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December 12, 2009

A masterful essay by Rachel Cusk on women's writing

Rachel Cusk’s “Shakespeare’s Daughters” is a masterful essay on women, women writers and women’s writing. I’ve just read it and feel blown away by the craft of it, how she has articulated a muddle of thoughts that have been clouding my head for years. I urge you to read it in its entirety, and I’ve also copied some excerpts below:

“The future, of course, never comes: it is merely a projection from the present of the present’s frustrations. In the 80 years since Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, aspects of female experience have been elaborated on with commendable candour, as often as not by male writers. A book about war is still judged more important than a book about “the feelings of women”. Most significantly, when a woman writes a book about war she is lauded: she has eschewed the vast unlit chamber and the serpentine caves; there is the sense that she has made proper use of her room and her money, her new rights of property. The woman writer who confines herself to her female “reality” is by the same token often criticised. She appears to have squandered her room, her money. It is as though she has been swindled, or swindled herself; she is the victim of her own exploitation….

It may be, then, that the room of one’s own does not have quite the straightforward relationship to female creativity that Woolf imagined. She, after all, had by dint of circumstance always had a room and money of her own, and perhaps being the eternal conditions of her own writing they seemed to her indispensable. Yet she admits that the two female writers she unequivocally admired – Jane Austen and Emily Brontë – wrote in shared domestic space. The room, or the lack of it, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with writing at all. It could be said that every woman should have a room of her own. But it may equally be the case that a room of her own enables the woman writer to shed her links with femininity and commit herself to the reiteration of “masculine values”. The room itself may be the embodiment of those values, a conception of “property” that is at base unrelated to female nature….

Some of the most passionate writing in The Second Sex concerns the ways in which women seek to protect their privileges and property under patriarchy by condemning or ridiculing the honesty of other women. This remains true today: woman continues to act as an “instrument of mystification” precisely where she fears and denies her own dependence. For the woman writer this is a scarifying prospect. She can find herself disowned in the very act of invoking the deepest roots of shared experience. Having taken the trouble to write honestly, she can find herself being read dishonestly. And in my own experience as a writer, it is in the places where honesty is most required – because it is here that compromise and false consciousness and “mystification” continue to endanger the integrity of a woman’s life – that it is most vehemently rejected. I am talking, of course, about the book of repetition, about fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life. The sheer intolerance, in 2009, for these subjects is the unarguable proof that woman is on the verge of surrendering important aspects of her modern identity.”

2 thoughts on “A masterful essay by Rachel Cusk on women's writing”

  1. sam lamb says:

    ouch. the essay sounds like an excellent read.

    the final thought in your selection reminded me of the novel, "the homemaker" by dorothy canfield. i was absolutely shaken by this book and the subjects are wholeheartedly domesticity, motherhood and family life. it was written in 1924 and yet has such a progressive take on these subjects. it brought me to tears and i still think of it often.

  2. Kerry says:

    And now I have to read The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield. It never ends, these book recommendsations!! (And thank goodness).

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