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As a woman who has always had ample access to education and literature, it is sometimes easy for me to forget that there was a time when women didn’t have it so easy. Education is something that we take for granted in our part of the world; but unfortunately, even today there are women who are either barred from going to school, or receive horrific “punishment” for daring to educate themselves. While I’m really thankful for how far we’ve come, there is still so far that we need to go. I think that the writings of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft serve as an excellent reminder of how things used to be. They also have a lot of relevance in modern times. If only these eloquent ladies were around to plead the case for women’s education today!

Both Astell and Wollstonecraft made extremely poignant arguments for the education of women. In an time when women were expected to be nothing more than wives or mothers, they both asserted that women should be allowed to do more with their lives. Mary Astell, in particular, makes persuasive and memorable statements:

“How can you be content to be in the world like tulips in a garden, to make a fine show, and be good for nothing”. —A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part I

“If God had not intended that women should use their reason, He would not have given them any, for He does nothing in vain.”—A Fair Way With The Dissenters

While I am not a Christian, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the second quote. You can really sense Astell’s frustration and passion in both of these quotes; as I graduate from University this spring, I can only hope that I have been a credit to Mary Astell’s vision!

Upon reading “The Rover” by Aphra Behn, I was struck by a few things about this play. First of all, I noticed that the theme of adultery was not taken lightly in this play, as it was in other Restoration plays I have read in the past. The female characters of The Rover clearly are not comfortable with the idea of a man courting more than one woman; this is highlighted by Angellica and Hellena’s respective anger upon discovering that Willmore has not been faithful to them. In fact, Angellica’s desire to get revenge on Willmore for his unfaithfulness nearly becomes tragic.  I found it interesting how  characters in other plays I have read did not bat at eyelash at being unfaithful to each other, while it seems to deeply affect characters in The Rover. I think that the hurt feelings experienced in this play more closely represents real life.

Secondly, I was struck by the differences between the “rake” character of this play (i.e. Willmore) as opposed to the other rakes I have encountered. Willmore  schemes to get as much “action” as he possibly can, but his actions cause palpable pain for the characters around him, and he is seemingly “redeemed” at the end, vowing to marry Hellena. While in other plays, the “rake’s” escapades are treated as harmless and do not cause animosity between the female characters”, Willmore’s rakish tendencies cause jealousy, anger and pain for at least two characters in the play. Willmore also appears to be reformed at the end of “The Rover”, which differs from other plays, where the rake presumably continues being a cad at the play’s end.

Finally, I noticed that there were female characters in “The Rover” that were very strong and feisty, most notably Hellena. I enjoyed the way that she continually stood up for herself to Don Pedro and Willmore. There was even a female character that was comparable to Willmore, i.e. Lucetta, who seduces Blunt for the purposes of robbing him. While Willmore doesn’t rob anybody, I found it interesting that there was a female character who was able to “pull the wool over” the eyes of a male character, much in the same manner as Willmore. However, the play still makes it clear that the characters are living in a patriarchal society; this is shown in the way that Don Pedro controls the lives of his sisters, and the female characters are spoken of in terms of being “bought” as though they are commodities. Also, the fact that the character of Angellica receives an unhappy ending, while Willmore does not, portrays a sexual double standard regarding promiscuity.

In general, I found that the three plots of this play (Willmore, Hellena and Angellica; Florinda and Belvile; Blunt and Lucetta) meshed together well, and they made for a play that was well-paced and interesting. Once again, gotta love Aphra Behn!

Due to my previous experiences with some of the writers in this section, I knew right away who was going to be the “model” (Katherine Phillips) and who was going to be the “cautionary tale” (Aphra Behn). However, some of my expectations regarding the work of Katherine Phillips were shown to be incorrect; she is nowhere near as “simple” or boring as I had previously thought her to be! Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on these writers.

Margaret Cavendish: Although I’d had no experience with Cavendish’s writing before this class, I’d actually learned about her in my Women in Science and Medicine course earlier this year! What an interesting lady she was. I have a lot of respect for her, because she was such a pioneer. She dared to dabble in science, and even created a work that was the first example of science fiction (aka The Blazing World)! Some of her poems are very intellectual in nature, and all of her works are interesting. It’s unfortunate that she was so looked down upon in her own time for her interests and pursuits… but there’s the past for ya. Sighhh.

Aphra Behn: I think that most people in the course would profess a love for Aphra Behn, and you can count me solidly among them! She was a woman that flouted convention and flaunted her talents without shame or reserve; it’s no wonder that so many male writers were threatened by her. Despite the fact that she was denounced by many in her own time, it is clear that she was a versatile and talented writer. I have encountered her many times in my university career, and have never been disappointed. “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” is no exception. I imagine her tongue was firmly in her cheek when she was writing this.

Katherine Phillips: My first encounter with Katherine Phillips left me with one distinct impression: YAWN. After reading only one of her poems, I was convinced that her work was all about conduct, and behaving like a “proper lady”. However, it turns out that there was a little more of an edge to Katherine than I ever imagined. Although she was considered a “good girl” amongst women writers of the day, it seems to me that some of her poetry is in direct opposition to convention. She seems to appreciate her female friendships very much, which I admire. However, at the same time, she seems a little hostile to marriage, which surprised me. I mean, she wrote a SONNET (a traditional form that was usually all about romance) that was basically blasting the idea of love. It’s clear that she was so much more than the passive, demure woman I imagined her to be. So, after this, I have a bit more respect for Katherine. It would appear that she “broke the rules” as well, but she did it in a way that flew under the radar and allowed her to have a career as a respected writer. Not too bad!

16th Century

Because I spent so much time talking about Queen Elizabeth during my group presentation, this blog post will focus more on Anne Askew. I had never heard of her before this class, and I was very affected by her story. To me, her fate is a true example of the “Daughters of Eve” mentality: she was a woman who dared to speak her mind in a male-dominated forum, so she was therefore viewed as “evil” and a threat.

It blew my mind to discover that Anne Askew was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London AND burned at the stake. And then it REALLY blew my mind when I learned why she had been tortured and killed over: she preached against the doctrine of transubstantiation. She was tortured and killed because she didn’t believe that communion bread and wine were literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Just let that sink in for a second. As a student of history, I know it’s futile to make value judgements regarding events from the past… but yeah, that whole thing struck me as both inhumane and ridiculous. Furthermore, it’s more than likely that the harshness of her punishment was largely derived from the fact that a)she was a woman, b) she was preaching about religious matters, and c) she didn’t keep her mouth shut!

As I read the ballad that Anne Askew wrote while imprisoned, I was immediately struck by her strength. She calls her faith a shield and a weapon, and is clearly unaffected by the threats and hatred that have been flung upon her. Obviously Anne believed that she would be vindicated in the afterlife; however, I feel that she has been vindicated by history.

The Middle Ages

I found both Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe to be extremely interesting figures. Although I am not particularly religious, it was fascinating to read what was produced by these women; it is very obvious that they both truly lived their faith (though one might have been louder/more annoying than the other).

To me, Julian of Norwich seemed to be the quintessential mystic. She lived a simple life in a small room attached to a church, and had regular visions from God. However, she is an admirable Christian figure, and her theology is probably some of the most palatable I’ve ever read! One of the things that really strikes me about her writing is its optimism; even though she lived in a time of great sorrow and turmoil, she believed in a loving and compassionate God who did not punish anyone through suffering. For me, that’s a LOT easier to swallow than the idea of a vengeful God! I admire Julian for the fact that she was regarded as an important religious figure. This was quite a feat in a time where women were expected to keep their mouths shut about religious matters (and about everything else). She strikes me as a very understated, serene figure that found genuine peace through her beliefs.

Aaaaand then we have Margery Kempe. One thing’s for sure: I would NOT want to have that lady as my travel companion! It would be really annoying to have one person constantly holding everyone else up due to their loud fits of praying! In general, Margery seems to have been a lot louder than Julian, which is probably why she was so ill-received. I found it cool that she went on so many pilgrimages; in a time where women were expected to stay at home, her faith motivated her to travel extensively! It’s clear that Margery Kempe was very devout, but her writing is just not as pleasant as Julian’s. I was particularly dismayed by her dark, sometimes violent imagery. I mean, chopping off your head for Jesus??!! Overall, if I had to choose, I would be more likely to follow the theology of Julian of Norwich; she seemed so much more at peace!

Early Voices

I found it very interesting to read these particular selections. I have not had much exposure to medieval literature, let alone medieval literature by women, so I was very curious to see what it would be like. As it turns out, these readings were an excellent learning experience.

What particular struck me is the male/female relationships that were portrayed in these poems. This is particularly true of “The Wife’s Lament”. I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the title of this poem, I assumed it was going to be a lament about how difficult it is to be a woman, because that was the basic sentiment of many poems I’ve read before that were written by women (“The Woman’s Labour”, anyone?). Imagine my surprise when this poem actually portrayed a fairly loving relationship between a husband and wife! Although you do get the distinct feeling that the speaker is not too happy with the fact that her husband has left her alone in a strange land, it is also clear that she loves him. This was interesting to me, because it seems like the probability of a love match within a marriage was very low throughout history. Even though the speaker of the poem is in an awful situation, she seems to hold on to her love for her husband. While this may be in line with the idea that women are dependent upon men, I thought that it was nice to read about a married couple that might actually, you know, like each other.

“Lanval”, on the other hand, portrayed a different type of male/female relationship altogether! Within this poem, the woman is in a dominant position over the (somewhat pathetic and ineffective) man. The relationship here is obviously completely unhealthy and sketchy, but this poem is interesting because it portrays women as being stronger than men. Perhaps women don’t get put in the BEST light in this poem, but it was an interesting read nonetheless!

A Room of One’s Own

This is the third time I’ve read “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf in the course of my university career, and my love for this essay has grown with every reading. Her assertion that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ was a particularly revolutionary idea at the time, given the subjugated status of women throughout history; because of this, I definitely see this essay as a feminist text. It’s also one of my personal favourite texts 🙂

In this essay, Woolf outlines factors that have historically kept women from being professional writers. The concept that a woman needs money and space in which to write is important, because these are things that women have traditionally been denied. Most women did not have their own money, or the ability to support themselves without a man, and therefore had very few chances to pursue their own interests. Furthermore, women were expected to devote themselves solely with family and the home, and therefore did not have any time to themselves, let alone a room of their own. Reading this text, you certainly get a feel for the barriers that have kept women from achieving their own success. I personally feel a  lot of admiration for Woolf for having the guts to point this out!

Within this text, Woolf basically argues that women have not achieved the same success in writing as men because they have not been afforded the same opportunities. The story of “Judith Shakespeare”, William Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, excellently illustrates this point. Even though Judith is exactly as adventurous, imaginative and intelligent as her brother, she is forced to stay at home while he is educated. While Shakespeare is allowed to pursue a successful career as a playwright, Judith is trapped into marriage, and remains confined because she is a woman. This is probably my favourite part of “A Room of One’s Own”, because it demonstrates that women are exactly as capable as men; they only lack for opportunities. It also demonstrates the cruelty of denying a woman the ability to pursue her dreams. Poor Judith Shakespeare is forced into a life that she doesn’t want on the basis of her gender, while her brother is free to write and attain a timeless legacy. Overall, I am glad that I was born into a time period where we can read the story of Judith Shakespeare and say, “Wow, that’s really unfair”!

This essay is one of my favourite feminist texts, and it was a pleasure to read it once again. With every reading, I gain more appreciation for Virginia Woolf’s wit, intelligence and sarcasm, and I truly admire how she tackles the subject matter of women and writing.