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

Persephone and Ceres · 12 November 05

Dear Marianne,

A good friend has sent me an amusing description of Persephone books, an offering of a certain kind of book packaged in a certain kind of way for women (dare I say it) ‘d’un certain âge’ and middle-class. It’s too candid, witty, and accurate to lie buried in a private letter:

"a lot seem to be upper-middle-class family epics with wealthy silver-haired matriarchs bravely sipping tea, deciding on dinner menus and tending their enormous gardens, in between interfering with their grown-up children’s lives! I get the feeling they have too often picked a popular children’s writer and republished one of their forgotten novels for adults, which sometimes don’t have the vitality of the children’s books."

I have an example of this commodity line myself: a lovely silver-cover, the book itself printed on elegant ivory paper. The title, Reuben Sacks is in plain small print with the author’s name, Amy Levy, just above it on a field of ivory, a small (tasteful) rectangle in the middle of the cover. There is no ribbon to keep your place: perhaps it was too obvious. The book is
(to be fair) lively and even significant: I’ve written about Amy Levy here on line, and now that I’ve read the book (which without Persephone’s tactics and its audience support I couldn’t have gotten), I see that Reuben Sachs anticipates Virginia Woolf’s earlier novels.

I’ve often thought that much early 20th century artiful fiction by women is heavily indebted to Woolf’s notion of a "luminous envelope" and use of imagery and fluidity. There’s been a strong attempt outside women’s studies to ignore Woolf, to damn and dismiss her as eccentric, going nowhere, and a nut to boot (vide The Hours), but a reading of just a few of the best early 20th century women writers shows how perverse and overtly blinding this judgement. I suppose the response from the masculinist chorus of our time woiuld be what best early 20th century women writers? Are there any? George Steiner said there are no good or important books by women in the 20th century. He has not come across even one.

What I’ve never seen before is someone anticipating Woolf. All the novels of the 1890s I’ve gotten hold are are either tired or slightly questioning recreations of the mostly misogynistic-plot-driven Victorian product (e.g., Mary Ward’s Marcella where the heroine does try to be a nurse, try to go into politics, but ends up with an Albert Campion hero, apologizing to him for trying to help when she couldn’t a drunken woman [very bad] and ungrateful poacher), or striking out in new subjective unrealistic directions (e.g., Oliphant’s Beleaguered City).

Flaws in Reuben Sachs are revealing too: Levy really loathed what she perceived to be the philistine materialism, ostentation, and caste arrogance of Jewish culture. This is sent up in the novel—and caused it to be attacked by the Jewish community at the time. It entertains me as someone who is half-Jewish. Levy is also herself a victim of anti-semitism. In the novel she continually describes Jewish characters as looking different from non-Jews and somehow exuding their "race." Jews are not a specific gene pool; not even a haplotype. Levy feels this because she’s been hurt and scapegoated by the cruel descriptions and anti-semitic talk in the art and culture of her era: among those who did this were Woolf, Forster, and (a little later) Hemingway.

The editor of my Persephone volume, Julia Neuberger, says Levy intended the book as "response" to the unrealities, sentimentalism, and colonialism of Daniel Deronda. There is a funny scene where the characters mock Eliot’s book. One character asks what Mr Lee-Harrison thought of them:

‘I think,’ said Leo, ‘that he was shocked at finding us so little like the people in Daniel Deronda.

‘Did he expect,’ cried Esther, ‘to see our boxes in the hall, ready packed and labelled Palestine?’

‘I have always been touched,’ said Leo, ‘at the immense good faith with with George Eliot carried out that elaborate misconceptin of hers’ (2001 Persephone, RS, Ch 9, p. 63).

Eliot was much on the mind of women authors of the 19th century, a dominating presence. And Levy’s epigraphs often come from the finest nuanced poetry of French women poets of the 19th century.

Nonetheless, my friend is right. These books feed the complacency and desire to cushion themselves of older prim middle class women readers whose favorite novels are often of the 19th century didactic prudent type.

It may be objected that we should not take as the real core meaning of these books what obtuse conservative women find in them and write about on the Net (or answer in questionnaires like the guarded ones made up by Radway). One can read against the grain and in the Virago imprint one finds also those best women writers of which I spoke (E. H. Young, Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Mary Webb, Laura [Ursula Chetwynd-]Talbot, May Sinclair, Winnifred Holtby).

Moreover, in "The Virago Jane Austen," Katie Trumpener shows that it is a misreading to see many of the now neglected Edwardian and early 20th century novelists (e.g., E. M Mayor or E. M. Delafield) as self-satisfied intimate oppressive and ever-so-dotty and amusing matriarchs. What has happened is their worst books are the popular ones, their pandering sports (Trumpener’s essay is in Deirdre Lynch’s excellent anthology Janeites). Don’t take Sheilda Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s way of reading Austen as accurate at all. That’s what Angela Carter did.

Still the fact is that Persephone and other similar imprints do choose those women writers who wrote censored melodramas for adult women with the same mindset with which they wrote The Secret Garden. I refer to the Charlotte Yonge kind of thing. Offlist on WWTTA one woman sent me a passage from Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Homemaker where I was expected to take as a serious problem a long paragraph where the heroine is trying to decide which exquisite fashion she should wear for a coming occasion. I asked the woman if she thought the passage was satiric. The woman reader was puzzled at my question. Rightly so. It wasn’t.

Who was Persephone? She was abducted by Pluto and made to live with him in hell; her health broke down so he agreed to let her go home to Mommy each spring. When I consider the pictues of the tenacious (bossy) Ceres I’ve seen I’m puzzled about how this kept her spirits up. Just another form of imprisonment I’d say. The mythic figure chosen to symbolize the imprint is (as they say) revealing. Handy dandy? Is the identification as Persephone or Ceres? Does it matter?

Here we are in the year 2005. Women are colluding and pressured into being fleeced: they pay for and suffer much of the misery of emotionally-fraught weddings, and supporting the grim criminal regimes of South Africa with diamond rings. They are exploited: a woman must have babies. Two years and not pregnant yet? Go to the doctor: pills, painful expensive procedures. They are abused and endangered: I refer to the pressures put on women to act contrary to their own best physical and emotional interests while pregnant and afterwards, and then the insistent requirement to breast-feed. Debt, debt, debt, and long working hours after which the typical woman may come home to have to service someone once again.

On WomenPoets what do they discuss? They debate whether women changing their names to their husband’s or not is a truly feminist option. Pathetic or hilarious? I pointed to how one exception to all this sacrifice for protection and security, against disapproval and desire for what admiration is on order at any price was a given woman’s decision not to change her name to her husband’s where when it’s a case of nepotism in university and elsewhere. Keeping a birth/maiden name may be used to hide getting round or breaking rules (nepotism—where I teach the rule is there should be a country-wide search, and the principle is the best person should get the job who applies, not the person married to someone in the department). Here she is using a decision she has made to her own advantage. How far the decision was shaped by foreknowledge this decision might or will be convenient later on is hard to say, but we do think ahead as we watch what happens to other people.

In this one case a particular set of particulars makes it in the woman’s interest in the particular case of nepotism not to change her name. What is this set of particulars? That the way to make money in this case is that a non-family institution is trying to stop the age-old practice of family-networking and patronage practices (sometimes called cronyism when it’s not biological or non-marital ties). The husband and wife do become one economic unit for the period of the marriage. The name was in the 17th through 19th century also a way of making that public. It was expressed in an anti-feminist, depriving-women-of-freedom way which insisted on the man as the protector (the woman is "covered" by the man), but part of the truth was that she did indeed become part of this other networking clan who expected the other clan to reciprocate their favors and they would vice versa.

The modern Ceres was on display in the discussion of nepotism, Ceres, the woman in the SUV. The Persephones are on display when we come to weddings, rings, laparoscopy, painful uses of one’s body, going into debt for the characterful car the man wants. Not that I’d run home to my mother—nor many women. Yet another boss with her agenda.

The Persephone and similar books lack any real perspective. The women who read them may be like me: sitting on a small sit in a small band-wagon for the engineers as the parade makes it way down the street. How we name things is important, little nuances make for terrible pain, but let’s get beyond the outward manifestations of the behavior—which includes shirley temples. We need to talk about why we behave the way we do—what’s the gain, what’s in it for the individual in our very hard society.

bell hooks has a rarely truthful book (Feminist Theory: From the Margin to the Center) about why women cling to baby-making, marriage, and contingent existence. What enforces this, makes it not a freely-made decision at all. In a remarkable book written in the 1980s (all the good general books on feminism, laying ou some of the basic obstacles to women for achieving any kind of freedom from their biology and sexuality as used by men, seem to have been written in the 1980s), Ann Oakley in her Subject Women demonstrates one reason women are against freely-offered abortion is then they will not be able to get a man to marry and be their support on the basis of a pregnancy. She concedes even pregnant it’s hard to force, but then you do have some psychological and social weapons on your side. They are desperate for this safety—else what lies ahead is the way the heroine of Disgrace ends up.

I may seem to have gone a long way off from tea and menus. I haven’t. The connection is even I would prefer to read a Persephone book to the cruelty of most men’s novels today and many male readers’ readings of these. If I had to make the choice. But happily there are alternatives and one of the goals of my blog is to put these before those who happen by.

We must make up our new reading program soon, Marianne. Which is the next one it is necessary for us to read? Anna Akhmatova for you? Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for me,


Posted by: Ellen

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