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.



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

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 (but please come back after you’ve read it). 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

WCLE - Copy













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:

(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

Extra Treats: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Maria Luisa Bemberg

Dear Common Readers,

Yo, La Peor de Todas, the 1990 film about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, is available online — with English subtitles! I just watched it and I definitely recommend it for fans of Sor Juana and her writing.

The film is directed and co-written by Maria Luisa Bemberg of Argentina. Ms. Bemberg’s career is also inspiring. She began her screenwriting career at the age of 48. A decade later, Ms. Bemberg directed her first feature film in 1981 at the age of 59. She wrote nine screenplays, directed six film, and won several awards over a period of 24 years before her death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 73. Yo, La Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All) was Argentina’s selection in the Foreign Language Film category for the 1990 Academy Awards.

The screenplay was based on Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith, Octavio Paz’s biography of Sor Juana. I haven’t read the book yet so I cannot comment on the film’s fidelity to the book. What I can say is that Ms. Bemberg made a feminist film that positions Sor Juana as a feminist heroine.

The best part is the liberal use of Sor Juana’s work throughout the film. Viewers get to see a bit of a scene from one of Sor Juana’s plays near the beginning of the film. Characters recite her poems from memory and read them aloud. Lines of her poetry are read in voiceovers as Sor Juana writes onscreen. Sor Juana reads aloud from her challenge to Father António Vieira’s sermon and later reads from her famous Respuesta.

There are several scenes in which characters discuss Sor Juana’s work. Interestingly, one scene has a group of clergymen discussing Sor Juana’s passionate love poetry. Like many readers, the men debate whether Sor Juana was merely following poetic convention or if she was writing about her own feelings of erotic love for another woman. Ms. Bemberg does take a position on the question in her depiction of the relationship between Sor Juana and the Vicereine, but I won’t reveal it here.

Admittedly, the movie has a stage-set look and dialogue-heavy scenes that sometimes make it feel more like a recording of a stage play than a film. That’s not necessarily a drawback, though. In fact, I think it works particularly well for the scenes of political maneuvering between the Viceroy and the Archbishop and the scenes of political intrigue among other clergymen.

Ms. Bemberg uses simple sets to create a strong visual contrast between the stark, shadowy world of male power plays and political intrigue on one hand and the bright, warm, joyful world of female camaraderie and purpose in the convent scenes. Even the scenes with the Vicereine and her family are light and warm. The sole exception is the convent scene in which Sister Ursula conspires with the Archbishop of Mexico in a shadowy underground hallway.

This visual contrast is put to good use later in the film. After Sor Juana is forced to dismantle her library and give away her books and laboratory equipment, the convent scenes become darker and shadowy. And when the nuns fall ill with the plague, the scenes become increasingly stark but never cold. The joy is gone, but the affection remains as the healthy nuns tenderly care for their stricken sisters.

Ms. Bemberg, who lived through the repressive regime of the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and the 1980s, depicts in this film the ripple effect of oppression. In silencing Sor Juana, the Archbishop and the Inquisition extinguished the light and joy of her entire community of women and by extension made the world a colder, darker place. Foolish men indeed.

Check it out and let me know what you think of it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne


P.S.  A simple internet search will turn up not only this film but also recitations of Sor Juana’s poetry in the original Spanish like these videos of Redondilla 92 and “Primero Sueño” (“First Dream”). Enjoy!

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.

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

Nine (and More) Earthly Muses: “Classical Women Poets”

Corinna, Telesilla, Praxilla, Erinna, Moero, Anyte, Nossis, Sappho, Hedyle,  Melinno, Sulpicia, Sulpicia the Satirist, Julia Balbilla, Proba, and Eudocia. These are the poets included in the small anthology Classical Women Poets translated and introduced by Josephine Balmer (Bloodaxe Books, 1996).

Why haven’t I heard of any of these poets (except Sappho) before reading this book? This vexes me. None of these poets except Sappho was ever mentioned when I was in school. In fact, none of my teachers or professors even alluded to their existence. Granted it has been decades since I graduated from university so I can only hope this is no longer the case. That won’t prevent me from complaining about what I missed, though.

It is true that there are few surviving poems from any one of these women poets. As with that of Sappho, these poets’ work survives mostly in fragments. This makes it nearly impossible to accurate assess or to teach their work. I understand this. However, failing to mention that scholars have found at least the names of 27 Ancient Greek and Roman women poets, 16 of whom have extant work, creates another problem. It creates the false impression that there were no female writers except Sappho for centuries. It creates false gaps in the Western literary history of women writers.

Several of these women received literary acclaim that lasted at least as long as that of William Shakespeare in more recent history yet they have vanished from mainstream knowledge. Ms. Balmer’s anthology serves as an introduction to these neglected women poets for general readers.

One of the best things about Classical Women Poets — aside from the poems themselves — is the introduction written by Ms. Balmer. She takes great care to explain at length her strategies for translating these poems and fragments both in the introduction and in the footnotes to the poems. As she states in the introduction,

Here, I have also included a commentary on many of the processes of translating, recording the original’s textual strategies alongside those of my translation, wherever possible, on the basis that if different strategies were being employed the reader should be kept as informed as possible. My purpose was to help monolingual as well as bilingual readers, to give them the experience of comparison, of judgement more normally reserved for the scholar.

(Classical Women Poets, p. 22)

As a monolingual reader of these poems, I greatly appreciate this.

Ms. Balmer makes a controversial decision here, though. In her own words,

Even more subjectively, I strung together stray words or quotations into a single piece, as for example Corinna No. 25 or Telesilla No. 35. Here I was often guided by the framing of the texts; by additional information provided by the classical commentators who preserved them, such as poem titles or mythological explanations. Sometimes this frame became part of the poem itself, as in Corinna No. 28, where alternative versions recorded by a grammarian were incorporated within the translation.

(Classical Women Poets, pgs. 20-21)

To her credit, Ms. Balmer indicates in the footnotes when she has done this. Still I really wish she had not done it at all. It seems like overstepping. I’d rather see the unrelated fragments printed as is than read a poem that in fact never existed.

Another perhaps controversial decision is adding the section of women’s work songs, folk songs, and chants from little girls’ games to the anthology. Conscious that, as Virginia Woolf said, Anonymous was often a woman, Ms. Balmer makes the assumption of female authorship for these anonymous traditional songs and chants and so includes them here. I approve of this.

I truly enjoyed this book. My favorite works tend to be those by the poets for whom longer fragments still exist – fragments from poems created by the poets themselves and not by the translator.

The fragment from Corinna’s poem about the singing contest between the mountains Cithaeron and Helicon, both reputedly sacred to the Muses, is one of my favorites from this anthology. Corinna imagines a ring of pines near the crest of Cithaeron as a prize wreath for winning the contest. Meanwhile, Helicon pouts over his loss by creating a rock slide of “a thousand pebbles” to mock the judges’ way of casting their votes with pebbles. Corinna’s gift for bringing myth to life made me wish that more of her work still existed.

Another poet who creates imaginative, humorous portraits of her subjects is Anyte. She wrote poems and epigraphs on many subjects, but her animal poems were among my favorites, especially No. 59, No. 60, No. 61, and No. 63. I love this line from No. 61, an epitaph for a dog named Loci: “… swiftest of pups — especially to bark …” and these lines from No. 59, an epigram for a picture or relief of a goat:

… — how haughtily
he looks down on us, transfixed by his own shaggy locks…

On a more somber note, the elegies of Erinna for her late friend Baucis are heartbreaking and deeply moving. Erinna brings their childhood games so vividly to life and skillfully describes her sense of hurt betrayal when Baucis drops their friendship to focus on her new husband:

…no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

Meanwhile, Sulpicia’s poems perfectly capture a young woman’s desire for her lover, her disappointment at being taken away on a family vacation to the country for her birthday (No. 86) and her joy when the cancelled trip means she can spend the day with her boyfriend (No. 87). She echoes the influence of Sappho with her humor and her depictions of intense desire.

Another conscious heiress of Sappho is Nossis. She also writes passionate love poetry, celebrates women’s beauty, and praises female deities in her work as does Sappho. In No. 79 she writes of herself, her mother, and her grandmother, much as Sappho writes of her mother, herself, and her daughter in Fragments No. 98a and No. 98b (No. 3 in Classical Women Poets). I really enjoyed the wordplay and alliteration in No. 81 such as

Bruttian shields from brutish shoulders
of soldiers slain by Locri’s heroes…

One striking feature of many of these poems is how often the poets include their names in their poems. It is a way of establishing a poetic persona, of course, but also a way of making escaping anonymity, of making sure that their names stay attached to their work. I especially admire the boldness of Julia Balbilla, perhaps our first female graffiti poet, in writing her poems on public monuments, even though the poems themselves sometimes seem like the equivalent of saying “Hadrian and Sabina (and I) were here.” For ancient women writers even saying “I was here” becomes significant in light of their subsequent neglect.

All in all, this is an enjoyable introduction to these neglected women poets, but for accuracy’s sake it might be best to read another translation of these writers.

In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite poem fragment by Nossis (No. 83):

Stranger, if you should sail to Mytilene, city of fair song,
enticed by Sappho’s fragrant garland, its heady bloom,
say only this: that the land of Locri gave me life,
long-treasured by the Muses and by Her.
One more thing: My name is Nossis.

Extra Treats: Sappho, H.D., and Erica Jong

Dear Common Readers,

Do yourself a favor and read “The Wise Sappho” by poet H.D. This essay begins as a meditation on Meleager of Gadara’s description of his anthology selection of Sappho’s songs as “little, but all roses” but evolves into much more. H.D. explores the impact of Sappho’s work with vivid imagery and a poet’s gift for metaphor. Even if (like me) one has not read H.D.’s poetry yet, one can tell from this essay that H.D. feels a profound connection with Sappho’s songs. This essay is intimidatingly good. It makes one wish to throw away one’s pen and never attempt to write about poetry again.

For example, H.D. writes,

Yet not all roses —not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks — perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.

This is how one should write about Sappho.

For a fictional take on Sappho’s life, I recommend Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong. Ms. Jong puts her own spin on each of the legends and bits of gossip about Sappho’s life. Best of all is Ms. Jong’s take on the infamous legend that Sappho threw herself off a cliff over unrequited love for a younger man. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s that good.

This book is a near-perfect fit between writer and subject matter. Ms. Jong is a natural heiress to Sappho. Sappho’s themes have always been Ms. Jong’s themes, too: romantic love, sexuality, creativity, motherhood. However, Ms. Jong brings to those themes a Baby Boomer’s conflicted anxiety about combining creative work and motherhood that is never apparent in Sappho’s fragments.

I first read this novel during a period in which I had just read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sappho (for the first time). I could tell that Ms. Jong had been reading and absorbing these same works as she wrote. Something in her prose echoed the rhythms of these Ancient Greek works (or at least those of the English translations).

The real treats, though, are the original poems by Ms. Jong in a section called “Talking to Aphrodite” that follows the afterword. Ms. Jong is first and foremost a poet at heart and it shows in these provocative poems. Take these lines from “Sappho: A Footnote” for example:

Sappho burned
& Christians burned
her words.

The poems are written in the voices of Sappho, Aphrodite, and the poet herself. One can hear in them echoes of Sappho, of course, but also of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and even of Ms. Jong’s earlier work. There are many passages I could quote, but I’ll close with my favorite stanza of “Conjuring Her.”

Before I curl
Like incense to the sky
Before I study how to die,
Drizzle the honey
Of my wishes
On my waiting tongue…
teach me how to fly


I hope you enjoy these works as much as I do.

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sappho’s Lyrics, Modern Melodies: A Musical Interlude

While there is no record of Sappho’s melodies, many others have since set her lyrics to music. A simple internet search will turn up many selections. Some have set Sappho’s lyrics to attempted recreations of Ancient Greek music. Others have used more contemporary musical styles. Mark Jickling and Chris Mason have even set their own translations of Sappho’s fragments to tunes inspired by Appalachian folk music.

I found two selections that I particularly enjoyed.

First is a video of Fragment #31 set to music by Eve Beglarian and performed by Andrea Goodman. Ms. Goodman plays the melody on a 7-string lyre and sings the lyrics in Ancient Greek. (There are English subtitles on the screen of the video.) It is simple yet moving. You can see the video here.

Second is Sappho: Nine Fragments for Contralto, which was composed in 1906. The music was written by Sir Granville Bantock with lyrics by Helen Bantock. Brown University posted this video on YouTube of a performance there of this piece on October 30, 2015. The performance features pianist Irina Nuzova and mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane with narration by Jeffrey M. Duban.

Mr. Duban’s narration gives an excellent background to Sappho’s poetry and Bantock’s composition. He also recites several fragments both in English and in Ancient Greek.

Sir Granville Bantock’s music is dramatic, sweeping, moody, and intense as befits his subject.

Helen Bantock often combines several of Sappho’s fragments into each of the nine musical “fragments.” Ms. Bantock grouped Sappho’s fragments by theme in several instances. In one instance, though, Ms. Bantock combined several unrelated fragments to create a story of a failed love affair between “Sappho” and “Atthis.” Nevertheless, the story is very much in Sappho’s spirit. Overall the groupings are wisely chosen and very effective.

The piece is beautifully played and sung by Ms. Nuzova and Ms. Kane respectively. I would really like to hear a live performance of this someday.