Ballast for a boyish bookcase
If one wanted to understand Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s fraught relationship with and curious understanding of women, one ought to examine his ‘Bookprints.’ Launched last year by Scholastic UK, the ‘Bookprints’ campaign involved 20 or so celebrities naming the five books that have left a mark (or ‘print’) on their lives. Boris’ five were: Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser; Homer’s Iliad; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis; and The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle.
Analysing the list of authors, even the dumbest broad couldn’t fail to notice the common denominator. Yes, they’re all men. “Well,” an old Etonian may guffaw, “many a male author has displayed ample anima, eh what old chum?” Indeed so. Louis de Bernières has created numerous strong and dynamic female characters, as has Armistead Maupin in his Tales of the City. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Margarita doesn’t suffer fools; and Hazel Grace, of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, is courageous, if slightly mushy. In Boris’ list, though, the books are not only all by men, they’re all about men, many of whom, as they go about their very urgent masculine business, display at best casual disregard and at worst utter contempt towards women. Amongst the five, the only female character of any depth is the hysterical and manic-depressive Margaret Peel in Amis’ Lucky Jim.
Margaret Peel was closely (and cruelly) based on Monica Jones, the part-time girlfriend of the poet Philip Larkin, who was happy to supply fodder to his close friend Kingsley. Hull’s most famous resident was notoriously unimpressed by sex, love and women (he described intercourse as “like trying to get someone else to blow your nose for you”); cynical about marriage (“He married a woman to stop her getting away / Now she’s there all day” he writes in ‘Self’s the Man’); and fond of Soho smut. He was also of a time and a circle that included a number of male writers who were perhaps repulsed by the feminism flower they saw blossom around them in the 1970s. Kingsley’s son Martin, though now a devoted husband and father, has been somewhat unkind to women, both on and off the page. Salman Rushdie does not have the best reputation amongst ladies (which is sadly ironic for someone who has a fatwa on his head), while Martin’s closest chum, the late Christopher Hitchens, though a friend and admirer of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and a devotee of Rosa Luxembourg, published a collection of articles and essays in which 45 of the first 47 entries are about male personalities and the 48th is titled ‘Why women aren’t funny.’
To be fair, the book, Arguably, written shortly before his death, does contain a few pages on the near-total lack of leading ladies in the works of Hitchens’ favourite writer, P.G. Wodehouse, but it also includes articles on George Orwell, John Updike, Graham Greene, Ezra Pound, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert and (one of Boris’ favourites) Evelyn Waugh, none of whom can really be said to have advanced the cause of gender equality through their writings. The same is true of John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. Even Shakespeare rarely let women have the final say, though he at least had the excuse of a ban on women actors. Scanning the English literary canon, one has to go all the way back to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to find a profound female character who isn’t driven by fancy, jealousy, air-headed whimsy or outright lunacy.
That I am aware of this trend and its implications is thanks to a woman who has read nearly every book by almost every male and female author, my mother. I say ‘nearly’ every book because I know she has not read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For all its humour, it was, she said, “a boys’ book.” Similarly, she was unimpressed by a novel that I can quote at length, The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s grim and gripping tale of a father and son trekking through post-apocalyptic America. Her main complaint was that any pathos was drowned in the seemingly endless repetition of the words ‘ash’ and ‘dust,’ but I think she may also have been dismayed, if only subconsciously, by the maleness of the drama. It’s not a wholly unfair point: amid all the violence, man-made mayhem and unremitting bleakness there is just one notable female character, the boy’s mother, who we meet only briefly before — SPOILER ALERT — she kills herself.
As evidence for this claim of subconscious femininity, I present my mother’s ‘Bookprints’: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë; Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier; Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels; and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. They are choices that mirror those of the women celebrities (and staff) of Scholastic’s campaign. That is, if not books by, about or narrated by women (a bit of Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter here, a Bridget Jones and a couple of George Eliot’s there), then stories in which a kind and gentle man — admirably, it must be said — fills the void left by an absent mother (with To Kill a Mockingbird to the fore).
The question is, does this gender (im)balance matter? Should we care that Boris Johnson, Daniel Radcliffe (discounting his obvious inclusion of Harry Potter), Damien Hirst and Dave Eggers have one woman author between them? Or that Thandie Newton chose Beloved, The Mill on the Floss, To Kill a Mockingbird and Heart of the Matter? To the first question, I think the answer is yes; and to the second, I would say “not as much.” It would be hard, on the one hand, to link a mostly feminal bookcase to a boorish sexist or an abusive drunk. On the other hand, perhaps if Boris, in between bouts of public school homoeroticism, had read less about the strapping heroes of Ancient Greece and one of Emma, Jane Eyre or Mrs Dalloway he would be less inclined to compare women to wet otters and then slip away with one who isn’t his wife. Perhaps. But my main contention is that such a reading habit would leave him, first, not always well entertained, and, second, a touch more inclined to send his long-suffering partner to a psychiatrist.
On the first claim, for every Poisonwood Bible, Brick Lane and Cold Comfort Farm — brilliant novels in which belittled women summon tremendous courage and forge their own destinies — there are many tedious narratives of tedious women acting tediously — The Grass Is Singing, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the aforementioned titles by Austen, the Brontë sisters and Toni Morrison. Just as women ought to be more indulgent of rutting males who fall asleep after sex, so men (or women, for that matter) can be pardoned for nodding off while reading these books.
Often while plodding across these languorous literary landscapes I am only jolted awake when a woman commits or threatens to commit suicide. “Frailty, thy name is woman,” says Hamlet of his mother. Ignoring the obvious irony that Hamlet’s own mental state was far from cloudless, his comment is a fair one in the world of literature. I wrote earlier that Shakespeare rarely gave women the leading light. He also frequently denied them a long life. Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Portia and Cleopatra all killed themselves, sparking a tendency amongst modern-day male and female authors to fix their canon in self-slaughter. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train. Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw has a breakdown and gives up on life, as does Lessing’s Mary Turner. Night Train to Lisbon opens with a woman about to jump off a bridge. Bertha Mason beats Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester before killing herself in a house fire. Esther Greenwood may have escaped from her proverbial bell jar, but Sylvia Plath did not. Thus, whether an important female character is dastardly, dynamic, dour or deceptive, there’s a good chance she will conclude matters by taking her own life, all of which brings me nicely – and finally – to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
This sultry novel was published in 1899, a suitably momentous year for a work that tested America’s moral guardians the way Madame Bovary had scandalised the French 42 years earlier. The story begins in high summer in a refined holiday home on the Louisiana coast, where a caged parrot repeats nonsensical (though impressively multi-lingual) phrases, much to the irritation of Mr. Pontellier. Given the context, you might guess that the imprisoned avian is a metaphor for Mrs. Pontellier — and you’d be correct. And if that bit of symbolism passed you by, Chopin foregoes the subtlety a few lines later when Mrs. Pontellier returns from the beach:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. The rings sparkled upon her fingers. He sent back an answering smile.
“What is it?” asked Pontellier, looking lazily and amused from one to the other.
To summarise: Edna Pontellier, wings forever clipped, has done something foolish and amusing with the amusing and charming Robert; and returns to her uninteresting and uninterested — and startlingly oblivious — husband, having almost forgotten that she is married. The novel goes on in this manner (Edna sometimes forgets she is a wife, or a mother, or both; unable to express her love for Robert, her eccentric behaviour becomes riskier, more risqué and more costly, but not more interesting; Mr. Pontellier becomes even less aware of the obvious emotional dilemma that afflicts his spouse) until the inevitable conclusion. With no trains or bridges to hasten the end of her tragic life, Edna turns to the sea, the vast body of symbolism that has tempted her throughout the book. Just as there is a trapped bird at the beginning, so there is a crippled gull to accompany Edna as, naked, she swims further and further into the Gulf of Mexico.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. I can appreciate that all of this mattered terribly at the time. Further, there are some beautiful passages to lift (or enhance) the gathering gloom: “It must always have been God’s day on that low, drowsy island, Edna thought”; “The night came on, with the moon to lighten it. Edna could hear the whispering of dead men and the click of muffled gold”; “There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual”; “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” The trouble is that Chopin’s evident writing talent is spent on a woman who does not do one decent thing in over 200 pages. Even the emancipating and lyrical qualities of her “awakening” are dulled by her dullness.
In a speech she gave in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst said:
Now, I want to say to you who think women cannot succeed, we have brought the government of England to this position, that it has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote.
By taking her own life, does Edna Pontellier strike a blow for women’s rights? Of course not. She kills herself because she cannot not be with the man she loves. Juliet did the same, but she was 14 and not the mother of two children. Edna’s decision is impulsive; she leaves no note, and dies without any thought for the poor lot of her sex. It is the kind of self-indulgent fancy that would make dense men think even less of women.
And yet, I have to recommend the book to all the Boris Johnsons of the world. If nothing else, it is a stern lesson in how not to treat a woman, whether she’s your wife or your illicit lover. It is useful to remember that for centuries women were caged and made to parrot devotion, with the added burden of having to bear children. (60 years after The Awakening, Plath’s Bell Jar would end with the protagonist greatly relieved to discover the diaphragm.) “Woman, my dear friend” a doctor tells Mr. Pontellier halfway through the novel, “is a very peculiar and delicate organism… It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them.” In the absence of such a specialist, gentlemen, start varying your reading, beginning with The Awakening.