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 22 – 26, and next week you’ll get the last five.
TWENTY TWO – Feminist Dystopia: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
As I write this, The Handmaid’s Tale is trending on twitter. Apparently US TV network Hulu are adapting it into a show, for online streaming, and Trump supporters are a mite upset.
In fact, his loyal followers seem to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is some sort of anti-Trump, liberal propaganda, rather than a book that has existed in print for decades to immense critical acclaim. Perhaps you might like to send Trump a copy of Atwood’s great work, yourself?
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
This frightening dystopia is woven through with Atwood’s signature scathing voice and pointy wit, in order to construct a genuinely frightening story that lurks in the back of your mind for a long time.
Telling the story of Offred, a Handmaid in a dystopian Republic called Gilead, Atwood’s most famous novel outlines a gendered dystopia in which women are not permitted to read, can only leave the house once a day to go to food markets, and are systematically raped by the Commander in an effort to ‘fix’ the declining population. Women exist to breed, and to serve- the dissenters are hanged or exiled to a world beyond the outer wall, where they will slowly succumb to radiation poisoning.
It’s the best and worst kind of dystopia because it is genuinely speculative, and horrifying in its potential- what if the gender imbalance in society tipped over even further? The idea that women are permitted no autonomy or identity, and are valued only for their capacity to give birth is not wholly foreign- or at least, not foreign enough. The passivity of the narrator is frustrating and frightening, and viewing this abhorrent situation through such placid eyes is very difficult to do. Yet Atwood’s commitment to the idea is unshakeable, and this is a hard, but important, dystopia to read.
“No empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called “traditional values”, or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.”
TWENTY THREE – Favourite female character: Roald Dahl, Matilda
Trying to find a female character without duplicating has been tricky, so I thought I’d choose the character who was my favourite while growing up. Dahl’s Matilda was so important to me, as a young, socially awkward, introverted bookworm. I wished so much for a friend like Lavender and a teacher who cared as much as Miss Honey. And of course, I wished for telekinetic powers, but I’ll try to keep this reasonable.
Matilda was also famously made into a film in the 90s, which was an instrumental part of my childhood and still part of my adult mind’s frame of reference. It’s also now a spectacularly well-received musical around the globe, thanks to the genius musical-comedy-hybrid brain of Tim Minchin.
Matilda was a really important character because she was reassuring. She went through different types of crises throughout this short book, and dealt with all of them in a calm, measured way that I could only dream of. She was intelligent and bookish, but also loyal and defensive of the people she truly cared about. She fought for opportunities to make her life better, and stood up for herself in all the ways that were available to her. She also maintained a wonderful impish, mischievous sense of humour, even while reading Melville. She was all kinds of things all at once, but never seemed unbelievable or overwritten.
Except for those magic powers.
TWENTY FOUR – Books to make you march: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Carson’s book is now often highlighted to be the springboard for modern environmentalism. Silent Spring was written over four years, and published in 1962; in it, Carson presents her view of nature as it is damaged by pesticides and synthetic chemicals, breaking up food chains, killing wildlife and poisoning water. The next year, in 1963, she testified in front of the Senate about her thoughts.
Specifically, she wrote about DDT- a chemical used during the Second World War by American soldier to kill lice. After the war there was an excess of the product lying around, so it began to be used as as a pesticide. In a move that was always going to be controversial, she compared its use to the of radiation; a slow, seeping poison that cannot be easily detected, but is permanent and damaging. Despite heavy-handed and often personal attacks, chemical companies were unable to ban her book widely enough to stop her message from spreading. Velsicol, for instance, was a New York chemical manufacturer which sold large amounts of DDT- the company threatened to sue Carson, publishers Houghton Mifflin, and The New Yorker.
Personal attacks abounded, from crazy-cat-lady tropes to accusations of communist sympathies, but Carson prevailed. Even in the face of this mass press condemnation, readers began to respect her ideas and her words, and a new public awareness was born. President Kennedy established a committee to investigate pesticides and in 1963, Carson made her appearance in court.
This appearance cements her status, for me, as she didn’t just talk about Silent Spring, she spoke at length about five years’ worth of policy planning she had been working on, in careful detail. Importantly, she did not advocate for a mass ban on chemical use: she pushed for greater control over the quantities used, and the manner of delivery. She argue that aerial spraying affected such a cross-section of nature and wildlife that it was inexcusable- especially when there were easier solutions to be had. She made the case that government agencies should not be permitted to dump chemicals at their discretion onto farmland and natural resources alike; she argued that the public had a right to know which chemicals were being used to pollute the land around them. In doing so, she laid the ground for a grassroots movement,inspiring and empowering activists to protest governmental intrusion into the natural world.
“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
TWENTY FIVE – Women in war: Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist
Okay, in a nutshell? Bourgeois, self-styled revolutionaries rebel against Thatcherism in the 1980s and end up in a spiral of conducting public violence, which is mostly organised by protagonist, Alice, who has sort-of-accidentally turned her home into a headquarters for the radical group.
“Oh, no, I’m not saying she isn’t a nut — she is — but I’ve noticed before that sometimes someone like that behaves quite ordinarily with everybody, manages everything, you’d never think she was a nut, but there’s just one person, with that person, she’s out of control. It makes you wonder.”
Doris Lessing was originally going to be on this list for her book Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which is a reflection on her experiences of mental health treatment and electroconvulsive therapy. I’ve moved her to day 25 instead, because I didn’t just want to write about women who got caught up in war- I wanted to write about the arbiter and overseer. Lessing was a radical left-wing figure of the early-to-mid-twentieth century, loyal to the Left Book Club and a campaigner for feminism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-apartheid and a slew of other amazing causes. Indeed, her activities as a communist and anti-racist campaigner brought her to the attention of MI5 and MI6, who maintained surveillance on her for around twenty years. You can find a redacted copy of her file through the National Archives.
The Good Terrorist is a stormy novel; Lessing was originally inspired by the IRA bombing of Harrods, the enormous London department store, in 1983. Lessing had been a committed member of the British Communist Party until the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; as such she is keenly aware of the self-doubt and willing delusion that many of the more ambivalent members embodied. In the same vein as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, or some of Stephen Spender’s autobiographical works (Forward from Liberalism, for example), she picks out the flaws, and the guilt, and the fear, and the unwilling battle between abject ideology and immediate human sympathy in her characters. Alice, the star of the story, is incredibly conflicted. At her core, she wants to do ‘good’ things, and be a ‘good’ person, but struggles to understand how this can be achieved. The book is littered with Alice’s memories of trying to be a ‘good girl’ for her mother as a child, and sits in painful comparison to Alice’s efforts to organise and push forward her radical group’s activities.
The difficulty of reconciling ideology with context is the obsession of a generation- it sits at the heart of the historiographical story of disillusionment. Lessing’s disillusionment is more holistic, and Alice struggles to find fulfillment in any area of her life. She clings to her ideology as a purpose, or an ersatz personality, while moving from commune to commune in an attempt to connect to like-minded individuals. She keeps moving, because she can never quite reconcile the puritan British Communism with her own beliefs, and struggles to keep positive relationships alive. Indeed, she is permanently unemployed, and depends on her parents for money, but treats them with contempt for her disappointing childhood and her lack of happiness as an adult.
Importantly, Alice struggles to leave. She has poured all of her efforts into getting these good terrorists off the ground, and acquiesces to all kinds of violence and activities that she disagrees with, and is unwilling to abandon it, even when she begins to hate the group. It is difficult to move on from a faith, or a group, or an ideology, or a relationship which is ultimately negative, when it is all that you have. The ex-communists of the time shuffled around from one system of belief to another, moving from campaign to campaign, in order to always be moving.
Lessing was most disappointed by the calibre of the British Communists. She complained bitterly about a “certain kind of political person, a kind of self-styled revolutionary that can only be produced by affluent societies. There’s a great deal of playacting that I don’t think you’d find in extreme left revolutionaries in societies where they have an immediate challenge.” She wanted change, and was willing for war to bring that change, but ultimately shied away from violence and uprisings.
TWENTY SIX – For an excellent woman: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It’s not really a list of books if Pride and Prejudice isn’t in there somewhere. March 26th is Mother’s Day in the UK (hence ‘excellent woman,’) so I’ve gone for a book with one of the best, most apt maternal figures ever. Mrs. Weasley, you’re up there on the list too.
Mrs Bennet is actually a pretty vicious caricature; a nervous middle-aged woman prone to tantrums and desperate to know where the next eligible bachelor is coming from, in order to marry off each of her daughters and secure their futures. She is comedic relief, and a source of confusion and mayhem throughout her daughters’ lives, but it is meant well.
And if there has ever been a more fitting sentiment for Mother’s Day, I haven’t heard it.
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