Day 1204: The 1977 Club! The Women’s Room

Cover for The Women's RoomThere’s nothing subtle about The Women’s Room. It’s a book I reread for the 1977 Club, and I was curious about whether it would affect me the way it did the first time, years ago.

It is the story of Mira and her awakening consciousness of the role of gender in our society. In its time, the novel was an important feminist work that profoundly affected the thinking of many women and perhaps some men. I remember vividly watching the movie on TV with a male coworker. He was astounded at the examples of sexism but even more astounded because I kept saying “That’s happened to me,” pretty much for every example.

French uses the vehicle of the novel to tell the stories of many women. First, it focuses on Mira’s suburbanite girlfriends when she is a young wife and mother in the 1950’s. Without fail, they are all treated poorly by their husbands. She prides herself on being the perfect wife and mother even though she finds life unfulfilling, but that doesn’t save her from a divorce when she is in her late 30’s.

The bulk of the novel focuses on the women she befriends as a graduate student at Harvard. These women are awakening to paternalism in our society. Still, they, too, are all betrayed in some way by their husbands or boyfriends.

I’m struggling now to express my many thoughts with some kind of coherency. One is about the crudeness of it all. First, I was struck by some of the things the men said to their wives in the early portions of the novel and by how the wives accepted this kind of stuff without being outraged. I’m talking about terrible name calling and reducing everything to sex. These women were more my mother’s age than mine, so I have no way of telling whether these scenes were exaggerated.

But overall, I feel that French makes a lot of generalizations and stereotypes men as badly as the men stereotype the women in her novel. I was always confused in the 70’s by some men who seemed to equate feminism with man-hating, but rereading this novel, I can see where that idea comes from.

Finally, it is just plain crude. I understand that women were taking pride in being able to discuss sex and use words that were only allowed to men before, but the language really grated on me. Moreover, there is free use of ethnic slurs. Maybe we’re supposed to know that they are used ironically, but there’s no overt indication that this is the case.

1977 club logoI think The Women’s Room is important as a historical document but not as literature. There are, for example, many places where the story is interrupted by little polemics by a narrator who is unnamed until the end of the novel (although it’s not too difficult to figure out who she is). I found these interruptions, where the narrator has to overtly draw conclusions about the events, irritating and unsubtle, as if French thinks her readers are too stupid to come to the right conclusions. Same with many of the discussions between her characters, although that’s a better way to handle the subjects.

Although my memory of my first reading of this book, when I was in my 20’s, was that I was struck by how much of it mirrored some of my experience, I do remember that French wrote another book, which I also read. And I remember thinking, oh, more of the same stuff, and putting it aside.

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Day 1198: Consequences

Cover of ConsequencesIf you expect E. M. Delafield’s Consequences to be like her witty Diary of a Provincial Lady, you will be surprised. Although it addresses themes that Diary touched on much more lightly, it is serious, sad, and even bitter.

Alex Clare grows up in the typical environment of a Victorian child of wealthy parents. She and her brothers and sisters are raised by Nanny and only see their parents at specific times. Alex is an aggressive child with her siblings, but her desire is to have someone care about her. Since Nanny dislikes her and Cedric and Barbara band against her, she tries to please her mother.

But a childish game causes a near tragedy. Alex’s part in it is misinterpreted, and she feels too guilty to defend herself, so her parents send her away to a convent school in Belgium.

Here, Alex begins a lifelong pattern of fastening upon someone for whom she will do anything. In school, it is Queenie, for whom she breaks rules to give treats and try to hang around her. These kinds of crushes are forbidden, and Alex is constantly in trouble for breaking rules, while Queenie blithely accepts forbidden treats and gets away with it. Alex does not learn to develop standards of behavior. She just yearns for love and understanding without having the ability to evoke it from others.

This childhood does not prepare her for young womanhood, where the only expectation is that she will marry well. She does not enjoy all the parties and events she must attend and is unable to hide her discontent.

Alex is not an attractive character. She is needy, unprincipled, and depressive. But her small transgressions are magnified by her family until she feels friendless and isolated.

Consequences is Delafield’s indictment of this kind of upbringing and the expectations for women of her class and time. It is also a character study of a woman who feels lost wherever she is. It is quite the feminist statement, published in 1919. The reviews included in the appendix of the Persephone edition show that its message was not well understood or accepted by the (presumably) male literary world of its time.

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Day 1155: Literary Wives! A Lady and Her Husband

Cover for A Lady and Her HusbandToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

A few months ago for Literary Wives, we read The Awakening, one of the first feminist novels, written in 1899. A Lady and Her Husband was written 18 years later and shows great advances in feminist thought.

As I started the novel, I thought it was going to be about Rosemary Heyham, who is just about to be married, but instead it is about the awakening of her mother, Mary, a gentle, conventional soul who has been married to James for nearly 30 years. The action of the novel stems from Rosemary’s recognition that her mother is facing empty nest syndrome but also because she thinks her mother needs outside stimulation. She goes to her father with the idea that he give Mary a job.

James decides to put Mary to work looking into the welfare of his female employees, particularly the waitresses who work in his chain of tea shops. He believes he is a stellar employer and she won’t find anything to complain about, so in a way, this job is make work.

But Mary takes her job seriously. At first she finds nothing wrong, but she is shocked when she investigates the living conditions of the girls. (Of course, this dates the work, because these days the things she looks at and has control of would not be an employer’s business.) When she finally goes to James with some ideas, she is surprised to find him reacting angrily. What she asks for first are a room in each shop where the girls can eat their lunches, shoes that are more comfortable, and permission to do the washing up sitting down. What she gets are the shoes, but the girls will have to buy their own.

As Mary pursues her work, eventually asking for raises for the girls, she begins to see James in a less rosy light. It is difficult for me to guess how a contemporary audience would view their relationship, but for me, even when it is loving at the beginning, he patronizes her shamefully. All of this eventually leads to a crisis, when Mary is forced to evaluate even her own marriage.

While I wouldn’t say I loved this novel, I found it fascinating. A lot of it follows the evolution of Mary’s ideas from total acceptance of her situation in life to more of an awareness of her duty to herself and others. It also exposes James’s self-justifications. After I read Samantha Ellis’s introduction to the Persephone edition, which provides biographical information about Amber Reeves, I felt that if I ever had a hero, she would be it. As a young women, she had an affair with the much older H. G. Wells, whose ideas about free love didn’t include the woman being equally free, but she grew out of it. He never did, apparently, grow out of her, though, but kept rewriting her into novel after novel, where he depicted her changing from a vibrant, intelligent lover to a subservient wife. She never did, though.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Mary has had a conventional marriage for her time. In the beginning of the novel, she sees that her role has to do with keeping house and caring for the children. She believes that only men are capable of understanding bigger issues. She loves her husband and takes care to present him with a placid home life.

However, largely because of his reaction to how she does the job he invented for her, she begins to re-evaluate her ideas about men and their relationship to women. She sees that men care more about things—their careers, their projects—more than they do about people. She begins to question her role in her marriage and in their business—in which she owns 50%—and to feel that she has a responsibility to make sure their employees aren’t treated badly.

She also begins to understand James’s self-justifications. As an example, when Mary, having seen how some of the waitresses live, points out that they are not receiving a living wage, both James and their son Trent remark that the girls just spend their money on ribbons. And she notices how James adroitly manages to blame a more serious marital problem on Mary herself.

Within the novel, Mary awakens from a woman who has been blinded by convention to a person who is more aware of the realities of life, who is able to think through her own difficulties and come to a solution.

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Day 1122: Lolly Willowes

Cover for Lolly WillowesThe two novels I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as different as they can be. The True Heart is a historical novel about a woman who lives through great troubles to be with the man she loves. Lolly Willowes is a feminist novel about a spinster who tires of her life dedicated to her family.

The Willowes family doesn’t go in much for change. They have lived in the same house for years, and even after they move, they bring all their possessions, which are never moved from their set positions. Lolly Willowes grows up loving the countryside around her home, and she is so comfortable with her family that she never considers marriage. When her mother dies, she takes over running the house, and neither she nor her father want her to go.

But when her father dies, her wishes are not consulted. Her older brother Henry is more willing to have her in London than her younger brother at the family home. So, she moves to London to be of service to her family.

Twenty years later, she’s had enough. Without seeing it first, she decides to move to a rural village named Great Mop. Her family is very much against this plan, and it is only then that she finds out her brother has mishandled her money and there is very little left. She can’t have the house and donkey she planned on, but she plans to move, and move she will.

It is after Lolly moves that the novel takes a decidedly eccentric turn. Some readers will appreciate it more than others, and I’m not sure how much I do. I’m also not going to tell you what happens. But the message of the novel, though playfully told, is that women are not just adjuncts to their families, to have their lives plotted out for them just because they’re single. There were plenty of women in Lolly’s position in the 1920’s, when this novel was written, and that is probably the reason that the novel became an unexpected best seller in its time.

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Day 1112: Brook Evans

Cover for Brook EvansSusan Glaspell’s novel Brook Evans shares some themes with her more famous Fidelity, but she makes an interesting inversion in the plot. Still, the ultimate message is the same as in her earlier novel.

Brook Evans’s story begins with that of her mother, Naomi Kellogg, in 1888. Naomi has been secretly seeing Joe Copeland since his mother objected to their keeping company. They plan to be married in the fall, after the harvest.

But Joe is killed in a farming accident. Seeing no alternative but disgrace, as she is pregnant, Naomi reluctantly marries her other suitor, Caleb Evans, and leaves her beloved Illinois home for Colorado.

Nineteen years later, Brook Evans wants to go to a dance with Tony Ross. Not only does her father, Caleb, not believe in dancing, being religiously strict, but Tony is a Catholic and part Native American. Naomi sees Brook’s relationship with Tony as an echo of hers with Joe, and she is determined not to sacrifice her daughter’s life to worries about what others may think. Unfortunately, the disagreement with Caleb brings out the truth of Brook’s parentage, with unforeseen results.

In Fidelity, the heroine’s decision to grasp life by running away with her married lover blights her life. In Brook Evans it is the instinct to conform with societal norms that is blighting. Still, the ultimate message of both books is to follow your heart. Although I wasn’t so fond of Brook’s ultimate choice (or the perceived alternative) I found this novel thoughtful and so touching that at times I was in tears. Glaspell’s characters show several sides throughout the novel, so that at times you change your mind about them. This novel is another thought-provoking read from Glaspell.

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Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.

The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.

Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.

Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.

Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.

The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.

Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.

As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.

For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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