Category Archives: women

Girls and Boys

Hard on the heels of the female character tropes flowchart I am so keen on: a recent study on gender imbalance regarding characters in children’s literature, reported by the Guardian. There are all sorts of counter-arguments, of course. Most pertinent would be the degree to which male characters in young children’s fiction act as default, factory-setting for efficiently involving both girls and boys at the same time. Boys seem to care a great deal about directly identifying and appear to require a male lead to ensure involvement. Girls are less fussy in this respect, which is perhaps just as well if they wish to grow up sane. I’m not saying it’s right.

In fact, in film, too, the pattern remains and seems to persist into adulthood. There is, of course, one notable exception to this: the horror genre. Carol J. Clover’s classic research has told us a lot about the way we view horror when it incorporates the final girl. It was once assumed that the final girl trope amounted to an eroticised form of violence against women. But Clover knew there was something wrong with that line. Final girls triumph. They often humiliate the killer in the process, as well as managing to top him by some creative means and often with some sort of phallic symbol. Clover discovered that men seemed not only to identify with the female lead, they actually seemed to identify more strongly than the female viewers did. Although initial identification seems to be with the killer (typically reinforced by camera angles of view), a transition occurs. The male viewer starts to connect with the female in peril (again, typically reinforced by camera angles of view). And he cheers for her.

Of course, in order to achieve this, final girls come with their problems. They are usually christened with a unisex name or even a name more commonly associated with a male. They do not drink, take drugs, party or seem to have any fun at all; meanwhile across town all the bad girls and boys are living it up – before they are brutally felled. They are always virgins, with the strong suggestion that sex terrifies them. They can therefore almost be thought to represent a virtually pre-sexualised male in some respect and perhaps even a distorted, funhouse mirror of self-objectification and gender exploration, rather similar to the questing boys of Medieval romances (it’s no coincidence that Clover is a medievalist). Final girls offer a way for men to own terror, disempowerment and sexual anxiety in a safe place. Action films, by contrast, do not function in this way: they tend to embody, in very explicit ways, wish fulfillment. Horror films exhibit the traits of the nightmare remembered. They end in victory but with a sense that resolution and relief are only temporary (as long-running horror franchises seem to confirm). Even in victory, there is a sense not of optimism – but of loss. A kind of trangression has taken place on film and within the audience, and, for now, all must return to normalcy.

But I digress. Forgive me. Back to the original point. It may well be that in young children’s fiction the gender imbalance is troubling and plain disappointing. But girls get it good eventually. We can claim the heroines of Anne Shirley and Jo March as our own final girls: true survivors and role models both, and not a chainsaw in sight.

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Cusk on Modern Motherhood

On Mother’s Day, Rachel Cusk writes – to serve up a hackney on rye, cliché on the side – this thought-provoking review of Rebecca Asher’s Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality. It also serves as a useful reminder of Cusk’s brutal and beautiful memoir of maternity, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother – one of the most honest accounts of this strange and ambivalent business of mothering I have ever read. It was a useful book for me, as I pored over its pages in between feeds in the first months (yes, months) of my daughter’s life. When I wasn’t throwing it across the room, I was sighing That’s exactly how it is. If you’re on the hunt for a last-minute Mother’s Day gift, you could do worse.

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On Loving Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Anne of Green Gables is Canadian author L . M. Montgomery’s well-known tale of a rara avis, who enters the staid, conservative, rural community of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island and, along the way, transforms people’s lives – including her own.

Anne Shirley is a red-haired eleven-year-old who has lived her life in and out of orphanages, punctuated only by stints as slave labour in unhappy homes: cooking, cleaning and looking after infants. When ageing brother bachelor and sister spinster Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to take on an orphan boy to help Matthew work their farm, Green Gables, Anne is sent to them by mistake. What begins as an unfortunate error turns out to be positively providential. Despite Marilla’s initial insistence that Anne be returned to the asylum, she eventually reconsiders this – frightened that Anne will end up in another household, working for the unpleasant Mrs Blewett – and reveals that beneath her stern exterior lies a compassionate heart. She decides that she will allow Anne a trial period at Green Gables. Despite a series of entertaining episodes that threaten this uneasy arrangement, including Anne’s insulting of the town matriarch, Rachel Lynde, and an ill-advised hair dyeing experiment that leaves her titian locks a shade of green, she is allowed to stay. What follows next is Anne’s chaotic journey from dreamy, accident-prone young girl to blossoming young woman with a mighty heart – and a mighty intellect to match.

Despite the tragic circumstances of her early life, Anne is a fighter and a true survivor. Her challenges have not diminished her appetite for life or her indefatigable quest for happiness and a true home. She possesses a sparky personality and a tendency for the dramatic – she is all vim and vibrancy, and she knows no middle ground. Anne refuses to submit to her misfortunes or her allotted role in life as stigmatised outsider. Most of all, she is no conformist. It slowly dawns on the reader, as we see her landed among her peers in Avonlea, that the first eleven years of her life, for all their troubles, have gifted her something very precious. Placed on the margins of society, she has escaped many of the strictures the society imposed on its children, particularly females. No one has ever expected Anne to amount to anything or to make a good match in adulthood, so they have never trained her to satisfy society, beyond the ability to complete household chores. As a consequence, she is sassy, has developed a rich interior life – the by-product of a youth spent turning to books to assuage her perennial loneliness – and talks too much, often dishing up truths that, while others may find them unpalatable, are still truths all the same. She finds authority difficult to deal with and often, rightly, identifies illogic and unfairness in it. Montgomery cleverly places Anne at eleven. Anne is young enough therefore to be realistically finessed – as she is, through the novel’s charming progression – but too old to have all her wonderful uniqueness and splendid non-conformity completely ironed out of her. She is her own person as a young girl and, for all the perceived improvement others identify in her, she remains her own person as a young woman. Her tough start in the world leaves her ambitious to make her own way, and she soon understands that her great intellect is a tool she can turn to her advantage. Montgomery is telling us that our darkest hours may eventually contribute to the making of our finest ones – it’s all in the attitude.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Anne’s rise in the community from prejudiced-against misfit to much-loved and respected young local also has as much to do with the changing attitude of those around her as it has to do with her own gradual refinement. Anne changes much less than we might first be tempted to assume; indeed, as subsequent books in the series demonstrate, Anne never completely conquers her flaws. Rather, she stimulates the romantic and big-hearted approach to life that she possesses in others – one of the many reasons this book is such a tender and engaging work. Her placement at the Cuthberts turns out to serve them as much as it does her. They have been living lives of quiet desperation since their own childhood. Anne revitalises their existences and offers them a renewed sense of purpose. She is also the cause of event in their life, from the highly amusing to the downright annoying. Matthew recognises the worth in her instantly. Her talkative nature and comical affectations win his heart, as does her candour, particularly among the hypocrisies of rural life – something he respects. Marilla resists but, confronted with a wilful girl who turns out to mirror her own lack of conventionality, she eventually submits. She recognises kinship when she sees it. For Gilbert Blythe, the most handsome – and cleverest – boy in school, Anne is a revelation. Everyone adores him – but Anne refuses to moon over him. He is enchanted by her otherness. It is no coincidence that, longing for just a scrap of attention, any scrap, he chooses to tease her about her red hair – earning a smashed slate over his head in the process. As time moves on, Anne proves that her unusual appearance is equalled by further qualities – which the other girls in Avonlea so clearly lack: her manifest intelligence, quick wit, boldness, independence and romantic spirit. Gilbert loves her for her the very reasons polite society would deem her unlovable. Her negative chemistry with Gilbert is both the cause of much humour and incredible reader-frustration. Like Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, his mistake in slighting her eclipses her understanding that, perhaps above everyone in Avonlea, including Matthew and Marilla, he is the one who most fully appreciates her: mind, body and soul. She breathes life into the proper and somewhat less bright girl she selects to be her ‘bosom friend’, Diana Barry, and introduces both Diana and the other girls in her class to something they’ve not paid much attention to – their imaginations – with the aid of some Tennyson. Along the way, she saves others from crushing normalcy – and quite literally saves a life when she nurses Minnie May, Diana’s sister, from the croup.

This would make the novel one long ‘tastes like diabetes’ trope, were it not for the fact that the harsh realities of life – random injustice, death and bereavement, breaks in friendship, cruelty, loneliness and bigotry – are directly referenced, and Anne experiences all of these. Life is never easy and this novel, despite its optimism, never pretends it is or holds the view that it should be. Even the novel’s conclusion refuses a wholly happy ending, despite reconciliation between Anne and Gilbert, who selflessly steps in to help her when she needs him the most. Anne must compromise her own dreams in order to save Green Gables – and Marilla. Ties of love and society involve personal sacrifice. In Anne of Green Gables, difficulties are never far away, even amid the picturesque surroundings of Avonlea. Where much emphasis in Alcott’s Little Women seems to be on taking steps to avoid future difficulty by becoming good, with Anne Montgomery is telling us that we can never hide from difficulty and nor should we, but what we must do is insist on being true to ourselves.

As well as the novel’s underscoring of the trials involved in an engaged life, it offers us a heroine that couldn’t be more different from Pollyanna, despite the joys she engenders in others. She is far from perfect. And far from modestly reconciled to her imperfections. Despite her disappointment in her red hair, freckles and gawky physique, she is incredibly vain. She holds a grudge, with genuine spite – Gilbert is shut out of her life for almost all the novel as a result of his childish teasing. She can be haughty, snobbish and pretentious – her armoury against a world that has sought to rob her of her dignity and has good form in keeping her down. She possesses a furious temper and finds it difficult to accept critique. She is sensitive and deep, but has a tendency toward the superficial, as noted by her deference to Diana – who Anne seems to rate largely for her good looks. In her focus on her imaginative life she often misses the very obvious things right under her nose – whether mistaking currant wine for raspberry cordial and getting Diana stinking drunk in the process or her failure to recognise Gilbert as the great friend and, in subsequent books, lover he will come to be. Anne is a heroine indeed, but, above all, she is entirely human. And her mistakes make her.

For many years, Anne of Green Gables was viewed in simplistic terms. But it is increasingly gaining interest for its feminist themes – anyone who has ever read it might wonder why it has taken so long to be appreciated in this context. The novel praises and prizes the development of the intellect through reading and study, advocates careers, cheers on resourcefulness, admires individuality, postpones romance in favour of self-discovery, and encourages the potential to break out of the roles assigned to us by life – and by gender. It is a marvellous book, with some major – utterly contemporary –  statements.

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Women, Wales, Publishing

Next month, I’ll leave my role as editor of New Welsh Review. I’ll be succeeded by a woman. ‘Another woman in the role! Things are beginning to come on fantastically for women in Wales, aren’t they!’ a colleague recently exclaimed to me.
I pondered it afterwards. After all, the three major English-language literary/cultural journals have been in the hands of women for quite a while now. Poetry Wales since 2008, edited by Zoe Skoulding; Planet from 2006 – 2010 edited by Helle Michelsen (herself an Assistant Editor prior to that), recently succeeded by Jasmine Donahaye; New Welsh Review, edited by Francesca Rhydderch from 2002-2008, myself (a former Poetry Editor of New Welsh Review) from 2008-2011. New Welsh Review’s founding editor back in 1988 was a woman: Belinda Humfrey. Planet has enjoyed the skills of women who have gone on to become central figures in the literary-cultural life of Wales over the years, including Francesca and Gwen, and retains the talents of Emily Trahair as an Associate Editor. Cambria Magazine, which straddled politics, lifestyle, literature and more, was edited by Frances Jones-Davies. And let’s not forget that Gillian Clarke was a co-editor of the mighty, erstwhile Anglo-Welsh Review. If we take a look at the Welsh-language magazine scene, we see young talents Angharad Blythe and Sian Melangell Dafydd – editors of Taliesin – who succeeded two women – Manon Rhys and Christine James – when they took the helm in 2010.
Meanwhile, at the English-language publishing houses, Penny Thomas at Seren has been picking up some of the finest and most various new fiction from Wales, deserving a special mention for blending the old school with the quirky with sensitivity and style. Also at Seren, Amy Wack has edited a list of award-winning poets for many years with panache and considerable nous, and was also once an excellent Reviews Editor of Poetry Wales. At Richard Lewis Davies’s Parthian, Lucy Llewellyn has led the fiction list onwards with vibrant and unusual titles, and developed the Bright Young Things series from young, urgent, first-time authors Susie Wild, Wil Gritten, J.P. Smythe and Tyler Keevil. Jan Fortune-Wood is the founding editor and publisher of Cinnamon. Hazel Cushion is the founder of the successful Wales-based indie, Accent. And, last but not least, there are the industrious women at Honno, who have reprinted a back catalogue of once-forgotten women’s writing we all might otherwise have missed, and who are discovering new, exciting contemporary female writers even as I write.
So it’s less a case of sisters doin’ it for themselves, but rather the case that sisters have been doin’ it for themselves – for quite a while now. And they’ve been doing a pretty good job of scooping up talent, and shaping a robust and original output, as it happens.
A sense of novelty can, of course, afford a sense of excitement. Now, I’d never want to deny excitement in publishing at a time when people should feel excited about the scene in Wales (yes, Wales, in particular) – now more than ever, recession or not. And I’d never suggest that those who have noted with interest the rise in women in publishing in Wales have been anything less than supportive, welcoming and complimentary. So why am I troubled by the novelty attached to our dominance? I think novelty can be reductive. It can lead to the key becoming the mere curiosity. It can encourage a notion of chance rather than circumstance – and deny explorations of why and how women have entered into the culture in this way. Novelty is misleading. Encouraging a view of exceptions. It denies our momentum, forgetting a tradition of women as capable, very often inspired, editors in Wales along the way – front of house, behind the scenes. A tradition that I want young, literary- and culturally-minded women growing up in Wales now to see as something they can aspire to being a part of themselves, one day – in total seriousness and to be taken totally seriously. So, I just want to assure: we’re not new. We’re just news that stays news. Not quite the same thing.

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