Anomalous Austen

Wednesday October 13, 2010 @ 04:25 PM (UTC)

If you’re in Portland this Fall and have an interest in literary history or Jane Austen, I recommend stopping by this exhibit upstairs at Central Library, “Lit Chicks: Verbal and Visual Satire in the Age of Jane Austen”. (There’s a reception Thursday, October 28, 4:30–6 p.m — sadly, I will be out of town at a convention.)

My friend Kelley and I stopped by here the other day for a quick peek, and I definitely want to go back. This is part of the description the library gives:

This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary “novels” written by Austen’s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women’s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.

This immediately reminded me of Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which I read last year. In Chapter 8, “Anomalousness”, Russ writes that one of the various ways in which women’s writing is dismissed and winnowed from the literary canon is by rendering it “anomalous” or singular. Single works by remarkable authors are isolated — I daresay many people with BAs in English don’t know that Charlotte Brontë wrote not one novel, but four and a half. But more importantly, perhaps, and more pervasively, those authors who cannot be forgotten or expunged are themselves rendered singular: the long line of female writers that emboldened an Austen or a Brontë to pick up her pen, and moreover to seek publication, are removed.

Russ quotes Claudia Van Gerven’s paper on “Lost Literary Traditions” (which, in a painful irony, I cannot find):

…the inclusion of only the most extraordinary women [but not only the most extraordinary men]…distorts the relevance of those few women…who remain. Since women are so often thus isolated in anthologies…they seem odd, unconventional, and therefore, a little trivial…
(bracketed note in Russ)

and further:

Since women writers are thus isolated, they often do not fit into the literary historian’s “coherent view of the total literary culture.”…As each succeeding generation of women…is excluded from the literary record, the connections between women…writers become more and more obscure, which in turn simply justifies the exclusion of more and more women on the grounds that they are anomalous—they just don’t fit in.

I remember my undergraduate class on British Writers, which I believe covered up to 1800, and I can’t recall a single work by a woman that I read in it. I was pleased to fill in gaps in my literary knowledge: I read works, like Paradise Lost and Faustus, and even Rape of the Lock, which are often referred to or quoted elsewhere. Most of these gave me little reading pleasure. Most of them (sorry, Marlowe fans — and yes, I know the text we have is mangled) did not seem to my subjective eye “great”. And yet they are assigned, recognized, mulled over: canonized.

Just as Van Gerven says, the male writer appears to us in a family tree. The female writer does not — and as a result there are richnesses and allusions made by the few “remarkable” women in canon that the averagely educated reader will not spot. The goddesses of our recorded literature, emerging “like Athena from the head of Jove” as Russ says (I would have gone with Zeus), are without mothers, without sisters.

So let’s see that quote from the library again:

This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary “novels” written by Austen’s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women’s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.

You can’t read the copy of Camilla on display, nor indeed Lover’s Vows, but there’s something thrilling about seeing so much context, so much evidence (not to mention the voyeuristic thrill of reading these authors’ letters and judging their penmanship). And who knows, maybe a few of the visitors, some of the more Austen-mad perhaps, will track down one of Frances Burney‘s books, or Maria Edgeworth’s. Maybe the enduring appeal of Athena can drag her handmaidens and midwives out into the light.

Comments

The accusations of anomalousness go on. I remember about 10 years ago reading an essay about Connie Willis — I’m not going to remember who wrote it but it was an SF contemporary of about Connie’s age — which said, basically: “Connie’s writing is great, but it doesn’t really matter very much because she doesn’t influence anyone.”

I kid you not.

I’m searching for something more substantive to say in reply than “Arrgh” or “my head hurts”.

I’ll say this: This makes me wish I’d paid attention to how many neopros (if not pros) I have heard list Willis as an inspiration. I am pretty sure of one, but I think I’ve heard at least four. Of course, if they’re mostly women then they’re likely blinvisible to anyone capable of making the first assertion. And thus the cycle continues.

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