We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Three Women_, a modern _Little Women_ (2) · 9 October 05

Dear Eve,

Thank you for your reply.

I seem to have missed out on the early hopeful phase of what’s now called by some "second wave feminism." I probably always have been sceptical that any woman can evade the hard realities of our capitalist, class-shaped, and patriarchal society. As I wrote earlier, what I enjoyed was precisely this truth-telling.

I’ll add here that so continuous and similar has been the position of women in our western culture since the time of the first "modern" feminists—to my mind, the women writers of the later 17th century in France and England—that the novels they produce are curiously repeatedly alike: character types, motifs, plot-design. You mention another novel which can be aligned with the Alcott dream of community through family: Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Three Daughters. As I sit and read an old French historical woman’s adventure novel set in the medieval Crusades, Sophie Cottin’s Matilde, I repeatedly see close analogies with a book I’ve just taught: Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which itself connects to Charnas’s Dorothea Dreams.

I’m a literary scholar and it continues to frustrate me how women’s novels are basically ignored or dismissed in general accounts of the novel, the most famous being Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel (the phallic image is suggestive). We can never get to an understanding of novels when half the heritage is erased. This remark is prompted not by sneers at the Orange Prize as "sexist," but by a much-respected (tenured, emeritus) male scholar on C18-l again posting about Ian Watt’s old book, this time objecting to another criticism of it, which neither this scholar nor the criticism took to task for Watt’s cavalier erasure of how gender matters centrally to the formal characteristics of novels and how they function in our society. I could come on and argue again on C18-l; but I did it once before for days on end and got nowhere. I get tired of reverting to Margaret Doody’s The True History of the Novel—it’s not that great anyway :). Only trying through a not-persuasive use of scholarship and archetyps not to erase what counts. Only trying for a woman-centered point of view . . .

Yes, the poems in Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats were not as good as some I’ve come across in her collections of poetry. I suggest the problem is when Piercy leaves metaphor and has to write down details of reality and conform to the conventions of novelistic realism she finds herself without a story that can rovide that necessary lift of qualified content so moves into the meretricious. In Sleeping with Cats, the cats were a subsitute for the children she never had, a decision she justifies more than once—though as it was partly the result of a horrible painful self-inflicted abortion needed no justification at all. In Three Women she invents this nest of women and children. Piercy is herself no Suzanne (the mother). Suzanne, it is to be noted, is (unlike Piercy) manless—except for this guy she picks up through her contacts on the Net. This reminds me of how Nuala O’Faolain met the man who makes all comfortable for her at the close of her Almost There. At 50 O’Faolain advertised and found her man through the much-derided "personal columns." O’Faolain doesn’t keep cats; she has beloved dogs.

Alcott never married and did live as a spinster. In her fiction she had to provide a Prof Bhaer though, and a (in part three, Little Men) a house full of children. I wonder if she kept cats or dogs. Bronte’s Jane Eyre, we recall, advertised and that’s how she found Mr Rochester.

The following poem (from Piercy’s Stone, Paper, Knife) really meditates what happened to her when she and her first husband began to part in Sleeping with Cats. It also gives us another perspective on the cats: they are not just the children she never had, and her companions in bed; they mother her. She identifies with them like she does with the moon (the muted metaphor is that of a witch).

"Ragged Ending"

The dark side of the moon,
no atmosphere between us.
Looks freeze, shattering
to shards that pierce the skin.
I am exposed here in a décolleté
black nightgown with see-through
lace in appropriate places
and an embroidered red rose.
He wears a regulation space
suit, head in a see-through
bubble. His voice issues
amplified instructions. ‘I view
your tears as an act
of aggression. My missiles
are trained on your secret
bases armed with warheads
that could destroy me.’

Love dies like a poisoned
cat vomiting.
Sleep has left my bed
as he has. They curl up
together downstairs while I
pore over scenes as if
reading the palm of a murderer.

In pain all women are grey.
We endure one long hollow
endless night drilling
the marrow of our brains.
At the meeting I recognized
the right-wing woman
was voting with the feminists
because her husband is leaving.

Every middle-aged woman abandoned
by her longest love blows
in the night wind like torn
newspapers, shredding.
At two a.m. I become Sylvia
Plath; at three a.m. I turn
into Anne Sexton; at four
a.m. I turn into my mother.

What do I do at midnight
with his words flittering in
my skull like bats that can’ts
escape a locked room? I read,
forgetting pages as I turn
them. I practice relaxation
exercises like worry beads.
I talk aloud to my cats
who wash me with rough
maternal tongues. I try
to call up the faces of those
who do love me. Silently
I scream my head off.

Pain is the groundswell bass.
Pain is the drone beneath
the recitativo of conversatoin.
Pain lies under my feet like broken rocks.
Tears wait in my eyes,
little accidents ready to happen.

There looms the person
with whom I have shared
the last seventeen years
that will never be eighteen.
I sing the old dour song
of why me? why us? how
can you shut off like a furnace
run out of fuel? I rise
every morning like a waning
moon on a new world I
do not care for but mean
to survive whole for a change.
(from Stone, Paper, Knife)


The metaphors so common to women’s art—doors and windows—are there, but as locks.

Exposed. You feel exposed. Years and aging have locked one’s beauty in, made one ashamed. The accusation she’s a passive aggressive is the doublespeak way to turn the hurt into the hurter. The line "Love dies like a poisoned cat/vomiting" is remarkable. In pain all women are grey. One of Gaskell’s ghost stories is called "The Grey Woman."

Should one feel sorry for a right-wing woman whose husband has left her and sees the feminist light on ancient walls—telling sad tales of the anguish of women?

The poem is also vatic in a prosaic way: I "rise" alludes to Plath; I too have turned into my mother at four in the morning and wanted to smash that mirror, smash it to smithereens. I love stanza 5.

No man would write this poem—as no man could’ve written Three Women, Bel Canto, Dorothea Dreams. Not that any of these would be rated as great novels, only that we cannot begin to understand them when robbed of their context, meaning one another and women’s lives.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Urgent recommendation: Jane Smiley’s "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel."
    R J Keefe    Oct 10, 10:32am    #
  2. Hmmn. I’ll look it up,

    Chava    Oct 10, 11:02am    #

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