Writing women and peonies

I recently finished Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers from Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing.


Researched and written in the 1960s and 70s, first published in 1977 and revised and expanded in the 1990s with a new edition 2009 much reprinted since, this study of British women writers has stood the test of time very well. There is much to fascinate a writer today. Perhaps most astonishing is that this study, by an American, was so ground-breaking. As Elaine travelled “…around chilly municipal libraries in England in quest of women writers’ archives, I was often rewarded by becoming the first scholar to read a harrowing journal or open a box of letters.” Studies of women’s writing have abounded since those early days and much of the introduction (written twenty years later) is taken up with the (often negative) reactions by later scholars, pundits and activists to her analysis of this subject.

The book itself is a treasure trove of discoveries, of women who wrote the best-sellers of their day, but have been wiped out of history, of changes of taste, of changes in the roles of women, of transformations (or the lack of them) in the reactions of men. It back-fills the story that seems so often to consist only of Austen, the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf and gives a structure to the history of two centuries of writing.

Elaine’s original title had been The Female Literary Tradition in the English Novel, but Princeton University Press changed this to the current one – not, as so many have assumed, in reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but a quote from John Stuart Mill  in 1869 in The Subjection of Women. He wrote: “If women lived in a different country from men, and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own.”

Although this book started life as an academic treatise it is highly readable and full of insight. It has changed my understanding of the journey so many British women writers have taken. There are also some quotes to make your blood boil and your mouth drop open.

On a completely different subject. It is tree peony time here. Finally the long-watched buds are opening.

White tree peony

White tree peony

Over Easter I saw this Molly-the-Witch in the local Botanical Gardens. Molly is usually a clear yellow, but this is a very delicate cream with peachy markings. Definitely on my want list.

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

There will be more in a later post.

7 thoughts on “Writing women and peonies

  1. A similar study could be made of women composers. Maybe it has been. Fanny Mendelssohn was a talented composer but Felix, though he plainly loved her, was somewhat repressive when it came to her publishing, going so far as to sneak out some of her compoitions under his own name (Songs Without Words).

    Dr Beach hog-tied Amy Beach to quite an extent too, though less in composing than performing. He did not like her to perform, though her ability as a concert pianist was very great. It could be said she blossomed after his death. Of how many wives could this be said?

    As for Cécil Chaminade, it seems to me that some of her piano compositions are very good, but she has fallen out of favour far too much of late, though appreciated at the time. I feel we need to listen to her with fresh ears.

    Both Amy and Cécile married older men, perhaps with an eye on future freedom?

    Then there is Janice Galloway’s book, ‘Clara’. By all accounts Clara was an immensely talented pianist, but those of her compositions I have heard are totally competent but not so inspiring. Reading the Galloway book one thing which does not come out is that when it came to composing she was not in the same league as Robert – which could be said of most male composers too.

    Moving on to women artists . . .

    • ..there is Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race. In all the arts there have been women practitioner’s, not necessarily great ones, but often much appreciated by their contemporaries. The problem is that men wrote the histories and that both men and women routinely held lower expectations of women as artists. Blind auditions for orchestral players produce equally balanced sexes in orchestras, traditional auditions produce male dominated orchestras. Same for academic papers etc. Expectation is half of judgement.

      • A really good point about blind auditions. In this context I often think of Sabine Meyer. She was so good that detractors had to come up with new and ever more risible excuses, such as her tone not blending with the other players.

        On the plus side, all that nonsense led to her career as a successful soloist.

  2. There is no greater subject for division than on the prominence (or lack) of female artists. The ultimate proof is what women artists have achieved and that is just as considerable, timeless, and enduring.
    In the past the defined nurturing role of women was one reason that not as many women as men had the opportunity in art. Today the nurturing and family duties are better shared at least in modern families giving, hopefully, a better and more balanced opportunity to the woman to express and create. However, expressing art and family life are often battle grounds even in a more balanced or harmonious set-up. Making a living from it is just one item whereby the artists often seeks solitary confinement in poverty. ( or a rich benefactor)
    I mean , poor old Vincent never sold a painting, while Patrick White and Somerset Maugham could afford to leisurely write to their hearts content. Woolf wasn’t poverty stricken either.

    • Indeed, the reasons for the low profile of women (and many men) in the arts are multiple. Woolf was privileged in many ways, but since reading Showalter’s book, I have changed my image of her. Her periodic lapses into what was clearly depression were treated by total isolation – no books, music, conversation or activity for weeks or months. She dreaded this treatment and came to fear Leonard (and other relatives) because of his power to impose this.

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