Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, June 24, 2016

What Should We Do about Male Violence?

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Sons of American Families from Being a Danger to Their Fellow Citizens . . . 

"It is a melancholy object to all those who live in this formerly great country when they see their cities and towns, their streets and their neighborhoods, their elementary schools and their college campuses, their houses of worship and their places of work, their shopping malls, movie theaters, and nightclubs, even the very homes in which they reside, terrorized by malefactors of the male sex, who daily prove themselves utterly unfit for a meaningful and productive life. These men, lacking all empathy, self-control, and humanity, unsuited in every way for civil society, turn their rage on their families and communities, committing acts of unspeakable violence.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of disaffected and dangerous men is, in the present deplorable state of the country, a very great additional grievance, and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, reasonable, and workable method of making these young men sound and useful members of the state would deserve so well of the public as to have her statue set up as a preserver of the nation. . . . 

To read and enjoy this satiric essay,  modeled on Jonathan Swift's 1729 "A Modest Proposal," click here.

Friday, June 10, 2016

More on Mothers of the Novel

Another "History" of the Novel that Fails to Mention Women!

I'm a little behind with my reading, so I just now dipped into the 16 May 2016 New Yorker magazine, only to discover Adelle Waldman's piece on Samuel Richardson, "The Man Who Made the Novel." 

For what it is, the piece is fine, I guess, though I find it hard to stomach Waldman's discussion of Richardson's most famous novel, Clarissa, first published in 1748, and most especially her depiction of the novel's principal male character, Lovelace. While summarizing the plot of Richardson's epistolary novel, Waldman fails to mention that Lovelace imprisons and rapes Clarissa and the broken young woman dies as a result of her agony and despair!! (Waldman draws her discussion of Clarissa to a close by saying, "One can't talk about 'Clarissa' without acknowledging its most notorious feature: its length." No--one can't talk about Clarissa without acknowledging its most notorious feature: the rape of Clarissa.)

Clarissa pleads with Lovelace,
illustration from the 1795 edition of
What really bugs is not Waldman's appreciation of Richardson the writer but her complete depreciation of the many women writers who also contributed to the development of the novel. Or, rather, her erasure of these women writers. For Waldman, Richardson is "the man who made the novel." The only other novelists she mentions are Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Henry Fielding. What is this? 1970? Sheesh. 

Waldman's view of the creation of the novel as an exclusively male accomplishment is pretty much that of my 1970 history-of-the-novel class, which the professor called "Fathers of the Novel." I'll link you here to the very first post in my 2015 daybook of women's history--in that post, while writing about the novelist Maria Edgeworth, I introduced the tag I've used throughout this blog, "mothers of the novel." (More on the source of that phrase, below.)

Actually, Waldman's view of the history of the novel isn't just straight out of my 1970 classroom, it is straight out of Ian Watt's 1957 The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding--according to Watt, it was the genius of these three men that created the novel.

Waldman may not consider Mary Wroth or Margaret Cavendish as worthy precursors to Jane Austen (she ends her piece by claiming Austen "seems to have felt a kinship" with Richardson), but it's hard to swallow that, in 2016, an article about the "making" of the novel fails to mention even one eighteenth-century woman writer who contributed to the development of the genre--Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Jane Barker, or Eliza Haywood, for starters. 

In 2016, there's no excuse for this kind of refusal to acknowledge women novelists. Okay, Austen may have read and appreciated Richardson. But as Dale Spender noted thirty years ago, the novel had mothers as well as fathers. And in her 1986 Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, Spender lists some 568 novels written by 100 eighteenth-century novelists, all of them women.

As Spender notes, "Quantity alone does not satisfy the criteria for excellence. But quantity alone suggests that the criteria in relation to the early novels are not being made explicit. When during the 1700s so many novels were written by women and not one of them qualifies now for a prominent place in the literary heritage, it seems reasonable to claim that what is meant by the standards of excellence is that in order to be great, one must be a man."

For a contemporary woman novelist, like Adelle Waldman, not to have at least gestured toward the existence of women novelists in her piece on Samuel Richardson--much less to have acknowledged the possibility that women may have also had something to do with the development of the modern novel--is simply unforgivable.

And, by the way, while Waldman makes sure to mention the length of Richardson's Clarissa--"some nine hundred and seventy thousand words"--demonstrating Richardson's achievement, words-wise, by comparing Clarissa to War and Peace (560,000 words) and Infinite Jest (a "slender four hundred and eighty-four thousand")--might I point out that Madeleine de Scudéry's wildly popular novel, Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus (Artamène or the Great Cyrus), published in ten volumes between 1648 and 1653--in other words, a hundred years before Richardson's novel--was over two million words long!

But, of course, the creators of the novel were all male. And English.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mary Dyer and the Boston Martyrs

Mary Barrett Dyer (executed 1 June 1660)

So many racists, homophobes, misogynists, and all-around assholes have been using their "god-given" sense of "religious freedom" as justification for their "right" to bully, harass, humiliate, and persecute anyone who fails to conform to their idea of what is "godly" that it seems like a good time to remind ourselves about the long tradition of "religious freedom" in what would eventually become the United States of America. So here's just one example of how how religious "freedom" usually means religious persecution.

A nineteenth-century depiction of Mary Dyer,
on her way to her execution,
artist unknown
Born in England probably about the year 1611, Mary Barrett married William Dyer in London in 1633. As Puritans, the Dyers left England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In December 1635, the couple is noted among the members of the Boston Church.

Defending the notion of religious tolerance and difference, Dyer and her husband supported Anne Hutchinson and others like her whose religious views began to diverge from those of the dominant Puritan majority. 

In the theological and very political fight that erupted in the colony, Anne Hutchinson, among others, was tried and convicted in 1637 for the crime of having "traduced" Boston ministers. She was banished from the colony. For his support of Hutchinson, William Dyer was disenfranchised. When armed insurrection seemed about to erupt, colonial officials were empowered to confiscate  "all such guns, pistols, swords, powder, shot, & match as they shall be owners of, or have in their custody, upon paine of ten pound[s] for every default" (so much for the "god-given" right to bear arms too, I guess . . . )

For her part, Mary Dyer had not been officially investigated, though her support for Hutchinson brought her to the attention of officials in 1638, when she committed the mistake of walking hand-in-hand with Anne Hutchinson after Hutchinson's excommunication. 

For her act of friendship, Mary  Dyer now became the subject of investigation--and in her case, her "sin" proved to be a doozy. It seems that Mary Dyer had given birth to a "monster" a few months earlier, in October 1637. This birth of this stillborn child became the subject of an intense investigation by the Puritan governor of the colony, John Winthrop.

Unfortunately for Dyer and Hutchinson, Hutchinson had been one of two midwives in attendance at the birth. Learning this, Winthrop, accompanied by "above a hundred persons," all of them, obviously, god-fearing defenders of religion, excavated the stillborn infant's grave, finding the remains not human "but a most hideous creature, a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together." As Winthrop described the remains in his journal:
it was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape's; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons. 
Winthrop concluded that the "monstrous birth" was an unequivocal sign of Dyer's sin for having religious views that diverged from those of the Puritan majority. 

Forced to leave Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Dyer joined her husband (and the Hutchinsons, as well as others forced out by the Puritans) at a new settlement in the territory later known as Rhode Island. But religious conflicts between all of those in the new settlements--new arrivals as well as those fleeing Massachusetts--soon erupted. 

The Dyers returned to England for several years, with William Dyer one of several men who were attempting to sort out the problems with those who had commissioned the Rhode Island settlers. In England, Mary Dyer converted to Quakerism. When she returned to New England in 1657, Mary Dyer settled once more in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then actively involved in discovering, persecuting, and eliminating Quakers.

Dyer was imprisoned in Boston. Although her husband arranged for her release, ensuring the colonial authorities that she would not speak to any members of the colony and that she would immediately return home, Dyer refused to be silent.

Edward Burrough's 1661 pamphlet
decrying the persecution of
Quakers in Massachusetts
(for the full text, click here)

She traveled throughout New England to share her faith. She was arrested in the New Haven Colony in 1658 and forced to leave. By October of 1658, persecution of Quakers had intensified. In Massachusetts Bay, being a Quaker became a capital offense. The punishment for Quakerism was banishment--and if the convicted were to be found within the colony after conviction, the punishment was death.

In June of 1659, learning of the arrest of Quakers in Massachusetts, Mary Dyer left her home in Newport and headed back to Boston. She was arrested and, along with two others, condemned to death. She was taken to her place of execution on 27 October, but after watching the executions of the two men convicted with her, she was reprieved.

Mary Dyer refused to accept the conditions of the reprieve, which meant denying her faith: "My life is not accepted, neither availeth me, in comparison with the lives and liberty of the Truth and Servants of the living God for which in the Bowels of Love and Meekness I sought you; yet nevertheless with wicked Hands have you put two of them to Death, which makes me to feel that the Mercies of the Wicked is cruelty; I rather chuse to Dye than to live, as from you, as Guilty of their Innocent Blood."

Once more returned to Rhode Island, Dyer refused to accept her situation--she decided to force the Puritans of Massachusetts to change their laws or to execute a woman.

Dyer returned to Boston in May of 1660. She was arrested once more and on 31 May was examined in front of the governor of the colony, now John Endicott. Although her husband once more hoped to gain her a reprieve, she was once more condemned.

This time, she was also executed. On 1 June 1660 she was taken to the gallows where she had watched her two fellow Quakers executed in October 1659. She refused an offer to save herself, saying, "I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death, made against the innocent servants of the Lord, therefore my blood will be required at your hands who willfully do it; but for those that do is in the simplicity of their hearts, I do desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my Father, and in obedience to his will I stand even to the death."

Mary Dyer was hanged that day, becoming one of the "Boston Martyrs." And one of many of those whose lives and death testify not so much to the long and glorious history of "religious freedom" in the U.S. but to religious intolerance, persecution, and blind ignorance. 

A bronze sculpture of Mary Dyer,
by American sculptor (and Quaker)
Sylvia Shaw Judson