl, pursues literature and education for the express purpose of becoming self-reliant, of being independent from any form of charity, no matter how well-intentioned.

Though Grazia Deledda wrote more than thirty volumes of fiction and won the Nobel Prize in 1926, only a small number have as yet been translated into English. In her final novel Cosima (1936), an autobiographical rendering of a young woman's coming-of-age in Sardinia, the heroine desires above all else to tell stories and is inspired by the native legends of brigands and paganistic transformation that she has heard since childhood. Cosima starts her attempts at publication early, despite vicious local gossip, the morbid predictions of her scandalized family, and the demoralizing failure of her first novel. Another significant female Italian writer, Clotilde Marghieri, none of whose books have been translated into English, wrote structurally complex books, mixtures of novel, memoir, essay, and meta-text. Her development as a writer is a subject to which she returns frequently and with which are entwined her profound bond with Napoli and the countryside of Campania, her status as a married woman who nevertheless chose to live separately from her husband, and her determination to express female and feminine realities.

Surely the most famous novel about a girl writer is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868). Jo March obsesses about becoming a writer and directly aligns this idea with male identity. She rejects any signs of femininity, from wearing her hair up and keeping her gloves clean to accepting gestures of chivalry from the men around her. Writing is one more means of rebellion, but more deeply it is what drives her to rebel in the first place. From her earliest plays and sensational fiction to the more reflective work of her adulthood, Jo defines herself by her writing. Her sister Amy's interest in painting forms a striking contrast with Jo's literary pursuits. While Amy pursues her artistic studies as a pleasant and engrossing occupation that will both make her more attractive as a potential wife and fill her time as a single woman, Jo's goals as a writer are both financially practical and creatively aspirational.

It should be stressed that for most of these heroines, writing is not in and of itself enough; most of them want to publish their work, that is, write as professionals rather than dilettantes. These girls do not want to simply express themselves imaginatively - they want recognition for it. The professional aspect of their aspirations is at the root of writing as a feminist act. These young women are not writing simply to "express themselves," to use a rather noxious and politically correct expression. A major epoch, for all of the above-mentioned heroines except for Prue Sarn, is the first successful attempt at publication, though it may be accompanied by disappointments, critical, financial, and familial.

In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf identified the two essentials women need in order to pursue writing careers on a par with their male counterparts: the room of the title, or a private space from which others are barred, and a livable income. A number of critics have misunderstood Woolf's critique and understood these as requirements for good writing, rather than a good writing career, but Woolf is drawing a distinction. Many women throughout history have written great works - but without those two essentials few have have achieved the same professional success as their male counterparts. Private space and a livable wage enable independence, without which the pursuit of a career in the volatile literary world is untenable. Why do Jo March, Emily Byrd Starr, Judy Abbott, and Cosima focus on earning money, even above and beyond the pursuit of critical acclaim? Precisely because all of these heroines seek independence and autonomy.

The pursuit of privacy, both in the form of a physical space in which to write and of the right to develop one's thoughts without ridicule, is thus crucial to the adolescence of all these aspiring writers. Jo is given encouragement within her family, but does most of her writing in the garret, while Cosima and Emily both hide their activities from families that mock and disapprove of their writing and both rely on allies for access to the necessary materials, in Cosima's case her brother Andrea and in Emily's her cousin Jimmy. Many of these young women, including Emily, Jo, and Zilia, postpone or flat-out reject romantic entanglements that would have eliminated both their privacy and control of their financial earnings.

Writing is thus a significantly feminist act. It is both an appropriation of language, transforming it to reflect female experience and expression, and a means of accruing independence and professional success. 

There are of course examples of feminist coming-of-age fiction in which the professional aspirations of the protagonist are not literary. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton Porter, Elnora's professional interests are in education and naturalism, while in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret pursues labor reform and altruistic business practice. In Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), Thea Kronberg studies classical singing and pursues a career as a Wagnerian soprano. In Louisa May Alcott's Work (1873), one of her finest novels and my favorite, the plot details Christie's endeavors to find not merely work that will render her independent and solvent, but a vocation, and in Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), Jo's pupil Nan doggedly pursues medical studies.

Work remains a profoundly feminist issue - many professions are still male-dominated and even where women have overcome the gender gap, significant compensation inequities are still quite typical. Writing in and of itself is no longer the radical statement it once was for women and this is all to the good. Although sexism continues to exert an influence on, for example, the distribution of literary prizes and fellowships, critical attitudes, marketing strategies, and inclusion in the literary canon, a woman writer is not, simply by writing professionally, extending herself beyond what we consider her natural role. Since 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex and forever changed public discourse on feminism and gender, enormous strides have been made and now we face subtler challenges. Women continue to face silencing - women who speak out about feminism and women's rights face death and rape threats, for example - and, even as progress is made, the right to be part of the public discourse is still continually contested. Jo, Cosima, Emily, Zilia - these characters are no longer obviously transgressive, but their development as professional writers continues to mirror the subtler professional struggles of women today.

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