Tag Archives: Mary Wollstonecraft

A Final Chapter on Wollstonecraft: 18th Century Feminism for a 21st Century World

Even though I haven’t posted for a couple days, I’ve been thinking.  A dangerous activity, indeed.  In a recent post, I wondered how Wollstonecraftian feminism and class struggle issues of the 1790s  could be pertinent in 2011.  Surely in this modern age we’re properly enlightened?

I know feminism is alive and well today, but I feel it’s a very different brand of feminism than that espoused in Wollstonecraft’s Vindications.  Today’s feminism seems primarily concerned with the body: sexual and reproductive freedom.

I might be making no friends here by saying it, but feminism today is also bizarrely obsessed with being pro-vaginal:  love me, love my menstruation.  This has led to no end of weird things popping up on Etsy – the cool kid’s handmade Ebay.  For example:

Uterus jewelry.

“Love your ladyparts” soap – in the shape of said ladyparts.

Vagina mug.

Uterus superhero plush toy.

Hand-embroidered vagina art.

I could go on, but I’ll leave that to the domain of Regretsy, a blog devoted to weird shit on Etsy.

So, back to the topic at hand, I hold that today’s feminism has taken female empowerment well in hand.  Now you can proudly show off your vagina-love to all and sundry, and society can just deal.

But what of Wollstonecraftian feminism?  I doubt Mary would have thought vagina jewelry particularly pertinent to her arguments.  Is there still a place for arguments about female agency, strength of moral fortitude and reason?  Or do we feel we’re beyond these antiquated concepts?

With this current body-driven feminism, I feel it has become very inward-looking.  We lack the  sense of the wider, what it means to be an agent for feminism in a world that still seeks to degrade us as emotional, unreasonable and unequal.

And of course, this generalisation doesn’t take into consideration those brilliant few who do take their feminism to beyond themselves.  What I’m talking about here is the wide majority of women, in their everyday lives as daughters, mothers, sisters and co-workers.

Feminism has been fought for for generations, centuries even, so perhaps there are those who say, “The battle was won, what does this have to do with me?”  But it has everything to do with you, living as you do in a fluid society.  There will always be those who seek to diminish the power of the Other, that threatening presence of those who place ones own view of themselves into stark  and frightening contrast: the women, the poor, and those who are sexually, ethnically and religiously different.

And in Wollstonecraftian feminism there lies a universality.  She writes that her “affection for the whole human race”  and the “rights of humanity” are the motivation for her work.  It is not an argument that seeks only to benefit her personally.

I call with the firm tone of humanity; for my arguments […] are dictated by a disinterested spirit – I plead for my sex – not for myself.

And thus Wollstonecraftian feminism couldn’t be more pertinent to today’s modern world, as indeed it will be pertinent for as long as there is society itself.

Some Blogskeeping and Reading as Telepathy

Firstly, I spent this morning doing some blog housekeeping (blogskeeping?) in which I have finally differentiated between categories and tags.  Now you’ll see that the post categories are of a more manageable number, and are actually the literal categories of my posts.  Shocking, I know!  And then I went through and properly tagged things, which took ages.  You will see there is now a delightful tag cloud on the right, with which you can now navigate my witty repartee.

Oh, procrastination.  I love you so.

You’ll also notice that I finally linked to Philip Pullman’s official website, which I’d been terribly remiss in doing before.  I’ve babbled about how much I love His Dark Materials often enough!

Having done so, I then took the time to look around the website and the very first page, he said something that made me go, “YES!”:

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.

The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain.

Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.

I believe in this wholeheartedly.

I remember a lecture in one of my classes, I think it was Contemporary Fiction, when we talked about “reading as telepathy”.  It’s a mental communication between the reader and the words, where you can read the minds of the characters and know their deepest secrets and desires, all without a spoken word.  If you, the writer, have an agenda, then you’re controlling that communication and manipulating the reader to think your way.  Instead of telepathy, it becomes telepathic possession!

J.R.R. Tolkien said something to that effect, in the foreword of an edition of Lord of the Rings (which I bought at a charity shop many years ago, enthralled as I was by the cover illustration of a windswept Gandalf, robes billowing oh-so dramatically).  He says:

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none.  It is neither allegorical nor topical. […] But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since I was old and wary enough to detect its presence.  I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.  I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

And so when I write about my Wollstonecraftian feminism, the conflict of the patriarchy and those who flout the system, I’m not trying to make any kind of point or convey any specific message.  I’m just telling a story, as best I can.  I leave it to you, dear readers, to do the rest.

And you really don’t want to find yourselves possessed by me.  Exorcism doesn’t come cheap.

The Boys of Cobault

In yesterday’s post I talked a lot about Wollstonecraftian feminism and how it pertained to Euphemia, my female main character in Cobault – but what about the boys?

Algernon is my male main character, and I’ve realised that he represents an unknown quantity, contradictions, in a world where everything has to be quantified, documented and labeled.  He has no family, and even his surname, Black, is a lack thereof.  He’s working class, but he’s literate.  He’s naive, but he has this all-encompassing power.  A talent that even, itself, has no name.

Together with the group of lower class boys Algernon befriends, they are that educated poor who refuse to play the part “assigned to them by nature”.  They choose to defy their place in the societal structure, and work towards becoming successful on their own intellectual merits.

And to highlight that defiance, there is a group of unpleasant, spoiled rich boys who are part of a club, “Academy for Academics”, which seeks to rid the institution of these lower class and female students who sully what they believe the Academy should stand for.  They, alongside society itself and the sprawling influence of the patriarchal company, Endicott, are the villans of the novel.

The ringleader of “Academy for Academics”, Arkhaven, is a character I’m hoping to develop properly enough to illustrate his complexities.  His motives are at once terrible and understandable; he only wants to prove himself to an abusive father, and he hates all women as a reflection of his feelings towards his victimised and weak mother.  Rage, violence and desire have become twisted together in his mind and, as the abused becomes the abuser, he terrorises prostitutes.  He’s the sort of person you can see becoming a serial killer, Jack the Ripper style.

Arkhaven’s cronies are his peers, other boys from influential families, over whom he’s in control and is masterful at manipulating.  They all share the same belief in the inherent superiority of the wealthy class, and the feeling that women and the lower classes need to be kept in their respective subjugated places in society.  They try to enforce this, feeling like martyrs to the cause of maintaining the reputation of their class and the patriarchal system.

Their usual victims are lower class boys and girls, but then they’re faced with Euphemia.  As a girl from high society, she presents even more of an affront.  She’s one of them, throwing the system on its head; as the most threatening Other is the Other that looks like the Self.  Confronted with this threat, Arkhaven becomes obsessed with destroying her.

I’m at the stage in my re-writing when I’m still building up a lot of this conflict.  In my first writing of it I glossed over far too much and simplified things that shouldn’t have been simplified.  I also rushed into the story at break-neck speed, so I’m currently trying to pace the whole story much more sensibly.  But as the first draft was in fact a NaNoWriMo novel, I guess that’s only to be expected.

I’m really glad I’m taking the time to fully explore what I’m trying to get at through writing Cobault.  These recent posts have been helping me focus and refine my vision of the novel.  However, I also just need to get stuck into continuing to re-write.  There’s only so much research you can do before the research itself actually hinders the writing process!

Why My Life of Crime is Over Before it Started, and Feminist Explorations: My Love for Mary Wollstonecraft, Explained

I spent 45 minutes of my afternoon in a UK Border Agency Public Enquiry Office, getting my fingerprints scanned and photo taken (for the second time in 6 months!).  The rest of my day was mainly spent getting to and from said Enquiry Office as it was in some grim outer region of Glasgow.  And now I’m realising that I’ll never be able to commit a crime here and get away with it – not with this stored biometric data!

Either that, or I’ll just invest in gloves and masks.

My incipient criminal career aside, I’d like to talk about my dear and beloved feminist hero: Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’ve mentioned her in previous posts as part of the inspiration for Cobault, and I’ve decided to go back and read her Vindications of the Rights of Women to sharpen my recollection of those arguments I might be employing.

First of all, I have to say how much I adore this woman.

Wollstonecraft had absolutely no time for the idiotic fainting women of her time.  She writes:

In the most trifling dangers they cling to [a man’s] support, with parasitical tenacity, piteously demanding succour; and their natural protector extends his arm, or lifts up his voice, to guard the lovely trembler – from what?  Perhaps the frown of an old cow, or the jump of a mouse[…].

She goes on to say:

If fear in girls, instead of being cherished, were treated like cowardice in boys, then we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects […] would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason.

Education is a big part of Wollstonecraft’s argument, as she sees the current system as a total failure to women and girls.  Interestingly, she finds that this is also the case with the poor, and that many of her arguments apply equally to both marginalised groups.

“Educate women like men,” says Rousseau, “and the more they resemble our sex the less power they will have over us.”  This is the very point I am at.  I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves. In the same strain have I heard men argue against instructing the poor; for many are the forms that aristocracy assumes.  “Teach them to read and write,” they say, “and you take them out of the station assigned to them by nature.”

I’m now realising why the struggles of my high-born Euphemia, seeking to get the sort of education which Wollstonecraft recommends for a woman – that which exercises her reasoning and not her sensibility – is mirrored in that of my lower-class characters.  I’ve either absorbed this argument or found the same parallels myself, and though I’d like to claim the latter it’s much more likely to be the former!

Either way, I find that the essence of what makes Euphemia tick as a character is explained in the following:

When do we hear of women who, starting out of obscurity, boldly claim respect on account of their great abilities or daring virtues?  Where are they to be found? – “To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which they seek” – True! my male readers will probably exclaim; but let them, before they draw any conclusion, recollect that this was not written originally as descriptive of women but of the rich.

Indeed.  And so we’ve discussed Wollstonecraft’s belief in education, but then it follows that after that education women need to be allowed to gain employment of their own, to support themselves and not rely on getting a rich husband for monetary necessity.  She writes:

Girls marry merely to better themselves, to borrow a significant vulgar phrase, and have such perfect power over their hearts as to not permit themselves to fall in love till a man with a superior fortune offers.

Euphemia’s father tells her an allegorical tale of a girl he knew of during his boyhood in the Academy, who was pursuing the foolish “education” (finishing school, really) that all girls of any means choose to undertake in their society.  But when her family fell on hard times she was forced to marry some rich scoundrel just to support them.  Misery ensued, quite naturally, and Euphemia’s father tells her that his wish for her education is that it could prevent such a situation occurring to her. He’s a secret Wollstonecraftian himself!

And most of this novel was written some two or three years after reading Vindications, having not gone back to reread it until just now!  I’m realising just how much of Cobault, it’s plot and characters, are dependent on the writings of this 18th century feminist, and how much of an impact she has had on me.  To the point of subconsciously aping her arguments in my own fictional world!

Unfortunately for me, Wollstonecraft scorns novels, as:

Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry, all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed in the mould of folly during the time they are acquiring accomplishments […].

Oh well.

A Bit of a Whine

I’ve nearly utterly failed to write here today (Wednesday, though now it’s technically Thursday) despite not posting Tuesday either, what with carnivorous birdy play-time.

The reason is that I’m having confidence issues.  Again.  Joy.

I’ve not been writing these past couple of days, and if I’m not writing then I’m not able to post about writing.  I don’t even find myself with a witty anecdotal diatribe to fill in the space.  And because I’ve already written a post about what I term “Writer’s Blah”, I felt like posting a second would just be whining.  And make me look desperate for someone to just tell me I’m awesome to puff up my feeling of self-worth.

Which I kind of am – but don’t do it!!!  I would hate for anyone to comment: “But you ARE awesome!!!” because that’s totally not what I’m getting at.  It’s a totally different kind of vindication that I need.

Let’s get to the gist of my problem:

I know I write well.  But I don’t write well enough yet.  My heroes are authors like Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin and all these others whose novels have always blown me away.  Novels that link beautiful prose with ideas, the sorts of ideas that make you think for weeks, maybe years, long after you’ve finished.

A good story is still necessary, in my mind, but to be something really interesting there needs to be more beneath the surface than just that.  This is where I find that what I write needs to be at the intersection of “literary fiction” and “genre” – both plot and concepts matter to me, and pretty much equally.

So right now I write decent plots, some lovely shading-on-purple prose (mauve prose, if you like), but where are my thought-provoking ideas?!  So far I’ve attempted:

  • Exodus – a retelling of the story of the Biblical Exodus, but apart from some use of gender, race and the theme of the Other, I never really pushed through to anything significant therein.  The Other will always be one of my favourite topics to thread through my novels, but I just haven’t gotten it right yet.
  • Cobault – deals with gender and the Other again, with Wollstonecraftian feminism (which is rather too old-school to be earth-shattering), and class struggle (see above).  Maybe back in the time of Maria: or, the Woes of Woman I could have been onto something.  Not so much in 2011.
  • The Long Road Home was just silly.  A romp through reworking fantasy cliches, plot-driven for the most part with some coming-of-age YA stuff thrown in there.  Fluff.

So when I think about His Dark Materials, when Pullman essentially turned Milton’s Paradise Lost on its head and praised mankind for the very thing Milton damned it for, I think – what the fuck have I been doing with my time???

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a true Original Idea – I know that’s a long hunt for an imaginary quarry – but I’m holding myself to the high standard of these authors I esteem and hoping I can pull something together that’s inventive and creative with whatever ideas I choose to explore.  It’s just not happened yet.

And I’m seeing the massive gap between my novels and those novels I love.  It’s a depressing abyss.

I had to remind myself recently that all these writers are far older than I am, and were well into their middle age before the works they’re best known for were written.  I know I have time to work all this out, and to feel truly proud of what I’ve made.  But it’s very hard to keep motivated when faced with disappointment in yourself, regardless of what your logic and reasoning tells you.

These are the feelings that make me want to drop what I’m currently doing and pursue something else, an instinct I’ve posted about before, hoping that the next idea will have greater merit than the last, but am I wrong to do that?

I thought I was, and thus I’ve been trying to persevere with Cobault as it’s my most well-realised story, the furthest along towards actual completion.  Do I stick with it or do I give myself free rein to try something new, in the hope of uncovering something that makes me feel the abyss is slowly closing, however infinitesimally so?