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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

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 though 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

Check-in for Let’s Write Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Just for Fun

Dear Common Readers,

Did you attempt to write like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? Which of her many forms did you choose for your piece — a ballad, décima, epigram, redondilla, silva, sonnet, prologue to a (real or imaginary) play or a spirited response to a real or imaginary open letter? What was the experience like? Did you enjoy it?

I stumbled around with this and gained an even greater appreciation for Sor Juana’s talent and skill. She wrote in her famous Respuesta that writing verses came naturally to her. Alas, it does not for me.

I tried to write a redondilla. The results were woefully bad. I ended up with awkward phrasing, wrenched accents, and clumsy rhymes. Now I understand why Edith Grossman sacrificed rhyme for rhythm in her translations.

Before I share my poem, I must ask you to remember that our purpose here is to learn by doing. For that, we agree to suspend aesthetic judgements about the results. I offer you my redondilla in that spirit.

 

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Please post your piece or a link to your blog post about your attempts to write like Sor Juana in the comments below. I hope to hear from you.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Fawning for Sor Juana

Dear Common Readers,

That’s right, I am fawning like a fan girl over Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Go borrow or buy a copy of her Selected Works at once. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to finally read Sor Juana’s work but I am grateful that I did. I only wish I had known about Sor Juana’s writings when I was in high school.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works translated by Edith Grossman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) is worth the price for the Respuesta alone, but the entire book is a gem. Sor Juana’s poetry is witty, clever, imaginative, and often deeply moving. Her spirited, pointed arguments are thought-provoking and inspiring.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it was that Virginia Woolf did not have access to an English translation of Sor Juana’s writing. Sor Juana’s work embodies so many qualities that Ms. Woolf longed to see from women writers.

Indeed novelist Julia Alvarez compared Sor Juana with Ms. Woolf’s fictional Judith Shakespeare in her introduction to Sor Juana’s Selected Works. This is a fitting comparison since Sor Juana was born just forty years after William Shakespeare’s death. Ms. Woolf imagines Judith Shakespeare, William’s fictional sister, ran away to London but, though a gifted writer, could not find a place in the London theatre. Instead Judith found herself seduced, pregnant, and abandoned. Finally, driven mad by gifts she could not put to use, Judith killed herself in Ms. Woolf’s account. In contrast

…Sor Juana managed to get herself to Mexico City, be invited into the viceroyal court, pursue her studies, and write works celebrated throughout the Spanish–speaking empire, a big part of the world back then…Hers was the astonishing case of a poor, illegitimate, colonial female, to boot, who turned around the meanness of her situation and became the literary star of her time. (p. xi-xii)

Female lineage was as important to Sor Juana as it was to Ms. Woolf. In her defense of her studies, Sor Juana made a list of learned women from the Bible, Ancient Greece and Rome, and the early Christian Church who were revered and respected. This list runs for three pages and Sor Juana referred to even more learned women later in the letter. Contrasting this with Ms. Woolf’s longing for a missing tradition of women writers nearly 300 years later makes me see a new value in education. Highly-educated Sor Juana was completely aware of her place in a long line of educated women thinkers and writers and used that lineage to claim legitimacy for her own studies and writings. Meanwhile Ms. Woolf, who was denied formal higher education, was unaware of the rich history of literary women who proceed her. Both Sor Juana and Ms. Woolf seemed to be aware of the importance of predecessors to show us what is possible. Is this why women were denied education for so many centuries in so many parts of the world — to keep them in a subservient position by denying them knowledge that women have always contributed more to the world than just housework?

Not that Sor Juana would disparage housework. Indeed, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea, Sor Juana states

…but what can we women know but kitchen philosophies? As Lupercio Leonardo so wisely said, one can philosophize very well and prepare supper. And seeing minor details, I say that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more. (p. 185)

(Perhaps 21st-century feminists should use this argument to persuade men to take on an equal share of the housework.)

Like that of Sappho before her, much of Sor Juana’s writings center on women’s culture. Sor Juana painted a vivid picture of the friendships and camaraderie among women in her convent in the Respuesta. Also like Sappho, Sor Juana often wrote about unrequited love for a woman. In both cases it is difficult to know whether this is purely poetic convention or an expression of the poet’s own personal emotions. Either way, the result is witty, beautiful, often moving poetry. I especially liked the wordplay in Décima 102 in which the poet speaks in the voice of a portrait:

She who is my original
has forwarded me to you
and although you see her drawn,
you will never see her withdrawn…

and these moving lines from Sonnet 186:

…know that no one but Laura commands here;
and she, abashed, departed and sped away,
leaving me to die for you, no one but you.

It is evident even in the Selected Works that Sor Juana wrote in many styles and on many subjects. She wrote not just love poetry and religious poems, but poems in honor of births, christenings, deaths, and public figures whom she admired. Sor Juana’s work is witty and often moving. She made clever use of mythological, historical, and religious symbolism and allusions in her work.

It’s important to remember that Sor Juana was probably the first internationally famous Mexican woman writer. Mexican national pride is a recurring theme in her work. In Ballad 24, written for the christening of the vicereine’s son, Sor Juana spoke of the glory and ascendancy Mexico would achieve over Europe when the boy grew up to rule the country. She spoke again of Mexican national pride in the prologue to her allegorical religious play Divine Narcissus in which the characters Occident and America are depicted as Aztecs in ceremonial clothing.

I’m afraid I may have made Sor Juana’s work sound stuffy. It is not. She was witty and amusing as well as learned and impassioned. Check out her epigrams. She wrote of a drunken braggart that his royal ancestor “more than the king of swords / must have been the king of cups.” (Epigram 94, p. 39-40) When a hypocrite insulted her over her illegitimate birth, she fired back that her mother didn’t give her as many fathers to choose from as his mother did. (Epigram 95, p. 40)

Sor Juana was also the first published feminist writer in the New World. Women’s education and male double standards are important themes in her poetry and prose. Ballad 2 wrestles with the idea that too much knowledge without understanding is a bad thing for men and women. Redondilla 92 takes on the male sexual double standard for women:

Who carries the greater guilt
in a passion gone astray:
the woman, beseeched, who falls,
or the man who begged her to yield?

or which one merits more blame
although both deserve our censure:
the woman who sins for pay
or the man who pays to sin?

The poet concludes by advising men to “Love them for what you make them / or make them what you can love.” (p. 33-36)

Her feminism found its fullest expression, though, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Answer to Sister Philotea). It is not difficult to see why Sor Juana’s Respuesta got her in trouble with the Catholic Church officials of her day. She wrote this letter in 1691 when the Inquisition was still active. Indeed, Sor Juana mentioned it a few times in her letter. An awareness of the presence of an Inquisitor in Mexico City was clearly in her mind when she stated that she avoided writing on theological subjects to avoid accidentally committing heresy.

This seems to have been the intent of the Bishop of Puebla (Don Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz) when he initiated the correspondence. Sor Juana wrote the initial challenge of Father António Vieira’s sermon at the bishop’s request. He then published it without her permission or even her knowledge. Then, posing as a nun named Sor Filotea, the bishop wrote a letter to Sor Juana to chastise her for her presumption as a woman in writing it and to admonish her to confine her writing and studying to religious subjects.

Sor Juana’s reply is brilliant. She began with flattery and an apology but even within the apology, she turned it around on Sor Filotea, offering as proof of her religious studies and writing the very critique that Sor Filotea found so objectionable. She went further in her defense by pointing out she wrote it at the request of someone else. She drew upon her religious beliefs to support her right to study all subjects, further proving that she has indeed devoted herself to studying sacred as well as secular texts. She also argued that it was her duty to God to use the talents and gifts which had been bestowed upon her. Next she argued that one must study all fields of secular knowledge in order to properly understand the Bible and gave examples of allusions to mathematics, music, and architecture in the Bible. Further she argued that women should be educated so that they can teach their daughters and thereby avoid any overfamiliarity between male tutors and their young female students. She also gave examples of Church approval of learned women in the past.

What probably angered the bishop and other Catholic Church officials were passages like this:

…it is obvious that this does not apply to all women but only to those whom God has favored with special virtue and prudence, who are mature and erudite and have the necessary talent and requisites for so sacred an occupation. And this is true not only for women, who are considered to be so incompetent, but for men as well, who for the simple fact of being men think they are wise… (p. 189)

Then there are the passages in which she put her finger on what was really bothering the bishop: the worldly acclaim that her poetry received in both Spain and Mexico.

In truth, señora, at times I begin to think that the one who excels — or is made to excel by God, Who alone can effect this —is received as a common enemy, because it seems to some that this person usurps the applause they deserve or blocks the admiration to which they aspire, and so this person is persecuted.

That politically barbarous law of Athens, by which whoever excelled in gifts and virtues was exiled from the republic to keep him from tyrannizing public liberty with those gifts, still endures and is still observed in our day, although the motive of the Athenians no longer exists; but there is another one, no less effective although not as well founded, for it seems a maxim of the impious Machiavelli, and that is to despise the one who excels because that person discredits others. This occurs, and has always occurred. (p. 174)

How I wish I had read this letter when I was a bookish honor-roll student. It might have made high school easier to bear.

I enjoyed this translation very much. Edith Grossman explained in her introductory notes that she prefers to sacrifice rhyme to preserve the rhythm and meaning of the original poems. Still, I found myself wishing that she had found a way to make the rhyme schemes work. Any student of sonnets knows that they are supposed to rhyme and I definitely felt that the poems lacked a little something without the rhymes. This is just a quibble, though, as the poems are entirely enjoyable in this English translation. Ms. Grossman also took great care to use her footnotes to explain any puns and wordplay that are dependent on the original Spanish wording to make sense. I only wish I could read Spanish fluently so that I could read Sor Juana’s complete works. For now I hope that someone will translate Sor Juana’s complete works into English.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has at long last taken her rightful place in my own personal canon, but she deserves more. Sor Juana’s writings belong not only in the literary tradition of women writers but in The Canon of Great Literature as well.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

The Voyage Out and Woolf’s Future Works (Part One)

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 (but please come back after you’ve read it). If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.

 

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf is a virtual parade of books. The characters are recommending, lending, borrowing, writing, and reading — or not reading — books. (This is not surprising coming from a great reader like Ms. Woolf particularly since this was her first novel. Notice the same focus on books and reading in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s first novel.) So I will use books to order my rambling thoughts on The Voyage Out.

The thing that struck me most about The Voyage Out was that the seeds of several of Ms. Woolf’s future works are present here in her first novel.

 

Three Guineas

When Hewet ridicules men’s professions and “…offices and a title and lots of letters after his name and bits of ribbon and degrees” (p. 217), it reminds me that later Ms. Woolf — at greater length and for a greater purpose — advised women to avoid those very trappings (the uniforms, medals, plaques, and awards of military and professional men) in Three Guineas.

 

A Room of One’s Own

Terence Hewet, with his seven hundred a year and an ambition to write fiction, inescapably brings to mind A Room of One’s Own. Though male, Hewet is otherwise an obvious precursor to Mary Carmichael, the fictional embodiment of Ms. Woolf’s notion of what women require in order to write fiction.

In her first novel, Ms. Woolf chose Hewet to express many of the theories about women and their place in society that she later explores in greater depth in A Room of One’s Own. Hewet’s remark that women see men “…as three times as big as we are or they’d never obey us” (p. 216) later becomes the famous

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (A Room of One’s One, p. 35)

Hewet’s version depicts women as foolish and subservient and therefore incapable of achieving equality with men even if given the appropriate opportunities (pgs. 216–217). I think this is a matter of characterization rather than Ms. Woolf’s own opinion. Years later when Ms. Woolf explores the notion in her book-length essay, she attributes this reflection to a male demand, observing that, like her fictional professor, many men become outraged when a women fails to reflect back to a man an idealized image of his imagined superiority (A Room of One’s Own, pgs. 34–36).

As an essayist and novelist, Ms. Woolf was interested in rectifying the absence of women’s accounts of their own experiences written in their own voices in fiction, history, and the Western literary tradition. In a fitting dramatization of her point, Ms. Woolf shows Hewet lecturing a silent Rachel about how for ages men have written about and discussed women but that there are few such accounts written by women themselves. He goes on to explain his interest in reading accounts by women about how women experience the world (p. 221–222). To be fair, though, Hewet did use the earlier lecture to draw Rachel out about her own life and those of her aunts. When Rachel worried aloud that it was boring, Hewet assured her that he was interested that that this was exactly the kind of thing he wanted to write about in his novels. But then in a later conversation, Hewet not only repeatedly interrupts Rachel while she’s playing piano to expound on his theories about women, he flatly contradicts Rachel’s account of her early feelings about him and insists — over her vocal objections — that she felt differently (p.301–306). In a way, most of the conversational conflicts between Rachel and Hewet can be seen as a metaphorical dramatization of the difficulties women often faced in asserting the validity of their own views and experiences.

 

Mrs. Dalloway

Hewet serves as a mouthpiece for Ms. Woolf’s entire endeavor as a fiction writer when he explains that he wishes to write about the daily lives of ordinary people and “Silence or The Things People Don’t Say.” Ms. Woolf did exactly that in her novels, which brings me to the first appearances of Clarissa and Richard Dalloway who later become the main characters of Mrs. Dalloway.

I first read Mrs. Dalloway years ago at university. I was surprised to see Clarissa and Richard Dalloway appear as minor characters in The Voyage Out. It makes me want to re-read Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa is depicted as a frivolous, pretentious society woman here, but I think she seemed more sympathetic in Mrs. Dalloway. Richard, however, is the same pompous stuffed shirt here as he was in the later novel. I don’t remember Richard seeming as creepy in Mrs. Dalloway as he did when he was sexually pursuing Rachel in The Voyage Out, though.

 

It’s clear from this first novel that Ms. Woolf was already thinking about the characters, style, and themes that would bear fruit decades later in three of her major works: Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas. Because I read the major works first, reading The Voyage Out gave me an unexpected glimpse at the first glimmers of Ms. Woolf’s most important themes and ideas. That was just one of the novel’s many pleasant surprises for me.

A Tale of Two Voyages

Sorry for the delay. I’ll post my first piece on The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf later today once I finish proofreading it. Books are my guide on my first voyage through the novel. This first post is long and yet I still didn’t get to some important issues in the novel so I am writing a second post about it.

My second post is a voyage through Things People Don’t Say in the novel. This post also serves as a transition to our discussion of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works.

Thank you for your patience.

Coming Attractions

Dear Common Readers,

Life has been a bit pressing lately and I’ve fallen behind on my writing.  Here’s what I have planned for the days and weeks ahead:

 

Writing

  • A stream-of-consciousness post about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. A long-overdue post for the March/April section of heavenali’s #Woolfalong.
  • A post about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works translated by Edith Grossman. I’m halfway through the book!
  • A post on women writers as cautionary tales. This was inspired by Julia Alvarez’s introduction to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works.
  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Read-Along Check-In post (June 3)
  • Check-in post for “Let’s Write Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” I may write two check-in posts: a poem and a Respuesta. (June 6)
  • A post on silence and women’s writing. This was also inspired by one of Julia Alvarez’s remarks in her introduction to the Selected Works but it will require a bit of further reading.
  • A belated Extra Treat post related to Sappho. I stumbled onto this book after I finished writing about Sappho’s poetry.
  • An Extra Treat post related to Sor Juana’s work.

 

Reading

  • The Rover by Aphra Behn for the Women’s Classic Literature Event. She is a Restoration playwright whose works have been on my To Read list for far too long. Aphra Behn was the first English woman to earn a living as a writer.
  • A Haunted House and Other Stories by Virginia Woolf for the May/June section of heavenali’s #Woolfalong. I have until the end of June to read and write about the stories so I’m hopeful that I can hit the deadline this time.

 

Whew! That’s more than enough to keep me busy for a while. What do you plan to read and write about in the next few weeks?

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Read-Along

Dear Common Readers,

You are enthusiastically invited to join Juliana of the [blank] garden and me in a read-along of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works. We are reading the 2014 translation by Edith Grossman, but feel free to read another translation if you prefer. Our target date for reading and reviewing Sor Juana’s Selected Works is May 31, 2016.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico on November 12, 1651. At sixteen, she entered the convent so that she could continue her studies without interruption. She wrote and published poetry in many forms, dramas, comedies, and scholarly works.

In 1690 “Sor Filotea” published without her permission a letter written by Sor Juana criticizing the well-known sermon of Jesuit priest. Sor Filotea further admonished Sor Juana to concentrate on religious studies rather than on secular subjects. In response, Sor Juana wrote “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (“Answer to Sister Philotea”), a letter in which she defended the right of women to education.  “Sor Filotea” was actually the Bishop of Puebla and the letter was something of a set-up. Sor Juana’s response — and her growing fame — caused a great deal of controversy and landed her in trouble with the Archbishop of Mexico among others. They demanded that Sor Juana give up her secular studies and writings.

In 1695 she died of the plague at the age of 44. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is believed to be the first published feminist writer in the New World.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works includes many of her poems, the prologue to one of her plays, Sor Filotea’s letter and Sor Juana’s response. I’ve wanted to read more of Sor Juana’s work since I first encountered a few of her poems at university. I’m really looking forward to reading and discussing her Selected Works.

I hope you’ll join us, dear Common Readers!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne