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.

Am I the Heroine of My Own Life?

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
—The opening sentence of Dickens’ David Copperfield

David Copperfield and Mr. Mawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

David Copperfield and Mr. Micawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

I love David Copperfield, and by the way, the Inimitable Boz group at Yahoo is reading it.  Every time I read the  opening sentence,  I muse on the question: Am I the heroine of my own life? What if I am the narrator, but not the heroine?  Since I am a former governess/teacher, do I qualify as a Dickensian heroine?  Isn’t that Bronte territory?

Well, yes, it is.

The semi-autobiographical world of  David Copperfield is comic, tragic,  both real and surreal, and ultimately cozy.  Like Dickens, David knows he is the hero of his own life:  the indirect question is rhetorical.  David Copperfield is a comedy.  And though he suffered as an orphan, banished as young child by his evil stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, to labor in a blacking factory, and live like a little adult in London, he is never far from fragile and outlandish friends who model the virtues of loyalty and charity.  His eccentric friend and landlord, Mr. Micawber, is always in debt, but treats David as one of the family and kindly gives him good advice about not going into debt. And even when Mr. Micawber is in debtors’ prison, the depressed but loyal Mrs. Micawber  pays homage with the cry, “I never will desert you, Micawber!”

Like most women,  I feel more at home with the Brontes,  because I understand all too well the work open to penniless educated women of the 19th century. (We still do that work today.)   I identify with despairing and desperate Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette:  she must teach in a school in Brussels (called Villette in the book) because she is destitute, not because she loves the work. She proves to be a talented English teacher and good disciplinarian, so her unruly students cooperate and at least learn a little.   Alas, she is plain, so the doctor she falls in love values her friendship but does not think of her as a woman. Lucy  does find another boyfriend but the relationship is, well,  second-best, if that.  T

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

In Anne Bronte’s underrated Agnes Grey, Agnes, a minister’s daughter, is a governess to a family of rich children who can only be described as ruffians, dominated by a sadistic boy  who tortures animals. Their mother forbids Agnes to punish them, but their tantrums are so frequent that she is blamed for lack of discipline.  Later she becomes the  governess to two manipulative teenage girls whose morals leave much to be desired. Rosalie, with the collusion of her sister,  mischievously attempts to win the affection of the curate.  Why?  Because he is interested in Agnes.  Rosalie already knows she will marry a rich man.

I AM the heroine of my own life.  I am a resister, a rebel,  thoroughly in the camp of the Brontes.

I love Dickens, but there’s just not a part for me there!  I mean am I supposed to be Peggotty?

A London Bookstore in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and the Tenth-Year Anniversary of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artI am rereading Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s autobiographical masterpiece: rereading classics is the best remedy for jet lag.  In this intense, gorgeously-written novel about a solitary woman, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, travels to Belgium in search of work.  Stalked by two men as she seeks a hotel in  Villette, she loses her way and finds herself in front of a girls’ school.  She believes fate has led her to the school, where she finds  a post as an English teacher. Her life is gray and quiet, but it is not dull.  Orphaned and alone, Lucy is a more repressed, quieter doppelgänger of Bronte’s Jane Eyre.   She does not get the guy.  She will never meet Mr. Rochester.  Well, there is a guy, M. Paul, but he is less romantic than Mr. Rochester (whose brusque, sadistic manner does not endear him to me).   Bronte spices up the restrained narrative with a fit of  delirium, a ghost, and a drug dream.  The narrative has the effect of being as sharp, crystalline, and claustrophobic as a hall of mirrors.

In a chapter set in London, Lucy wanders into a bookstore and spends money she can’t afford.

Elation and pleasure were in my heart:  to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure.  Presently I found myself in Paternoster Row–classic ground this.  I entered a bookseller’s shop, kept by one Jones:  I bought a little book–a piece of extravagance I could ill afford; but I thought I would one day give or send it to Mrs. Barrett.  Mr. Jones, a dried-in man of business, stood behind his desk:  he seemed one of the greatest, and I one of the happiest of beings.

No wonder I identify with Lucy!

I wonder if she ever sends that book to Mrs. Barrett…


twilight HT_Stephenie_Meyer1_ml_151006_4x3_992I love Twilight!

Yes, I really do.

Some years ago, a friend pressed this book into my hands.   She said I would not be able to put it down.

Not only did I race through Twilight, but I dashed off to Target to buy the other three books.

Okay, the story is unrealistic.  Bella falls in love with a vampire. But so what?  Are humans so great?  Edward is a sensitive, well-educated guy. He  is great at sports.  He fights evil vampires.  And eventually Bella saves the world.  I mean it!

Meyer is a witty writer and a great storyteller.  There is a lot of humor in this novel.

Is the writing good?  Well, some of it is.

In the beginning of Twilight, we learn that the narrator, Bella, has “exiled herself” to Forks, Washington, a town she detests, to live with her father.  Her description is amusing and reasonably well-written.

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds.  It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America.  It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old.  It was in this town that I was compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen.  That was the year I finally put my foot down…

In honor of the tenth anniversary of Twilight, Hachette as published a “double feature” edition of Twilight.  In addition to the original novel, you can read Life and Death, Meyer’s reimagining of the story from a male point of view.

I do want to read this, but I can certainly not buy any more books this year.  Instead, I will reread Twilight.

Bronte and Meyer together:  why not?

The Crush in Literature: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

woman yawning at typewriter 1551_2

What would we have done without our crushes when we were young women? (And may those days never come again.)

In our thirties when we were freelance writers, we worked in our pajamas at home and did phone interviews between loads of laundry.  Charming editors persuaded us to write  stories that involved long bus rides, multiple interviews, and long days of writing. The fee probably worked out to $3 an hour:  less with typewriter ribbons.  Crush away: it motivated us, though it would not be profitable.

The crush is also significant in literature.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLIn Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines, a crush lifts the heroine, Gwen, an unhappy housewife, above the tedium of life in Branley (a kind of anti-Cranford) with her boyish banker husband, Clifford, his gloomy invalid mother, and irritable unmarried sister, Evelyn. Clifford  is a beefy, jovial conformist, proud of his “intellectual” wife.   During World War II when Clifford is away,  Gwen works at a hospital and flirts with Paul, a doctor. Her crush is so intense that she sends her son to boarding school so she will have time to have an affair.  The affair, of course, never happens.

But Gwen needs her crush.

One of their first conversations is about reading. The smug, domineering Paul

…interrogated her swiftly, searching, probing, and unsmiling.  “Villette?  Better than Jane Eyre?  But why?”

“She knew more, then.”

Gwen is right:   Charlotte Bronte did know more then. In Jane Eyre, she gives Jane the husband she wants, albeit he is crippled first.   In Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, the heroine, Lucy Snowe, does not get the man she wants:  she falls in love with Doctor Graham, who doesn’t really notice her and loves someone else. Paul, an unattractive,  misogynistic Belgian teacher falls in love with Lucy.

In The Philistines, Paul is a blend of Graham and Paul: like Bronte’s Graham,  he likes Gwen but doesn’t love her; and, like Bronte’s Paul, he interrogates her.

Branley is a cruel, gossipy town. Branley disapproves of Gwen’s best friend fortysomething Pamela’s engagement to a younger man, Gerry.  At the club, Clifford plays a prank that ruins Pamela’s life.   In a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, he leads a nubile 22-year-oldwoman, Phoebe, to the blindfolded Gerry Fenner, Pamela’s fiance, whose hands are all over Phoebe.  When the blindfold is removed, Gerry is stunned by her beauty. Shortly thereafter he breaks off his engagement to Pamela and marries Phoebe.  Pamela commits suicide.

Here is what you do not want to hear when you tell someone you’re in love with him.  Paul’s response to Gwen is:

My dear,” he said at last, in a tentative, kindly voice, “you and I are different people.  You;re a romantic:  I’m not. I can’t help feeling that all this, to you, hasn’t been much more than a peg on which to hang the idea of love.”

Gwen creates a new life for herself and her son with courage, intelligence, and grace.  Love has not been kind, but it might come again.

Triangular Relationships in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

Villette in the Mirror

Villette in the Mirror

I have read Charlotte Bronte’s Villette many times.

I am rereading it now.

To a woman of a certain age, Bronte’s Villette, an unflinching report of solitude and isolation, is more interesting than Jane Eyre.  By the time one is thirty, Mr. Rochester no longer appears romantic, and we frankly think Jane would have been better off with St. John.

We’re sorry that the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, ends up with whom she does, but nonetheless we adore the book.

Here is my Villette chart.  I read it at:

Age 14:  Thought it odd.  Perhaps I would end up like Lucy Snowe.  My aunt seemed to think so…  She stressed education over romance.

Age 24:  Despite the fact that I had been married and was engaged once more, I  felt like Lucy Snowe.  I was teaching and perhaps in love with Dr. John Graham Bretton.

Age 37:  I was teaching again and rereading Villette.

Age 44: No longer thought I was Lucy Snowe, but loved the book.

Age __:  This bold novel is much tougher and yet more nuanced than Jane Eyre, and feminist readers and Bronte fans should give it another chance.

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artThroughout Villette, Lucy Snowe, the solitary narrator, is the invisible woman in triangular relationships.  Attachments become triangulated without her realizing it, and the men certainly do not realize it, but whenever she has a friendship with a man, there is another woman in the foreground.

When we first meet Lucy, she seems cold.   There is something almost voyeuristic about Lucy’s cold scrutiny of her godmother Mrs. Bretton’s household, though she loves her godmother.  As a teenage girl, Lucy has no interest in Graham Bretton, the handsome, lively teenage son.   But in minute detail Lucy describes Graham’s friendship with Polly, a small child who becomes passionately fond of Graham when she stays with the Brettons’ during her father’s illness. Graham teases her and behaves like an older brother, while Polly is like a tiny woman.  Lucy cannot understand the magnitude of the child’s attachment.

Lucy is shadowy.  She tells us very little about her family, and there is a Gothic mystery about her intense solitude and taciturnity.

We wonder who this woman is, who in later chapters is thrown on the world without money, and who eventually ends up a teacher at Madame Beck’s school in Villette (an imaginary city like Brussels, where Bronte taught) and meets Graham Bretton (now called Dr. John) again.

villette-charlotte-bronte-hardcover-cover-art Two people have an enormous influence on Lucy’s position  in Villette.  Ginevra, a beautiful, giddy, merciless, heartless student, whom Lucy first meets on the boat from England, tells her about the school.  She mentions that Madame Beck, the headmistress, needs a nurse for her children. Lucy ends up teaching there coincidentally, and she also coincidentally meets John, whom she does not recognize, and who helps her with the language when she needs to inquire about her luggage.

We learn that he is in love with Ginevra.

Lucy and Ginevra have a borderline-lesbian relationship.  Lucy has nothing good to say about Ginevra, and yet when both are in a school play,  Lucy, who plays a man, does her best to flirt and out-woo the other man for Ginevra.  It is partly because John is in the audience (she does not yet know he loves Ginevra) and she wants to shine, but Lucy also favors Ginevra at breakfast by trading bread for coffee, and likes her company, despite her dislike of the girl.

Lucy falls in love with John, though he does not realize it. The triangle does not affect him, because he does not know Lucy cares.   She realizes she is likely to be single all her life.  She is intelligent but not pretty or charming.

Reason tells her not to hope after she returns from a visit to the Brettons and John promises to write to her.

Lucy thinks he won’t and tells us:

This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope:  she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken-in, and broken-down.  According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pangs of death, and steadily through all life to respond.  Reason might be right; yet no wonder we are glad at times to defy her, to rush from under her rod and give a truant hour to Imagination–her soft, bright foe, our sweet Help, our divine Hope.  We shall and must break bounds at intervals, despite the terrible revenge that awaits our return.”

Lucy’s hopelessness is harsh, because aren’t we all madly in love in our twenties and secretly believe ourselves irresistible?  But this is Charlotte Bronte talking, and we never doubt her, because Lucy’s style is both meticulously restrained and passionate.  Lucy is a fiery woman stuck in the drudgery of teaching unintelligent girls English.

There are other triangular relationships, including Madame Beck’s rivalry for John with Ginevra, but she soon realizes it won’t work.  She is middle-aged; John is in his mid-twenties. There is another triangular relationship when  John falls for Polly, who is now a woman:  Lucy is unnoticed.  Later, Lucy and Madame Beck are earnest rivals for M. Paul.  And Lucy is visible when the man is ordinary, plain, and intelligent.

A very complicated book!