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 15 – 21, and next week you’ll get the next seven, and so on.
FIFTEEN – To open your eyes: Samantha Ellis, How To Be A Heroine; Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much
“I can’t help thinking that a heroine should be able to love without being erased.”
I’ve written before on this blog about that problem many of us have, in being unable to admit that we are wrong. This book was born of one woman’s desire to correct her assumptions and long-held notions, based on an eye-opening conversation with a friend about the comparative merits of Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Jane from Jane Eyre.
It’s a book about books; mostly about female characters and authors, and the pitfalls and routines we fall into when reading them. Ellis runs through her literary back catalogue to re-assess the figures she obsessed over and pined for, to see how her older, more modern, and more overtly feminist mind perceives them. She also tackles the stale plot tropes that dog female characters, questioning the happily-ever-after paradigms and the erasure of feminine identity that seems inevitable in any romance story.
Reading it is like being at a particularly odd book club, where you leave feeling enlightened and self-aware, but that one person hosting it did most of the talking. Ellis’ background allows her to weave in and out of some spectacular literary criticism, but her jaded and contemporary tone stop the book from becoming stuffy. It’s fun to pick up and put down, and it will make you re-evaluate how you quantify ‘good’ literature.
“After three years of English at Cambridge, being force-fed literary theory, I was almost convinced that literature was all coded messages about Marxism and the death of the self. I crawled out of the post-structuralist desert thirsty for heroines I could cry and laugh with. I was jaded.”
SIXTEEN – I’d give to my younger self: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
My younger self needed this book. I needed female authors of science/horror/fiction. I needed a female slant on the Byron group of Romantics. I needed a model of introspection and self-absorption to not live up to, in the form of Frankenstein. And I needed the vegetarian politics of Mary Shelley herself, and of her monster who dreamed of paradise.
I can’t do justice to this wonderful book in this short post, but if you’re interested then I do recommend the ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class‘ podcasts on Mary Shelley’s work. Two different episodes exist: one about the ‘real’ Dr Frankenstein and one about the fateful evening when, on a holiday in Geneva, Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein, Polidori wrote The Vampyre and Byron and Percy Shelley gossiped about scientific experiments and Darwinian thought.
SEVENTEEN – Exploring mental health: Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz
“People are like almanacs, Bonnie – you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”
Given that I’ve already listed Sylvia Plath, Susanna Kaysen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other stalwarts of this area, you might have wondered where I was going to go here. Well, so was I. Except, I’ve been determined to get Zelda Fitzgerald into this list at some point, and I think this is a really good spot.
Depressingly she is still most famous as the wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald, of The Great Gatsby authorial fame, but she was a writer, dancer, artist and prominent societal figure in her own right. Her novel, Save Me the Waltz, was written around the time that her husband was writing Tender is the Night, and she carefully wove in a plethora of details about their life together, their friendship circles, and the often bizarre circumstances she found herself in. Zelda’s own life experience shaped her literary ability profoundly, as her sentences run on and on without ever becoming confused, and she captures with clarity the dizziness and maniacal nature of social life in these 1920s circles.
She also clearly depicts a swinging, high-to-low personality in her hero Alabama. The manic phases contain all the most artistic, out-there prose but the bleaker, down periods are filled with clever, biting awareness of her surroundings and her friends. Her observations about society are thoughtful, and grow even more so as the novel progresses, and Alabama finds herself shaded ever more by her husband’s achievements. Her constant, conscious reinvention of herself after each low period is something that a lot of mental illness sufferers will recognise; she clings to the idea that she can construct her own arbitrary timeline, and shape a future without such enormous swings in mood and stability.
In the end, this novel will always be read with two authors in mind. Zelda Fitzgerald wrote the bulk of it during the six weeks she spent in a sanatorium, away from her husband and sparkling world; it was hewn and cut back by editors, to trim some of the criticism and sharpness, and to reflect more positively on her own marriage. After all, no matter how well her book sold, she could not be permitted to damage the literary reputation of her husband.
“She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic.”
EIGHTEEN – In the sisterhood: Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
“Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
Okay- this is a blog about books, history and political culture, so while I’ve been writing up my Virago lists I’ve had a real tendency to look backwards instead of forwards for ideas. I’m also just somebody who doesn’t buy a lot of books about contemporary political thought. It’s a saturated market, and there’s so much dubious material out there. Solnit’s book of essays, however, still seems fresh and intriguing. She has some background in historical research and she works extensively as a journalist, and I feel that this comes together to give her a real awareness of how to tackle the ever-present issues. She understands the immeasurable lengths of time that gender-related problems have existed, and the immense impact that is generated, and then dismissed on a society-wide scale. You can make up new words like ‘mansplaining,’ but the problem it identifies has existed forever.
Solnit’s book Men Explain Things To Me, is alternately funny and devastating. She flits from an irreverent tone of disbelief and mocking humour, almost bemused by the continued existence of misogyny, to the stark, shocking tone of a journalist so experienced and jaded, that she seems almost to forget how horrifying some of the truths she reveals are. Solnit writes about the problems with masculinity and the continued, dangerous obstacle of rape-culture in such detail and with such an immense quantity of statistical and documentary evidence, that is quite painful to read. There is also a hefty dose of literary thinking, with her essay on Virginia Woolf proving very insightful, and some very modern work about twitter trolls and many of the new kinds of abuse women are expected to endure.
“Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful.”
NINETEEN – My green spines: Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and Culture, 1830 – 1980
Okay, so I had planned this one from the beginning because it’s my best-preserved Virago press book (read: isn’t falling apart), and when I looked at the photo, I realised that it doesn’t have the iconic green spine. Regardless, Showalter’s book sums up a great deal of the Virago ethos, so I’m writing about it anyway.
Women have always greatly outnumbered men in terms of psychiatric treatment and incarceration in asylums and similar institutions; Elaine Showalter provides a vitally important and consciously feminist history of mental illness as a cultural phenomenon, rather than simply a medical issue. She constructs and then analyses three distinct periods: ‘psychiatric Victorianism (1830-1870), psychiatric Darwinism (1870-1920), and psychiatric modernism (1920-1980).” This allows her to understand and compare the different social attitudes towards mental illness; she shines particularly when looking at Victorian pride in asylum construction, and the subsequent disappointment at being unable to cater to individual patients, and at stripping patients of their individual agency, societal power and legislative status.
Her understanding of the implicit gendered politics of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory seems, to a contemporary audience, a bit passé, but when you consider how early this book was written, and the academic crowd that Showalter knew would be receiving it, her analysis is brave, insightful and offers the beginnings of a knew paradigm in the history of psychiatry. Importantly, her work is multi-dimensional, as she strives to consider a breadth of female experiences. Specifically, she looks at the impact of working-class housing conditions and financial stress on incidence of mental illness; surprising nobody, she concludes that there is quite the correlation.
TWENTY – Made me laugh: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem and Other Things that Happened
Does this count? I think this counts. I’m a pretty stone-faced person; I don’t giggle at podcasts on the bus and my sides have never split when reading a book. Except, this is one of the only books that I’ve ever had to put down because I’ve literally laughed too much. It hurt me, and I adore it.
Allie Brosh originally wrote many of these stories and illustrated anecdotes for her blog, of the same name, which you can still find online. She is also writing another book, with new material, which is due out in 2017.
TWENTY ONE – Poetry: Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love Song.
So it turns out that the 21st of March is #WorldPoetryDay. So this is pretty smart scheduling from Virago. I’ve mentioned Sylvia Plath on this blog more than is decent, but here I go again. My favourite poem, from my favourite writer.
The poem was first published in the August 1953 edition of Mademoiselle. In June 1953 Plath worked for Mademoiselle as a Guest Editor in New York City, which was an experience essential in writing The Bell Jar. Indeed, this connection means that Mad Girl’s Love Song is often printed as a kind of epilogue, at the end of some published copies of The Bell Jar.
Did you enjoy this post? If you’d like to see more, or less, of this kind of content then please leave a comment below. If you want to share your own Virago #BooksforChange Challenge, then leave a comment below, or head over to Twitter where Virago are conducting most of the action.