Archive for ‘gender’

March 26, 2014

L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

(But also other books, to the point that this isn’t really a Rilla column.)

The many times I’ve spoken on this blog about how great Antonia Forest is tend to blur into one another in my head, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever made clear what a huge relief it was as a child to get into Nicola Marlow’s head and discover in there thoughts that were sometimes petty and sometimes callous (and sometimes involved spending a lot of time looking at Jan Scott). The children’s books I was familiar with weren’t very good at introducing one to the idea that other people also had rich interior lives, and the fact that they did, and that those lives included being flawed and sometimes genuinely bad, was a revelation. I don’t want to create an image of my childhood self constantly beating herself over the head for not being morally perfect, but in a different world this could have been my supervillain origin story.

And I wonder how much of the love for Frozen (a film which, in the process of being made, came around to embracing its original villain as its other hero) is simply a celebration of the idea that you can fuck things up epically, hurt people, and still be the compelling/loveable/less annoying one.

Below is a version of last weekend’s column.


Rereading L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside recently, I found myself comparing it to other books whose heroines live through wartime. Rilla is the last book in the series that begins with Anne of Green Gables; its title character, Rilla Blythe, is Anne’s youngest daughter, fifteen at the beginning of the novel. She is also pretty, not inclined towards motherhood or academics, and eager to grow up—all of which seem reasonable traits in a fifteen year old, particularly in the youngest of many siblings. But then World War One happens, and her brothers, friends, and the man for whom she has feelings enlist and go to Europe. War is not conducive to a happy girlhood, and in between reading the news and worrying Rilla also learns to organise, fund-raise, do household work, and even raise a baby whose only blood relative is also a soldier.

During a different, earlier war, the scandalous Lady Barbara Childe grows and changes. The protagonist of Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army and in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo, Babs upsets everyone by contracting an engagement with an attractive young soldier (Charles Audley, who has previously appeared in Heyer’s Regency Buck). She is entirely unfitted to being the sort of wife she is supposed to be, but when the battle begins and the bodies of the wounded and dead begin to arrive in the city she shows herself to be capable, loyal and in love, and wins the approval of her future sister-in-law, among others. Barbara is very different from Rilla in some ways; she’s socially and sexually more experienced, and is more deliberately frivolous than immature and heedless. Plus 1815 Brussels is far more close to the war than 1915 Prince Edward Island, and so Babs’ encounters with the effects of political conflict are a lot more physical and bloody. But there’s something so similar about these books; the ways in which the women are removed from the action and must piece together incomplete, delayed information, the way in which war work is shown to build or reveals character, even the ways in which the books stand in relation to the others in their respective series.

The popularity of Montgomery’s books can easily seem baffling (as Nicole Cliffe at The Toast has recently shown through extensive quotation, if real people talked like Anne Shirley the natural response would be to back away slowly). One of the reasons I still enjoy them is for the way in which they take people as they are, gently mocking rather than judging or reforming. And certainly Rilla is far less preachy than a number of books for children that expect moral perfection of their protagonists without even the excuse of a war. And yet.

In recent years I’ve read a number of critiques of media for children that focus on the importance of positive role models for girls. Heroines, women who are strong (morally or physically), the sort of women young girl readers can aspire to be.

But I think of Rilla Blythe and Lady Barbara, and I think of another wartime heroine, Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. In Atlanta during the Civil War, Scarlett too must do war work—and is thoroughly bored by it. There’s a lot that is wrong with Gone With the Wind (its racial politics are particularly obscene) but moments like this were genuinely important to my childhood reading. By the time I was reading relatively widely I was resigned to the fact that I probably did not have the basic nobility of character seen in your average protagonist of fiction. The books that mattered to me were the ones in which people were shallow, or cowardly, or petty, or easily bored, not so that they could bravely overcome these flaws by the end of the book, but because that was what people were.  And so though I love Montgomery and Heyer, and find much of Gone With the Wind repulsive, and though Mitchell doesn’t entirely approve of her heroine (and who could?), it’s Scarlett for whom I’m grateful.


December 28, 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I came to this book expecting very little. Gilbert’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don’t think my prejudice was entirely unjustified. And the weakest section of this new book is definitely the bit where our heroine travels to Tahiti and discovers that the locals are very different from 19th Century Americans (and also keep stealing her stuff). I think a good general rule might be for Gilbert not to write about white women travelling to other parts of the world.

But it’s also kind of fantastic on some other things.

From this week’s column:



An unintentional theme of my reading this year has been that of women who are absorbed (even obsessed) by their work. It’s telling that this is a rare enough theme for fiction that it should strike one as unusual—I don’t think I’d particularly notice a book about a man with a similar obsession. But we’re less willing to allow women single-minded dedication than we are men; the constraints of family and society and such a basic thing as space so often get in the way. None of this is particularly original; for one thing it’s all in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

But earlier this year I read (and wrote about in this column) Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, in which Lady Trent manages to defy convention and pursue her fascination with dragons in a world where fantastic beasts are real but so are eighteenth-century gender roles. And Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, whose elderly artists’ work and love are deeply intertwined. I also reread Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Gaudy Night, which is entirely concerned with the idea that women may find vocations other than marriage and family to which to dedicate the whole of their lives.

And then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, the biography of a (fictional) woman botanist in the nineteenth century. Alma Whittaker is born into a household fascinated by botany, and has a genius for taxonomy. Eventually she chooses to make moss the focus of her life’s study, and through the lens that her specialization provides her, comes up with a larger theory of how nature works.

It’s tempting to go back to Virginia Woolf here. Woolf invents Judith Shakespeare, fictional sister to William, who has all of her brother’s inventiveness but none of his opportunities. No school, no time or place to work uninterrupted by family, a forced marriage and eventual suicide; all of these circumstances prevent Judith from writing the plays she might have done. No woman, Woolf concludes, could have written Shakespeare’s plays in the age of Shakespeare.

Perhaps no woman could have written Darwin’s work in the age of Darwin. Gilbert acknowledges Alma’s genius, but far more important to her career are the circumstances in which she is born. Her father is rich, having made a fortune growing and trading medicinal plants. Her mother is from a botanical family, is well-educated, and believes in the importance of an education. Alma is given an entire building in which to work and all the funds and encouragement she needs. Almost as important, perhaps, is the fact that she’s not conventionally pretty; at various points in the book she is attracted to men she knows, and it’s easy to imagine her life going very differently had one of them returned her feelings. Married women in the nineteenth century rarely had the opportunity to write treatises on moss and natural philosophy; nor did they get the chance to leave all their worldly possessions and set sail for Tahiti in middle age.

In the event Alma never publishes her great work, though various people urge her to do so. Presumably this is partly to do with the constraints of the historical novel, which cannot too drastically change the past. But I wonder if it’s also for reasons to do with her gender. For years she refuses to publish until one minor doubt has been cleared. Later she discovers that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace (who independently arrived at a theory of evolution and who appears in this novel) had a solution either, but this did not stop them from publishing their work and being recognized as among the great scientists of their age.

Alma’s single-mindedness and privileged status often combine to make her particularly bad at relationships with other people, and this is one of the things that makes her work as a character. She’s flawed and frequently unhappy, but she does great work and loves it. Gilbert in her acknowledgements quotes Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. “I will give you plenty of examples”, says de Pizan of the great women with whom she builds her feminist argument. Gilbert provides us with one.


September 7, 2013

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

I was recently doing some reading around Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein’s Sultana’s Dream and thought I’d revisit Herland as another example of a women-ruled society in fiction.

From last week’s column:


A number of the adventure novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have their protagonists stumbling upon parts of the world that had been cut off from the rest of it for centuries. Sometimes these lost worlds contain prehistoric animals (as with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Conan Doyle’s The Lost World); the late nineteenth century saw a number of geological discoveries that fuelled a fascination with the prehistoric. But as empires expanded the Victorians also discovered the ruins of lost empires, and many of these books have their explorers encountering completely new civilisations. This is what happens to the protagonist of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, as well asto Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (and, indeed, to a number of other Haggard protagonists).

It’s this tradition that makes the beginning of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland feel very familiar. Three young American men of varying temperaments (the Southern gentleman, the rakish chauvinist, and our narrator, a levelheaded sociologist) are travelling in some undisclosed continent when they hear from the natives rumours of a land populated only by women hidden in the mountains. Refusing to believe this is true –how, for example, would such a population reproduce?—they nonetheless investigate, and find themselves among the women of the country they call Herland. They discover that the country has been cut off from the world for thousands of years, since a volcanic eruption cut off the one route leading into their valley. By some miracle the women have developed the power of parthogenic births, and their whole society revolves around the protecting and educating of their children.

Two of the men settle into this new society comparatively well but Terry,  who appears to see all women as prey, finds it hard to adjust. Terry’s complaint, constantly reiterated, is that the women here are not “womanly”; even though they are beautiful, nurturing, and devote their lives to their children. Much of this has to do with Terry’s own inability to see women as real people, but with this Gilman also suggests the difficulty of conceiving of a definition of woman that does not stand in opposition to man, when man is the cultural default.

The three men provide three different models for interaction between the sexes; Jeff’s idealization of women, Terry’s insistence on seeing them as only the inferior partners in male-female relationships, and Vandyk’sinteraction with them as equals. This creates an interesting tension within the book itself. While Vandyk’s narration suggests that the women find his own conversation preferable to Jeff’s adoration, Jeff is the one who seems best fitted to this world, and the only one of them men not to leave it. Perhaps this is because the book itself idealises the women. Much of the story takes place as what would have been a sort of Socratic dialogue, had the three men been able to think of any attractive points about their own civilisation. Gilman gives them none—though they might have noted, for example, that their people did not practice eugenics (as the women of Herland do, with the text’s seeming approval).

The three men fall in love with, and marry citizens of the country, but sex is another fraught area, as the women of Herland seem to see it only as a means of procreation. In the book’s climax Terry attempts to rape his wife, and is banished from the country as a consequence. In 1915, when the book was published, marital rape was still legal in Gilman’s native USA (as it still is in India).  Here, it is not only depicted as unthinkable and despicable to the women of Herland, but the American men (even, one gets the impression, Terry himself) are able to instinctively see its wrongness. I don’t know how radical an argument for women’s right to bodily autonomy and against marital rape would have been in 1915—in 2014 some of us still haven’t figured it out.


(Sultana’s Dream is way better, not that that’s the point.)


March 12, 2013

While on the subject of Angria/ Gondal (Ankaret Wells, Firebrand)

It occurs to me that while I’ve read a lot about the Brontës’ magical worlds, I’ve read very few of the stories set in them. I’m working my way through this book at the moment, and these stories are very … very. Their veryness is their chief characteristic. I’m charmed, but also I’m so glad you moved on to other things, Charlotte.

The Tiptree Award for 2012 was announced earlier this week, along with its regular Honour List. Winners and honour listees are here, and I’m intrigued by many of them. But I was particularly interested in Ankaret Wells’ Firebrand. I’ve loved her fanfiction in the past (she’s one of a very small number of people who sometimes writes Antonia Forest fic and does it well), and this looked excellent. I’d managed not to read any reviews other than the bit on the Tiptree list, so it came as a complete surprise that the story was set in a version of the Angria universe. But with steampunk.

[There may be spoilers]

Firebrand is a romance novel in a steampunk, fantasy setting (is this gaslamp fantasy? I’m never sure). Which means that its focus is those elements of the story that are pertinent to the romance. So we take for granted the existence of the weird, magical creatures known as the warplings, and the particular negotiations with them that Kadia makes- in a different genre this, not her relationship with the Duke, would be at the centre of things. What are the consequences of Micah Ellrington’s theft? How does religion work in this setting? How vast is Zashera’s spy network in Cordoza, and is it used for purposes other than to split up the Duke and his new fiancée? In a fantasy novel these could be failures of worldbuilding and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t here. But it makes sense for Kadia as a character (she’s not particularly observant, either of the people around her or the mechanics of the world) to drift through this setting without telling us much. Plus, it makes sense for the romance novel to focus on the two people at its centre without much regard for the world around them. Particularly when the whole thing is told in first person.

It doesn’t always work, of course. There’s a kind of suspension of judgement I think a lot of us commit when we’re reading certain parts of a romance novel; outside that very specific reading experience such things as intense sex scenes are often just really funny. Wells writes them better than many other authors. But the first person narrative means we’re also being forced to reconcile romance-novel-narrator Kadia with the Kadia of the rest of the book, who is funny and caustic and never mawkish.And Kadia’s voice is the best thing about Firebrand. I laughed out loud in public places.

Since this book is on the Tiptree honours list, it’s probably worth talking about how it deals with gender. One of the things that Firebrand does is to present us with a world in which it isn’t surprising (despite the semi-historical setting) for women to be engineers, traders or lawyers. It’s also a book that allows for relationships between women: at least as sisters, friends and stepmothers-in-law, though the stepmother-stepdaughter relationships aren’t all one could hope for. And it’s a book that takes for its heroine an adult woman who has lived through two unhappy marriages; though I don’t think we’re ever told Kadia’s age.

But it’s still a world in which gender inequalities exist, and are perpetuated even by the  “good” men whom we’re presented with. Zashera, the Emperor, takes raping women as his right. But he has a good side! I’m not sure if I loved this section for tearing that particular argument apart, or was disappointed in it for spelling it out:

“But — my God, Kadia, he saved my life. Is that supposed to count for nothing?”

A spattering rain-shower starts to blow past us, striking the battlements and turning the granite slick and wet. “I’m sure it would make me feel better about him, if I wasn’t a woman. Or if I had never cared about a woman. Or never met a woman. Or if I wasn’t born of a woman, but made of bones dipped in flesh in some kind of experimental furnace.”


“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”


If Firebrand is mostly good on gender, I have mixed feelings about how well it deals with race. There are certainly people of other races present in the two states– including a “copper-skinned lady with angular eyes” and a General with a bevy of beautiful daughters including one with “tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow”. What it doesn’t do (and am I contradicting myself, after offering excuses for the book’s not fleshing out its own world?) is give us more on the subject of its Empire, its colonies, — anything about this history of colonisation that doesn’t consist of bemoaning being regarded as wild colonials by the Home Archipelago.

And there are the Warplings, or ingenii, who do stand in to some extent as an Other race. We’re told very little about the warplings. Their physical appearance is strange but seems to be individually so; we’re not given particular physical markers that are common to the entire race. Everything around them is mysterious, except that somehow they or the warplands themselves seem to have the power to change humans as well.

“Some places the Home Islanders went to, and either enslaved the people who already owned the place or got outsmarted by them. Here, they fell asleep in the warplands and woke up to discover that some of their companions had changed in the night.”

I’ve written before of my discomfort with aliens as nonwhite race stand-ins. And the power imbalances here don’t make sense to me; apparently most of the human characters think it is completely acceptable to cheat the ingenii in financial transactions, to rob their graves, and to banish them from their houses– yet the ingenii appear to have supernatural powers that these human characters cannot comprehend. It’s the X-Men problem; in giving your supposedly oppressed class superpowers you justify and validate the fear in which the majority who is oppressing them holds them. Equally, I can’t help thinking (because they’re one of my pet subjects) of all those magical colonial monsters (mummies! The Beetle! She!) that popular 19th Century literature was so obsessed with. Which makes this particular plot element appropriate for the steampunk-ish setting as well as for the Brontës.

I’m also not sure what I think of Kadia’s cousin Isabel, who is part-warpling, particularly after Aliette de Bodard’s recent excellent post about mixed-race/half-human characters in fantasy. Certainly Isabel can (mostly) “pass” and the ability of some part-warpling people to pass is important to the plot. And she has mysterious powers inherited from the warpling side of her family, and uses them to faithfully defend her fully-human relative.

Having said all of which, I mostly loved Firebrand, enough that I’ll be reading Wells’ science-fiction duology soon. And I’d love to read more of her writing set in this world, possibly fleshing it out and tackling some of the trickier parts.


January 17, 2013

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

I was writing all these Christmas and children’s lit/YA-themed columns and thought it would be a good idea to write about sex in toilets instead. One doesn’t want to get into a rut. Erm.

From Sunday’s column:


Friends and well-wishers have over the past few years occasionally expressed shock that I haven’t read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I’ve been both intimidated and a little sceptical about the sheer brilliance they claim for this novel; at any rate, it was enough to make me curious about DeWitt’s latest work. Lightning Rods was written a decade ago. If the delay in publication was due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, considering the novel’s subject matter it’s not hard to understand why.

Joe (he has no surname and the most everyman-ish first name he could possibly have) is a not-very-successful salesman of vacuum cleaners who has previously worked as a not-very-successful salesman of encyclopaedias. Almost the only thing he seems exceptional at is masturbating, which he complicates through the imagining of erotic scenes which have to sufficiently adhere to their own internal logic before they can serve their purpose. Joe’s great moment of inspiration comes when he decides to use his strengths to get ahead, utilising his own masturbatory fantasies as the basis for a scheme to get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace; a scheme that essentially involves the installation of high-tech glory holes in the disabled toilets. The “lightning rods” programme soon spreads to offices across America, running into all manner of problems that Joe had never anticipated (the difficulty of preserving anonymity where race is involved; the complications that arise when people use the toilets for their stated purpose), yet somehow this utterly ludicrous idea is a rampaging success.

Told in a tone that is equal parts uncritical biography and business report, Lightning Rods documents the phenomenal success of Joe’s project. One of the targets (and there are many here) of DeWitt’s satire is the language of corporate culture, and all the meaningless platitudes of Human Resources, all the euphemistic rubbish that any of us has ever put on our CVs, are employed here in the most artfully-unselfconscious of ways. Some of this language has become so normal a part of the way we communicate that we barely notice it here – which is, of course, part of the point.

It’s hard to entirely dislike Joe, even as the novel tears him, and everything he stands for, apart. There’s a sense throughout that he’s earnestly working all of this out from first principles, as if there were no studies of sexism in the workplace, no research of psycho-sexual urges, nothing for him to cling to. He even buys himself a Programming for Dummies textbook in order to develop the rudimentary software the programme requires. Naturally he gets things very wrong, but it’s easy to believe that he genuinely wants men to harass women less at the workplace (or at least, not to risk getting into trouble for it; Lightning Rods is as much a skewering of workplace gender norms as it is anything else), or that he really believes that his height-friendly toilet is going to revolutionise the lives of little people and people with disabilities.

By the end of all of this, Joe’s ideas begin almost to sound plausible, even healthy. Men stop calling in sick to work. Productivity is increased. We read of one male employee whose ability to relate to women on a personal level is enhanced by  his sexual satiation in the workplace, another couple whose relationship proceeds independently of their anonymous sexual encounters with one another. Naturally everyone cannot benefit equally – only one woman in a thousand, Joe claims, has the temperament to face this job with equanimity.

Corporate language and culture, workplace sexism, pornography; Lightning Rods has a wide range of targets, and it manages to bring them all down. More, it does this in a detached, deadpan style that is a joy to read. I’m not sure how she’s done it, but DeWitt has managed to write a cliché-ridden, bloodless book, and have this somehow be the greatest possible proof of her skill as an author. I’m left delighted, and also shaking my head in disbelief.


January 10, 2013

Jenny Overton, The Thirteen Days of Christmas

Despite my distaste for a particular aspect of this book (see below) I’m curious to read Overton’s other work. I’ve heard her compared to Antonia Forest (whom everyone who reads this blog is probably sick of hearing me gush about), and I’d really appreciate it if someone who had read both writers could tell me a little more. Just … not this book again, please.

Last weekend’s column:


Tradition dictates that it’s acceptable to leave your Christmas decorations up until Twelfth Night – the 5th or 6th of December (yesterday or today) depending on who you talk to. Surely this ought to apply to Christmas reading as well.

Jenny Overton’s The Thirteen Days of Christmas is set in England at some unspecified time in the past. Certainly long before the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was invented; this purports to be the story of how it came into being.

Annaple Kitson is the oldest child of her family, and since the death of their mother has looked after the rest. Her father and younger siblings aren’t always happy about this; for one thing, Annaple is a terrible cook. For another, she is romantic and tends to go off into daydreams – or to inconvenience the rest of the family by demanding that they do things in the most proper or most picturesque ways. Luckily the very rich Francis Vere wants to marry her. Francis’ wealth means that Annaple would never have to cook again, but she keeps turning him down for being insufficiently unromantic. At Christmas, therefore, Annaple’s younger siblings advise Francis to be as strange and creative as possible. And so he shows up on Christmas morning with a partridge and a pear tree.

Annaple may find this gift unusual and charming, but her reactions to those that follow grow progressively less amused. Three French hens may be useful, but the cumulative nature of Francis’ gift-giving (as those familiar with the song will be aware) means that she ends up with thirty. The house, presumably quite small, is soon crowded with poultry, songbirds and visiting dancers and performers. What is a family of five to do with the daily delivery of eight pails of milk, or over forty swans? Worse, as the gifts get more and more out of control, all the neighbours show up to enjoy the tamasha.

It’s all very absurd and, told in Overton’s matter-of-fact style, it’s easy to see why this is so many people’s Christmas read of choice. It’s also interspersed with the lyrics of some beautiful old carols. But it’s this spectre of an appreciative audience, gleefully watching the heroine’s downfall, which made me very uncomfortable while reading.

Because everyone but Annaple herself seems to really want this match to happen. Annaple’s insistence on romance is portrayed as silly and perhaps it is, but she does have the right to turn a man down if she doesn’t wish to marry him. Worse, her family consistently blames her for his excesses—she should never have told him her favourite nursery rhyme or her favourite fairy tale. We are never sure if Francis is aware of how much he’s inconveniencing and upsetting his chosen bride; since he’s an idiot if he isn’t and manipulative if he is, the outcome isn’t promising for Annaple either way. The vast crowds on the street outside all appear to be on Francis’ side, much like the back-up dancers who materialise in a Hindi film song to support the hero’s play for a girl.

Over the last couple of weeks most of this country has been engaging in a conversation about our attitudes to women and the ways in which our cultural products reflect or perpetuate them. Certainly not the most conducive background against which to read a book about a silly young girl being publicly humiliated (since Annaple sees it this way, I must too) by an entertained crowd, all because she has chosen to reject the eligible man who wants her.

Luckily Francis’ twelfth day present turns out to be something Annaple loves, and we’re not presented with the spectacle (which at one point seems quite likely) of her marrying him just to get the harassment to stop. The thirteenth day is the wedding, and for the first time we see the Kitsons as a loving family. But even the lovely, warm scenes between Annaple and her sister Prudence (finally!) were not enough to allay my deep discomfort.


January 7, 2013


In school in Delhi in the mid/late 1990s it was a commonly done thing, when boys asked girls out, for the girl to explain that she had no time for a relationship, that she was “busy with her studies”. I didn’t do this; for one thing, no one would have believed it (exhibit A: my maths, physics and chemistry marks). But then, I can’t imagine anyone believed that was the real reason anyway, even when someone smart and quiet and capable of good grades said it. If I thought about it at all (I didn’t, much) I assume I thought it was a way to let someone down kindly; it’s not you, it’s me. Now I wonder if letting people down kindly was the problem. To turn down one teenaged boy you had to make an excuse that left you unavailable to all teenage boys, you couldn’t reject a relationship with this boy without rejecting relationships, full stop.

Perhaps we should have stuck with that other classic form of Indian maidenly rejection- the adoption of the rakhi brother* that at least acknowledged the individuals in this relationship/non-relationship, rather than reducing us all to our component genitals. (We were, of course, working on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and cisgender, even as some of us were learning that we weren’t).

This is possibly reading too much into teenaged girls’ perfectly kindly impulse to spare people pain. But I think of it when rape culture suggests that a woman who has consented to a relationship with one man is therefore available to all men. I think of it when Delhi police, in last year’s horrifying Tehelka piece, explain that a woman who was going to have sex with her boyfriend anyway is hardly justified in crying rape when a bunch of his friends join in. I think of it when we still haven’t gotten rid of the “two-finger” test, in which someone can shove a couple of fingers into you, decide that you are “habituated” to sex, and therefore cannot have been raped- because all men, and all sexual encounters, are the same thing really. I think of it when Anurag Kashyap thinks it reasonable and natural that “the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically” should take the form of the generalised violent hatred of women displayed by Honey Singh’s “Choot”.

And I suppose I think of it to a far less serious extent when family members and friends of family members treat marriage as a goal in itself, independent of who the person one marries is (assuming of course, that he’s a he, and not of the wrong caste or social background. Or at least not muslim or black – or, my grandfather insists, american). This not wanting to get married is just a phase, insists a cousin (my age!) when I tell her I don’t have plans to do so in the near future, you’ll be lonely if you’re not married to someone. An unspecified someone, whose only attributes are broadly generalised negatives- not the wrong gender, not the wrong caste, not the wrong degrees from the wrong colleges, not cruel, not ugly, not fat, not shorter than you — and if you have found this man why are you complaining? My parents still sigh over the end of my last relationship with someone who was for many reasons exactly what good Indian parents are supposed to want; but those reasons weren’t why I loved him. The (tragically) recently shut down “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” mocked the stereotype of the Nice Guy™ who believes himself to be entitled to sex from the women he’s attracted to because he’s a nice guy; he’s not like those other guys who stupid women inexplicably choose over him. He’s been so kind for so long, when is he going to get the sex he’s owed? The only way any of this makes sense is if women as a whole are fundamentally flawed, and foolish enough not to want him. As if nothing about individual men mattered except that they not be violent or openly horrible.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that when the patriarchy (or the kyriarchy, generally) makes it hard for us to believe that women are human beings with individual subjectivities, it also in a wayturns men into an amorphous blob — to me, this is the natural conclusion of the “if him, why not me?” logic. And this isn’t a “What About The Mens?/The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too!” conclusion because while this logic may be demeaning to men, it’s proving to be life-threatening to women.

And I’m not sure what any of this means; I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this “why not me?” attitude to women doesn’t come from a place of the grossest entitlement, and I don’t think my family wanting me comfortably “settled” is necessarily propping up the patriarchy. I don’t know if gendered violence (or indeed racist violence, or classist violence or or or) is going to just magically vanish if we all take the radical step of treating individual people as if that is what they were, but then the sheer amount of structural change something as simple-sounding as this would require is terrifying.

I’m lucky in my immediate family, in that they’re far less invested in my adherence to the trappings of ordinary adult life than many I know. If I can scrape together funding I’ll be starting a PhD later this year, and at the back (and occasionally the forefront) of many of my conversations with them has been the terrible fact that this means I’ll be in my thirties before they can reasonably bring up the marriage thing again. Finally, a good decade-and-a-half later, I’m using the “busy with studies” excuse to opt out of heteropatriarchal relationships.

Except if there’s one thing the last three weeks in Delhi have reminded us (as if we needed a reminder beyond mere existence in this city or any other) it’s that opting out isn’t an option. And I think it’s amazing that my entire country is coming out and having this conversation, and that we can finally hope for things like police reform and better laws (and please, please make marital rape illegal) but beyond all of that there’s the thing where we need to initiate the personal and structural reforms that allow us to conceive of people first and I’m not sure how to even begin.



*Yesterday “spiritual leader” Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim of the recent gang rape in Delhi was to blame for not calling her attackers her brothers. Such is the power of the Rakhi, it seems.

January 5, 2013

Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/ The Brides of Rollrock Island

The copy I have is titled The Brides of Rollrock Island. I refer to the book by this name below as a result, but I much, much prefer the title that doesn’t sound like it just married Kate Winslet.

A version of last weekend’s column:


Margo Lanagan’s last novel, Tender Morsels generated some controversy for its unflinching and often stomach-turning depictions of rape and incest, particularly since it was in many places marketed as a young adult novel. Tender Morsels was a take on the Snow White and Rose Red story; Lanagan’s most recent novel takes its premise from the selkie myth.

Sea Hearts, also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island, tells of a small island often visited by seals. Local legend has it that these seals can occasionally be transformed into human women, and that a number of those who live on the island have seal-blood in them.

One such resident of the island is Misskaella, a young girl with ‘seal-magic’. She has the power to draw forth women from the seals, a power she is willing to exercise for the men of the island for an exorbitant fee. For the ‘sea-wives’ thus obtained are beautiful and docile; nothing like the individual, flawed, assertive women who otherwise live on the island. Over the book’s seven sections, told by different narrators, we piece together a partial history of the island over two generations. As more and more men succumb to the temptation of Misskaella’s sea-wives the human women leave, until the island is entirely populated by human men and seal women. The sea-wives alone cannot leave this place; though they pine for the sea, the men have hidden their sealskins so that they cannot revert to their original forms.

Particularly in the chapters narrated by Daniel Mallet, a child of one such union, what Lanagan offers us is a portrayal of a community built entirely upon gendered violence. The sea-wives have been forcibly ripped from their natural bodies and habitat to live with men whom they did not choose and whom they cannot escape. The adult men are all party to the conspiracy that keeps their wives’ skins hidden, that keeps their wives entrapped in human form. Everyone but the children is fully aware of the deep wrongness that lies at the heart of this situation, yet the men continue to pay for wives, and to attempt to build family and community over what is essentially rape.

Lanagan manages not to present the men of the community as entirely evil, though what they’re doing clearly is. They are criminally weak as is Dominic Mallet, who is ‘forced’ to take a sea-wife despite having a life and a fiancée on the mainland. For men like Dominic the sea-wives represent another way of life – something calmer and deeper than the rapidly modernising world around them. Caught up in the beauty and romance of that ideal, it seems, they are able to (mostly) forget that their wives are unwilling captives and that their marital bliss is someone else’s rape and imprisonment.

It’s the sons (daughters of sea-wives, being unable to live on land, become seals themselves) who piece things together, and who have the moral courage to put an end to it. Lanagan captures the bewilderment of the child who comes to realise that what he holds most dear is built on a foundation of ugliness. She leaves open the question of whether the boys could still have done this had they been old enough to claim sea-wives themselves. The wives are released from their bondage and return to the sea – taking their sons with them and leaving the men grieving but the community cleansed.

Over all this Misskaella towers; a sinister figure in the eyes of many (and who would not want a convenient scapegoat for this situation) but also wounded and -when the sea-wives finally abandon their men- triumphant. We’re never allowed to see her as anything other than deeply human, and there’s a vicarious pleasure (and does that mean the reader is implicated in her crimes, including those against other women?) in her victory over the community that has rejected her. The Brides of Rollrock Island is messy and complex and horrifying because gendered relationships can be all of those things, but it’s also quite wonderful.


November 7, 2012

Not My Nigel*: on Strangeways’ women

From here:

Literary detectives might also like to try out a pet theory of Stephen Spender, namely that the outwardly courteous and gentlemanly Poet Laureate used his Blake books to revenge himself on his mistresses. The habit has its origins, arguably, in Thou Shell of Death, when Strangeways is first given a love interest, a free-spirited explorer, Georgina Cavendish, loosely based on Margaret Marshall, an older, sexually adventurous woman with whom Day-Lewis was entangled when at Oxford, to the great distress of his vicar father. Cavendish then dies in the Blitz in 1941 in Minute for Murder at precisely the point that Day-Lewis himself falls in love with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and turns his back on his first wife, Mary. In 1957’s End of Chapter, there is more than a passing resemblance between the victim, young, highly strung female novelist Millicent Miles, and Day-Lewis’s mistress, Elizabeth Jane Howard, best friend of his second wife, Jill Balcon. And then in The Deadly Joker (1963), the corpse belongs to Vera Paston, who shares much in common with the Indian novelist, Attia Hosain, with whom Day-Lewis had been involved.

When my friend Kajori first demanded that I read the Nigel Strangeways detective novels, written by Cecil Day-Lewis under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, it was her gushing about the women that convinced me. In the early books Strangeways meets, then marries, Georgia Cavendish, who is – like Margaret Mashall, apparently – older than him and sexually adventurous. She’s also a well-known explorer in her own right; she’s good at what she does, she’s not conventionally attractive. In The Smiler With the Knife she gets to be the protagonist of a book that is nominally part of the series about her husband. I was in love. It helps, of course, that there’s so much else to love about the Strangeways books, that they’re clever and literary and often gorgeously written.

Clare, Nigel’s next partner, was never going to live up to Georgia and I’ve been a bit biased against her for this reason. Yet I recently read one of the later books, The Worm of Death, and she stands up reasonably well. Clare is also famous in her own right (everyone around Strangeways seems to be) – she’s a well-known sculptor, shouts at people when necessary, and occasionally [SPOILER] kills them.

But there’s another woman in The Worm of Death, Sharon, with “blood-red nails”, to whom Nigel is apparently irresistable. But Nigel “never consider[s] propositions before breakfast”, and besides a kiss that seems meant to humiliate her more than anything else, there’s little between them. But what this does is to turn Nigel into the sort of character that women throw themselves at – a hero stereotype that had been missing from the earlier books (as far as I’d read them) in the series.

And so we come to The Morning After Death, the last book in the series. This is set in the literature and classics departments of an American university, and is therefore particularly amenable to the sort of literary referencing that litters the series. It’s also a very male university, with only one prominent woman in academia – she is, of course, doing a PhD on Emily Dickinson.

An early suggestion that things are about to go horribly wrong with this book comes when a prominent visiting poet decides to assault said PhD student. I’ve highlighted the particularly fun bit.


(wouldn’t it be nice if I could have just copied and pasted that? This isn’t the place to rant about DRM, but honestly.)

Sukie herself later downplays this rape.

And then there’s Sukie’s attraction towards Nigel, whose irresistable sexual appeal to women seems to have carried over from the last book. After a number of attempts to sleep with him, she finally ends up in his lap. “Oh, well, he sighed to himself”, before apparently having sex with her as an act of charity – one that he presumably enjoys, since we’ve been hearing all about her “supple” body since the beginning of the book. Luckily Sukie knows better than to ask for more, and is sufficiently grateful.

tonstant weader fwowed up


Alright then.

Since this is the last ever Strangeways novel we’re never told if Nigel’s giving pity fucks to beautiful young women affects his relationship with Clare. But The Morning After Death does this, and it does blackface, and it does grateful black families who will do anything for white people who are pro-civil rights, and it’s utterly tragic that such an excellent series of books should end this way.


*see here.

August 21, 2012

Ronald Searle, St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business

In last week’s Left of Cool column I talked about school stories. Again.

(I’d apologise to those of you who are sick of hearing me do this, but …no.)



I grew up on tales of English boarding schools, and I don’t regret it. I think this is true for many of us. At the unlikeliest moments casual acquaintances will reveal themselves to have a secret horde of Angela Brazil books or something similar; and recently I read a historical romance novel whose setting the author claimed was directly inspired by Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. This history we have with the school story is probably one of the (many) factors behind the success of the Harry Potter books; if you leave out the wands and the mortal peril (and not necessarily the latter at that) it’s all very familiar.

However much we love it, the school story is often so earnest that it’s just crying out to be mocked. Some of the best writers in the genre are those who poke fun at it gently even as they write within it – P. G. Wodehouse (whose Mike marks the first appearance of the character Psmith) and Antonia Forest are among them. Last year I used this space to talk about Dick Beresford’s The Uncensored Boys’ Own, a parody from the 1990s of boys school stories. Many readers will also hopefully be familiar with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books, documenting life at St Custard’s school through the unique syntax of young Nigel Molesworth. Molesworth (or a very good imitation of him) is also on twitter, currently providing extensive coverage of the Olympics as @reelmolesworth.

The Molesworth books are certainly among the things for which the artist Ronald Searle is best known. But Searle created another school through his art, and one that is probably a bit more famous: St Trinian’s.

St. Trinian’s is a school for delinquent schoolgirls. Searle’s schoolgirls all carry those markers of the traditional school story heroine – the gym tunic and the hockey stick. But they also look miserably at the broken bottle of whiskey as they unpack their school trunks, they carry concealed weapons (“Some little girl didn’t hear me say ‘unarmed combat’”), and they are willing to put those hockey sticks to far more practical uses.

English schoolgirls are parodied all over literature as overly hearty, humourless and hockey-playing. There’s a lot to be said, though most of it is rather obvious, about the fact that the earnest, humourless schoolgirl rather than the earnest, humourless schoolboy is all over popular culture in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Naturally, parodies that turned the capable women of less comic literature into sexually precocious, violent criminals were going to be a hit. The first St Trinian’s cartoon was published in 1941 but most came after the war; by 1954 the first film had been made. As of 2012 there have been seven St Trinian’s films. A number of prominent (male) authors got in on the joke – Wyndham Lewis, Robert Graves and Cecil Day-Lewis among them.

But though the popularity of the cartoons and the films has its origin partly in sexism, St Trinian’s has always felt to me like liberation. Searle may have been riffing off a tradition of mocking the schoolgirl, but unlike most parodists he made his characters smart. The St Trinian’s girl doesn’t despise brute force (whether a well-aimed hockey stick or a cannonball), but she’s capable of much more. She will distill her own poisons in the school chemistry lab, or read up on the shrinking of human heads.

Perhaps even more importantly, the school is a safe space for its students. You can be ugly at St Trinian’s, you can be fat, you can be bad at sports, or you can be too interested in boys (or presumably girls, though I don’t think Searle ever made that clear); as long as you’re sufficiently badly-behaved you’ll fit right in. In one cartoon, two members of staff pick their way through a sea of unconscious girls (empty bottles all around them) without batting an eye. For those of us who could in our youths have done with a more tolerant community for imperfect schoolgirls, this is almost a miracle.