Patriarchy or Paranoia? When Women’s Best Writing Is Suppressed

The Penguin hardcover edition of Villette.

Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant novel, Villette, is not as popular as Jane Eyre, the Gothic romance we all loved as girls.  More complicated and brutally realistic than Jane Eyre, Villette is a classic for adults, a feminist anti-romance with Gothic elements, ghosts, surveillance, unrequited love, and even drugs.  The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is Jane Eyre’s doppelgänger,  a plain, nearly invisible young woman who does not “get the guy” though she becomes a respected professional.

Like many impoverished 19th-century women, Lucy must work rather than marry, though she has no qualifications to earn a good living.  She finds a position as a companion, and when her employer dies, decides to take her chances in a foreign country:  she travels to Belgium.  By leaving England for Brussels (known as Villette in the novel), she has the opportunity to succeed on different terms:  serendipity leads her to a boarding school where she becomes a successful English teacher.  In this alien Catholic culture, Lucy is able to construct a strong, independent personality that, we surmise, would have been impossible in England.

I’ve mentioned Villette often here as one of my favorite books, most recently  in 2015, but have never blogged about it at length:  I know it too well, I love it too much.

But I was fascinated to read about Villette  recently in an excerpt from Joanna Russ’s book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, at Literary Hub: she cited it as a book suppressed by the patriarchy.

Russ’s premise is that, by promoting a single novel by a woman writer as her “best, ” i.e., Jane Eyre in Bronte’s case, which Russ considers “less good,” and keeping the others out-of-print,  publishers persuade readers  that the output of great books by women is tiny, and that great women writers manage only one worthwhile book or poem.  The sexist society wants to suppress anything subversive.  Does this sound paranoid?  Well, perhaps.

Russ writes,

In about 1971 I was teaching Charlotte Brontë in a women’s studies course and decided to use her Villette instead of Jane Eyre. The number of different publishers who have in print different paperback editions of Jane Eyre I know not; I found several editions in the bookstore of my university (and one more, a year later, in the “Gothic” section of the local supermarket). But there was not one edition of Villette in print in the United States, whether in paperback or hardcover, and I finally had to order the book (in hardcover, too expensive for class use) from England. (The only university library editions of Villette or Shirley I could find at that time were the old Tauchnitz editions: tiny type and no leading.)

But I wondered if Russ had her dates right, because in the 1960s I found a hardcover copy of Villette  at the public library–not a university library.  Then my aunt gave me a used paperback copy.  And in 1974 I bought a Penguin of Shirley (it’s in my journal!). So was there a long or short gap when these books were out-of-print? I would really need dates, not anecdotal evidence.   If these books were out-of-print, one can only suppose that publishers raced to reissue them  when the growth of Women’s Studies departments assured sales.

Russ, best-known for her SF novel, The Female Man (which I think is very dated), has a radical Second Wave feminist outlook, based on the belief that the patriarchal publishers deliberately suppressed certain women’s books.  She writes,

I think it no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers’ less good work as their best work. For example, Jane Eyre exists, as of this writing, on the graduate reading list of the Department of English at the University of Washington. (This is the only PhD reading list to which I have access at the moment. I mention it not as a horrid example, but because it is respectable, substantial, and probably typical of first-rate institutions across this country.) Villette does not appear on the list. How could it? Jane Eyre is a love story and women ought to write love stories; Villette, “a book too subversive to be popular,” is described by Kate Millett as “one long meditation on a prison break.”

Wow, I love Kate Millett’s description!  But do I believe the omission of Villette from the Ph.D. lists was deliberate suppression?  No, I do not.

Men dominated English departments then.  Men doubtless didn’t read Bronte much.  Charlotte was a woman; why should they read her?  That was probably the sexist attitude.  They probably hadn’t even read Jane Eyre, just knew the title. Hence the need for women’s studies classes.  Or not even women’s studies, just women at the university!

Women dominate publishing today, or so I’ve read:  is that why Villette is in print? Did men or women dominate publishing in the ’60s and ’70s?  Again, I don’t know whether Russ’s theories apply.  Was she paranoid, or was it patriarchy behind it?

As for the patriarchy wanting to promote love stories so women subordinate everything to love…  it sounds paranoid, but it is possible.  Today book review publications edited by  men and women are reviewing romance novels. I find that disturbing.  Does that prove Russ’s theory?

Honestly, I would be more likely to reread Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics than read Russ’s book, but I do laud University of Texas Press for reissuing this.  But there was, and is, a lot of  criticism written by people with political agenda and insufficient data.  My attitude: proceed with caution.

13 thoughts on “Patriarchy or Paranoia? When Women’s Best Writing Is Suppressed

  1. How could there be a “myth of the isolated achievement [which] so often promotes women writers’ less good work as their best work” unless the people who created it had read all their work and knew which was better? I’d agree with you, that it’s probably an (unconscious) emphasis on their most obviously “womanly” work.
    Villette could be a masculine novel. In its basic assumption that Villette “must work rather than marry… though she has no qualifications to earn a good living” she is in the same position as many heroes of nineteenth-century novels (In fact, it’s interesting to look at examples of men in nineteenth-century novels who would rather marry than work to see what is wrong with the trope as a whole). Reading Villette – apart from the obvious and not-so-obvious injustices the heroine and other characters suffer just because they are women – shows how very similar men and women are, which may not be what either wants to learn.

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    • Militants do and did get carried away, and I am most put off by her anecdotal evidence: I need at least to know the dates when Villette went out and came back into print and and whether Bronte was on at least a few other Ph.D. lists. (She could have made a few phone calls.). The argument is lilogical, and I suspect the theory came before the proof, since she doesn’t bother to back it up with much data. As you say, not all men in 19th-century novels want to work: some marry for money, others work hard as penniless writers, as in New Grub Street. I’m having trouble thinking of examples, but then I haven’t had my coffee…

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      • I was actually thinking of Rochester himself as an example of a man who marries for money – though I’m doubtful about his claims to have been tricked into marrying Bertha – although Trollope and James have the classic examples.
        One thing I dislike about Jane Eyre is the melodrama that enables her to marry Rochester. Why bother to marry? Men with a fortune like Rochester could disregard social niceties as easily in England as abroad. So could women: Charlotte Dacre only married after she’d had three children and Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Lawrence eloped under another name, which Rochester and Jane could do. Of course, it’s likely no-one would publish the book if Rochester and Jane did that, but that’s another matter.

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        • Actually, Bronte’s Mr. Rochester doesn’t marry for money–that’s Jean Rhys’s Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea! 🙂
          Charlotte has the good–girl gene: I’m completely with Jane about not marrying Rochester when he has a mad wife in the attic. It would have been against Jane’s morals (and presumably Charlotte’s) to live with him out of wedlock. Poor Charlotte! I’ve always thought marriage killed her, because she died of some illness that afflicts pregnant women.I don’t like Rochester much, but if the choice is between him and St. John Jane chose rightly. It’s true love, and it’s melodrama, of course, and I began to dislike Rochester around the time I read Wide Sargasso Sea. I wonder how much Rhy’s interpretation affected me!
          A great book, but not her best. I do think most would disagree with me about that (and also with Joanna Russ).

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  2. I took conventional English-major classes at a respected university in the 1950s. We may have read a little Emily Dickenson, but I don’t remember any other female authors. Charlotte Bronte was mentioned (not read, mush less studied). I never heard of Margaret Oliphant or Elizabeth Gaskell or Edith Wharton or Willa Cather but had to discover them on my own many years later. I doubt it was deliberate suppression. If you didn’t live those years it is hard to comprehend the level of male assumptions and control. They didn’t need to suppress what they never recognized as existing.

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  3. It was the same in my day. Then women’s studies classes were changing the canon slightly, but there were very few women professors, and only they taught Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, “Jane Eyre,” Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. But it was through bookstores that I discovered most of the women writers I love, including Wharton and Willa Cather! And I din’t find Oliphant until one of her books showed up in a Virago edition at a used bookstore. What a great find! And very lucky, since I somehow knew the name but had been taught that she was a “second-rate” writer. Thank God for the second-rate!

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  4. Interesting. And ppossibly doesn’t take into account the fashions in publishing. Certainly when I started reading classic women writers in the late 1970s/early 1980s you could get them all easily in a variety of paperback versions but that may be a geographical thing – they’re British authors so maybe more readily available over her. It’s difficult to know quite how far to go along with Russ’s arguments, and the sexism may be subconcious rather than overt. Certainly, women’s novels are often dismissed (which is why Virago and Persephone exist), but I think perhaps Russ stretches her theory a little too far.

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    • Yes, Virago and Persephone have done wonders in bringing back so many neglected women’s books! I didn’t have trouble finding women’s classics then, because the bookstores and libraries were great back then. But most of them were not in the canon.

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  5. I won’t presume to question Joanna Russ’s memory of 1971 – I would’ve been eight or nine at the time – but do wonder whether her observation has more to do with culture than conspiracy. A casual search reveals numerous editions of Villette published in the ten years preceding her women’s studies course. Popular paperback publishers Panther and Pan sold the novel, as did budget press Heron. Villette’s inclusion in Collins Classics (1961) and Everyman’s Library (1966), belies her theory, as does the beautiful edition published in 1967 by the Folio Society.

    I note that all these publishers are British, and won’t guess as to their American distribution, but I do wonder how it was that Russ had to bring in a copy from England (“too expensive for class use”). The library at my alma mater holds numerous copies in nine different editions dating back to the nineteen century.

    I studied Villette in 1984 at university in Montreal. I could have bought the novel at the university bookstore or the nearest W.H. Smith, but was pleased to find a selection at my favourite used bookstore.

    Again, this may have more to do with culture. I see a 1962 Dell edition of Villette, but no other American edition until Houghton Mifflin’s in 1971 – presumably too late for use in Russ’s class.

    It’s one of my favourite novels.

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    • Fascinating! Yes, you have proved that she need not have brought in a copy from England: that’s strictly an anecdote. The very fact that my public library had it (a nice, relatively new hardcover), and my aunt had a paperback (probably the Dell) meant that all copies had not disappeared from the U.S. I suppose Russ uses it as an example, and it is true that readers prefer Jane Eyre to Villette (judging from blogs), and that other women writers, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, were hard to find. Canadian and American culture are different, of course.

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