The Awakening and This Side of Paradise

I’ve been trying to get caught-up on my reading for my Classics Club book list that I started almost 5 years ago. This also involves blogging about the books I’m reading in the hope that we can spread our love for classic literature all over the internet. Interestingly, the last two books I read have some similar themes and it made sense to group them together. Which is good, since book reviews aren’t the main focus of this blog.

This Side Of Paradise

This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitsgerald’s debut novel (published in 1920). Its publication famously helped Fitzgerald gain Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage because he was convinced he could win her back if he became a published novelist. It must have worked, since they married just 8 days after the novel’s first printing. The initial print run of 3,000 copies sold out in three days. Read more

Lust, Murder, and Deception from Shakespeare to Today

I know this blog isn’t really about literature and reading, but I just finished two Shakespeare plays that I can’t resist writing about. I hope some of you will find this an interesting digression from our usual topics of Christianity, Myers-Briggs, and personal growth. And if not, don’t worry — I’ll get back to my more usual type of posts this weekend.

Four and a half years ago, I committed to reading 50 Classics in 5 years. You’d think someone who read 74 books just last year wouldn’t have any trouble doing that, but I let other books distract me too much and I have some catching-up to do before August 18 arrives. Today’s article is about two of the four Shakespeare plays on my classics club list (click here to read my thoughts on the other two).

These last two plays are The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice and Measure for Measure. On the surface they’re very different stories, but I was surprised to find they touch on the same core themes. Lust, murder, and deception lie at the center of both plays, and these topics are handled in a way that puts me in mind of things happening today in our modern society.

Read more

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Strong Female Characters

I’m fascinated by female characters who find ways to live life on their own terms within their culture’s ideas of femininity. Many of my favorite “strong female characters” from Classic literature (like those in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Francess Burney, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s books ) already have a sense of their own worth and, while they may push against certain confining ideas on appropriate female behavior, they don’t hate their own femininity or attack other women for being feminine. When they fight for their rights, they do it as women who are inherently equal to men — not as women trying to be men.

My two latest books for The Classics Club list are both written by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South is a re-read for me and Cranford was a new one. I decided to blog about these two books together so I wouldn’t be devoting quite so many articles here to book reviews. I’d expected them to have enough similar themes that this would be easy to do (similar to blogging about Cooper’s sea tales together). But I was pleasantly (if somewhat inconveniently) surprised to find out that the two books are very different. Gaskell is a much more versatile writer than I’d been giving her credit for in my mind.

Characters Who Need Each Other

The contrast is immediately apparent. North and South (1855) opens with a wedding while Cranford (1853) opens with the line, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Men are extremely rare and viewed with much suspicion in Cranford, but in the world of North and South most of the action is driven by or centers around men. One might say Cranford is defined by the absence of men and North and South by the actions of men.

That wouldn’t quite be fair to the women of these books, though. Both stories are filled with what I would call strong female characters. They don’t punch things, shoot stuff, or walk around talking about how empowered they are while wearing sexy clothes. But I would submit to you they’re actually better-written and even “stronger” than the female characters who run around modern films insisting they don’t need anyone’s help. Gaskell’s characters model a connected community of both men and women who are stronger together. Read more

Not Ashamed of Modesty

Feminism constantly tells women we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies, our desires, our gender, our career goals – of anything really. We can do and be whatever we want and nothing should hold us back. It sounds good in theory, but like many things humans do it can be taken to extremes.

Take the Women’s March from a few weeks ago as an example. If you want to march around with what one blogger I follow delicately called a pink taco on your head I won’t stop you. But those of us who don’t do things like that aren’t any less “women” than you are, nor are we less interested in being treated with dignity, respect, and equality. In fact, that’s a big reason we express our notions of feminism (and femininity) in different ways.

click to read article, "Not Ashamed of Modesty" | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: “Day 68” by Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA via Flickr

Today, I’m going to take society’s claim that there’s no need to feel shame about the kind of woman you are to heart and say I’m not ashamed of modesty. Depending on your background this word may have provoked a strong reaction. Perhaps you think modesty is a repressive, old-fashioned list of rules telling women how not to dress and act. Or maybe you think modesty sounds safe – a way to hide from attention you don’t want any more. But modestly is about so much more than a set of rules for covering yourself up. It’s more powerful and – dare I say it? – sexy than we often think.

Let’s start with a working definition of modesty: Modesty is concealing what you do not want everyone to know or see so that you can reveal yourself only to someone you trust. It’s typically associated with the idea of sex and how much skin you show, but it has to do with other things as well. For example, you might also exercise modesty by not calling undue attention to yourself or by reserving certain parts of your personality for people you know well. Read more

Wanting Children While Single

You snuggle babies every chance you get, longing for the day when you might hold your own child. Or perhaps you don’t hold babies any more because the ache of wishing they were yours is just too much. That’s the kind of grief and longing we associate with women in relationships who want to have a child and can’t get pregnant. Yet this desire isn’t confined to women with a man in their lives whom they love.

I’ve always felt guilty for how much I sympathize with the barren women of the Bible. As far as I know, I could have children if I found the right guy to marry and it seems rude to compare myself with women who are physically unable to have children. It also seems out-of-order to long for children before meeting the man I’d want to be their father.

click to read article, "Wanting Children While Single" | marissabaker.wordpress.com
image credit: Jordan Whitt via StockSnap

I’m not alone, though. A woman I met through this blog while working on The INFJ Handbook shared her desire for children by asking why so many children are born into broken families while we, who would make good moms, are left barren. Since then, I’ve come across other women who feel the same way. If you’re committed to not having sex before marriage and/or not having children without a man in your life, then single women can know the pain of empty arms that long to hold a child.

Cultural Back-lash

Longing for children is unpopular in today’s society. We’ve become so obsessed with the fact that women are more than “baby producing machines” that the notion of being a mother has becomes synonymous with female oppression. Instead of seeing motherhood as a beautiful thing that many women desire, we’re told kids should take a back-seat to your career, your other desires, and your empowerment as a woman. And if having kids is actually one of your top life goals? well, clearly you’re still living in the pre-feminism dark ages. Read more

Female Difficulties

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comMy title for this post is the subtitle for Frances Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer. It was one of the first books I put down when compiling my Classics Club Book List, and I’m reading it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event. Finishing this book means I’ve now read all Burney’s major fiction works (that is a grand total of 3,133 pages of text, so it’s a pretty big deal). I am Reader, hear me roar.

Note: spoilers follow for this 202 year old book.

The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties is the tale of a penniless emigree from revolutionary France trying to earn her living in England while guarding her own secrets. Combining the best elements of the gothic and historical novels, this newly appreciated work is an extraordinary piece of Romantic fiction. Burney’s tough comedy offers a satiric view of complacent middle-class insularity that echoes Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s attacks on the English social structure. The problems of the new feminism and of the old anti-feminism are explored in the relationship between the heroine and her English patroness and rival, the Wollstonecraftian Elinor Joddrel, and the racism inherent within both the French and British empires is exposed when the emigree disguises herself as a black woman. (Goodreads summary)

This is probably the Burney novel that I found most frustrating. Evelina, her first novel, is the easiest to read, though it still engages with the darker side of 18th century romance. Her next two, Cecelia and Camilla, are more difficult (especially if you’re expecting an Austen-style romance). The heroines are persecuted relentlessly, in grave danger several times, and the heroes fail to live up to the name.  The Wanderer takes these themes a step further. Instead of giving her characters ineffective guardians, Burney doesn’t leave the Wanderer, who goes by the name “Ellis” for much of the book, anyone to turn to at all. Instead of revealing the plight of a young woman having difficulty navigating the marriage market, Burney shows the struggles of a woman completely alone without name or resources to protect and support her.

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe Wanderer is a scathing rebuke of society on many different levels. Burney takes full advantage of her lengthy text to discuss the French Revolution, snobbery in the upper classes, gender inequalities, racial stereotypes, modern suspicion of an afterlife, suicide, social perceptions and stereotypes, abusive/coercive relationships, and duty to family (just to name the ones that come to mind within a minute). The amount of ground she covers is really quite impressive. Even more impressive is that she manages to show both sides of most issues. Sometimes you can easily tell where Burney stands, but not always. For several of the ideas discussed, it seems she just wants readers to open their eyes and see that things aren’t always black and white.

What frustrated me when reading The Wanderer wasn’t the issues being discussed or even so much the drawn-out plot line. It was Ellis’ character. The narrative stays with Ellis but maintains a distance that makes it very difficult to sympathize or identify with her. For the better part of the book, we don’t know any more than the other characters about who she is and what her motivations are. We rarely even know what she’s thinking. What’s worse, we seldom hear her say anything. There are a few scenes where Ellis speaks clearly and decisively, but mostly she stands mute. She is silent while other characters misconstrue her motivations, put words into her mouth, accuse her unjustly, and even propose romantic connections. A few words pass her lips, but mostly she stands in acute emotional agony hoping the other characters will understand her inarticulate protests. Even Mr. Harleigh, the heroic figure in this story, becomes so frustrated by this that there are times he is almost violent in his insistence that she give him a straight answer.

Silencing the main character frustrated me, but it also draws attention to the difficulties Burney is discussing. It might be tempting to read the subtitle “Female Difficulties” simply as a critique of the challenges women faced in 18th century society. We could say that it is the other characters who make life difficult for Ellis because society is set-up to be suspicious of a woman alone and to limit her options. But it goes even deeper than that. The type of femininity ingrained the naturally elegant and lady-like Ellis make her situation even more difficult. She is one of her own worst enemies because of her limiting view of her own role as a woman. It’s not seemly for a lady to perform in public, so she refuses to give a concert until she’s shamed into it by a need to pay her debts. It’s not ladylike to accept pecuniary aid from a man, so she becomes entangled in a host of embarrassing situations trying to return gifts that were made anonymously to spare her delicacy. It’s a shame for a woman to run away from her husband, so she conceals the fact that she was forced into a marriage that’s barely recognizable under the law even when it means leading on another man who’s falling in love with her.

Like today, 18th Century culture was struggling with ideas surrounding gender definitions, roles, and expectations. Burney recognized that the problems regarding inequalities between men and women weren’t just external, but also ingrained in prevailing ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity. I argued when writing my undergrad thesis about her other novels that Burney countered the gender crisis of her day by advocating for a return to Biblical gender ideals where men and women are recognized as having unique strengths and roles yet also viewed as equally important. In this book, published 18 years after Camilla, there’s little evidence of that hope. Burney seems more cynical about society’s ability to change and points out problems without offering a way to fix things. It’s up to us, the readers, to try and find a solution or to live with the consequences of inaction.wanderer

Click here to get a copy of The Wanderer. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

Save