Joining the Year of the Star Read-Along

Dear Common Readers,

How I’ve missed you! Please forgive my prolonged silence over the past six months. I got a bit overwhelmed by an autumn class, holiday preparations, and a tumultuous political season. I’ve finally caught my breath and found my balance again. It is with great pleasure (and relief) that I return to my literary studies. What better way to ease back into book blogging than by joining a short-story read-along?

Juliana of the [blank] garden is hosting The Year of the Star, a read-along of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, a 20th-century Brazilian writer. This new English translation by Katrina Dodson (New Directions Books, 2015) is the first time all of Ms. Lispector’s stories have been collected in one volume in any language.

The read-along began on February 6, 2017, but there’s plenty of time to catch up, especially since Juliana thoughtfully provides a few catch-up weeks in the schedule. Besides, we only have to read 2 stories per week to keep the pace. You can find the schedule and more details about the read-along here.

I’m so thankful to Juliana for introducing me to this collection. These stories are right up my alley. I love Ms. Lispector’s sly humor and the way she subverts the readers’ expectations in the first four stories.

 

HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read “The Triumph” or “Fever Dream” or “Jimmy and I” by Clarice Lispector and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now (but please come back after you’ve read them). If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.

 

“The Triumph”

I enjoyed Ms. Lispector’s use of the weather in this story. Normally the story of the day a woman wakes up and realizes her man is really gone this time would be set on a bleak, cold day or a dreary rainy day, but Ms. Lispector breaks with that tradition. Instead, as the story opens,

“The bright stain of sunlight lengthens little by little over the lawn. It goes climbing up the red wall of the house, making the ivy glisten in a thousand dewy lights. It finds an opening, the window. It penetrates. And suddenly takes possession of the room, slipping past the light curtains standing guard…The heat of the sun and its brightness fill the room.” (p. 3) [ellipses mine]

I liked the way Ms. Lispector changes Luisa, the protagonist, from a seemingly stereotypical clingy, dependent woman into a surprisingly resilient protagonist with this moment of epiphany as Luisa gazes around her and out the window:

“In fact, she hadn’t noticed any of this. She’d always lived there with him. He was everything. He alone existed. He was gone. And things hadn’t entirely lost their charm. They had a life of their own.” (p. 7)

I wondered if the title might be ironic. Luisa’s triumph is the discovery that Jorge needs her more than she needs him. (He needs her to blame for his own feelings of mediocrity as a writer). “He’d be back because she was the stronger one.” (p. 8) Is this true or is she just deluding herself about his return? Either way, she knows now that she can live — happily even — without him. That in itself is a triumph over her past feelings of dependency.

While I enjoyed the somewhat ambiguous ending, I couldn’t help wishing that Luisa would instead focus on all the things she never noticed while she was consumed with her relationship with Jorge instead of exulting in what she feels is his inevitable return.

 

“Obsession”

I found this story so meaty that I want to devote an entire post solely to exploring this story and the connection of its themes to the works of other women writers.

 

 “Fever Dream”

The title dream is an interesting allegory about artistic creativity. One might even stretch a bit and apply it to the environment as well. While the story does have a male protagonist using childbirth as a metaphor for artistic creation, one could possibly argue that the allegory continues Ms. Lispector’s theme from “The Triumph” and “Obsession” about women’s ultimate strength.

 

“Jimmy and I”

I loved this witty story about a young woman who follows her mother’s advice to always go along with the man’s ideas. This backfires on poor Jimmy, the man in question, who angrily rejects our heroine when he learns that she followed his theory to its logical conclusion. This becomes her bewildered introduction to male double standards.

“Only the change in Jimmy continued to fascinate me. It’s such a good theory!” (p. 56)

 

It’s far too soon for me to make any sweeping statements just yet about Ms. Lispector’s work. I can say that I am enjoying these stories so far and look forward to reading more of them. If you read (or have already read) these stories, let me know what you think of them.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

The Bookish Time Travel Tag

Dear Common Readers,

When Sandra of A Corner of Cornwall tagged me to participate in The Library Lizard’s Bookish Time Travel Tag, I couldn’t resist joining in. I have a soft spot for time-travel stories and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to discuss them even though it’s a bit outside my usual subject matter here.

 

What is your favourite historical setting for a book?

I love stories set in the 18th century like the Revolutionary War period in the U.S., the French Revolution, and Enlightenment-era England. There were so many long-reaching and exciting changes happening at that time.

 

What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?

What I’d really like is to get all these writers together in one place and time. So my magical carriage would travel to back to the 17th Century and stop first in London for a chat with Aphra Behn. Then the two of us would travel to Mexico City to visit Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She would travel with us to 18th-century London to see Mary Wollstonecraft. Moving on to the 19th Century, we would stop in Paris for George Sand, then in Yorkshire for Charlotte Bronte. Next we would travel to 20th-Century London for Virginia Woolf before traveling to New York City to pick up Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Zora Neale Hurston. We would all settle in a cozy sitting room with tea, hot chocolate, and wine — and something stronger for Ms. Parker and Ms. Millay — for a lively discussion about literature and feminism.

 

What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

I’d give myself an English translation of Sor Juana’s Answer to Sor Filotea even though the translation I read didn’t exist when I was younger. It would have made sense of some of the conflicts I experienced as a young woman and hopefully would have made me bolder at an earlier age.

 

What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self? Weird question, I know. But what I meant by it was more along the lines of – what book do you want to remind your older self of because it was really important to you?

I would give my older self a copy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer to remind myself of how much these books influenced my notions of the kind of woman I wanted to be.

 

What is your favourite futuristic setting from a book?

My favorite futuristic setting from a book is the utopian future setting in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It’s not perfect, but it is by conscious design more egalitarian than our society. Luxury items are loaned out like library books. Chores are rotated, but dishwashing is automated because no one like washing dishes. Ms. Piercy has some interesting ideas about race and culture, too.

 

What is your favourite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

I’m going to cheat and choose three. Hearts and Bones, the first book in the Hannah Trevor trilogy by Margaret Lawrence, A Free Man of Color, the first book in the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Hearts and Bones is set in Maine five years after the American Revolutionary War. It is a mystery novel with a midwife/detective but what I enjoyed the most was the social history aspect of the book. Margaret Lawrence gives the reader a fascinating look at what everyday life was like particularly for women and at the long-reaching consequences of war.

A Free Man of Color is set in New Orleans in the 1830s. It too is a mystery novel but again it is the social history that appealed the most to me. Benjamin January, a free man of color, is a doctor and musician newly returned from Paris after the death of his wife. Barbara Hambly uses Benjamin January’s involvement in the murder mystery to explore the impact of the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent influx of Americans on New Orleans, particularly the effect it had on French Creole society and the position of the free colored population in New Orleans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in an incorporated all-black town in Florida in the early 20th century. Hurston’s masterful way with word, vivid descriptions, and knowledge of folk lore bring the entire community to life. I love this novel, though, because it taught me the power of literature to bridge so many gaps. I read this book for the first time at just the right moment. Across time, geography, background, age, and race, Ms. Hurston managed to make sense of experiences I was unable even to put into words at the time. I have reread this book several times and get something new from it each time.

 

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?

Sometimes I skip ahead to the end of a book when I’m browsing in the store. Sometimes a book’s premise intrigues me enough to want to know how it turns out but not enough to read the whole book.

 

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

I’d go back to 1918 so I could join the last big push for women’s suffrage in the U.S. and then live as a flapper in New York City and brush elbows with Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Zora Neale Hurston.

 

Favourite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods?

I can’t name just one! Instead here are five very different books I love:

Kindred by Octavia Butler:  Dana, an African-American woman writer in 1970s California, travels back several times to a 19th-century slave plantation in Maryland. It’s an eye-opening look at how racism and sexism operate on individuals.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Orlando, a young nobleman, not only travels from Elizabethan England to 20th-century England with several stops in between but also changes gender.

Serenissima (retitled Shylock’s Daughter) by Erica Jong: Jessica, a Jewish American actress in 20th-century Venice, travels back to the 16th-century and meets up with a certain English playwright and poet.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Claire, an English nurse on her honeymoon in Scotland in 1947 travels back to the Scottish Highlands in 1746 and meets a dashing young Highlander.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis: Kivrin, a young female historian at Oxford in 2054, travels back to 1320 to make observations and gets stranded there during an outbreak of the plague.

In general, I prefer time-travel stories in which the means of travel leans more toward the magical than the mechanical. What I love most about all of these books is getting a glimpse at the lives of ordinary people in earlier time periods and how historical events affected them.

 

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

I wish I could go back and read Persuasion by Jane Austen again for the first time. The ending was such perfection that I hesitate to reread the book for fear of spoiling the magic.

 

I’d love to hear from everyone, but I’ve chosen the following three bloggers because I think they might find this tag especially interesting:

BJ at My Book-A-Logue

Marianne at Books, Life and Everything

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Obviously, there is no obligation and no pressure to play along. Only do so if it is fun and convenient for you. For those who are interested, you can find the original questionnaire here: The Bookish Time Travel Tag. Have fun!

Thank you, Sandra, for tagging me and thank you to The Library Lizard for creating this tag. Thanks for giving me an excuse to discuss my favorite genre. I had a blast!

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Extra Treats: Jean Rhys: “A Voice for the Voiceless”

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Dear Common Readers,

Several of you have mentioned that you haven’t read anything by Jean Rhys yet. If you are curious, you can find a brief introduction to Ms. Rhys’ life and writings in a short video from the Open University’s “Women Writers: Voices in Transition” series. (You can find the Jean Rhys video here.)

Steve Padley, the narrator, starts by discussing the success of Ms. Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, then places the novel in context with Ms. Rhys’ earlier works. He discusses Ms. Rhys’ writing style, especially in connection with other modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Then he focuses on the major recurring themes of loneliness, alienation, and feelings of being an outsider in Ms. Rhys’ writings with well-chosen quotations.

The video is also visually beautiful. I highly recommend it.

Special thanks to Blogging Woolf who posted a link to the series’ video about Virginia Woolf several months ago. I was so impressed by that video that I watched the other four, too. I hope you do the same, dear Common Readers.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

But Tigers Are Better-Looking: Jean Rhys and Respectability Politics

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Dear Common Readers,

Jean Rhys Reading Week (September 12–18, 2016) was co-hosted by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal and lonesome reader. They also co-host a discussion group on Goodreads that will remain open. Check out #ReadingRhys on twitter for links to some great posts about Ms. Rhys’ novels, short story collections, and related works.

The Left Bank, a 1927 collection of short stories by Jean Rhys, was on my Classics Club list, so I figured why not join the party? Then I discovered that The Left Bank is out of print and copies of it are very difficult to come by, so I decided to read a more accessible collection called Tigers Are Better-Looking. Luckily the edition I chose also includes nine stories from The Left Bank.

I got the feeling that I was surrounded by a pack of timid tigers waiting to spring the moment anybody is in trouble or hasn’t any money. But tigers are better-looking, aren’t they? (p. 68, “Tigers Are Better-Looking”)

This observation (from which both the title story and the collection take their names) also describes how most of Ms. Rhys’ protagonists feel most of the time. When I first read the title, I took it to mean that the animals are better-looking than mean-spirited respectable people. Upon reflection, though, I wonder if she means that the “tigers” of the world are more attractive than other people to her protagonists even though these characters know the “tigers” will rip them to shreds the moment they stumble.

Of course what the tigers have that Ms. Rhys’ protagonists don’t is money, good reputations, and respectability. Her heroines are precariously placed on the fringes of respectability, always in danger of taking one last Downward Step from which they will never recover.

What I like best about this collection is that Ms. Rhys’ protagonists are not women we normally see as main characters in fiction. Ms. Rhys chose to tell the stories of the kind of female characters who usually serve as cautionary tales in other novels. These are the “fallen” women who reside just off the page in a Jane Austen novel. They are the very opposite of Virginia Woolf’s heroines. They are writers, artists, and models, but there is nothing glamorous or genteel about them. They live from poorly-paid job to poorly-paid job with no guarantee that there will be a next job. These characters are single women who struggle with financial insecurity, illness, anxiety, loneliness, sometimes with alcoholism and mental illness, and nearly always with despair. They desperately want a better life but are constantly penalized by the harsh judgments of others. They are women that our society would classify as “losers.”

Though some of the characters are deliberate nonconformists, many of them are simply unwilling outsiders who are unable to fit in no matter how hard they try. Ms. Rhys took a far less romantic view than Henry David Thoreau of what happens to a woman who does not keep pace with her companions.

Because she was outside the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs and pick her up and put her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot. “Useless, this one,” they would say; and throw her away before she could explain, “It isn’t like you think it is, not at all. It isn’t like they say it is. Wait a bit and let me explain. You must listen; it’s very important.” (p. 88, “Outside the Machine”)

Ms. Rhys was acutely aware that women who lack respectability don’t get heard in our society. They rarely get the chance to tell their side of the story. It is these women that Ms. Rhys represented in the stories in this collection.

Another reason to dive into these stories is Ms. Rhys’ writing style. Her use of imagery vividly captures both the sensory details and emotional atmosphere of her settings and characters. Here are a few examples:

The sunlight fall down and die there. (p. 63, “Let them Call it Jazz”)

It’s a smoky kind of voice, and a bit rough sometimes, as if those old dark walls theyselves are complaining, because they see too much misery — too much. But it don’t fall down and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. (p. 64, “Let them Call it Jazz”)

The yellow dress appeared malevolent, slouching on its hanger; the black ones were mournful, only the little chintz frock smiled gaily, waiting for the supple body and limbs that should breathe life into it. (p.155, “Illusions”)

As a feminist reader, though, I had difficulty with the way Ms. Rhys depicted relationships among women. Ms. Rhys’s heroines distrust women and their relationships are rife with jealousy, competition, malicious gossip, and cruel behavior. I’ve never been one of those feminist who believes that women are somehow more morally pure and high-minded than men. On the other hand, I’ve never believed that women are more likely than men to be underhanded, manipulative back-stabbers either. I believe women are simply human, that is, they are just as likely to be good and bad as men are. It seems as if Ms. Rhys did not share my views to put it lightly.

I remind myself that the all of the stories in Tigers Are Better-Looking were written before 1968. I’m sure things were very different when women had fewer means of supporting themselves and were therefore more dependent on men for financial survival. This would certainly explain the attitude of all of Ms. Rhys’ female characters toward both women and men.

Men have spoilt me — always disdaining my mind and concentrating on my body. Women have spoilt me with their senseless cruelties and stupidities. (p. 220, “Vienne”)

The male characters are depicted as friendlier, more empathetic, and more helpful than women but the male characters also clearly expect sex in return for their generosity. They never offer love and universally seem eager to avoid further entanglement with the main character. Meanwhile, the female characters are always sharpening their knives and eagerly waiting to push the heroines down.

As a reader, I interpret this as depictions of respectability politics in action, though I doubt Ms. Rhys would describe them that way.

For God knows, if there’s one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it’s the fiction of the “good” woman and the “bad” one. (p. 208, “Vienne”)

Unlike Sor Juana, though, Ms. Rhys never seemed to notice it was men who set the rules for respectability. Other women were merely the enforcers for the sexist rules that all women are expected to live by and to judge each other harshly for every slip in dress, speech, and deed.

So soon does one learn the bitter lesson that humanity is never content just to differ from you and let it go at that. Never. They must interfere, actively and grimly, between your thoughts and yourself — with the passionate wish to level up everything and everybody. (p. 174, “Mixing Cocktails”)

Because a woman’s livelihood depended upon male approval and protection, the respectable conformists punished other women in order to more clearly distinguish themselves from the “bad” women. Being mistaken for a “bad” woman can ruin a woman’s future prosperity as surely in a Jean Rhys story as it does in a Jane Austen novel. As her stories show, the penalty for failure to conform was a lifetime of poverty and loneliness, a lifetime of being a “Doormat in a world of Boots.” (“Vienne” p. 214)

This sort of thinking is not so far removed from our own time. We’ve all seen how much the outcome of rape and domestic violence cases hinge on the respectability of the victim. We need look no further than the media-created and media-driven “mommy wars” that pit full–time homemakers against full–time paid employees or the debate about work requirements for public financial assistance for poor single mothers for some modern examples of women being constantly judged and found lacking.

“Respectable” of course is defined in these stories by money, social class, ethnicity, and race.

The neighbors in “Let them Call it Jazz” try to get rid of the black main character, complaining “This is a respectable neighborhood” and “At least the other tarts that crook installed here were white girls.” [emphasis in original] (p.57) Mrs. Sawyer’s ill opinion is dismissed as unimportant because she is not white in “The Day they Burned the Books.” The white female main characters in this collection are considered not quite English and therefore not quite respectable because they were born in the Caribbean even they were born of English parents.

There are exceptions to this dour view of female relationships in this collection, though. In several of the stories, the main character has a female friend whom she cherishes and whose loss she mourns. In “La Grosse Fifi” it is the vulgar, disreputable title character who consoles the protagonist over her dying relationship, not the protagonist’s “respectable” friends who insist she move to a better hotel. Petronella misses her friend Estelle who has moved back to Paris and seems to have been the only compassionate person in Petronella’s life who doesn’t have some ulterior motive in “Til September, Petronella.” In “Outside the Machine,” it is an elderly woman who gives the protagonist some much needed financial help. And in “Let them Call it Jazz” it is a song sung by a sister prisoner that gives the main character back her fighting spirit.

Selina, the protagonist of “Let them Call it Jazz,” is a rare exception of a character who is able to pull herself back up into a semblance of respectability. In general, Ms. Rhys’ characters keep falling.

Every few months there is bound to be a crisis. Every crisis will find you weaker. (p. 183, “Hunger”)

But at the fifth or sixth disappointment you cry more easily.
After the tenth you give it up. You are broken — no nerves left.
And every second-rate fool can have their cheap little triumph over you — judge you with their little middle-class judgment. (p. 218, “Vienne”)

Once down you will never get up. Did anyone — did anybody, I wonder, ever get up … once down? [emphasis in original] (p. 182, “Hunger”)

We can see Ms. Rhys’ continuing influence in such characters as Rachel Watson, the unreliable narrator of The Girl on the Train  by Paula Hawkins, Megan Hipwell from the same novel, and Olivia, the friend without money, in the film Friends with Money.

Some readers may not be able to relate to the circumstances in these stories, but I believe the emotions Ms. Rhys describes, feeling as if one doesn’t fit in, the pressure to conform, feeling lonely, unheard, and misunderstood, are universal and timeless.

Maybe it is because I live in the United States, the land of obligatory optimism, constant personal re-invention, and the deep-seated belief that failure is ultimately impossible that I found these stories not just bracing but refreshing. More than that, I found it comforting to read work by a writer who refuses to reassure readers that everything will work out in the end, who instead admits that sometimes obstacles really are insurmountable and that for some people things really will only get worse. Sometimes stoic resignation is all one has. Or, as Ms. Rhys put it in “Mannequin”:

“It is hard at first, hein? … One asks oneself: Why? For what good? It is all idiot. We are all so. But we go on.” (p. 166)

In my opinion, Ms. Rhys has earned her place in both the literary tradition of women writers and in the Canon of Great Literature by giving voice to a previously unexplored aspect of women’s experience with empathy and eloquence. She has definitely earned her place in my personal canon as well.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

My Summer Plans Go Bust

Dear Common Readers,

My grand Late Summer Reading Plan went bust in August. To be fair, I read The Rover by Aphra Behn and Indiana by George Sand, both of which I enjoyed very much. I even stumbled upon some great Extra Treats and some possible Musical Interludes. It is writing and blogging that fell by the wayside.

First I caught Olympics Fever for a few weeks (Brava, Final Five!). Then this summer’s exceptionally blistering temperatures drained the energy and drive right out of me. So August passed and now September too is nearly at the halfway mark and I haven’t finished a single post. I humbly apologize for my tardiness.

Thankfully, the temperatures finally dropped a few days ago and autumn approaches with a morning chill. It’s a bit strange, but I can’t seem to get away from the rhythm of the academic year. September comes and my energy returns. Forget the renewal of spring. It’s always the brisk breezes and falling leaves of autumn that make me want to bustle around starting new projects.

This week I am participating in Jean Rhys Reading Week (more about this later). I’ve been devouring her short stories and can’t wait to discuss them with you.

Starting next week, I will get back on track with my overdue post on Indiana (it’s nearly finished). Then I will return to my planned unit on Aphra Behn. After writing about The Rover, I will be discussing The Rover Part 2 (a sequel) and some selections of Ms. Behn’s poetry.

That’s all for now. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself again. Thank you for your patience.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Random Thoughts on The Voyage Out (Part Two of Two)

I have struggled with what to say about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, which is perhaps fitting for a novel about Things People Don’t Say. The novel is fairly bursting with ideas and observations. It is nearly impossible to find the right umbrella under which to discuss them all. I can’t seem to come to any comprehensive theories or conclusions about the novel as a whole. Reading other #Woolfalong reviews of The Voyage Out showed me that other reviewers found the novel as difficult to write about as I did. Their efforts convinced me to try again to write about this book.

Rather than attempt to argue some all-encompassing thesis, I will follow the lead of some of the #Woolfalong reviewers and simply (at long last) offer a random sampling of some of the items I most wish to discuss.

 

HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now. If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.

 

Sappho’s Cameo Appearance. One of my absolute favorite passages in The Voyage Out was when Mrs. Flushing caught St. John Hirst reading Swinburne’s translation of Sappho’s poetry during the Anglican service at the hotel chapel. I smiled at the coincidence of meeting Sappho again in a different book so soon after studying her poetry myself. I loved Mrs. Flushing’s reaction when Hirst holds out his book for her:

Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with “the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection and the body, and the life everlastin’. Amen.” (p. 239)

Mrs. Flushing is fortunate they were in church or she might never have escaped being ordered to read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Jane Austen’s Influence. The first hint of Jane Austen’s influence in this novel is Clarissa Dalloway’s copy of Persuasion, which she was reading during her trip and recommended to Rachel.

Then there is Susan Warrington. Susan resembles nothing so much as the precariously placed genteel poor secondary characters in a Jane Austen novel. When she first appeared in the novel, she was traveling as the companion of a wealthy elderly relative and was dependent upon her charity. Arthur’s proposal presented Susan with the prospect of a home of her own. Susan is no Charlotte Lucas, though. Arthur and Susan were genuinely in love with each other. She happily accepted his proposal. Ms. Woolf, however, did not shy away from the fact that Susan’s joy was mixed with a certain relief and a certain gratitude to Arthur for providing an escape from servitude to her petulant aunt.

Mrs. Flushing seemed to me to be a modern, slightly more vulgar version of Mrs. Jennings from Sense and Sensibility. I could also see a strong parallel between Rachel Vinrace and Marianne Dashwood, each so convinced of her superior sensibility to that of everyone around her.

Marriage and the Modern Young Woman. One thing surprised me a bit about this novel. In time when marriage was still practically compulsory for women and in a culture that did and still does present women as eager to the point of desperation for marriage, two of Ms. Woolf’s eligible young women were positively riddled with ambivalence. Only Susan Warrington was entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage. By contrast, both Rachel and Evelyn were nearly paralyzed with ambivalence about marriage.

Within the novel, there is talk about the new opportunities for women that opened up as a result of the war and of the woman suffrage movement. These new opportunities meant that young women like Evelyn and Rachel had more options for what to do with their lives and both characters seemed eager to seize the chance for a larger life. This desire for a larger life also seemed to drive their ambivalence toward marriage, as if they were not quite able to work out how to reconcile marriage with these wider opportunities.

Evelyn’s Response. Here is Evelyn’s reaction to the engagements of both Susan and Rachel in The Voyage Out:

Love was all very well, and those snug domestic houses, with the kitchen below and the nursery above, which were so secluded and self-contained, like little islands in the torrents of the world; but the real things were surely the things that happened, the causes, the wars, the ideals, which happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women, turning so quietly and beautifully towards the men. She looked at them sharply. Of course they were happy and content, but there must be better things than that. Surely one could get nearer to life, one could get more out of life, one could enjoy more and feel more than they would ever do. (p. 332-333)

I believe this passage does double duty for Ms. Woolf. It is obviously an expression of Evelyn’s ambivalence about marriage. In the novel, Evelyn wrestled with how to make a meaningful life for herself and what that would entail and these reflections are certainly part of that. It also is an expression of the arguments often made against Ms. Woolf’s novels and against women’s writing in general: that domestic themes are not important enough to be worthy of great literature. Hewet has served as the voice of Ms. Woolf’s side of the argument and now Evelyn serves as the voice of Ms. Woolf’s critics. I found that interesting, too, the way that Ms. Woolf granted the traditionally female view to a male character and vice versa.

Rachel’s Many Voyages. The Voyage Out is made up of many voyages for Rachel: the sea voyage out to South America, the voyage out to the mountain picnic, the river voyage out to the small village, Rachel’s voyage out into society, and Rachel’s voyage into maturity. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Rachel finally has a major breakthrough in the way she views others. In the beginning, Rachel is convinced that

Reality dwelling in what one saw and felt but did not talk about, one could accept a system in which things went round and round quite satisfactorily to other people, without troubling to think about it, except as something superficially strange. (p. 30)

For most of the novel, Rachel believes she is the only one with any true feeling or grasp of life and that her experiences and perceptions are superior to that of others.

That any one of these people had ever felt what she felt, or ever could feel it, or had even the right to pretend for a single second that they were capable of feeling it, appalled her … (p.306)

But near the end of the novel, she realizes

…Perhaps, then everyone really knew as she knew now where they were going; and things formed themselves into a pattern not only for her, but for them, and in that pattern lay satisfaction and meaning. (p. 326)

Rachel’s Death. Then she inexplicably fell ill and soon died.

I say inexplicably because I cannot figure out why Ms. Woolf made this narrative choice. I have read several other reviews and no one else seems able to make much sense of it either. The most obvious answer is that this was Rachel’s final voyage, the voyage out of life, but that seems insufficient.

Rachel’s illness strongly reminds me of the near-fatal illness of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The difference, of course, is that Marianne Dashwood recovered and dutifully married the worthy (if uninspiring to Marianne) Colonel Brandon. Rachel did not.

My tentative theory is that Rachel’s ambivalence toward marrying Hewet was so profound that she fell ill and died to escape it. There is plenty of evidence in Hewet’s behavior as a fiancé to suggest that the marriage would be confining rather than liberating for Rachel. He was bossing her around, deliberately interrupting her while she was playing piano, criticizing her musical selections, and complaining when her thoughts didn’t revolve around him. Despite his professed feminist views, Hewet started acting like a domineering husband almost immediately after Rachel accepted his proposal. Despite that, Rachel’s ambivalence seemed to be mostly about wanting a larger life than the marriage she was planning with Hewet.

That’s just a possibility, though. I am still not sure exactly why Rachel died at the end of the book or why Ms. Woolf made this choice for the character.

A Glaring Omission. Finally, I’d like to discuss a glaring omission in The Voyage Out. This novel takes place in the fictional city of Santa Marina in an unspecified country in South America, yet the only South American characters are background functional characters (hotel manager and staff, servants, boat crew, etc.) Dr. Rodriguez is the only South American character to figure significantly in the novel.

My point is not to berate Ms. Woolf unfairly. She was writing about a group of mostly English vacationers. She did an excellent job of portraying the attitudes and prejudices of these characters towards the Santa Marina inhabitants in ways which were not always flattering to the English characters. The most obvious example is the way that the English characters immediately distrusted Dr. Rodriguez to the point of speculating that he was just a quack whom the hotel manager passed off as a doctor because they were relatives. Then the English characters instinctively trusted that the French doctor was the real deal as if there were no quacks in Europe. They considered him a superior doctor despite the fact that Rachel’s health continued to deteriorate under his care.

What is missing is any sense of the perspective of the Santa Marina characters. This might be understandable in a different type of novel or from a different type of novelist. Ms. Woolf specialized in taking us into the thoughts, observations, and reflections of even minor characters. So the fact that Ms. Woolf never gave us a single insight into Dr. Rodriguez’s perspective on Rachel’s illness, his situation, or the obvious attitudes of the other characters is a glaring oversight on the writer’s part. The closest we ever get to a Santa Marina citizen’s view is when the river boat crewmen cracked a joke in Spanish about the inappropriate clothing of the English travelers. This was disappointing.

 

Overall I found The Voyage Out to be a fascinating exploration of a variety of ideas. It would be very easy to write a dozen posts of highlights like this and not really scratch the surface of all the approaches one could take to discussing this novel. It is an impressive first novel by a first-rate writer.

 

Postscript. I will skip the biography section due to obvious time constraints but will rejoin #Woolfalong for the September/October stage with discussions of A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, two of my favorite books by Ms. Woolf.

Pleasures and Perils of Imagination

One scorching day in July, Ms. Arachne shot a despairing glance at the open copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House and Other Stories on her navy blue lacquered desk with the now-dull brass fittings. “Late again,” she murmured with a sigh. Ms. Arachne enjoyed Ms. Woolf’s fiction, so why did she find it so difficult to write about it?

Maybe it is because the main character in most of the stories isn’t a character at all, she thought. No, the main character was usually the thoughts, the reveries, the philosophizing, or the flights of fancy in the mind of one or more of the characters. The human characters usually played supporting roles in a plot that had more to do with the trajectory of the character’s train of thought than with any overt external action.

A slight movement in her periphery caught Ms. Arachne’s eye. She looked out the window at the neighbor’s miraculously still-verdant maple tree, the broad leaves barely stirring in a whisper of breeze. The very greenness of the leaves stood in defiance of the sweltering afternoon heat. This put Ms. Arachne in mind of a passage from “Kew Gardens.”

How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. (p.35)

One thing I like about Ms. Woolf’s approach to stream-of-consciousness writing is the way she provides a thread to follow through the rising, eddying, and ebbing tides of the narrative, thought Ms. Arachne. In this case, the thread is the painstaking progress of a snail’s journey through the public garden in which blades of grass, stones, birds, and the human visitors appear as obstacles to its progress. The narrator may be omniscient, thought Ms. Arachne, but the viewpoint is that of the snail. It is as if the snail is eavesdropping on the couples, friends, and family members who impede the snail’s progress when they stop to admire the plants, get lost in their thoughts, and chat briefly before whisking away without even noticing the poor snail and its struggles.

Ms. Arachne stirred from her reverie and started to rifle through her notes. For once her tardiness was a boon. A few days ago, @woolfwriter at Blogging Woolf posted a link to an online article on the Kew Gardens blog about Vanessa Bell’s cover and interior illustrations to the Hogarth Press publications of the story “Kew Gardens” and a new edition of the story illustrated by artist Livi Mills with accompanying photographs of the illustrations. Ms. Arachne made a note to share the link with the other Common Readers.

Feeling restless, Ms. Arachne got up and turned on the stereo to listen to some music. She sat back and closed her eyes. She found herself thinking of “The String Quartet” and how Ms. Woolf perfectly captured the hustle and bustle of distracted social chat and fussing before a concert until the music begins:

…the first violin counts one, two, three —

Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet, drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where — it’s difficult this — conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round — free now, rushing, downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spiral into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane; up and up … (p. 23–24)

And then

…Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose leaf, falling from an enormous height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon, turns, flutters waveringly. It won’t reach us.

“No, no. I noticed nothing. That’s the worst of music—these silly dreams. The second violin was late, you say?” (p.25)

Ms. Arachne smiled to herself. This was exactly how she experienced listening to instrumental music, hearing stories in the music that were probably never intended by the composer. Her friends found it bizarre when she tried to describe it. She had genuinely believed that she was the only one who experienced music this way until she read “The String Quartet.”

This won’t do at all, she thought with a shake of her head. What one wants is to write an assessment of this entire collection, not to drift off into daydreams all afternoon. That may be what one wants, thought Ms. Arachne, but one probably won’t get it here. The best I can offer is my varied impressions of these stories.

“Monday or Tuesday” is the perfect distillation of Ms. Woolf’s project as a writer and for this collection. Throughout the story is the writer’s search for truth amid all the concrete details and hustling activity outside the narrator’s window. “From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate” describes perfectly for me the way reading a book gives way to vivid images. “But truth?” the writer asks or are these descriptions and imaginings merely “content with closeness?” (p. 7)

Which gets us closer to the essential truth of a person, a situation, or a relationship: factual reality or poetic imagination? Virginia Woolf deftly explored the tension between the two as well as the many other pleasures and perils of an active imagination with both humorous and tragic results in the short stories collected in A Haunted House and Other Stories.

Leonard Woolf complied A Haunted House and Other Stories after Virginia Woolf’s death. He put together six of the stories in Monday or Tuesday, seven stories previously published in magazines, and five unpublished and unfinished stories. The common thread connecting them all is the power of the imagination in all its facets from harmless flights of fancy to all-consuming obsessions.

HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read A Haunted House and Other Stories by Virginia Woolf yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now. If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.

The most pleasurable surprise of this collection is the title story, which describes the most unusual haunted house in literary history. This house is no “Amityville Horror” filled with vengeful ghosts determined to drive out intruders. Instead, the house is haunted by the happiness of the love-filled lives of the previous occupants.

Another pleasure of the collection for Ms. Woolf’s fans is Dalloway-spotting. Four of these stories take place at Dalloway parties. While neither character plays a significant role in any of the stories, they do make cameo appearances in three of the stories. Clarissa briefly appears in “The New Dress” and makes introductions in “Together and Apart.” Richard issues an invitation and later introduces guests in “The Man Who Loved His Kind.” In these stories, Ms. Woolf brilliantly captures the awkwardness and anxieties of party guests eager to make a good impression while desperately trying to make conversation with strangers with varying degrees of success.

Among the perils of the imagination is the temptation to entirely retreat from the world around one, a peril that is explored to tragic effect in “Solid Objects” in which a man’s imaginative engagement in the secret life of objects turns into an obsession that alienates him from his friends and destroys his career. “Solid Objects” also serves as a cautionary corollary to stories such as “The Mark on the Wall” or “The Searchlight” or “An Unwritten Novel.”

The best stories all contain a tug-of-war between poetic imagination and factual reality in the search for essential truth.  My favorites tend to be the stories in which poetic imagination appears to win out.

For example, “Moments of Being” explores the power of imaginative empathy to connect people. As Fanny Wilmot searches for a dropped pin, her speculations lead her to see her piano teacher not as a pathetic, impoverished spinster but as an independent woman “obstinately adhering, whatever people might say, in choosing her pleasures for herself. She saw Julia—” (p. 111) The moment ends in a surprising embrace.

And a chance remark about Canterbury sparks a fleeting connection between Miss Anning and Mr. Serle in “Together and Apart.”

Their eyes met; collided rather for each felt behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific. (p. 141)

However, the poetic imagination also has the potential to lead us astray, which Ms. Woolf explores in more than one story in this collection.

“The Mark on the Wall” presents rather harmless flights of fancy and speculation that are abruptly and comically punctured by a quick observation. This puncturing of fantasy (and often of vanity as well) by a bracing dose of factual reality is a recurring theme in the stories. It plays to comic effect in stories such as “An Unwritten Novel” in which the narrator’s attempts to create a novel about a stranger on the train are repeatedly confounded by the actions and interactions of the stranger and other passengers. It plays to a more tragic effect in stories such as “The New Dress” and “The Lady in the Looking Glass.”

Mabel in “The New Dress” learns that what makes someone ridiculous is the precise distance between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Mabel sees her new dress as feminine in a charmingly vintage style until she sees herself in the mirror at Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Seen through the eyes of others, the dress is merely unflattering and hopelessly unfashionable. The dress symbolizes Mabel’s inner struggle over the value of the illusory glamorous life she wishes for and the good but mundane life she actually has.

It is easy to get caught up in the pleasure of the vivid, even exuberant, descriptions but there is also an uneasy sense of cynicism in these stories. At first poetic imagination makes factual reality seem lackluster in comparison, but eventually factual reality becomes literally dis-illusioning in these stories and poetic truth seems merely delusional.

In “The Looking Glass,” a waiting visitor gazes around the room at the exotic objects collected by his rich unmarried hostess and imagines her as a glamorous world traveler receiving letters from many far-flung friends and former lovers. Then, as the hostess comes into the house, the visitor concludes,

Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody. As for her letters, they were all bills. Look, as she stood there, old and angular, veined and lined, with her high nose and her wrinkled neck, she did not even trouble to open them” (p. 93)

The consequences of getting it wrong in “Lappin and Lapinova” reminded me of the epiphany in “The Hand” by Colette. In both stories, a young bride on her honeymoon suddenly suspects that she has made a terrible mistake. An opportune nose twitch allows Rosalind to imagine her new husband Ernest (a name she dislikes) as a hunting rabbit named King Lappin and herself as a magical silver hare named Queen Lapinova. Rosalind believes these characters get at the poetic truth of who they are and Ernest indulges her belief for a time. Finally, though, Ernest cruelly asserts the factual reality of who he is that Rosalind wished to avoid. Ms. Woolf ends the story with a flippant “So that was the end of that marriage.” (p.78)

Perhaps the most ironic and cynical take on this tension is in “The Man Who Loved His Kind” in which a man and a woman thrown together at a Dalloway party make small talk that inadvertently reveals their prejudices and exposes the self-serving motives behind his noble deeds and her ineffectual sympathies, forcing both to realize that they are not exactly the person they imagine themselves to be.

Finally, the poetic imagination is rejected in favor of factual reality in “A Summing Up.”

She looked at the dry, thick Queen Anne House; she did her best to remember what she had read at school about the Isle of Thorney and men in coracles, oysters, and wild duck and mists, but it seemed to her a logical affair of drains and carpenters, and this party —nothing but people in evening dress. (p. 174)

A lingering sense of disillusionment made me struggle with how to write about A Haunted House and Other Stories. That is probably just down to my temperament, though, and others may feel differently. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this worthy collection and heartily recommend it to you, dear Common Readers.

Women’s Classic Literature Event Check-In #3

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Dear Common Readers,

Better late than never is my motto for the Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016! The rest of Classics Club began the event in October 2015 but I was unable to join them until March of this year. I’m so happy that I did because the event has been terrific fun so far.

I have immensely enjoyed the reading, of course, but the best part of WCLE has been joining a community of readers and bloggers. Learning about even more great women writers was to be expected. Discovering new blogs, becoming acquainted with other bloggers, participating in read-alongs (and even co-hosting one with Juliana of the [blank] garden!) are just a few of the other delightful bonuses of participating in WCLE with Classics Club.

Discussing books with other enthusiastic readers is such a joy. Thank you to everyone who reads or subscribes to my blog. A special thank you to everyone who has commented on my blog or replied to my comments on theirs.

 

Progress Report

So far I have read seven literary classics by women — four from my WCLE list, two works by Virginia Woolf for the #Woolfalong (hosted by heavenali), and an essay by H.D. These works are:

  • The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
  • A Haunted House and Other Stories by Virginia Woolf

(links are to my posts about each title)

 

Late Summer Reading

I won’t attach strict dates to any of this as it becomes embarrassing when I later fall so far behind schedule. Nevertheless this is what I plan to read between now and (tentatively) U.S. Labor Day.

  • The Rover by Aphra Behn
  • The Rover, Part 2 by Aphra Behn
  • selected poetry by Aphra Behn
  • Indiana by George Sand
  • Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins

My next round of reading begins with a unit on playwright and poet Aphra Behn. Ms. Behn was the first English woman to earn her living as a professional writer. Originally I planned to read only two of her plays. Then I realized that Ms. Behn and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz were contemporaries and were writing during the same decades. Unfortunately I have been unable to turn up English translations of any of Sor Juana’s plays. Fortunately for me, both Ms. Behn and Sor Juana also wrote poetry. I intend to read Ms. Behn’s poetry with the aim of comparing the poetry of these two very different women.

After months of reading the work of women poets in translation, I just learned that there is a Women in Translation Month event in August hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I’m shuffling my list a little to read Indiana by George Sand, the only remaining foreign language work on my WCLE list, in August.

Then I’ll deviate from my chronological WCLE list once again to read Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins for reasons that will become clear later.

I will write main book posts on each of the aforementioned titles by Ms. Behn, Ms. Sand, and Ms. Hopkins as well as a few Extra Treats and Musical Interludes.

 

Let’s Write Like…Just for Fun

Please join me in attempting to write like Aphra Behn, George Sand, and Pauline Hopkins. I will post my own attempts to emulate each of these writers after discussing their respective works. Sure, these exercises are challenging, sometimes frustrating, but also quite illuminating. And it’s fun! It is my hope that this advance notice will embolden some of you to give it a try.

 

Thank you so much, Classics Club, for giving me an excuse to finally read all these rewarding works by women writers.

What about you, dear Common Readers? Are you enjoying the Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016? What have you been reading? Do tell.

 

Your grateful sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sor Juana Remixes: A Musical Interlude

Dear Common Readers,

Madre, la de los primores is the only known remaining musical composition by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. You can listen to parts of it here. Since then a lot of artists have set Sor Juana’s poetry to music.

Now you have to hear this amazing version of Sor Juana’s Redondilla 92 (Hombres Necios) set to reggaeton music by Nelly and DJ Andrés Rosado!

If you prefer something more traditional, the early music classical ensemble Favola in Musica set Sor Juana’s poems to music by Spanish American Baroque composers of her own historical era. Escuchad Dos Sacrisantes pairs Sor Juana’s poetry with music by composer Manuel de Mesa y Roque Ceruti.

Mexican classical tenor Arturo Escorza Pedraza performs a traditional version of Ah de las mazmorras which features lyrics by Sor Juana set to music by an anonymous Spanish American Baroque composer.

For something more experimental, try these versions of Sor Juana’s poems Détente, sombra de mi bien esquivo and Afuera, afuera ansias miasby the Canadian ensemble Constantinople. They set Sor Juana’s poetry to music that fuses the bass lines of works by Spanish American Baroque composers with their own original melodies and instrumentation. The results are beautiful.

Happy listening!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne