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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.”

November 19, 2009

On Longing: Bugs and the Victorians

After reading this review in the LRB, I am dying to read Bugs and the Victorians. My own interest in literary entomology (because believe it or not, I’ve got one!) arose via Virginia Woolf, who wrote about bugs a lot, and also wrote a wonderful fictionalized biographical sketch of Eleanor Ormerod in The First Common Reader. Ormerod was Britain’s foremost entomologist during the late 19th century, which was a very important kind of scientist to be at that time, and that she was a woman is only one of the many remarkable things about her. She’s mentioned in the LRB review, along with various surprising ways the study of insects influenced Victorian society.

Anyway, the book also happens to be $55, so I don’t imagine I’ll be reading it anytime soon.

January 21, 2009

A terrifying prospect

Tonight, after I do five thousand other things, I will begin to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and I must admit to finding said prospect a little bit terrifying. Woolf is pretty intimidating at the best of times, and the premise of this book makes me particularly uneasy in its oddness. I’ve been assured by many, however, that Orlando is readable, accessible, and upon reading the Woolf’s preface, I’ve detected an ounce of humour. We shall see how this proceeds, but I’m crossing my digits that all goes well.

October 6, 2006

The Creation

I suppose my interest in scientific literature had something to do with my husband’s B.Sc., but I mark the start of its development with the story “Miss Ormerod” by Virginia Woolf, from The Common Reader Vol. 1.. “Miss Ormerod” was 19th Century British entomologist Eleanor Ormerod and Woolf’s fictionalized biography demonstrated to me how well a passion for science translates into good literature. Fortuitously, I was signed up for a course called “Literature and the Environment” the next term, and I went on to read such works as Walden, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Servants of the Map, and last summer I read The Selfish Gene and Silent Spring. Last night I finished reading The Creation* by Edward O Wilson and it’s my favourite piece of SciLit yet.

The Creation is written as a letter to Southern Baptist Preacher, pleading not for common ground, but for a common cause: The Stewardship of Creation. The situation is dire, Wilson admits in gorgeous prose, but it is not too late, and he goes on to state his case in chapters including “Ascending to Nature”, “Exploration of a Little-Known Planet”, “How to Learn Biology and How to Teach it”, “How to Raise a Naturalist” and finally, “An Alliance for Life”.

Like Ormerod, Wilson is an entomologist and magnifies the amazing world of insects, this “microwilderness”. All living ants (there may be 10 thousand trillion) weigh as much as the Earth’s population of human beings. That there are more bacteria cells in our bodies than our own cells, and by some perspectives we could be seen as solely their vessals. He writes, “Each species is a small universe in itself, from its genetic code to its anatomy, behaviour, life cycle, and environmental role, and a self-perpetuating system created during an almost unimaginably complicated evolutionary history. Each species merits careers of scientific study and celebration by historians and poets. Nothing of that kind could be said for each proton or hydrogen atom. That, in a nutshell Pastor, is the compelling moral argument from science for saving Creation”. (123)

*Wilson is listed as “E Wilson” on the amazon listing, which means he is not linked to his myriad other works, which appear as authored by “Edward O Wilson”

UPDATE- Science Top Tens at Guardian Books.

October 19, 2005


It may have become clear that I since I’ve started my masters, I have become obsessed with Virginia Woolf. This shows no sign of letting up and I keeping peppering every day conversation with, “Well, Virginia says…”. Because she said everything. She also wrote a wonderful essay in a collection called “Lives of the Obscure” in her First Common Reader called “Miss Ormerod”. I read it the other day, and really enjoyed it- a very sprightly, creative take on character-driven historical fiction. It reminded me of my new friend Lindsay’s “Sky- A Three Letter Prayer” novel-in-verse about Amerlia Earhart, and of what drove me to write my Mitford poem, and a poem I am currently writing based upon a woman in Margaret MacMillan’s “Women of the Raj.” Anyway, “Miss Ormerod” is a wonderful essay and Eleanor Ormerod is begging for an updated biography. You can learn about her here or thru Woolf’s bio. She was an foremost entomologist in Britain during the late 19th century, a lecturer who introduced entomology as a study, the first woman fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and the first woman to receive an Hon. LLB from the University of Edinburgh. In other Woolf news. I read her Craftsmanshipessay yesterday, and it was fascinating look at the power of words and the challenge of writing.

On Tristram Shandy and a new film. That book has been mentioned around me near daily for the past month or so, and I guess I should read it. (Virginia would agree). Zoe Williams talks art. Russell Smith on the arts. Maud Newton on marginalia.

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