Household Help

Between The Known World, Wench, and Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, I have spent many, many hours of 2010 imagining slavery and servitude. Let me be very clear in saying that I in no way conflate one with the other. The idea of humans owning other humans is shudderingly abhorrent.

Nonetheless, and among many other things in their books, Alison Light, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Edward P. Jones all ask us to focus our imaginations on a small, domestic interior with two women, a master and a servant or slave, and the intense, fraught power relations contained within the smallest gestures. These scenes—in which a slave in The Known World backs up against the wall as she listens to an older woman lecture her newly widowed daughter on the folly of freeing her slaves, in which an infertile mistress fawns over her husband’s children by a slave while the mother must look on stoically—helped me better understand a much more benign but also beloved pair of scenes in Mrs. Dalloway in which Lucy, the beloved maid, and Clarissa, bicker in gestures—that’s the best way I can think to describe it, for no words are exchanged:

And Lucy, coming into the drawing-room with her tray held out, put the giant candlesticks on the mantelpiece, the silver casket in the middle, turned the crystal dolphin  towards  the  clock.

and then, many pages later...

"And how," she said, turning the crystal dolphin to stand straight, "how did you enjoy the play last night? "

Now, the scenes I referenced from Jones and Perkins-Valdez are grand in their significance; this one is in more of a minor key. Even so, through that crystal dolphin—a little gift to Vanessa, whose nickname was Dolphin—signifies the rigidity of the power dynamic between servant and mistress. Lucy likes working for Clarissa and she swells with pride at the thought of how much Clarissa’s guests will enjoy the party. Turning the crystal dolphin is an act of creativity or rebellion, perhaps, but when Clarissa turns it back straight, it’s not a conversation: it’s a power play. The mistress wins.

It’s really Alison Light who reminded me of this detail, for she found a fragment in the Monk's House Papers in Sussex which document Woolf’s own observation of the phenomenon:

“But in Bloomsbury the servants were not victims or drudges, and Woolf noted that even her char moved an ornament on the mantelpiece at Monk’s House to leave it ‘askew’ each day, a symptomatic act which, Woolf imagined, showed the desire for ornament and her thirst for art (it might equally have been an assertion of independence” (151)

I will only add that we hire a woman to come clean—every other week—and one of the first things I do when she leaves is to adjust all the ornaments that she has moved while dusting. I mean no insult in observing that she has a particularly rigid sense of symmetry. My aesthetic is, like Lucy’s, more askew.

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I told my mom to read The Known World, though I hadn’t read it. My mom had been bugging me to read it and I did. Somewhere in the middle of reading it, I read Tayari’s post about Wench and I knew that it was the next book for my mom and me.

Once again, my mom read it first and loved it. Now I’ve read it, too—and already leant it out to a friend.

Wench is based on a real resort in 1850s Xenia, Ohio where slave masters would take their slave mistresses on vacation. The three-part book focuses on Lizzie, one of four women who come together each summer to share stories and struggles. This is a serious novel but also a pleasurable one—it won’t break your heart and pull out your guts the way some other books about slavery do. Instead, it pulls you in to the incredible friendship among women, the way women need to learn to be true to each other and not depend on men.

What Perkins-Valdez does so amazingly is to offer up the story of all the confusing emotions of a young slave, Lizzie, who becomes her master’s mistress as a teen-ager. What is it she feels for him? Can you call it love when your lover owns you? When, on the last day of your “vacation” he ties you to the porch and leaves you a bowl of water like you’re a dog? Of course, it’s not anything we would want to call love, but it makes you think hard—very hard—about human attachments and marriage. Lizzie’s situation is an extreme version of what marriage was for many women for centuries: total economic dependence, lack of property (of course, a slave was property), utter lack of legal stature, utter lack of rights over one’s own body or to one’s children. If that is your situation and you’re still a human, mightn’t you soften a bit? Find some loyalty or affection for an owner who is attached to you? Find some ways to love and mother your children, to figure out—desperately, anxiously—ways to get your lover-owner to promise to free them?

I’m not surprised that this book is getting a lot of buzz (it's in its fourth printing already, last I heard!): it’s a wonderful story about the power of women, of a mother’s love, of friendship. You can read more about it here and here. And, if you're in New York, you can hear her read--and support Girls Write Now while you're at it--on February 26th.

Alison Light on voice

The thing that makes—or breaks—a book for me is voice. If its resonant, distinctive, authentic, I am eager to read on. But voice is so hard to describe. It certainly seems tricky to discuss it as a scholar with any kind of theoretical rigor, so I was really delighted by this passage in Mrs. Woolf and the Servants in which Light describes the impossibility of characterizing voice and then goes on to beautifully, carefully, characterize a speaking voice. Here, Light is describing the experience of listening to a series of BBC recordings of the recollections of servants:  
“No matter how patient the transcriber, a voice cannot be written down. Inevitably its flavour and richness is lost…On the page, Happy’s memories of her past read a little flatly…The taped interview, however, is a different story. Happy laughs throughout, a rich, throaty laugh, which often overcomes her, and stops her from talking….Mrs. Sturgeon also laughs every time she mentions a terrible experience. Her laughter ironizes much of what she recalls: ‘oh it was the the most marvelous door!’ she says, tongue in cheek, when she remembers the almost sacred ritual of cleaning the oak front door and the brass door knocker” (298)

Alison Light, at last

Many years ago, I was at a conference in Oxford, feeling quite pleased with myself. My paper had gone well, I had made friends, I had spoken at Oxford! At the end of the day, I sat down next to a new acquaintance to await the last plenary talk. “Have you read Forever England?” My seatmate asked. I had not, but I was full of that anxious mix of adrenaline, confidence, and fear, so, to my regret I said “I heard it’s not very good.”

Alison Light was seated directly behind me, not seven inches back.

I was so ashamed that I think it deterred me from reading not only Forever England but also her more recent book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants which I have finally finished, to my delight.

I think, in retrospect, I know, what—beyond callow youth and idiocy—made me dismiss the first book: Light is a more of an historian than a theorist and it would have been fashionable for me to look askance at a book chronicling forgotten conservative women writers between the wars. Ironically, this is the very kind of book that will be useful to me in upcoming projects.

I’ll write about Mrs. Woolf and The Servants in a future post, but before I do, I wanted to offer a little apology to the world for having been such a dope in front of the writer.

Birds, Birds, Birds

Olivia Gentile’s Life List is the book I gave this Christmas. My mom and my mother-in-law both got copies. I loved this book. I think about it all the time. I am a little amazed to find that it’s not a bigger phenomenon than it is.

Life List, the biography of legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger was one of my favorite reads of fall 2009, but I had to special order it from Three Lives where they hadn’t heard of it. Though stumping the geniuses at Three Lives brings me a small swell of pride, I was baffled. How could you not want to read a book about a 50s housewife who turned a terminal cancer diagnosis into the inspiration to pursue her hobby of birdwatching with ever greater seriousness? 

And how not love the irony of her so far outliving her diagnosis that she eventually had the longest life list of anyone on Earth. Last year, when a friend sent me the information with a link to her friend’s (very fun, beautiful) website with tons of lovely drawings by Rebecca Layton, I was excited and filed the book away in memory. I happened to catch Leonard Lopate’s interview with Gentile on WNYC and my interest only grew.

Snetsinger’s story is a super-interesting manifestation of the Betty Friedan problem: she had always wanted to be a scientist but lacked the courage to defy social expectations; she married, had four children, and grew increasingly depressed and distanced from her marriage and life. The difference for her—the escape—was the combination of a terminal diagnosis and the financial security that came from having a successful husband and a small legacy from her father, advertising legend (Marlboro Man, Jolly Green Giant) Leo Burnett.

Gentile’s book is well written, mostly journalistic, but with a kind and humane voice and a strong feminist subtext—especially helpful in asking us to piece together and imagine some of Snetsinger’s choices and a real page-turner. In addition to being a really rich footnote on the plight of the dissatisfied housewife, Life List is also full of amazing story after story about exotic, dangerous, and uncomfortable birdwatching expeditions. I love the preface, in which Gentile goes on a bird walk as a disinterested beginner and the leader says “Who knows? You may be the next Phoebe Snetsinger!” That confident enthusiasm and the unusual name combine to make the germ of this wonderful book.

Nina Paley’s Sita!

Taking my mom’s advice and giving myself a day to enjoy some time to myself last Friday, I went to see Nina Paley’s animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues” on the strength of A. O. Scott’s enthusiastic review in the Times. (There's an earlier positive review here.)

It’s such a treat. Just look at the art!

The movie parallels Nina Paley’s own failed marriage, precipitated by her (now ex-) husband’s move to India for a job, with the miserable and humiliating plight of Sita, the wife of Ram, as detailed in the Ramayana.

There is so much to love here: the art is exuberant and funny and the improbable (and slightly wacky) parallel works because it’s not forced, because it’s treated with wry feminist humor, and because the varied drawing styles and vivid, smart writing (especially the chorus of three Indonesian shadow puppets who appear from time to time to bicker over their imperfect memories of the story of Sita) keeps it lively.

We mostly follow poor Sita, who follows Ram into exile in a dangerous forest where she is kidnapped. When Ram finally rescues her, he forces her to undergo a purity test (by fire), which she passes. Still doubting, he exiles the pregnant Sita a second time. She raises his children in the forest, teaching them to love Ram. These episodes of the epic humiliation of a faithful wife are intercut by the minor key and excruciating scenes of a drably drawn Nina being scolded by Dave when she arrives in India. Her exuberant hug and kiss is met with a cold: “Don’t kiss me in public! This is India!”

I have dated that guy. It stinks.

I didn’t know till afterwards that the film's distribution had been held up because, in using 20s recordings of blues singer Annette Hanshaw (whose songs are a highlight, coming out of a Betty-Boop style Sita’s mouth), she ended up owing about $50,000 in rights to others. (Don't get me started on how unfair copyright is to artists and scholars!) All the copyright nightmares—now resolved—are detailed here. They mean, happily for you, that you can watch Sita for free online! Or buy the DVD. Do it. There are so few great films by women and Nina Paley did EVERY BIT of this by herself. It's amazing.

It’s a great movie!

Girls Write Now

If you read litblogs, you’ll have heard of Girls Write Now. Lauren Cerand is the Board Chair. Tayari Jones and Maud Newton are on the board. So am I. Truly, it is humbling and thrilling to be in the company of such inspiring women. But it’s the girls who inspire us all.

If you don’t know about Girls Write Now—this brilliant non-profit that pairs NYC high school girls with women writers—or if you haven’t yet given them a little Christmas/Hanukah/Eid/year-end donation, now is the moment for this amazing little non-profit is trying to raise $50,000 this holiday season, to keep their programs running and to expand them to serve more girls in need.

You can click right here and make an express donation through the Network for good.

At Girls Write Now's Holiday Soiree last month, I spent a festive evening with many of you at the Center for Fiction, where we each reached out to friends and family, writing letters for the Annual Holiday Appeal. I took this time because I believe, to my core, that helping girls write will change the world. Those letters have elicited a warm response, and to date we've raised $18,706. I wrote 34 letters that night to friends (and won the prize for the most letters written!); so far those letters have brought $625 to Girls Write Now. Every little bit counts.

Girls Write Now is on the rise. You may have heard that on November 4, Brooklyn high school senior Tina Gao joined founder and executive director Maya Nussbaum in accepting the 2009 Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, distinguishing Girls Write Now as one of the top 15 after-school arts and humanities-based programs in the country.

I came to my first Girls Write Now event to hear Tayari Jones and Janice Erlbaum read from their work; I stayed--and went on to join the Advisory Board--for the girls. As a Virginia Woolf Scholar, I guessed that other Woolfians and feminists might respond to the power of the mission, too, so last spring I made Girls Write Now the beneficiary of our silent auction. So moved were the 200+ attendees that we were able to raise more than $2,000.

When people hear about Girls Write Now, they give to Girls Write Now. It's as simple as that. Won't you please consider giving and help me spread the word?

A. A. Milne, women, and moving through modernity

I’m working on a little something on Woolf and taxicabs—an outgrowth of the Woolf and the City conference--and so have been thinking about women moving through the modern city: all the dangers and possibilities of walking, bus-riding, and taxis that the modern city suddenly opened up for women. Think about it: for centuries, moving through the city, for a respectable woman of the working, middle or upper middle class was severely circumscribed: to and from work, to and from the market, chaperoned or subject to being accosted when alone.

This led me, through a circuitous route (with, clearly, a detour to my children) to a favorite poem from my childhood, A. A. Milne’s “Disobedience”:
James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,Though he was only three.
I remember finding this poem deeply upsetting and moving as a child. Once you ask yourself what kind of mother would want to leave her child, it’s not a very far leap to imagine the heretofore unthinkable: my mommy might want to leave me for an afternoon. It’s not just that she’s a bad mother, careless about babysitters and urban danger, but that she has desires that are not about caring for her children. The poem seems to lift a veil from adult life.

And then, there is that strange notion that James “Took great | Care of his Mother, | Though he was only three.” I was very aware that I needed caring for as a young child and I see that same awareness in my children now: they remind me (as if I needed reminding) constantly of what they can and cannot do on their own, what they need help with. Assertions of “I do it myself” are followed, in mere seconds by “Can you help me, mommy?” Surely, then, I thought, this poem must be one of my first encounters with literary irony.

So, I thought, how would I explain the puzzle of the poem to my daughters? Defining “irony” is, clearly, the least promising route, so the idea must be approached through questions: can a three-year-old take care of his mother? Isn’t it really the other way around?

Or is it? (I give you my thoughts as they came to me, as Woolf says.) The first stanza continues:
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother", he said, said he;
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
This is a masterfully ironic patriarchal poem: a little ditty about a (bad) woman chafing under the demands of home and childcare and paying the price with her disappearance. I'm not fully sure where Milne's sympathies lie, but he nails the dilemma. Its humor and power and creepiness comes from the way in which Milne captures the tyranny of children and family responsibility. In a way, James does “take care” of his mother, for the demands of motherhood circumscribe a mother’s desires. Suddenly, a once taken-for-granted freedom—like running an errand when one wants—becomes a brazen liberty. When I am home alone with my kids, I cannot just run out and get milk—even if the store is only a block away. So, yes, James maybe does take care of his mother for, in making women into primary caregiver and then in setting up small households consisting in nuclear families only, we make it impossible for women to “go down to the end of the town” if they don’t go down with their children.


More than half way through Mrs. Dalloway, Elizabeth enters her mom’s room to tell her she and her history tutor, Miss Kilman, are going out to run an errand. Unhappy and jealous, Miss Kilman stands in the hall, seething.

Miss Kilman resents the degradation of poverty, degradation that forces her to take jobs from rich people like the Dalloways. Still, she remembers, Richard had been kind.

Lady Bruton can barely stand Hugh Whitbread. Nonetheless, she remembers that she needs to tolerate him since he had been kind.

At the very beginning of the novel, the florist remembers that Mrs. Dalloway had been kind years ago, very kind.

Clarissa’s aunt is kind to Peter, since he gave her a rare flower, and in spite of his horrible lovesick rudeness.

Rezia desperately searches the faces of Septimus’s doctors, of strangers on the street, for signs of kindness.

There is an argument about kindness running through this novel: about how it matters, about how it binds us together, about how it papers over all kinds of differences and resentments. It’s hard to articulate without sounding sentimental.

But these are the sorts of patterns one begins to notice on the fifteenth or twentieth time through a book…

Stevie Smith & Betty Miller

I’m reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith and every chapter brings me a little gasp of excitement. Her Novel on Yellow Paper is a favorite book of mine.

Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.

Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.

Betty was not pleased.

I don’t doubt it.

Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller’s novel about being Jewish in London in the 1930s is far, far better than I expected. I set out to read a book of considerable historical interest, a worthy book. I found, instead, a really expert novel, written by a very young Betty Miller (in her mid-twenties) centering on Alec Berman, a Jewish man from Brighton who longs to work in film, becomes a celebrated director and marries the daughter of his mentor.

Throughout, the novel offers astute glimpses of all kinds of casual moments of wounding anti-Semitism: the wife’s friend, also a schiksa, comments that the son’s name, David, is inevitable, combining, as it does, Jewishness with fashion; Alec and his old friend Lew Solomon walk through Trafalgar Square to hear a newsboy touting the only “non-Jewish controlled paper” in the city; Alec’s brother-in-law, refined and repressed, withdraws from his sister’s life when she marries a Jew; there is even an offstage playground fight. These scenes, scattered across this 300-page novel, offer a kind of taxonomy of what it might have been like to live as a successful Jew in London during the years of Hitler’s rise to power. (Hitler himself is in the background throughout, his voice on the radio.)

This was Miller’s third novel but Victor Gollancz, the usually wonderful progressive English Jewish publisher refused to publish it in 1935; it eventually was printed in 1941: at that point, sadly, Miller’s exposition of the effects of casual, domestic anti-Semitism and the strains of a “mixed” marriage had been eclipsed by the events of WWII. I put “mixed” in quotations because one of the novel’s strengths is that both Alec and his wife are self-consciously rueful about the oddity of that term; Catharine muses that al marriages are “mixed,” that any marriage brings together strangers. Still, it’s not hard to see why, in 1935, a Jewish publisher would have hesitated to publish such an honest account of how far most non-Jewish English people had to come to overcome their prejudices.

Then, there is all the interest of the film industry itself. There is verisimilitude in the possibility of a Jew’s rise to power, respect and prominence in British film: many English Jews did work in film. The opening scene, of Alec and his lover, Hetty, a movie star, riding in a car through traffic to a premier is wonderfully done. And the second chapter, flashing back to his boyhood ache to get out of Brighton and work in film is fantastically right about adolescent desire and the ways that the movies attract (or used to attract) that kind of longing for something glamorous, something apart from the claustrophobia of home.

Miller’s writing is wonderful and she is at home with all kinds of scenes: she gets the mood of a boy smoking and staring off to sea right and then, pages later, she gets right the feeling of a new mother getting up from a dinner party to nurse her baby. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that moved among classes, cultures, genders with such grace.

As I guess you can hear, I’m a little gobsmacked by this book: so much better than I had any reason to guess.

Michael Jackson, Cynthia Hinds, and the Green River Murders

I’ve been silent on Michael Jackson’s death, though I’ve been so relieved that the shock and sorrow of his death has brought the greatness of his music back to me: it’s been wonderful to listen and listen again to all those great songs.

For me, the memory of Michael Jackson is all bound up with second grade and a girl in my class then who was murdered, Cynthia Hinds. Cynthia loved the Jackson Five.

I have been thinking about her and recently, I found the essay I wrote about her death back in 2003 when her murderer was sentenced. Cynthia was one of the victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Murderer. The Green River Murders were a series of serial killings of prostitutes along a lonely strip of highway south of the Sea-Tac Airport.

In 2003, I wrote:
Cynthia Hinds and I were in the second grade together at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. We were not friends. She envied my ability to read with ease; I envied her beauty. Looking back at our class picture, I can see that she was a wide-eyed, buck-toothed girl who had yet to grow into her looks, but to me, at seven, she was the prettiest girl in the class. Beautiful. She had cinnamon skin, huge brown eyes, and long wavy hair that she wore in a ponytail on the side of her head, tied with thick, fuzzy red yarn. Hers is still the hair I think of as the prettiest I have ever seen. …

She was good at dancing. Everyday, we did Soul Train. I ran between the two swaying lines of classmates, trying to get it over with; Cynthia thrived on the attention. She loved the Jackson Five. One day, Ms. Pogue asked us to write a little composition, finishing the sentence: “If I could invite anyone to dinner, I would invite…” While I wrote an essay on Abraham Lincoln, Cynthia was getting Ms. Pogue’s help with the spelling of Michael and Jermaine.
There is a lot to say here—about my nerdiness and aspiration, about her love for the Jackson Five and my sense that I wouldn’t know what to say to them (let alone remember Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s names or tell them apart). (Funny to imagine being more comfortable with Lincoln than with Jermaine Jackson, but with Lincoln, I felt more confident: I had a lot of questions to ask him and I knew a lot more about him, having read the D’Aulaire biography dozens and dozens of times.) Lowell was a very integrated elementary school: no one race dominated and we thought and talked a lot about race all the time.

I also remember that Cynthia pinned me to the wall every day for a little over a week and kicked me in the butt. No matter which exit I used, she found me, gave me one kick, and walked away. Eventually, the teachers got control, and I was freed.

Even after elementary school, I remembered her—how pretty she was and her animus to me and all the confusing feelings connected with that, with knowing that I was smarter than she was, knowing (duh!) that just by my being white, things (what things I couldn’t have said) were easier for me than for her. So I was shocked to see her picture on the front page of the Seattle Times as a murder victim in 1982. There I was, in high school honors classes and this girl who had been such a part of my second grade life was dead.

I think back to that intimidating Soul Train line in second grade and remember loving Michael Jackson in spite of my fear of dancing in public. I think we all loved Michael Jackson. I still do.

For interruptions there will always be….

As I sit in our plain little rented house on the river’s edge, I have in my head this image of an English country cottage, a Cotswolds thatched cottage, with rambling roses and a swinging gate. I imagine it full of bowls of oranges, jars of gingerbread, and the possibility of endless mornings of writing.

But the thought soon sickens me: it starts seeming like some of those crafty mommy blogs that I mostly read for schadenfreude, full of Martha Stewart-y tight extreme close-ups of the perfect peach, the porcelain mug of green tea.

In any case, I find that, in the end, I like life with a wider angle. Sitting here with a box of Dora Band-aids, a couple quarters from my husband’s pocket, my watch, a white rock, some crumbs, a bent paperclip, all on a very loud oilcloth tablecloth (huge yellow sunflowers on a blue background): Martha Stewart would need an army to fashion this into something redolent of the charms of a month in a rented house by the River.

Maybe I have to learn to dislike the fantasy of a cell, of a life apart and uninterrupted. It’s not that I don’t need time to write without children around: I do, and that’s why we hire a sitter for the mornings. It’s just that, since I am blessed with children and the desire to write, I need to strike a richer balance. That’s a banal insight, worthy of the mommy blogs themselves, but a little rougher around the edges.

Transatlantic Women Modernists

Since I wrote such a massive list of all the writers who might make it in my class, I’ve been feeling bad about the writers who made the cut but whose work didn’t come up to the River. Is that crazy? They’re all dead. They can’t care. But I care.

So, here is what I know, so far. There are fourteen classes, but one needs to be an introduction. We meet for two hours each week. At the moment, I know I’ll be teaching the following:
  1. Woolf (some have already requested The Waves, but I’m not sure which I’ll teach),
  2. Gertrude Stein 1
  3. Stein 2: I’m giving her two weeks because I think she’s out of favor, challenging, amazing and worth more attention
  4. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes and More
  5. another Harlem Renaissance woman--perhaps not Nella Larsen—that’s the slot that Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset are “competing” for (I mean that with heavy irony—see below)
  6. Marianne Moore
  7. Jean Rhys, not Wide Sargasso Sea, probably not Good Morning, Midnight (since my colleague often teaches it)
  8. Katherine Mansfield, a generous selection of stories
  9. Elizabeth Bowen
  10. Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper & poetry
  11. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood & more
  12. a Persephone book (perhaps Betty Miller's Farewell Leicester Square)
  13. and then, I think I need another avant garde woman.
That leaves Rebecca West off the syllabus, I see, though that could change.

When you see how little room there is in a syllabus, you see literary turf wars in a different light. You see, in the end, how very little room there is for a “new” writer to make it onto the list. I write that Fauset and Dunbar-Nelson are up against each other with a bitter irony: I know almost nothing about either; both seem worthy, important writers; both could make it onto the syllabus in the end. They are just one example of a whole range of such mini-competitions between less well-known writers as I shape the course. It’s a class on American and British women, poetry and prose; I want a balance of styles and political outlooks, urban and rural themes, gay and straight writers … and so I keep looking at the list and asking myself if it’s fair. But fair to whom?

Here are some other ways of thinking about the list:

Moore and Smith are poets. Stein is nearly one: that’s just 4 weeks on poetry and poetic prose (excepting Woolf)—and we’ll likely focus more on Smith’s novel than her poems.

Because my specialty is modern British, I tend to favor that side of the Atlantic, but the list so far has only 6 weeks of Brits: Woolf, Rhys, Mansfield, Bowen, Smith, and Miller. I’m pleased that the list is as cosmopolitan as the first half of the 20th century in England can be: Miller (who is Jonathan Miller’s mother) was Jewish (among many other things) and Rhys (who was probably of mixed race) and Mansfield are both colonial.

Among Americans, I’ll do Stein, Hurston, Moore, and Barnes for sure.

I watch contemporary writers bicker and battle over prizes and reputations knowing that part of what is at stake is a legacy they will never see. That there will come a day when some future professor sits staring at her bookshelves, asking herself if she’s really going to ask a dozen young people to read a mostly-forgotten novel about the career and romantic struggles of a young black woman or a selection of short stories by a New Zealander who died young or a lesbian novel full of antiquated ideas about homosexuality or something else entirely.

Killing the Fat Angel in The House

It’s boring, isn’t it, how often we tell ourselves these stories of silencing the voices of criticism and defeat?

I can teach my students to sympathize with Lily Briscoe’s efforts in To the Lighthouse to get past Charles Tansley’s “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” but as I teach the passage, it feels to me like a story from another era. So does the story in Woolf’s essay, “Professions for Women,” of killing the angel in the house. I am confident in my profession. I am happy with my writing: it’s never as good as I want it to be, it’s not nearly as good as I’d once dreamed it would be, but it perks along and I am generally all right with what I write and how it’s received.

Still, though, one of the meanest things anyone has ever said to me continues to ring in my ears when I get tired or start to falter. I’m ready to be done with it, but I’m not quite sure how to let it go.

Years ago, a boyfriend and I had some people over for dinner. This couple, his college friend and wife, are good-looking, athletic, easy-going. They are a lot like the Seattle people of my youth: smart liberals, committed to living an ethical life as long as they can still wear technical fabrics on their weekend outdoor challenges. I liked them a lot and, though I suspected they didn’t like me, I really tried my best to be my warmest self that night. I pushed my bookishness and clumsiness to the side, embraced as much as I could about open water kayaking and the importance of volunteering at the local midwifery practice. I did all this, cooked dinner, smiled, and tried to keep my equilibrium.

At the end of the night, after an evening that had gone from my being nervous to my being relaxed and everything being genuinely lovely, I looked at my guy. He had a real glow of affection in his eyes. I noticed this because I don’t usually get that look. I’m pretty enough. A handsome woman, I suppose. But I don’t spend a lot of time on my looks—I love pretty clothes, but other things in life—books, friends, cheese, social justice, flowers—are more important, so I get dressed in the morning, run a brush through my hair and call that good enough. Plus, I’m busy, competent, practical, and a little nervous. Not a seductress, but a nice woman trying her best. Not the kind of person who gets fond glances or inspires double takes. Sometimes, I remind myself to try to slow down enough to note the looks of affection, the moments of flirtation, so when they come I don’t miss them utterly. So this look on his face, I noticed.

“I was just thinking,” he said, “that if you lost ten pounds, you’d be as pretty as Jess.”

I know.

It totally shocked me, too. It still does. I mean, twenty years ago, when I went to Oxford for summer school, I was friends with a very pretty woman. She left the class after three weeks and I stayed on for another three. The night she left, someone came up to me and said, “I wonder what it will be like for you now that you’re not hanging out with someone so much prettier than you.” I was stunned: I knew Elizabeth was beautiful, but I had never thought of myself as her ugly friend. No more had I ever thought of myself as less pretty or fatter than Jess. If you’d asked me, objectively, to rank myself against these women, I would have said we were very different types. That’s all. For all my anxieties about beauty and weight, I liked these women and, in liking them, didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them as greater beauties.

I look back on the Oxford comment and laugh. I don’t remember it exactly. I don’t know who said it. It seems clearly like the remark of a mean person, jealous that I had befriended her idea of “the prettiest girl here.”

The difficulty in exorcising the “if you lost ten pounds….” remark is that it was said by someone I loved. In a moment when I felt especially full of love and especially confident that he loved me. How do you forget boneheaded meanness at that level?

I’m no longer angry at the old boyfriend for this. It was clearly a testosterone blurt: a moment of uncontrollable male idiocy. But the lesson I took from that night—that people who love you may also be ranking you on some “objective” scale of their own making, that at any moment (especially when you let your guard down) someone you love may be at the ready with your grade for the evening—is harder to forget. It’s made me cautious, self-doubting, and self-hating. It comes back to me in private moments—just before falling asleep, on a run—and fills me with grief and rage. I would love to move on. But how?

Life in Woolf’s Shadow

It won’t always be like this, I know, but it’s all Woolf all the time around here these days. It’s strange, but I love it.

When my book came out, I thought I’d leave Woolf behind. I thought I’d quickly finish editing Mrs. Dalloway (ha!) and move on. But I wanted to host the Woolf conference, so then, perhaps, after the conference…

So, on Monday, I stayed home to prepare for the week’s teaching: 1) leading a reading group on Mrs. Dalloway at the Mercantile Library Monday night, 2) teaching the end of The Waves to my undergraduate class on Tuesday, and 3) leading the Modern British graduate students’ group on editing Mrs. Dalloway on Tuesday night. That’s a lot of Woolf.

I didn’t expect Woolf to continue to loom so large. I certainly never expected to continue to be so riveted. I half-fear that it may be some kind of mental flaw: a scar in my brain that makes this one writer continue to resonate so powerfully.

Sunday night, I was reading some urban theory. Specifically, I was reading a discussion of the links between city life and agoraphobia, of Freud’s interpretation of the tension between women’s desire to sit in a window, beckoning men, and the fear of their sexual feelings. Freud and his generation (Woolf’s generation) also linked such moods to male homosexuals. Suddenly, I could see the dim outlines of a footnote, something about Septimus’ method of suicide as deeply connected to the modern city.

I was so excited that I could read no further.

War and Fate

All the work I do on Mrs. Dalloway has had me thinking a lot about war, soldiers, and war writing. I have become convinced that the very minor character in that novel, Miss Isabel Pole, is a character of bad faith, urging Septimus to read Antony and Cleopatra and comparing him to Keats. No wonder he volunteered to fight; no wonder he returns traumatized.

I have been thinking a lot about returning soldiers. Worrying about them and listening intently whenever Paul Rieckoff is on t.v. talking about IAVA and veteran’s issues. He was the guest on one of the WNYC podcasts on my iPhone, so I listened on the plane out to San Francisco. I also checked my email, and there was a message from the academic vice president announcing the creation of a task force on welcoming returning veteran’s back to Fordham.

Then, just to continue the theme, once at the conference, I saw that San Franciscan Dave Eggers was speaking on a panel on war writing. I loved Heartbreaking Work, advised a thesis on McSweeneys. Though I know it’s fashionable to turn up my nose at Eggers, I actually think he’s amazingly cool. I’d love to be the one to have founded 826 Valencia, to have resisted all that rampant snark. At the panel, the moderator interviewed Eggers about What is the What and then six veterans read from the work they had done in Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing group. They spoke about their book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. It was deeply moving.

They spoke about listening to difficult stories, telling them, and not asking stories to turn out to be inspirational or moving or redemptive. They read a wonderful Tim O’Brien quote to the effect that if you feel redeemed at the end of a war story, you have been lied to.

At the book exhibit, then, I bought A Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth Samet’s account of teaching at West Point. So far, I find that she capitulates too much to the military perspective for my taste. But she is smart and I’m learning about military culture from it.

All of which to say that I think I’ve found my way in. Maybe nothing will come of it; maybe something will. But I’m going to write to my university’s committee and see if they will think about writing and reading as a piece of the veteran’s program. I don’t know what will come of this, but perhaps this can be a way for me to contribute… We’ll see.

A new era

If I had more energy and were so inclined, I would fashion this into a proper editorial. But, while inspiration is here, let me just quickly note that the withdrawal of Caroline Kennedy from consideration for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is but one more sign that a political era has ended, that a newer and better politics has, for the moment, come to claim the stage.

Don't get me wrong. I admire Caroline Kennedy. I feel for her many losses. I think she is beautiful, smart, classy. She has handled her life in the public eye with grace and with a deep commitment to service. She is also a scion of America's greatest political family.

We bid goodbye yesterday to a horrible president whose main claim to power was that he was a president's son.

The election to replace him saw the failed bid of a supremely qualified woman who came to our attention primarily as a First Lady.

Now, a woman who wanted the former First Lady's seat has withdrawn. Her main claim to fame is as the daughter of a president.

This is a democracy.

It feels divine to put nepotism to rest.

Divine but also problematic for women: it's been hard in this patriarchal nation for women to find paths to power without the authorization of men. Being a daughter or a wife marks a woman as acceptable; it marks her ambition as an understandable family trait: the tomboy daughter, the wife who learned from the sidelines. Unmarried woman like Condi Rice or Janet Napolitano, are suspect. Married women, well, let's talk about married and partnered women.

See, there is this whole problem of child-bearing, child-rearing, childcare, that comes right at a really strong moment in women's lives. Just when your career seems to be taking hold--BOOM!--you're spending five or six pretty intense years wiping bottoms and wiping tears. Or, maybe you have your kids on the early side and, when jobs beckon you back, there is nothing on your resume to catch anyone's eye, so you end up with a dull job, a job with no leadership potential.

I have no doubt that both Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy were able to fulfill the posts that they sought and, for different reasons did not get. I do not doubt, either, that Obama will be a better President, that Clinton was a better Senator than C. Kennedy.

It just feels more democratic, better, more redemptive, and more politically right to have elected someone who fought for the post out of intelligence, canniness, and good policy.

It's too bad that we're still a long way from having a path for women that permits a Barack Obama to emerge.

Inauguration Celebration

I must admit, the Rick Warren debacle took the wind out of my sails. I tried to view it pragmatically, but the anger and pain in the voice of a good friend washed all those excuses away. Her sense of having been betrayed--just as she (a Hillary supporter) always knew she would be--, that same sense of defeat and betrayal among many of my friends, added to my own disappointment, were too hard to overcome for much of Christmas.

That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.

The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be our
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.

I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.

As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.

I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”

I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.

What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?

Etexts and other editions of Mrs. Dalloway

A reader from Iran writes:
i … was searching to find out which version is correct-the etexts of mrs dalloway or the printed one regarding this passage and if there are other instances that you have knowledge of.

She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.
...thrown it away while they went on living. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must...

i'd really appreciate it if you tell me about it. i am writing from iran!

The e-text includes the phrase “he made her feel the beauty, made her feel the fun,” which is also included in most American editions of Mrs. Dalloway. The printed version that my reader quotes must be a British edition. Woolf’s addition of this phrase to the American proofs, but not the British ones, is probably the most striking difference between the American and English editions of Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a huge difference. This is the kind of sentence that one might pin a reading on. Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert did.

What does it mean? The “he” is Septimus Smith, of whose death Clarissa has just learned. So, Clarissa thinks that learning about Septimus’ death—or, rather, about the death of a shell-shocked soldier—makes her enjoy the party all the more.

It’s a shocking thought. And a very human one, I think. Sometimes, when we hear of a death during a celebration, we do feel a little electric jolt, an animal response that, in words would be something like “I’m alive, anyway!” It is a callous statement of the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, one that fuels readings of him as a scapegoat.

But why isn’t that thought in the British edition? There are a couple possibilities, so let me reason my way to the most plausible guess. We know that Woolf corrected three sets of proofs simultaneously. Her diary accounts of this process, regarding Mrs. Dalloway and other novels, indicate that she found the task tedious. This suggests that the inconsistencies between editions are likely as much an indicator of fatigue and error as anything. This makes it unlikely, in my opinion, that Woolf meant a change for her American audience. Thus, though the thought is hard to shake, I do not think we can read the change as evidence of Woolf’s pandering to an American readership.

I do think, however, that her failure to make this correction on either her personal proofs or the British proofs, indicates that some ambivalence about it as a correction.

This is a aesthetically consistent. Woolf typically revised explicit statements of meaning and intent out of her drafts as they approached publication, so this addition seems like a hiccup, a momentary lapse of confidence and judgment.

What do you think?