Catherine Storr’s novel Marianne Dreams is a story about a girl whose drawings have the ability to direct her dreams – and whose dreams in turn have the ability to direct real life, though they do so in obscure and unpredictable ways. She has the problem of all responsible artists: her work doesn’t only represent the world, it alters it too, and though her acts of creation are powerful, she cannot control that power absolutely. (When I was casting around for my blog title, I came up with the name Paperhouse, after the film adaptation of Marianne Dreams, partly because at the time I thought I’d be writing mostly about journalism, partly because that strange relationship between representations and the things represented has always seemed to me the most important thing in the world to write about.)
Sometimes, explains Marianne, as she tries to comprehend the rules of the pencil-drawn world she has created, it’s as though the thing she draws has existed in advance of her drawing it – I imagine she means this in the same way that saying the word “cat” pulls a string of referents behind it, ideas of cats and cattishness that have been established long before the user of language ever shaped their palate around that collection of sounds. “So if I drew anyone, whatever it looked like, it would have to turn out to be you, because somehow or other you’re already here – I mean, you were here before I ever drew you, only I couldn’t see you till I’d drawn it,” she explains to Mark, the real-life boy who has been summoned into her dream-world.
But Mark is dismayed by this. He doesn’t like considering himself a part of someone else’s dream – and worst of all, the deepest insult to his dignity, that someone else is a girl:
“Oh, shut up,” Mark said. “Don’t be so beastly apologetic and so sure you’ve done everything. You seem to think this world belongs to you and that everything that happens here happens because you’ve made it. I don’t believe it, anyway. Look at you – you’re only a little girl.”
Only a little girl. The idea that he might be an object in someone else’s subjectivity upturns Mark’s sense of his importance, so he belittles Marianne and attacks her abilities. It is not tolerable to him that she should be the authority in this world of which he is a part, so he proclaims that her sex makes it impossible for her to have such powers. Nor is he alone as a male disturbed by the force of female imagination. A decade or so after I read Marianne Dreams, I read another book that, like Storr’s, presents the work of fiction as the creation of another country where strangers can meet and commune. “The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the seeing of the world as the potentiality of fiction,” writes Vladimir Nabokov – the book is his Lectures on Literature, based on the course he taught at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940s and 50s. He continues:
The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entity: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says ‘go!’ allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts. The writer is the first man to map it and to name the natural objects it contains… Up a trackless slope the master artist climbs, and at the top, on a windy ridge, who do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts that long.
Like Mark in Marianne’s dream, the reader is somehow there already in the new world of the master artist, waiting to be clasped. But like Mark also, Nabokov cannot imagine at all that the artist could be other than male. When he says “the writer is the first man to map it”, that “man” is eminently sexed. The neutral human subject, to Nabokov’s mind, had a penis; his image of greatness is strictly drawn to exclude anyone with a vulva. Of the seven authors addressed in the lectures, only one is a woman – Austen – and she was included only because of faculty pressure. “”I … am prejudiced, in fact, against all women authors. They are in another class,” Nabokov grumbled in a letter to Edmund Wilson.
And even when persuaded that Mansfield Park could stand alongside Ulysses and Metamorphosis as a work of literary genius, Nabokov had to make it clear that Austen could never be considered part of the very first order of writers: “Novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin are delightful explosions admirably controlled. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak of marvelous genius in that child,” he says, cloyingly patronising. It can hardly be inadvertent that Nabokov chose to compare Austen’s work with two novels by men about eponymous female characters of famed depth and vividness. Men can write women, is the message; but women can barely be believed to write at all in the true sense, whatever that is.
Exquisite needlework art. The game of a child. Only a little girl. Such gentle slanders against women’s work persist, as Phyllis Rose describes in her essay Prospero’s Daughter, often using the charge of privilege to imply triviality: “Women, who might well be considered a class in themselves, are attacked for belonging to the middle class – or, even worse, the upper class – by male critics who are themselves usually middle class but speak as though they were working a 12-hour shift in a steel mill.” Yet the truth is that, on our samplers and with our black sketching pencils, women’s art has always been able to comprehend the inner world of men. Men, after all, are people, and for women who see themselves as people too, the imaginative step from her subjectivity to his is not so very far. But for men who see women as strange subordinates, our interiority is inaccessible – possibly even entirely unimaginable. For misogynists (and a very great many male authors, including many of the very great ones, were and are misogynists) the humanity of female people is literally unthinkable.
One work that didn’t even obtain the status of needlework in Nabokov’s eyes is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Nabokov is persistently snooty about the pursuit of “truth” in fiction, so perhaps this is why Eliot’s high realism holds little appeal for him; but the veracity of Eliot’s characters is one of her greatest charms. All of them, male or female, sympathetic or not so sympathetic, obtain the vividity and substance of convincing humans. They have an internal logic that means their actions are never quite predictable yet always consistent with what we know of them. Casaubon’s agonies of vanity and frustration, Caleb Garth’s self-abnegating honesty, Lydgate’s fine mind and spots of commonness – all these are recognisable as types of humanity. They are so much more than lines on paper: like Mark in Marianne’s dream, they seem to have existed in advance of and independently of the author invoking them.
Compare this with a densely-plotted Victorian triple-decker that Nabokov does think worthy of his attentions – Bleak House by Dickens. Nabokov loves Dickens: he urges his students to “embrace”, “bask in” and “surrender to” Dickens. (The eroticised submission in this approach is perhaps not unrelated to Nabokov’s relief at leaving the “porcelain and the minor arts” of feminine Austen behind for a properly masculine writer.) There is of course a lot to enjoy and admire about Bleak House, and Nabokov delineates it expertly, but there is at least one way in which it falls staggeringly short of Middlemarch: Dickens is hopeless at illuminating the inner worlds of his female characters. Even to call them characters is something of an overstatement. Esther, who narrates a substantial portion of the book, doesn’t have even so much subjectivity that you could call her a central consciousness: her personality, inasmuch as it exists, is a pure distillation of insipidity.
There is no female author of any reputation who writes men as badly as Dickens writes women, and yet Dickens’ stark incompetence with imaginary women is seen as no demerit to his genius at all. At most, it’s alluded to in a tone of light-hearted ribbing, as though it were a distinctive foible that added to his charm. But really, it is evidence that one of the most esteemed literary minds in our history was incapable of conceiving that women were people more or less like him. Consider a version of Middlemarch written under similar privations of cross-sex sympathy, with a listless wibbling jelly-form in place of Lydgate, and it should become obvious how appalling a shortcoming this is in Dickens. Yet it goes largely unremarked, because the idea that women are people – whole people, interesting people, active and complicated people – continues to be a radical innovation at the very edges of culture.
Some male writers acknowledge their own stuntedness when it comes to imaginary women. In the fantastical Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s eponymous hero is trying to rescue unwilling Euridice figure Rima from a hellish place called the Institution. Before he can take her away, however, he must cure her of a disease called dragonhide, which is a sort of metaphorical manifestation of emotional coldness. To do this, he reads to her, and although most of the books available in the Institution are unsatisfactory to her, she takes great pleasure in scandal-and-sensation novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish:
Once or twice he asked, “Are you enjoying this?” and she said, “Go on.”
At last she interrupted with a harsh rattle of laughter. “Oh yes, I like this book! Crazy hopes of a glamorous, rich, colourful life, and then abduction, slavery, rape. That book, at least, is true.”
“It is not true. It is a male sex fantasy.”
“And life for most women is just that, a performance in a male sex fantasy. The stupid ones don’t notice, they’ve been trained for it since they were babies, so they’re happy. And of course the writer of that book made things obvious by speeding them up. What happens to the Blandish girl in a few weeks takes a lifetime for the rest of us.”
Rima, even when her dragonhide is cured, remains inaccessible to both Lanark and the author. After a male-voiced omniscient figure called the oracle has spent half the book narrating Lanark’s pre-descent life (in which he was a young Glaswegian man called Thaw) Lanark turns to Rima and asks what she thought of his story. But Rima has heard something else entirely: “In the first place, that oracle was a woman, not a man. In the second place her story was about me. You were so bored you fell asleep and obviously dreamed something else.” Gray knows that the woman’s story exists. He understands that she has a self that is not subsumed within the hero’s subjectivity – and yet Gray cannot tell that story. It is lost to us, because she is a she. At their last encounter, Rima teasingly says to Lanark: “You always found it hard to recognise me.”
When I first read Nabokov’s Lolita, I thought the gradual vanishing of Lolita herself was a terribly good literary effect, and a proof of the novel’s moral intelligence: poor Lo, consumed by Humbert, shrouded in his pederast fantasy like the “Haze” of her surname, until she winks out of existence in the tragically obscure town of Gray Star. “Yes,” I thought, as a young woman of 17 keen to prove my own urbanity to this imperiously clever book, “Nabokov is telling us that the real Dolores was always there, obscured and despoiled as she was by her abuser.” But I think, now I have read many more books and found so few men capable of sympathy with their women characters, I was too generous to Nabokov – who after all shows little enough sign of being able to write or even read women.
If we want to know our own selves, women will have to tell our own stories, listen to our own oracles. We must ignore the voices of the men who declaim our triviality, remembering that for those who would control us, our humanity is the most dangerous thing about us. “It’s decent of you to allow that I may be a real person after all, and not just part of your scribblings,” says Mark to Marianne, with much sarcasm, in Marianne Dreams. How many male authors have afforded that much decency to the women they write? How many male critics and readers have been so decent to women writers? They always found it hard to recognise us. Women cannot be content with working for a place in this man’s world. Instead, we must illustrate our own dreams, write to invent new worlds altogether; and there, on a windy ridge at the top of a trackless slope, we will find our sisters and embrace.