Writer’s Block 2

‘If you could go back in time to another decade, which decade would you choose and why? Would you want to return or stay there? What if you could bring one other person with you?’

This is easy, it would obviously be the 1890’s. Hopefully I’d still be in London too, perfectly poised to be on the edges of the fin du siecle, I’d be able to read all the amazing literature as it was happening, and of course I would be a New Woman, maybe even writing for journals myself, or editing one. I’d be a suffragette too, of course, and would probably be doing everything I could to combine the decadent and the political lifestyles, and also possibly being arrested for stalking Oscar Wilde¬† or Algernon Charles Swinburne.

I would want to stay there, but that would mean living through the 1900’s, which would be good from a political perspective at least, but knowing that WWI was coming up, though hopefully I’d not be too old when Virginia Woolf’s early work started coming out. I wouldn’t need to bring anyone with me, I’d be having enough fun on my own.

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A new and old experiment

My old experiment, my fanzine, is over. I’ve tried really hard to keep up with it, but I just don’t have the enthusiasm for it any more. I know a lot of that is due to the fact I don’t have the time for it any more, now I have a job. So, that is over, and it failed, though in the next few weeks I will post some of the articles and reviews I wrote for it, I don’t want to waste them, and I’m proud of some of them

Instead, I have a new experiment. The plan has always (read, since I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher) been to work for a year while I apply for an MA, then go back to university for an MA of some sort, either English Lit, hopefully followed by a PHD, or Library Studies, hopefully followed by a job as a librarian. At the moment I am leaning towards the English route, and have been looking at MAs, there are several Victorian Studies ones that I am very interested in, both in London and out of it. Upcoming members of family moving to various areas of the north of England have made me following them seem sensible, especially as it is cheaper, but ultimately I’ll be ruled by course choice over everything. I’m going to make my application the best I can, so I’ve started my research already, to make sure I know as much as I can about the courses I’ll be applying for, and the application process.

The preparation for uni has also taken a different form. As I’m considering a Victorian Studies MA it makes sense for me to be reading Victorian literature, but for the last couple of months I’ve been totally reading for pleasure, lots of comics, sci-fi, fantasy and pulp fiction, with lots more ‘literary’ books as well, but all of them post-1960’s at least. I’d been worried about getting out of touch with Victorian literature, and resolving ‘I’ll start reading more Victorian lit after I finish this book’… Luckily, I have been jolted from my procrastinating, by a book of course. I bought Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own the other day, it’s something I’ve read bits of in classes and wanted to read the whole thing, and only one chapter in it’s done the job.

I have resolved to keep a reading diary, and each week I have to read at least one book that I think will be useful to my course. It doesn’t have to be Victorian, theory and earlier and later books are fine, as are all genres, but I must read one book that isn’t obviously nothing to do with what I will be studying. I’m going to dig out all the random classics I’ve acquired and not read yet, the Arnold Bennet one will be interesting, considering how scathing Woolf was of him, and I have a list of more minor Victorian authors to keep and eye out for as well. To help today I bought some Ruskin and a collected edition of modern women’s poetry, as well as A.S. Byatt’s Elementals, not Victorian at all, but perhaps rather inspired by some work of the fin du siecle, so that’s ok. It’s the first entry in my reading diary too.

Hopefully, by the time I get to uni I’ll have read over 50 books related to my course, I even before I find out what the reading lists for it actually are, I am super prepared. Forcing myself to keep some sort of academic frame of mind will be really useful, I just wish I knew someone I could actually talk to about some of the books I’ll be reading. I forsee this blog having lots of reading-related ramblings, I’m really looking forward to it.

Cyclamens

In celebration of my finishing my Victorian Poetry essay, and because I think everyone should read more poetry, just some nice short poems, with no rambling from me. I came across Michael Field in my Late Victorian Literature class, and have since become a bit obsessed with them, this is the first poem of theirs I read:

Cyclamens

They are terribly white:
There is snow on the ground,
And a moon on the snow at white;
The sky is cut by the winter light;
Yet I, who have all these things in ken,
Am struck to the heart by the chiselled white
Of this handful of cyclamen

and here is some Sappho, because her work is beautiful and sparse, and eloquent:

Fragment 47

like a cyclone
shattering oak
love smote
my heart

Richard O’Connell

Fragment 146

It is clear now:

Neither honey nor
the honey bee is
to be mine again
Mary Barnard

A cup of tea, a bath, and a nice book

Recently I was telling a friend how I was going to have a cup of tea, a bath and read aromance book, we found it amusing how much I was fitting into the stereotype of the intelligent, introverted girl, probably single, maybe ‘alternative’, to be honest there are similarities with the stereotype of the old lady, and I fulfil this too to some extent, I really do drink gin and tonic, and I do knit and sew, and I like cats and poetry. I really do tend to prefer staying in and reading, the othe night there was a concerted effort to get me to go to a club, it failed and I spent the evening reading Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Especially recently I have been noticing how introverted I really can be, mostly because I have been going out a lot, I’m back at uni now, and especially last week I ended up in the pub with my friends nearly every day, and it was great, but it was exhausting. It was supposed to be, it is all part of my new resolution of keeping busy, but the weekend of hardly leaving the house and working my way through the reading for this week at uni and my dissertation was nice.

I’ve always had reading as a major occupation, there was a time in secondry school where I didn’t really have any friends, but I didn’t mind because I always had a book, so, sitting outside in all weathers as we weren’t allowed in school during lunch, I became known as ‘the girl with a book’. I confused one of my teachers at college when they asked what I was reading and I showed them Lolita, maybe they thought at that even at 16 it was a bit unsuitable.¬† Even earlier, at primary school, I would sometimes stay in the classroom on my own to read or draw, rather than go out to play, and I really did read under the covers with a torch. Nothing much has changed, I still always have a book in my bag, at the moment I am reading Aurora Leigh, The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf and The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt. Reading three books at once isn’t unusual for me.

Doing an English degree is amazing, the other day I had dinner with a friend and we talked about children’s literature for most of the meal, someone else who grew up on a mix of Victorian and 1950’s childrens books, and most of my friends carry books around with them. I’m sad about leaving the degree for itself, but I’m also sad to be leaving the experience of being around people nearly as obsessive about reading as me.I’m going to miss writing about books, I forsee this blog getting very full of literary stuff, mini-essays, my discoveries of new authors that have been dead a hundred years.

It scares me that in just over a year and a half I’ll be a teacher, trying to teach 11-16 year olds that Shakespeare isn’t as boring as they assume he is and poetry isn’t a load of old-fashioned rubbish. Of course all the poetry I most love is old-fashioned, and when it comes to prose I’ll either be corrupting them with Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters, or boring then with the Brontes, Jane Austin and Oscar Wilde. Well, maybe not, I think the National Curriculum will stop that, rather than enraged parents.

Still, next month my friends and I are starting a book club, so I’ll be supposed to rant at them about books I love, especially as were starting with a Sarah Waters book, Affinity. My least favourite of hers, but an amazing book,and certainly one I can talk about for ages. We’re going to have wine and cake and books, and I can see that stretching out for the rest of my life, only with more tea and cats as well, until I become a crotchety old teacher, surrounded by cats, still trying to make a load of 16 year olds appreciate Tennyson and Browning. It doesn’t sound too bad, tame maybe, but I’ve always said I’d rather be respected in my field than famous.

“If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”

This week in my Vision and Sexuality in Victorian Poetry course we were discussing Tennyson’s early poems about women, especially Mariana, Mariana in the South and The Lady of Shalott, and Alfred Austin’s view that Tennyson was a feminine poet, with a “feminine muse”, something Austin was not very flattering about. Actually, my notes to the essay got the point where I was just underlining and writing ‘more misogyny’, as not much else needed to be said.

This was of course because, yes, many of Tennyson’s poems deal with female subjects, or have female narrators, my teacher suggested that these women are stand-ins for Tennyson, because he is writing in the voice of a woman or about a woman they give him freedom to express emotions he would be less able to express as a man. For example, in Mariana, the eponymous character does to some extent seem to luxuriate in her misery, abandoned by her lover she waits for him in her house, which is decaying around her, and it is an incredibly beautiful poem and her misery is awful, but though the refrain “‘She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,/ I would that I were dead!'” ends each stanza she does not take action, and this cannot be from impropriety, the spurned lover killing him or herself is a staple of literature, beginning with the myths surrounding Sappho.

This interest in the tragic woman, and identification with her, struck me totally by accident, as I was listening to Against Me! I wonder if they could be described as having a “feminine muse”, certainly on the album New Wave two of the songs that most stand out to me, Thrash Unreal and The Ocean are about women. Thrash Unreal takes the figure of the junkie party girl, sexual impropriety and addiction, and highlights the desperateness of her situation, “She keeps on working for that minimum,/ as if a high school education gave you any other options”, she is trapped in a cycle of sex and drugs, seemingly because she does not fit in with the accepted female role, it is easy to imagine it as her voice saying “Some people just aren’t the type for marriage and family”. As well as highlighting the lack of freedom given by a poor education, this song draws awareness to the self-knowledge of the woman, in some ways she can be seen to belong to the trope of the unrepentant woman, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

The idea of a male author presenting themselves as female, or writing in the voice of a woman, is one that can be seen to be important in The Ocean, which celebrates the beauty and peace of the ocean, but also, in the second half of the song, explores the transmutation of the male narrator’s experience into that of a female’s. The line “if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”, suggests a male’s idealistic view of women’s lives, or perhaps his pessimistic view of his own life, combined with his admiration of his mother, “I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her”. This positive view of the mother and son relationship fits with the idealistic view of the narrator. His fantasy female self fulfills traditional female roles, “I’d find an honest man to make my husband,/ We would have to children”, again the life described is idealistic but it also seems to tie in with the idea of the male author using a female persona to express emotions or wishes that can not be expressed in another way, in this case the narrator admits openly this is a fantasy,something he wishes for but does not have. By attributing the wish for a simple, domestic life to the female self Tom Gable continues the tradition of presenting women as the more emotional, irrational sex, but interestingly seems to imply that men are unable to hope for domestic bliss, though they in fact do so, and so must resort to the female voice, just as in Tennyson’s poetry he resorts to the female voice to express deep emotion in a melancholy way rather than an angry one.

This of course perpetuates gender stereotypes, though an exploration of the idea of the female self or voice can be seen to question the very idea of gender stereotypes as oppresive to men as well as to women, not a new idea in feminist theory when Tom Gable was writing for Against Me!, but certainly a more unusual one when Tennyson was writing, though Mary Wollstonecraft raised to some extent similar ideas in A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman. As such all the texts examined have a feminist element to them, though it might be more accurate to say that they have an interest in masculinity and the male, and so are masculinist, despite the unfortunate connotations of the word.

Links:

Against Me! The Ocean: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_10_the_ocean/

Against Me! Thrash Unreal: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_03_thrash_unreal/

Tennyson, Alfred, Mariana: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/mariana

Tennyson, Alfred, The Lady of Shalott: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/the_lady_of_shalott

‘The mirror crack’d from side to side’

I do love Tennyson. especially The Lady of Shalott, but god, reading it this morning did depress me a little bit, it has such a miserable underlying message.

So, the lady sees Lancelot, and falls in love, and looks out of the window, so putting into action the curse which leads to her death. In other words – she, who is totally innocent, she knows there is a curse but doesn’t know what effect it has, dies because she breaks an arbitrary rule, no mention of who sets in place that rule, or why.

This seems to have two results, the first being that of experience, while she is almost totally unaware of the outside world, seeing it only indirectly, in a mirror, she is safe, but as soon as she has desires other than that sanctioned by whoever placed the curse on her, and experiences the world directly, it comes into action. The other is of sexual experience, as soon as she desires Lancelot the curse takes effect.

There is a blurring of sexual desire and desire to see the world, both become equated to the same thing, so the only condition allowed for the lady is enforced innocence, with the outside world representing sexual awareness, not a new idea, though not often as total as this, apart from in fairy tales such as Rapunzel.

Of course The Lady of Shalott is supposed to be a tragedy, but I think the reason it especially saddens me is not so much her death, as her life, and her enforced innocence, proved by her desire to see Lancelot properly even though she knows it will inflict the curse upon her. Possibly unknowingly, Tennyson suggests that sexual and worldly knowledge, though dangerous, is worth the risks, however short a time it is achieved for.