Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again"

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World (series premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, 26 April 2016)


I first read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, shortly after it was published, but I never put it on a syllabus, and although a fair number of my students chose to work with Atwood’s novel for group projects over the years, I must be honest and admit that I never reread the book myself. It was just too disturbing. (And I taught Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus every year!) It wasn’t until I started work on a project about "women's worlds" that I forced myself to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a second time.*

Photo taken at the Women's March by
Sarah Pinsker

And now, more than thirty years after its publication,  Atwood's novel is is not only only the source of a critically acclaimed and much-anticipated new TV series, it's at the top of the Amazon best-seller list (#5, as of today, 26 April 2017).

References to The Handmaids Tale are everywhere--this post is illustrated with placards and posters from the 21-22 January 2017 Women's March that drew some half a million people to Washington, D. C., that took place in 408 cities in the United States, and that saw 168 "sister" marches take place in 81 countries around the world. 

Atwood has recently written that she, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, found watching one scene in the new television version "terribly upsetting': "It was way too much like way too much history," she says.

Just what are so many people now finding not only so relevant but, like Atwood, so upsetting?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator’s first-person account of her life covers a few months, from spring to late summer. The narrator who is recounting the story that we are reading is no longer an individual with her own hopes and dreams. She offers us only one brief physical description of herself, halfway through the novel, and even then she is utterly nondescript: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes.” We cannot picture her in our mind—she can hardly picture herself. “I have trouble remembering what I used to look like,” she says. 

And our narrator has no name. She is called “Offred,” a patronymic. She belongs to Fred, she is “of” Fred, she is Fred’s. Although she remembers the name she bore before she became Fred’s property, she suppresses it: “I must forget about my secret name and all ways back.” “I too am a missing person,” she writes. Although Offred claims she will someday reclaim her name, she never does. Offred remains Offred.

Stripped of her names and identity, Offred has been reduced to her body, which is no longer her own. During a time when most women are sterile, our narrator has a viable uterus. She is a “two-legged womb,” and her body has been claimed as a critical national resource—she is a Handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to produce a child for a childless Wife. 

At her current “posting,” Offred is imprisoned in a room at the top of the stairs, a room where she sits night after night and waits to be called downstairs for the highly ritualized monthly Ceremony, when the man to whom she now belongs will try to impregnate her. Although she is the only occupant of the upstairs room, she refuses to call it a room of her own. It is “not my room,” she insists, “I refuse to say my.” 
Ben Cartwright,
for the Women's March

The totalitarian theocracy of Gilead justifies its subjection of fertile women, forcing them to conceive and bear children for the ruling Commanders and Wives, on the authority of the Old Testament, in particular Sarah’s command to Abraham that he give her a child, conceived with her slave, Hagar (“You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” Genesis 16:2) and Rachel’s command to Jacob that he give her a child, conceived with her “maid,” Bilhah (“Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her,” Genesis 30:3).

Although The Handmaid’s Tale is set against a background of war, we hear few of the specifics. The United States has become the Republic of Gilead—Offred alludes briefly to the “catastrophe” of the mid 1980s when the president was assassinated and the Congress was eliminated.

This was a violent military coup, a terrorist attack perpetrated by a shadowy Christian fundamentalist group calling itself the “Sons of Jacob,” although, as Offred notes, these homegrown rebels “blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” The army declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. Newspapers were censored, and freedom of movement was restricted—roadblocks were set up and passes were required to travel. 

But no one objected: “Everyone approved . . . since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.” Although new elections were promised, they never materialized. The transition from democratic republic to militant fundamentalist theocracy was quickly and ruthlessly effected—Offred asks herself how it happened, but the answer is clear enough. Although she says everyone was “stunned” at the turn of events, there were no protests and no riots: “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” 

Offred’s own inaction reflected the larger apathy; for the next few years after the President’s Day Massacre, she and her husband followed their usual routine, getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home. They had a child together, a daughter.

 Although there were news stories reporting on the terrible changes underway—women “bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say”—these were stories “about other women.” “We lived, as usual by ignoring. . . . We lived in the gaps between the stories,” Offred says. 

She sees the final “catastrophe,” the sudden reordering of society along Old Testament principles, only in personal terms—she lost her job and her bank account, her marriage was dissolved, she was arrested, and her five-year-old child was “confiscated” by the state and reassigned to a new, “morally fit” couple.

Three years have passed since the traumatic day she became a prisoner of war, but that war continues. The threats to Gilead are both everywhere and nowhere. “This is the heart of Gilead,” Offred tells us, “where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves.” 

About this never-ending war Offred observes, “First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once.” At one point she hears from another Handmaid that the war “is going well.” Later she catches a few brief moments of a television newscast and hears that army has captured “a pocket” of Baptist guerilla fighters in the Appalachian Mountains.

Rebels also include Catholics and “the heretical sect of Quakers.” Offred craves these glimpses of the world outside her room, but she is skeptical about what she hears—“who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it.”

Photo by Greg Zimmerman
The book is divided into sections, too, which also seem to impose a recognizable chronology on the story: there are fifteen numbered parts, in which “Night” alternates with daytime activities like “Shopping” and daytime locations that seem familiar, like “Household.” In each of the “Night” sections, Offred is alone in her empty room at the top of the stairs (this pattern is broken just once when, instead of “Night,” the section is entitled “Nap”).

But if we examine the titles of the alternating sections, Offred’s experiences seem less and less familiar as the novel progresses. What kind of activity is “Salvaging”? And where is “Jezebel’s”? We move from the familiar to the unfamiliar as the novel unfolds and we travel more deeply into the brave new world of Gilead.

If we hold fast to the organization suggested by this table of contents, The Handmaid’s Tale seems  to focus on the events of seven days and nights over the course of the few months spanned by the novel. But once we begin reading, we can see that the simple chronology is not so simple after all. The story jumps back and forth in time, as Offred remembers her past—these memories are of her mother, of her childhood, of her college life and friends, of her marriage, and of her daughter (whose name we never learn). 

There are also memories of the more recent past—of her “retraining” as a Handmaid, of events she has experienced in the three years since, of her previous “posting” in another household. As we read, we experience a kind of vertigo, a dizzy slipping between the present and the past, before and after. It’s not so much where we are that is confusing, it’s when we are, as we experience Offred’s stream-of-conscious narration, her mind moving constantly backward and forward as something she is experiencing triggers a memory of the past. 

Because Offred’s story is related in the first person and in the present tense, we seem to experience the events she relates along with her. We are there, with her, in her empty room during the long nights when she can’t sleep. We are with her in bed during the monthly Ceremony as she lies between the legs of the Commander’s Wife with the Commander on top of her. But as we read, we slowly become aware of the constructed nature of Offred’s story. 

We are not, after all, experiencing these events as they happen to her. What we have, instead, is an approximation, an account that may—or may not—correspond to what really happened. “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling,” Offred says. “I need to believe it. I must believe it.” Why is it so important to her? Because if it is a story, then she is its author—“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.” As she quickly notes, however, this “isn’t a story.” Then, just as quickly, it is: “It’s a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.” “But,” she adds, “if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” 

And another twist: “Even when there is no one.” At this point, reeling from the narrator’s contradictions, we encounter something new. The narrator suggests that she is writing a letter, addressed to us: “Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.” Yet the letter she addresses to us is not a letter she expects will ever be delivered: “I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.” But I can hear you, we want to shout, breaking through the words on the page to the author of those words. We can hear her—it Offred who cannot hear us.

Later Offred stops midway through one story and offers us another, saying, “I am too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one.” A few pages on, she reveals that the story she is telling us “is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head . . . rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—.” 

 At this very moment, offering us a reason to hope that she has, after all, escaped, she reminds us of her narrative as fabrication: “When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove.” 

A few pages later, she tells us she imagines killing the man whose Handmaid she is, imagines “the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” Then she stops. “In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind,” she says. “I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction.” She rewrites—or retells—the scene, then tells us that this revision “is a reconstruction, too.” 

In fact, the entire narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale takes on a totally unexpected aspect just when we think it’s over. Against all odds, Offred may be liberated—on the last few pages her story abruptly ends when she is escorted to a waiting vehicle. Is she being arrested or escaping? Even she does not know: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” she says. She remains curiously, frustratingly apathetic: “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.” 

Photo by David Fitzgerald

We are ultimately left with uncertainty: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” Unsettled—and maybe a bit frustrated—by this inconclusive conclusion, we turn to the “Historical Notes” that follow. We expect these notes will include Atwood’s comments about her novel or that they are reflections appended by an editor—but the “historical” notes at the end of Atwood’s novel are something altogether different.

What follows Offred’s unfinished story is a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” dated to June 2195. The transcript records the speech of a keynote address by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto—in which we discover that we have not read an unmediated account of Offred’s experiences as a Handmaid. Rather, the account we have just read, which we thought was the work of Offred, is another reconstruction. 

“Her” story has not just been transmitted through male hands, it is the recreation of two male scholars—it has been transcribed, edited, annotated, and published by Pieixoto and his Cambridge colleague, Professor Knotly Wade, who is responsible for the naming of Offred’s story. He has titled it The Handmaid’s Tale, “in homage,” we learn, “to the great Geoffrey Chaucer.” 

What is the effect of this narrative frame on Offred’s account of the horrors of life in Gilead? It not only distances us from her story, it undermines our faith in it—if it is just like one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is fiction and the “person” who created it is also a fiction, a female character created by a male author. And somehow we are, today, reading a transcript of a speech to be delivered more than two hundred years in the future.

The character of Offred and the truthfulness of her story are further reduced in this narrative frame by the overt misogyny of Pieixoto, who jokes about the pun in Wade’s title (“I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention in that phrase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. [Laughter, applause.]),” who undercuts the credibility of the tale’s supposed author (“This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author”), who refers patronizingly to the story itself (“This item—I hesitate to use the word document. . . .”), and who discounts the extent of her suffering with “humor” (“our author refers to . . . ‘The Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ [Laughter, groans.])” Pieixioto ends his address on The Handmaid’s Tale by asking members of the audience, “Are there any questions?” We have questions, lots of them, but we have no opportunity to ask them. Like Offred, we find ourselves silenced. And because we cannot ask questions, we receive no answers.

While Offred has been liberated from her imprisonment as a Handmaid, she is still held captive. In The Handmaid’s Tale, her story is controlled by men—transcribed, edited, disseminated, and interpreted by male scholars. We don’t know what her fate was when she was taken away from the Commander’s home—but two hundred years later, in 2195, we know she has not escaped from male control. She is as much a prisoner of male power and “authority” as she was when she was in her small, empty room at the top of the stairs. 

In her recent op-ed on "What The Handmaid's Tale Means in the Age of Trump," Atwood writes that she is frequently asked whether The Handmaid's Tale  was written as "a prediction."  "That is . . . [a] question I’m asked — increasingly," she says, "as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."

Let's hope Atwood is right:
In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.





Friday, April 14, 2017

American Women and Domestic Terrorism, Part 2

The Deadly War on Women Continues


Almost a year ago, I wrote about violence against American women--domestic terrorism--and its horrific and unrelenting toll. As Gloria Steinem noted in stark terms on 11 May 2016,
Domestic violence in this country has killed since 9/11 — if you take the number of [Americans] who were killed in 9/11 and in two wars in Iraq, and in the 14-year war in Afghanistan — more women have been murdered by their husbands and boyfriends in the United States in that period of time than [the number of Americans who] have been killed in all of those incidences of terrorism and wars.” 
And now here we are, almost a year later, once more forced to face the facts.


On Monday, 10 April 2017, a school shooter opened fire at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, California--the same city where, in 2015, another mass shooting occurred.

When it was all over, four people had been shot, including two children. The shooter died, along with one woman and an eight-year-old boy.

There was no continuing "breaking news" coverage on the cable news networks as there had been in 2015. The president of the United States made no public statement. Anderson Cooper didn't jet to the scene. And, as Michael Calderone notes in the Huffington Post, even major newspapers didn't consider the story all that newsworthy: "The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal didn’t run front page stories on it." (The story that was front-page-worthy was the viral video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from an airplane.)

School shootings are usually followed by days, if not weeks, of blaring news accounts, but not this one. It's now Friday, just four days after the shooting, and the story has virtually  disappeared. 

Why? Because this horrific school shooting was deemed to be "just" another story of domestic violence. A pissed-off man who shoots his wife and then himself--and who shoots two small children in the process, killing one of them. Too routine to be worth news coverage

This wasn't the act of some "radical Islamic terrorist." Just an ordinary kind of terrorist--the kind that lives in our homes and wreaks deadly vengeance on women and children.

And as Steinem noted, it occurs all too often, and it kills far more people than the kind of terroism we all seem much more worried about

Politifact, fact-checking the numbers, reports that, in the decade between 2005 and 2015, a total of 24 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks "on U. S. soil"--in the same ten years, 280,024 Americans were killed by guns. 

But, more relevant to the story here, three women are killed every single day by their intimate partners. 

In 2014, according to FBI data, 1,613 women were murdered by men in single victim/single offender incidents: 
  • For homicides in which the victim to offender relationship could be identified, 93 percent of female victims (1,388 out of 1,495) were murdered by a male they knew.
  • Thirteen times as many females were murdered by a male they knew (1,388 victims) than were killed by male strangers (107 victims).
  • For victims who knew their offenders, 63 percent (870) of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers.
  • There were 239 women shot and killed by either their husband or intimate acquaintance during the course of an argument. 
(For this data, see "When Men Murder Women" (2016), published by the Violence Prevention Center.)

In 2015, in just one state--California--91 women were murdered, their deaths the result of domestic violence. (During the same year, the murders of 27 men were also attributed to domestic violence.) If you're one of those people always yelling "fake news," take a look at the source of the evidence--it's reported in Table 25 of "Homicide in California" (2015), a publication of the California Department of Justice.

In that year, "only" 39 of of 358 mass shootings nationwide were related to domestic violence, as reported in the New York Times, but they were "among the deadliest," accounting for 145 of the 462 total deaths as a result of mass shootings in that year.

In just the first month of 2016--January 2016, as Melissa Jeltsen reported in The Huffington Post--112 people were killed in intimate partner violence. 

And on average, there are 11 murder-suicides, like the one in San Bernardino, every single solitary week--most of them involving a man who kills his wife or girlfriend with a gun.. 

As reported in Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016, published on 11 April 2017, just a day after the San Bernardino shootings, there have been 156 mass shootings in the United States during this eight-year period. And "the majority of mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic or family violence":
In at least 54 percent of mass shootings (85), the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member. These domestic violence mass shootings resulted in 422 victims being killed—more than 40 percent (181) of whom were children. A majority of these cases—56—also ended with the perpetrators killing themselves.
Forty percent of the fatalities in domestic violence shootings are children.

The biggest threat to women is not some crazy-eyed Muslim terrorist who wants to destroy the United States and impose Sharia law on those of us who survive the conquest. 

The biggest threat to women has always been, and remains, men--their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, sons, dates, exes, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, the guys in their yoga class, the man in the Safeway store . . . 



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Katharina Kepler Was Not a Hideous Old Witch

Katharina Guldenmann Kepler (died 13 April 1622)


From the beginning, my purpose in this blog has been to focus on writing women's history--many of the women I've included have been written out of history, but many of the women have been famous, some of them infamous. Regardless, of whether their acts have been noble or ignoble, I've enjoyed writing the stories of all of these women.

Katharina Kepler,
a statue erected in 1938 in Eltingen, Germany,
her birthplace
But sometimes, women's stories are told to less-than-enjoyable ends, and that has been the case for Katharina Kepler, the mother of the famed mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler. In 1615, the sixty-eight-year-old Katharina Kepler was one of fifteen women in Leonberg (Germany) accused of witchcraft.

The charges against Katharina Kepler were brought by her neighbors--one woman believed she was being poisoned by Katharina, a girl said she had been hit by the old woman and was eventually unable to move, a man alleged she had paralyzed him, others claimed she killed their livestock and turned herself into a cat. 

Kepler was just one of the women tried during the Württemburg Witch Trials--eight of the fifteen women were convicted and executed. Kepler's case dragged on for six years. During the last fourteen months, she was threatened with torture and kept chained to the floor of her prison cell.

In 1620, Katharina's astronomer-son, Johannes, left his post as imperial mathematician and astrologer and went to Württemburg to defend his mother. While acknowledging Katharina's "restlessness" and her undoubted ability to "disturb" her neighbors, and fully aware of how the charges against his mother threatened his own life as well as his reputation, Kepler prepared and undertook a public defense of her.

For her part, and despite everything, Katharina Kepler refused to confess. Brought before the tribunal and threatened with torture, she replied, " Do with me what you want. Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit." 

She was finally freed in the fall of 1621, dying just six months later. 

Until recently, those who told her story made it seem as if Katharina Kepler deserved the horrific suffering she endured--she was, of course, headstrong, sharp-tongued, and disappointed in her marriage. She was clearly a bad wife. Her husband eventually abandoned her--but, of course, that was only because she "drove him" (and the rest of her family) "away" with her horrible behavior. She was, of course, a terrible mother. She was also illiterate, like most women of her social class, but for many historians and critics this is just one more of Kepler's unforgivable fault. Of course. 

Her aunt had been burned at the stake as a witch, so Katharina should have known better than to "concoct" potions and sell them to her neighbors. Of course. And, accused of witchcraft, she should never have hired a lawyer to defend her and to accuse her neighbor of slander.

She was a terrible woman, and if she was accused of witchcraft, it was obviously all her own fault.

As for Johannes Kepler? He outlived his mother by only eight years, dying in 1630. His "early" death (he was fifty-eight) was obviously the result of all the stresses and strains of putting up with his mother. Of course.

In his 1933 Makers of Astronomy, Hector Macpherson described Katharina Kepler as an "ill-tempered virago." She alienated her family with her "harsh tongue." In his 1990 The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, Arthur Koestler regarded Katharina as a "hideous little old woman" with an "evil tongue" and a "suspect background." 

Although focusing on Johannes Kepler's defense of his mother in Kepler's Witch An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother (2004), James A. Connor isn't very sympathetic to Kepler's mother. Her antics distracted her son from his important work. And, anyway, she was probably responsible for causing the illnesses and ailments her accusers suffered: "Who knows what kinds of bacteria were growing in" her various vials and bowls, Connor asks.

And if non-fiction accounts have been unforgiving, a fictional version of Katharina Kepler isn't much better.  In John Banville’s historical novel Kepler, she is a disgusting old woman whose kitchen smells like cat piss and whose garden is filled with dead rats. Her son is embarrassed and ashamed of his mother, who is most likely guilty of being a witch. 

But finally there is something of a corrective. Ulinka Rublack's The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for his Mother (2015) makes use of the extensive surviving trial records, preserved in the Württemberg state archives, documenting the case of Katharina Kepler, and focuses in a nuanced and thoughtful way on Katharina and her experience. 

Rublack argues that both non-fiction and fiction have been "clearly wrong" in their portrayals of Katharina Kepler. "When you go through everything," Rublack writes--"everything" here meaning documentary evidence, not misogynist assumptions--"there is nothing which suggests she was someone who was witchlike."

As Rublack notes, "Local records for the small town in which Katharina Kepler lived are abundant. There is no evidence that she was brought up by an aunt who was burnt for witchcraft--this was one of the charges which her enemies invented. There is no evidence either that she made a living from healing--she simply mixed herbal drinks for herself and sometimes offered her help to others, like anyone else."

Whether or not she was cranky, stroppy, disagreeable, or difficult, Katharina Kepler was a rare woman: she survived a charge of witchcraft during the dangerous, "burning times" of seventeenth-century Germany. It's too bad that seems to drive so many writers--male writers?--nuts.

Memorial stone for Katharina Kepler

For Rublack's essay, "The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight to Save His Mother from Execution" (a nice introduction, if you're not interested in her book), published by History Extra, click here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Anne Lister, "the First Modern Lesbian"

Anne Lister (b. 3 April 1791)


Recently, the BBC and HBO announced the production of an upcoming drama, Shibden Hall, from writer Sally Wainwright. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the eight-part drama will focus on the life of the remarkable Anne Lister, a Yorkshire landowner and renovator, mountaineer, and diarist.

Anne Lister,
portrait by Joshua Horner, c. 1830
Lister's extensive diaries, partially written in a code of her own devising--and which extend from 1817 to 1840--have led to the television series.

Born on 3 April 1791, Lister was the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister and Rebecca Battle, who made their home in the West Riding of Yorkshire. 

The young Anne Lister attended a variety of schools, where, in addition to developing her intellectual abilities, she had a number of romantic relationships with young women. She developed a code for recording the details of her feelings for Eliza Raine, her first love, Isabella Norcliffe, whom she met in 1810, and Marianne Belcombe, with whom she had a passionate affair, even after Belcombe's marriage--these entries make up much of the early part of her diaries. 

In 1826, Lister inherited Shibden Hall from her uncle, dedicating herself to the management and improvement of the estate. About Lister's business acumen, Helena Whitbread notes,
Her entrepreneurial flair, her acquired knowledge, over the years, of mathematics, geology and engineering and her sharp negotiating skills with her male business rivals made her a formidable businesswoman in the newly-emerging world of industrialisation, as is indicated in the following exchange with her defeated rival in the fight for selling coal in the area. . . . 

The estate produced income from its reserves of coal, water, stone and timber and, in addition to those extractive industries, there was an income stream from canal shares, Turnpike Road Trusts and pew rents. It was, however, the stable income, which rents from the farms and cottages on the estate generated, that gave Anne a firm base from which she could branch out into riskier investments.

Shibden Hall
Anne Lister's financial independence and her business success allowed her a certain freedom to live her life as she chose. In and around Shibden Hall, she was known as "Gentleman Jack," a woman who preferred to dress in male attire, and who pursued not only her business affairs but her romantic interests.

In 1832, Lister met Ann Walker, who came to live at Shibden Hall in 1834. Although their union was not formally recognized, the two married, and remained a couple until Lister's death in 1840 while traveling in the Caucusus. Their relationship was, like many marriages, troubled at times, and Lister's frustrations and resentments also found their way into her diary.

Lister left Shibden Hall to her cousins, but in her will she also left Walker a life interest in the estate. Walker spent only three years at Shibden Hall after Lister's death, however--her mental health deteriorated, she was declared unfit and evicted, and eventually confined in an asylum. Walker lived until 1854, while Shibden Hall reverted to the Lister family.

Lister's diaries, some 26 volumes, are over 4 million words long. The diaries include a great deal about her daily life and about the social, economic, and political events of the early nineteenth century. But in 2011, Anne Lister's diaries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, dedicating to preserving the "documentary heritage" of humanity. The citation announcing the inclusion of Lister's diary refers to the work as a "comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature"; these "unique" diaries "have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women’s History."

Anne Lister's diaries, showing her "secret" code

Selections from Lister's diaries were first published by Helena Whitbread in 1988; for I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, click here. A later volume (2010), published by Virago Press, is The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (click here).

For Ellen Chaffee's excellent essay on Lister from the now-archived GLBTQ Encyclopedia, click here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Back to the Future, Part 5: The "Sit Down and Shut Up" Edition

"She Was Warned. She Was Given an Explanation. Nevertheless, She Persisted" (8 February 2017)


And so, last night, Mitch McConnell told Senator Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up.


There are now well over 400 posts on my site--most of these are biographical essays detailing the lives of both historical and contemporary women, a true "monstrous regiment." They represent queens and commoners, artists and musicians, writers and activists, the famous and the infamous. Some of these women prevailed while others lost. All of them endured.

But I am absolutely sure each and every one of them heard, at some point in her life, a version of what we all heard directed at Elizabeth Warren last night: "Be quiet, missy. And don't you dare use that tone of voice with me." 

Thank god for all the women--throughout history--who have PERSISTED!

Join with the women who persist: #Neverthelessshepersisted and #shepersisted.

Image posted by Carol Henderson,
at #Neverthelessshepersisted:
"For all the women they tried to silence."

For other posts in my "Back to the Future Series": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ann Radcliffe, "the Mighty Enchantress," and the Gothic Novel

Ann Ward Radcliffe, Novelist (d. 7 February 1823)


A week or so ago, in writing about Caroline Lamb, I once again referred to the novelist Ann Radcliffe--and it was only then that I realized I'd never devoted an entire post to her! So today, on the anniversary of her death, I thought I'd write about her life.

The elusive Ann Radcliffe
I had also mentioned Radcliffe before--noting that, along with a couple of other novelists, she'd saved me while I was studying for my Ph.D. exams. As a medievalist, I knew I was weak on a couple of the "later" periods I'd have to cover in my exams, especially the nineteenth century, and on genres that developed later, like the novel. 

While I'd always been a big reader, I'll admit to being bored to tears by Dickens. Well, not all of Dickens, but the novels that were then on the Ph.D. reading list--David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Honestly! I'd first read Great Expectations in high school, then it was required in a college class, and there it was again on the reading list . . ,

In my reading for the exams, I figured I'd "covered" Dickens, to my satisfaction at any rate, with the Pickwick Papers, which I'd enjoyed enormously, and Bleak House, with its endless Jarndyce v. Jarndyce Chancery case. (And I have a soft spot for the horrible Grandfather Smallwood, decayed and sunken into his chair, always needing to be "shaken up" into position on his cushion!)

Also on the list were Thackeray and Hardy, of course, and Austen, the Brontës, and Eliot, but, still. And so, avoiding the required--or, rather, expected reading--I found my way to what were then non-canonical choices. It was, after all, 1975, so writers like Fanny Burney and Anthony Trollope weren't on my list of mandated writers.

Among many other delights that distracted me, I "discovered' Gothic novels--in the eighteenth century, I preferred Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) to the work of "fathers of the novel" like Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, Moving on, that's also when I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), which sent me back a few decades to John William Polidori's novella, "The Vampyre" (1819). 

But my favorite writer-I-wasn't-supposed-to-be-reading was Ann Radcliffe. I didn't know much about her--well, to be honest, I didn't know anything about her, and I can't even remember now how I stumbled onto her novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, on the shelves of the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library. 

As I have since learned, there isn't all that much known about the life of Ann Ward Radcliffe. In its notice of her death, the Edinburgh Review commented, "She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen."

She lived so much out of the public eye, in fact, that, as Lilia Melani writes, her contemporaries filled in the gaps: "Little was or is known about Radcliffe's life, so not surprisingly apocryphal stories sprang up about her: it was reported that she had gone mad as a result of her dreadful imagination and been confined to an asylum, that she had been captured as a spy in Paris, or that she ate rare pork chops before retiring to stimulate nightmares for her novels; several times she was falsely rumored to be dead."

The facts are few: Ann Ward was born in London in 1764, the daughter of William Ward and Ann Oates. Her father was in trade, selling buttons, thread, and ribbon, later moving to Bath, where he opened a porcelain shop. At some point Ann lived with a relative, Thomas Bentley, in Chelsea, a porcelain manufacturer who joined in partnership with Josiah Wedgewood, the maker of Wedgewood china. Wedgewood's daughter, Susannah, was the young Ann's one known friend. In Bentley's home, Ann also met the diarist Hester Thrale and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

In 1787, when she was twenty-three, Ann Ward married William Radcliffe, a journalist and editor of a London newspaper, The English Chronicle. Their marriage was happy--and, most important, Radcliffe supported his wife's writing career, which she began as a way of occupying the time while he was working outside the home.

Her first novels, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790), were published anonymously, but Radcliffe achieved some recognition with the publication of her third novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), which sold well and earned a strong profit for her publisher. 

Ann Radclife's most famous works, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) were as captivating to her contemporaries as they were to me, reading them nearly two hundred years later. While critics condemned Gothic fiction, as the style came to be known, as the "trash of circulating libraries," Radcliffe herself was wildly popular--and avoided critical trashing.

It was her contemporary, the essayist Thomas de Quincey, who called her "the great enchantress." For some critics, she was "the Shakespeare of Romance writers"; for others, including Sir Walter Scott, she was "the mighty magician." Not a mighty magician, but the mighty magician.

According to Dale Townsend, writing about Radcliffe for the British Library online guide to her and her work,
Radcliffe became the most highly paid professional writer of the 1790s: in an age in which the average amount earned by an author upon receipt of a manuscript was £10, her publishers, G G and J Robinson bought the copyright for The Mysteries of Udolpho for £500, while The Italian garnered from Cadell and Davies a staggering £800. She was also the most emulated, copied and plagiarised author of the period.
A book of verse, published in 1816, did not sell as well. Radcliffe's final novel, Gaston de Blondeville; and St. Alban's Abbey, with Some Poetical Pieces (1826) was published after her death, as was Thomas Noon Talfourd's Memoir of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Radcliffe, published at the same time as her final, posthumous novel. 

Like so many other writers--not just women--Radcliffe fell into obscurity late in the nineteenth century. I linked above to Richard Garnett's late nineteenth-century essay on Radcliffe, published in the Dictionary of National Biography--there, he writes, "Mrs. Radcliffe's novels may not be much read, either now or in the future. . . . "

But interest in Radcliffe's work has been revived; according to Townsend, "it was really only with the reawakened interest in the Gothic aesthetic initiated by the publication of David Punter’s The Literature of Terror in 1980 that Radcliffe and those of her school came to be regarded as a serious and legitimate object of academic enquiry."

Academic interest or not, Radcliffe is enormously engaging. Townsend's essay on the British Library site offers excellent information on Radcliffe and provides an amazing array of links to connect you to articles on the Gothic and on other Gothic writers and novels. Melani's discussion is excellent for its thematic analysis. And, hey!!!! There's even a brief article in my favorite source-to-be-pissed-off-at, The Encyclopedia Britannica!

But, the novels themselves!!! Many are available in well-edited, affordable Penguin and World's Classic editions, but you can also access her work at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Back to the Future, Part 4: If Only They Were Making America Great Again for Women . . .

Guys Just Wanna Have Fun--Regulating Women's Bodies


Thirteen years before he ran for president with a strong anti-abortion position, the God-Emperor for conservative Republicans, Ronald Reagan, approved an act liberalizing abortion law. On 15 June 1967, just six weeks into his term, Governor Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Law. The optics were what you would expect for politics in 1967:

Reagan's Legislative Secretary is behind him;
on the far left is Republican assemblyman Craig Biddle,
looking over his shoulder is the Democratic Senator Anthony Bellenson

Yeah, it was four white guys happy to be in charge of what women could do with their bodies, but, hey!, it was FIFTY YEARS AGO! (And, afterwards, when he realized what he'd done, Reagan was really, really, really sorry about that bill . . . )

But, not to be outdone in the we're-the-boss-of-you department, here is George Bush signing the "partial birth" abortion ban in 2003:

There is a Democrat in this photo--or at least his head is there;
Senator Jim Oberstar was a pro-life Democrat

More smiling white guys! (And, yes, that's the paragon of virtue, Dennis Hastert, just to Bush's right--so nice to know he's thrilled with the prospect of regulating what women can do with their bodies and lives.) This picture was notorious for its masculine line-up FOURTEEN YEARS AGO!

But here we are, back to the future, in 2017, reinstating the so-called global gag order, from 1984 (yes, you read that correctly, Nineteen Eight-Four!): 

THE MORE THE MERRIER! From the left: Vice President Mike Pence,
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus,
 National Trade Council adviser Peter Navarro,
 Senior Adviser Jared Kushner,
policy adviser Stephen Miller,
and chief strategist Steve Bannon--
nobody seems to  know who the guy between Miller and Bannon is . . . 

Do these guys never learn? Surely they could have rounded up a female body or two to stand in the frame? (By the way, the policy Trump was reinstating was originally put in place by Ronald Reagan in 1984--Clinton rescinded it in 1993, GW Bush reinstated it in 2001, Obama rescinded it in 2009. I'm tired.)

Anyway, I've been posting under the "Back to the Future" headline sarcastically--under the impression that Trump's desire to turn back the clock would be uniformly bad for women. But looking at this line-up, I'm not so sure now . . . 

For previous "Back to the Future" posts: click for Part 1, for Part 2, for Part 3.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Jane Wilde, "Speranza": Poet, Intellectual, Activist

Jane Frances Agnes, Lady Wilde (d. 3 February 1896)


Early in December, the New York Times published a review of Emer O'Sullivan's new book about the family of Oscar Wilde, The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family.

Jane Frances Agnes as a young woman
The review introduced me to Oscar Wilde's mother, Jane Frances Agnes, who became lady Wilde after her husband was knighted in 1864. I knew nothing about her--to be absolutely honest, I never thought about Oscar Wilde even having a mother! 

(In my defense, as I've written often in this blog, I am primarily a medievalist who spends much of her time reading and writing early-modern history, so if something happened after 1600 or so, it's not generally in my field of vision!)

In the review, Deborah Lutz refers to Jane Wilde as "wildly erudite," a woman whose own writing and reading greatly influenced her children. As she quotes O'Sullivan, “Listening to their mother’s reading and embellishing the lyrics” of Whitman, for example, “would have created in the boys a visceral bond between the maternal and the word, a place of storied memories of desire, loss and sensual pleasure.”

However significant her influence on her famous son, Jane Wilde was herself a notable woman. Born in 1821, she became a political activist on behalf of the Young Ireland movement of the mid-nineteenth century, writing and publishing poetry and prose in the Irish national weekly, The Nation, under the pseudonym "Speranza" ("Hope"). Her most significant piece for The Nation may be "The Stricken Land," published in 1847, under the pseudonym John Fanshaw Ellis, during the worst of the Irish Famine. In 1864, a collection of her poems from The Nation was published as Poems by Speranza. (To view images from this book at the British Library website, click here.)

She also published translations from French and German novels. Her translations are described by Irish Writers Online
A gifted linguist, she published several translations of French and German works, including Wilhelm Meinhold’s gothic horror novel Sidonia the Sorcess, in 1849, which was reprinted in America; a philosophical novel from the German, The First Temptation, or Eritia sient Deus (in three volumes); Lamartine’s History of the Girondins, as Pictures of the First French Revolution (1850); Lamartine’s Nouvelles Confidences, as The Wanderer and his Home (1851); and Alexander Dumas’s Impression de Voyage en Suisse, as The Glacier Land (1852). Her first volume of poetry also contained translations from several European languages.
In addition to supporting the cause of Ireland, Wilde campaigned for and wrote to defend women's rights and their need for access to education. In an 1850 essay in The Nation, she wrote, "Women truly need much to be done for them. At present they have neither dignity nor position. All avenues to wealth and rank are closed to them. The state takes no notice of their existence except to injure them by its laws." 
In 1883, in "A New Era in English and Irish Social Life," published after the passage of the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, she praised the change, noting that the institution of marriage would no longer treat a woman as "a bonded slave, disenfranchised of all rights over her fortune."

In 1893's Social Studies, she recognized that, despite progress, the status of women--and their prospects for advancement--remained dismal: "For six thousand years," she began, "the history of women has been a mournful record of helpless resignation to social prejudice and legal tyranny." But, she concluded, :
Genius never yet unsexed a woman, or learning or culture ever so extended; but the meanness of her ordinary social routine life, with all its petty duties and claims, and ritual of small observances, degrades and humiliates her, for it deprives her of all dignity, and leaves her without any meaning in God’s great universe.
Even so, she remained optimistic about the future:
Now, for the first time in the history of the world, a path is opening to female intellect, energy and talent, and, henceforth, women, perhaps, may lead in the learned professions, take their part in home government, form ministries to organise the code of female rights, and claim the highest university honours in rivalry with men.
In addition to the works noted above, her publications include: Poems (1871); Memoir Of Gabriel Beranger (with her husband, Sir William Wilde, 1880); Driftwood From Scandinavia (1884); Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. With Sketches of the Irish Past… to which is added a chapter on “The Ancient Race of Ireland” by the late Sir William Wilde (1888); and Notes On Men, Women, And Books (1891).

When Jane Wilde died in 1896, her son, Oscar, was in prison after his conviction for gross indecency. Her request to see him before she died was denied.

Many of Lady Wilde's books are available at the Internet Archive--you can reach a list of her publications by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lady Caroline Lamb: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know?

Caroline Ponsonby Lamb, lady Lamb (died 25 January 1828)


The premiere of Victoria on PBS has introduced American TV viewers to a swoon-worthy version of William Lamb, lord Melbourne--"Lord M.," as the young Victoria calls him, though I don't recall his name being used in the series.

Thomas Lawrence's 1805 portrait of
Lady Caroline Lamb
There are also several allusions to an unnamed wife who disgraced Melbourne--mad, bad, and, for him at any rate (at least according to this TV drama), dangerous. Her scandalous behavior and death have devastated him.

And so it's worth a post here on the infamous Lady Caroline Lamb--whose reputation for unhinged behavior, addiction to laudanum, and "erotomania," among a myriad other weaknesses, failings, and crimes, is almost always a part of her biography. Her notorious affair with Byron is probably the most well known aspect of her life. (And it is Caroline Lamb who described Byron, unforgettably, as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know.")

And there have been many accounts of her life, not a few of them content to exploit the drama and the woman. As biographer and critic Paul Douglass writes, 
Most biographers have shared Byron’s frustration at Lady Caroline’s failure to conform to the feminine role of her era. They have not hesitated to prescribe a "sharp slap judiciously administered" (thus, Dorothy Marshall in Lord Melbourne (1975)), or even an out-and-out beating — as recommended by Henry Blyth in Caro: The Fatal Passion (1972).
Most of Lamb's biographers have not been sympathetic; they demonstrate an "obsession with her drunkenness, temper tantrums and crockery-smashing." (As if those negative qualities were exclusive to her!)

There's plenty about Lamb out there--biographies, quickie "non-fiction" about her affair with Byron, novels, even a film, not to mention all the biographies of Lord Melbourne, and a book or two about their marriage. (For Douglass's extensive bibliography of Caroline Lamb, click here.)

My goal here isn't to attempt a restoration of Caroline Lamb's image. But I do want to note that, aside from her relationship to men--her father, her husband, her disabled son, her lovers--she was herself a writer. Her first novel, a roman à clef, is Glenarvon, published in 1816. Although Glenarvon was wildly popular for its thinly disguised story, it contains a great deal of political and social commentary. 

Two additional novels followed: Graham Hamilton (1822), and Ada Reis (1823). (A third work, Penruddock, was also published, although no copies of this last work are known to survive.) Her novels are generally described as "gothic melodramas"--again, as if that were a bad thing! (Think of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho!!! Reading these novels got me through my study for my Ph.D. exams--why read Dickens when I could be reading Ann Radcliff?)

In addition, Lamb mimicked Byron's wildly popular Don Juan by publishing A New Canto in 1819, followed, in 1821, by Gordon: A Tale. A Poetical Review of Don Juan, described in the preface as "partly a burlesque parody on the style of Don Juan; partly a sacrifice of praise offered at the shrine of talent, and partly arguments proving its immoral tendency."

Finally, there are also her commonplace books and correspondence.

A 1995 Everman's edition of Glenarvon (ed. Frances Wilson) is out of print, but copies are available. All of Lamb's fiction is accessible for free, however, at a variety of sites and in several different ways: Kindle editions, Google Books, and the Internet Archive.

An edited collection of Lamb's letters is in print: The Whole Disgraceful Truth: Selected Letters of Lady Caroline Lamb, edited by Paul Douglass. 

You can explore A New Canto online in an edition by Peter Cochran--to access it, click here.

And while I recommend Paul Douglass's wonderful (and sympathetic) biography of Lamb, his website--CARO: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website--is superb and includes incredible biographical essays, analyses of her literary works, the extensive bibliography I noted above, and many more resources.

(By the way, Caroline Lamb's husband, "Lord M," was involved in sex scandals of his own. As the British historian Boyd Hilton notes, "it is irrefutable that Melbourne's personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity." Melbourne was also accused of "criminal conversation" with Lady Caroline Norton, about whom I have written in this blog. In this instance, he was the victim of blackmail--but the nine-day trial nearly brought down the British government. Maybe he was as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as his wife--but, as usual, double standard and all . . .)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Back to the Future, Part 3: Women's Edition

The Women's March--Defending Roe v. Wade (22 January 1973)




Photo from Seattle's The Stranger,
announcing the Seattle Women's March,
21 January 2017

Today is the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision--it took the Supreme Court to ensure that American women had some measure of control over their own bodies. But today women's reproductive freedom is under threat like never before in the more than forty years since 1973.

Yesterday, unprecedent numbers of feminists--women and men, who have always supported women's rights--marched in support of women's equality and rights. There were some 600 marches in cities and towns through the U. S., and over 40 in cities around the world. The largest event, drawing hundreds of thousands of women, was in Washington, D. C. (Evidently DJT's feelings are hurt that more people attended the march in D. C. than showed up at his inauguration. Sad.)

The more things change . . .

The first notable march on Washington undertaken by women--in support of suffrage--was in 1913, one day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. 

And there was the Women's Strike for Equality on 26 August 1973--the biggest turnout may have been in New York, but over a thousand women marched in Washington D. C.. This nationwide strike was scheduled on the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Just four years later, on 26 August 1977, there was the Alice Paul Memorial March--Alice Paul had proposed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, and it still hadn't been passed. This march was in support of the amendment's passage. A year later, on 9 July 1978, some 100,000 women demonstrated in Washington D. C., again in support of the Equal Rights Amendment--it was "the largest march for women’s rights in the nation’s history."

Numerous marches to support women's equality have followed, beginning in 1986. 

But, of course, the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed, and here we are. It is now 2017, and women's rights are still not guaranteed under the constitution. And reproductive rights--including those guaranteed under Roe--are threatened.

Yesterday's Women's March was held on the day after the "presidential inauguration"--and it neatly coincides with the anniversary of the Roe. v. Wade decision (decided 22 January 1973).

It's going to be a tough time for women in this period of "making America great again." Don't forget. Don't give up. Stay strong. 



For Parts 1 and 2 of Back to the Future, click here and here.

As for me--did I march yesterday??? Well, ummmm, earlier this month, I was outside pruning my wisteria and I fell off a ladder. I am now confined to the house, hobbling around on crutches. But when I fell, I was wearing this shirt: