“Decent of you to allow that I may be a real person after all”

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.

Let me tell you about Middlemarch Club

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Welcome to the latest incarnation of my plan to never sleep more than five hours a night – it’s Middlemarch Club! Some of you will have come here because you already know of and are interested in Middlemarch Club, but for those who don’t or those who would like to know exactly how minutely organised fun can be, I’ve written up the particulars below.

What is Middlemarch Club?

Middlemarch Club is a bunch of people all reading Middlemarch at the same time and ocassionally talking about it – that’s all. Middlemarch is very probably my favourite book ever, and I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while now: how much better to go through that rereading in the company of others, who can all bring their various perspectives to the pier glass? (That’s a Middlemarch reference right there. I’m enjoying myself already!) People who’ve expressed an interest include Victorianists, scientists, philosophy lecturers and videogame designers, so there should be plenty of interesting conversation.

How do I join Middlemarch Club?

That’s easy: get a copy of Middlemarch, and start reading it. I’ve also set up a Twitter account called @PaperhouseBooks, which I’ll be using for Middlemarch Club-related admin – you may wish to follow that, though I expect to run the discussions through my personal account, @SarahDitum.

Is that it?

Not quite. Once a fortnight, I’ll be kicking off loosely organised discussions about the book so far using the hashtag #middlemarchclub. If you’re not on Twitter because you consider it a den of wastrels and idiots (and frankly, who could blame you?) there will be an open post right here on this blog to collect your thoughts on the study of provincial life, and I’ll collate all the observations into a round-up blog post.

One request: please, please don’t share major plot points until the deadline for each section has passed. Spoilers suck, even for 140 year old books.

What’s the schedule?

Middlemarch is 750 pages long in the Everyman edition, handily divided into eight books of 100 pages or fewer each, and I’ve planned the reading as follows:

11-24 May Prelude and Book I: Miss Brooke

25 May-7 June Book II: Old and Young

8-21 June Book III: Waiting for Death

22 June-5 July Book IV: Three Love Problems

6-19 July Book V: The Dead Hand

20 July-2 August Book VI: The Widow and the Wife

3-16 August Book VII: Two Temptations

17-30 August Book VIII: Sunset and Sunrise

Bloody hell, I’ll die reading Middlemarch at that rate.

I aimed for something that would suit as many people as possible, and also let us read Middlemarch episodically. I firmly believe that the Victorian triple decker is meant to be read as part of life, rather than joylessly inhaled. It also means that if you fall behind (by, saying, having things to do that aren’t reading Victorian novels) you should have a chance to catch up in the next block.

Do I need a particular edition of the novel?

I like the Everyman edition, but to be honest, any unabridged version will be absolutely fine. If you have an ereader, you can download Middlemarch from Project Gutenberg.

God, you sound like a nerd.

Thanks! Hope you can join in!

Sarah Catt, dreadful mothers and Victorian morals

Sarah Louise Catt pleaded guilty to – and was found guilty of – a hideous thing. At 38 weeks pregnant, and fearing that she had conceived as the result of an affair, the married mother of two ordered medication from India to induce her own abortion. She delivered the (by her own account, stillborn) baby and disposed of the remains alone. There are those on the anti-abortion side who have suggested that this is a “tricky case” from a pro-choice view.

Christina Odone is one: “They have to admit that her action is illegal, but they are terrified that someone being sent to prison because of an abortion will re-open the debate over the right to terminate a life,” she writes – even though the sentencing remarks [PDF] by Mr Justice Cooke case explicitly state that “there is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act”. However, the fact that the Abortion Act is irrelevant to Catt’s offence hasn’t stopped some from attempting to make her into a wedge case, using her to force their own viewpoint on the legal provision of abortion.

One such attempt, strangely, comes in those same sentencing remarks. Cooke doesn’t just strike the Abortion Act out of consideration: the judge takes the opportunity to give his own opinion on the Act, commenting that the Abortion Act is “(wrongly) liberally construed”. It’s a curious slip, that one parenthetical word casting doubt on the impartiality of the entire judgement.

Had he left it out, I doubt that anyone would have looked very closely at this verdict. Catt’s actions raise some questions about the advice available to women who approach abortion providers at an advanced state of pregnancy – but then again, her personal history of late-term abortion, concealed pregnancy and giving up children for adoption suggests that an individual whose experience can’t be seen as representative.

The eight-year sentence certainly seems lengthy – but the crime is so rare, there’s little precedent to compare. And the fact that Cooke didn’t request a report from a psychologist, despite Catt’s troubling record with pregnancy – again, that might have raised some concern, but on the other hand, Catt’s crime is so unsympathetic, perhaps no one would have pursued it.

But “wrongly” was there, and that led to scrutiny of the judge’s own views, and that led to the revelation (via Amanda Bancroft in the Guardian) that Cooke is vice-president of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship – an organisation that has campaigned for restrictive legislation on abortion. As a member of a lobby group, Cooke arguably should have recused himself from this case in order to avoid the appearance of bias; instead, he presided over the case, and produced a judgement that has the appearance of bias.

I think the problem with the Catt case isn’t that pro-choice activists find it difficult; the problem is that anti-abortion campaigners find it easy. Go back to Odone, and see her assumption that Catt unquestionably deserved a prison sentence. Remember that the position of anti-abortion campaigners is that withdrawing access to abortion will lead to safe, live births and happy maternal relationships. Catt shows that this is not true: however difficult it is to obtain an abortion, there will be women who circumvent the law to do so.

And there are women for whom motherhood is a dire condition, to be avoided at any cost. To my mind, Catt shows how important it is to allow those women to access abortion as early as possible: Catt’s apparent denial and self-deception about her pregnancy is extraordinarily rare, but her condition of being pregnant without feeling any desire to care for or raise a child is not. And the harder it is to access safe, legal, early abortion, the more women find themselves forced into the same desperate circumstances as Catt.

Catt shows that simply bringing a child to term can’t transform a woman into a nurturing, self-sacrificing mother. Anti-abortion campaigners are happy to see her punished severely, rather than treated with the consideration and sympathy perhaps due to someone with severe issues around pregnancy and childbirth. Here, it’s tempting to describe the Odone view as Victorian – but that would be unfair on Victorians.

Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot’s Adam Bede  (pictured above) buries her illegitimate newborn under a wood pile and leaves it to die. She’s found guilty and sentenced to hang, but it’s a point of moral relief in the novel when that punishment is commuted to transportation. Hetty is based on a contemporary case of infanticide, and she’s a hard case: selfish, vain and openly dismissive of children even before she deserts her own.

But Eliot still looks for a way to make her readers feel sympathy with this hard case, to treat Hetty humanely without negating the wrong she does. Mr Justice Cooke condemns Catt for a “cold calculated decision that you took for your own convenience and your own self interest alone”, but if we treat Catt as simply evil because she fails to be maternal, then we’ve failed to be just.

Perhaps Cooke’s character assessment is accurate, though without a psychologist’s report it’s hard to interpret Catt’s actions with full confidence. What’s certainly true, however, is that there’s a social self-interest in treating Catt as abnormal and abhorrent – and it’s convenient to see her as so thoroughly other, she’s beyond the reach of justice. Her case says almost nothing about the UK’s law on abortion as it stands, but it does ask us how far we’ll compromise our own principles of justice for the comforts of moral security.

Against talent

At a children’s talent show, listening to flaky child sopranos warbling about over songs built for the meandering squelch of autotune rather than any naked human voice, I started thinking about Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. I don’t think about Gwendolen Harleth very often – though she’s possibly my favourite George Eliot heroine (alright, favourite after Dorothea Brooke), she’s a character about failure, and since George Eliot is bound up in probably the biggest failure of my life, the resonances are all just a bit too keen.

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