If you missed part one of this challenge, you can find it here
Virago is a British publishing company, founded in 1973, with the intention of giving voice and publishing presence to female authors. Since then, the mission statement has expanded to include authors and reprinted works with a broader positive intention; LGBTQ texts; books written by non-binary authors; works which reflect a diversity of neurological conditions and mental illnesses; and lots more. You can find Virago online here, where they have a fascinating timeline of their own history.
Virago recently released their #BooksForChange initiative on twitter, to get people talking and sharing ideas and recommendations for books that changed their lives. Today I’m writing up numbers 8 – 14, and next week you’ll get the next seven, and so on.
EIGHT – The book that changed my life: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Okay, I really wanted to give you a super meaningful, spiritual novel or a self-help book or something more along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love, but I couldn’t think of one. When I think about books, I think that they are all transformative powers. The messages and words and little individual ticks in each book you read worm their way into your brain and become a part of the fabric therein. All books change your life, in little ways.
This book changed my mentality in a big way. Since being a child, and until a scant few years ago, I had a real problem with admitting I was wrong. It became farcical, as I consistently refused to back down in arguments and spats, even when I could see that I didn’t have a leg to stand on. I read Hannah Arendt’s work at a time in my life when I was forming my own political opinions, instead of relying on those handed down to me as a child, and consciously trying to challenge myself on why I was so afraid of being ‘wrong.’Arendt’s work
Arendt’s work The Origins of Totalitarianism came to mean something very important to me; she compared Soviet communism to Nazism, and explained that there were incredible similarities in their tyranny and their autocratic nature. She stood, a lighthouse of insight among the left-wing scholars of the world in a time of disillusionment, disappointment and fear, and proclaimed that we had been wrong. Those who had supported the fledgeling regime after the Russian Revolution had got it wrong, and the USSR had spun into something it never should have become. She didn’t bury her head in the sand, she didn’t qualify and quantify and try to explain the problems away; she wrote an important book about a new, frightening form of twentieth-century politics, and she told us all that we were wrong. And then she kept writing, giving voice to the assumptions and vague notions we all hold but could not put into words, like the ‘banality of evil,’ and she received criticism and little credit for her efforts.
If you’d like to learn more about Hannah Arendt, and how the phrase ‘banality of evil’ is a real favourite among the political-academic community right now, the BBC’s In Our Time broadcast did a special episode on her work. You can find it here.
Additionally, a new edition of her work is being released at the end of this month (30 March 2017) by Penguin, with a wonderful new cover. You can see it here.
NINE – In her words: Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot of authors who experienced the mental health care ‘system,’ and wrote about it first or second hand. I’ve particularly been focused on finding female authors, and while Susanna Kaysen’s work falls out of my chosen time period, it was an incredible book to read.
This is probably more famous as a film now, because it starred the incredibly talented actors Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. You get a lot of GIF sets on Tumblr, and around social media in general, because it is startlingly well-written and full of clever phrases and insights.
Kaysen tells her own story, of the poor diagnosis by a fresh, uncaring and distant doctor, or misplaced treatments and drugs, and of the years she spent in infamous psychiatric institution McLean Hospital- the same place Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles were patients. It picks out some major themes and styles of the late sixties, switching rapidly from one portrait to another as Kaysen attempts to capture a glance of the other patients and of herself, at different points in her stay. It’s vicious and honest and reveals so much about societal attitudes towards mental health and neurological difference. Her story may be set in 1967, but it has never not been relevant since.
“Emptiness and boredom: what an understatement. What I felt was complete desolation. Desolation, despair, and depression. Isn’t there some other way to look at this? After all, angst of these dimensions is a luxury item. You need to be well fed, clothed, and housed to have time for this much self-pity.”
TEN – Stories of friendship: Mary McCarthy, The Group
I found Mary McCarthy when I was researching the writers of Partisan Review. In a male-dominated industry, she stood out immediately and her clever understanding of the gendered politics of writing and left-wing politics at the time have always stuck with me. McCarthy edited the theatre critique section of Partisan Review, and was frequently discouraged from writing theoretical political articles, despite a reputation for fierce and critical knowledge and capability. This was happening at the same time as the rise of ‘smart women,’ who were seen as witty but generally ineffectual, writing for Vanity Fair and similar publications.
McCarthy’s novel The Group dismantles the whole dichotomy. She writes clearly and smartly about the complicated everyday lives of women in a way that reveals the politics and emotions bubbling below the Vanity Fair veneer. The Group is the best kind of story, because it pulls no punches, covering the problems of workplace sexism, child-rearing, financial difficulties, family crises, and sexual relationships with clarity. More than anything, I feel that it’s a story about the multitude of sacrifices that women make for the sake of their families, their friends or for the image we are supposed to send out; sacrifices that become routinised and invisible.
The Group dramatises the stories often dismissed or ignored, and prioritises female stories in a way that is rare in modern media. Indeed, its closest parallel is usually claimed to be Sex in the City, which writer Candace Bushnell states is “the modern-day version of The Group.” I think McCarthy’s original work is crying out for an adaptation; the last film was in 1966, and there was a BBC radio adaptation in 2001.
“If [she] had come to prefer the company of odd ducks, it was possibly because they had no conception of oddity, or rather, they thought you were odd if you weren’t.”
ELEVEN – Nasty Women: Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
A now viral insult from the technically-president-of-the-USA, Donald Trump, which rallied a crowd of women who claimed the phrase our own, and use it as evidence of our defiance.
Photo credit: Jonathan Eyler-Werve. CC License 2.0. No changes were made to the photo, and the photographer does not endorse this blog.
Lindy West’s work is spread across the internet; she writes for the Guardian and contributes to Thie American Life. Her book Shrill is a genuinely piercing cry for equality and fairness, all wrapped up in a personal memoir. It’s so incredibly modern in tone and subject, as West uses her comedic skills to navigate lightly between twitter trolls, rape threats, fat identity, and on-the-street harassment.
If you read her blog or keep up with her other work, then this will likely be very familiar. It’s a few hundred pages of similar content, but definitely well worth including on any Nasty Women Book Club lists.
“As a woman, my body is scrutinised, policed, and treated as a public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and – the one thing Hollywood movies and Internet trolls most agree on – my ability to be loved. So the subtext, when a thin person asks a fat person, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ is, ‘You must be some sort of alien because if I looked like you, I would definitely throw myself into the sea.”
TWELVE – Must read classics: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
It’s feminism 101, even if it was written in a time when feminism wasn’t really a political ideology of its own. Wollstonecraft’s work covers so many bases that it isn’t so much the block at the bottom of the pyramid, as the core to one of those many-sided dice. Or something. It’s a tour de force of political writing, and it upset so many people in the process of publication.
Wollstonecraft’s work lays out the basic principles for emancipation; in attacking the myths of ‘femininity,’ and the inherent docile, gentle inferiority of women, she is able to plot a path for equality of education for children, an end to day-to-day discrimination based on gender, and a route for women to become defined by their personhood and profession, rather than by their partner. It may seem a limited demand to modern audiences, but to be honest, the clarity with which she demands parity of education and equal opportunities for work are not exactly unfamiliar.
It’s revolutionary, but it’s definitely a product of its time; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman relies on arguments based on both Enlightenment Reason and Christian faith, which could deter modern readers, but the core message is of a unifying desire for fairness- the core of most systems of leftist political and religious beliefs.
“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
THIRTEEN – Ladies of letters: Emily Dickinson, Letters
I do warn you, you nearly got a published collection of the letters between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. I tried a bit harder, though, and remembered that Emily Dickinson’s letters were published a while ago in lovely, low-cost edition, by the Everyman’s Library.
I’ve talked a lot about Emily Dickinson on this blog. I love her poetry, and her quiet, obsessive mind. I love the reclusiveness that she wouldn’t apologise for, I love her endless clever wordplay, and I love that she like to wander about foggy moors dressed all in white, scaring visitors. She was weird and talented and wonderful.
Here is my favourite of her letters:
DEAR FRIEND,–Are these more orderly? I thank you for the truth.
I had no monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.
I think you called me “wayward.” Will you help me improve?
I suppose the pride that stops the breath, in the core of woods, is not of ourself.
You say I confess the little mistake, and omit the large. Because I can see orthography; but the ignorance out of sight is my preceptor’s charge.
Of “shunning men and women,” they talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog. He and I don’t object to them, if they’ll exist their side. I think Carl would please you. He is dumb, and brave. I think you would like the chestnut tree I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly, and I thought the skies were in blossom.
Then there’s a noiseless noise in the orchard that I let persons hear.
You told me in one letter you could not come to see me “now,” and I made no answer; not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far.
I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me.
You say, “Beyond your knowledge.” You would not jest with me, because I believe you; but, preceptor, you cannot mean it?
All men say “What” to me, but I thought it a fashion.
When much in the woods, as a little girl, I was told that the snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or goblins kidnap me; but I went along and met no one but angels, who were far shyer of me than I could be of them, so I have n’t that confidence in fraud which many exercise.
I shall observe your precept, though I don’t understand, always.
I marked a line in one verse, because I met it after I made it, and never consciously touch a paint mixed by another person.
I did not let go it, because it is mine. Have you the portrait of Mrs. Browning?
Persons sent me three. If you had none, will you have mine?
FOURTEEN – Women who changed music: Ethel Smyth, Memoirs
“Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to “The March of the Women” from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.”
Dame Ethel Smyth has been enjoying a recent resurgence, as her music is understand by a more open audience. She wrote a great deal of incredibly important, popular music, but has garnered a place on this list for being the compositional brains behind ‘The March of the Women,’ which became the marching song of the WSPU (Suffragettes).
In 1912, when Emmeline Pankhurst called on sufragettes to break the windows of politicans who opposed votes for women, she was one of 109 WSPU members to respond. She was interred in Holloway prison for two months. When her friend Thomas Beecham visited, he found her standing in front of the other 100-or-so detainees, conducting them as a choir with her prison-issued tooth brush:
“…marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.”
She had been passionately in love with the married WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and had numerous relationships with women across her life. She famously complained about double-standards for women in music, berating the fact that she was alternately criticised for being too feminine, and thus not worthy of male audiences’ attentions, and for being too masculine, and thus lacking delicate, feminine charm.
‘The March of the Women’ was first performed in public in January 1911, by the Suffrage Choir, in London. A ceremony was held on Pall Mall to celebrate the release of a number of suffrage activists from prison. Emmeline Pankhurst declared that the song would become the WSPU’s official anthem, thus replacing the ‘Women’s Marseillaise.’ The song was sung at rallies, but also by activists in prison, as an act of defiance that would not mitigate violent reaction from their captors.
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