In the Media: 17th August 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought-provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’m all about the list this week as I’ve read three excellent ones:

Elsewhere, the Guardian’s been busy with some great pieces/podcasts:

While the best piece I’ve read about books this week comes from the Observer – Rachel Cooke on the rise of bibliomemoirs, focusing particularly on Phyllis Rose who wrote The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading after choosing a shelf in The New York Society Library and reading everything on it.

Have you read/listened to anything interesting that’s not on my list? Let me know in the comments.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

28-year-old Edna Pontellier is married with two young children. We meet her in Grand Isle where she is staying for the summer. She returns from bathing with a young friend, Robert Lebrun, son of another resident of one of the cottages in which they are staying. He has a habit of attaching himself to one of the women each summer and is considered friendly and harmless.

However, Edna and Robert are not the first people we meet. In order to establish the dominance of Edna’s husband, the reader meets Mr Pontellier in the opening pages of the novel as he reads the financial news from the previous day. When Edna and Robert return to the cottage, he looks ‘…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…’. We are told shortly afterwards:

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

It becomes exceedingly clear as the novel progresses that the idea of Edna being the only thing he lives for is nonsense; the only thing Mr Pontellier really cares for is money and every decision Edna makes must not reflect badly on him and his investments.

But Edna’s view of life and her existence is changing.

A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her – the light which, showing the way, forbids it…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.

She is already aware that she is not like other women when it comes to children – as is her husband who thinks that she ‘failed in her duty toward their children’, although he cannot provide examples to support his thoughts. Edna’s view of motherhood is highlighted through her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle who is beautiful, has had three babies in seven years and is discussing the possibility of a fourth.

…Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Chopin uses a swimming metaphor to demonstrate that Edna is ready to break from society’s (that is the patriarchy’s) expectations of her. She has spent the summer learning how to swim, eventually having daily lessons with Robert. Despite this, she is still fearful of the water until one evening when Robert suggests a late night bathe following a party:

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given to her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Although some parts of The Awakening might not be as controversial as they were in 1899 – a western woman leaving her husband does not provoke the same scandal today as it would previously – there are certainly strands which feel as relevant as ever.

The idea of motherhood and how women should feel about it is particularly pertinent. Following an interview with Christina Hendricks in last Sunday’s Observer, many news outlets reported the piece by choosing to focus on her comment that she and her husband have chosen not to have children; Cameron Diaz recently felt she had to declare she has no intention of procreating, and barely a week goes by without the latest on Jennifer Aniston’s apparent despair at her childless status.

It’s also still very evident that women are fighting to find their space in the world, to be recognised as individuals with achievements that don’t have to be qualified with or by an acknowledgement of their gender.

Barbara Kingsolver writes the introduction to the new Canongate edition of The Awakening. In it she talks about being a late arrival to the book, discovering it in her first year of college alongside ‘…a choir of renegade women writers…’. That comment alongside this one:

I am also reminded that fiction by and about men is called “literature”, but this novel and others by women are regularly sent to a shelf called “women’s lit,” and more than a few male readers remain as uniterested in that shelf as Mr. Pontillier was in his wife’s conversation.

made me think back to my undergraduate years where I took a module in American Literature. Over the course of the year we studied a number of American classic works – Bartleby the Scrivener, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter – but only one by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where was The Awakening? Why, aged twenty, trying desperately to find my way, wondering why I was so angry about having young men tell me I was ‘scary’ because I had opinions, did someone not put this book in front of me? Why wasn’t it required reading for the course? I can only hope that the current wave of feminism and this excellent new edition places Kate Chopin and The Awakening where they belong: on the literary canon.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s one of those writers who I always feel I ought to have read. I’ve had a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in the house for goodness knows how long but it’s one of those books that, every now and then, I pick up, consider and, for whatever reason, decide it doesn’t quite take my fancy right now.

When my copy of Flight Behaviour arrived, I had two thoughts. The first was that it’s huge (433 pages) – I have issues with overlong novels – and the second was a worry that it’d be boring. Then I opened the first page:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and its one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how hard one little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one.

I was engaged and remained so for the next 432 pages.

Flight Behaviour is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and how climate change changes her. She’s walking up that hill in the opening paragraph of the novel to meet her lover but, as she gets higher up the forest, she looks across and sees that the trees are on fire:

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds…

A forest fire, if that’s what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence.

Dellarobia takes it as a sign, turns around and goes back to her children and husband.

Dellarobia’s married to Cub, a sheep farmer from Feathertown who works on his parents’ land – his and Dellarobia’s house is built upon it – and still does whatever his mother tells him to. Dellarobia’s frustration comes from his family’s attitude towards her:

“My family, is just, I guess, typical. They feel like a wife working outside the home is a reflection on the husband.”

Dellarobia was one of the few students in her year that was told to try out for college. She did but soon discovered she was pregnant and that was the end of that. We sympathise with her then when her frustrations with her life are channeled through crushes on other men – she swears that when we meet her marching up that hill is the only time she’s actually considered being unfaithful though.

However, when Cub reveals that his father is going to sell the forest for logging to cover debts racked up by the poor harvest the previous year, Dellarobia knows she must show them what’s on that hill and when the things that they discover lead to national press coverage, a team of scientists stationing themselves on their land and tourists visiting, she discovers she can change her life by herself.

Flight Behaviour is simply good storytelling. I say ‘simply’ because, of course, Kingsolver is experienced and skilled enough to make creating believable characters and a cracking story look simple. She covers themes of climate change, religion, small town sensibilities, family secrets, marriage and thwarted ambition without it ever feeling that her characters are merely cyphers or that we’re having her opinions spelt out to us. This is a book to get lost in.