The Classics Issue – Women in Literature

Just a week ago I made my presentation on Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford. But two days ago something happened that made me think about the way we approach literature. Here goes the winter of my discontent:

A senior student classmate (she must be 70) approached me on Monday to talk about my presentation on Gaskell. She told me how she liked it and how beautiful my English was and it was all compliments until she said: “But, well, whether Cranford is a classic or not, that’s another question.” And I smiled. I had not mentioned the label “classic” in any part of my presentation, I only spoke about Mrs. Gaskell life and, obviously, the novel.

First, and for a second, I thought that maybe it was my fault because of the way I had approached the book. Then, I questioned myself whether she would have said the same about Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins or even, to include a woman, Jane Austen. And then it hit me. The answer was clear: she would have not.

During my presentation I talked about the themes in Cranford, being all of them pretty universal and typical of any other classic (love, marriage, motherhood, friendship) so, why wouldn’t she consider it a classic? We can all relate to those themes nowadays and we can learn from the book, plus Mrs.Gaskell is a 19th century writer, a century from which most classics are taken from! But giving it second thoughts, I also realized I talked about many other things (domesticity, appearances, cooking, clothes, gossip) and it hit me again. That was the reason. They were women’s issues at that time and they did not belong in literature.

I gave it second thoughts again. Despite her age, this woman is studying her second degree and more or less makes herself understood in English, not being it her native tongue. She lived much of the 20th century and experienced what was like to be a woman under a fascist dictatorship where women were relegated to the domestic sphere (devoted to husband, kids, and their house). But she did not understand, I infer, from her comment. During my presentation I made it clear that Elizabeth Gaskell was friends with Charles Dickens and that he admired her writing. So, it was not geography, century or literary genre what this woman used to discriminate against Gaskell. It was the issues and themes Gaskell dealt with, typically feminine, typically irrelevant.

I acknowledge my love for gender studies and I respect that other people do not share this love, but what I don’t understand is how, being women half of the population, they are discriminated for inscribing their lives in literature. Why is it less important to read about the problems of English spinsters and young unmarried women than to read about orphans surviving the industrial revolution (any Dickens) or a prince traveling to an imaginary country (Rasellas by Dr. Johnson) ? Women in the 19th century did not have a job, they were not allowed to go to college and they were definitely not allowed to escape their roles as wives and mothers (or, as Gaskell would put it, Wives and Daughters).

I also know I may be overreacting because exam weeks are never easy; but knowing that the said woman chose Great Expectations as her project, and seeing that she does consider Dickens a classic, but not her friend Gaskell who he admired, I wonder if we still have that many problems regarding women’s literature, especially when taking into account the label classics. In my opinion Gaskell dealt with female outcasts, women who were preferred to stay out of society. By writing about them, she could make other people realize that those women were still there and that they deserved attention, just like any other human being.

I know I am too passionate regarding this issue, but in a college where 70% of the literature faculty also teach gender studies and in a society where women are still fighting for certain rights, I wonder if people like this lady ever listen at all. Every woman is different and that’s beautiful, and we cannot expect to feel represented or reflected in every work ever written, but I find certain satisfaction learning about the difficulties of 19th century women. I find it easier to appreciate everything I have now: my rights, my education, my freedom.When the lady talked to me, I could only answer: “Well, the classics issue, that’s troublesome!” because I did not want to hurt her feelings… until I realized she had hurted mine.

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5 thoughts on “The Classics Issue – Women in Literature

  1. I am voting for Gaskell as a classic writer. Women’s issues are everywhere in the classics. Is Jane Eyre a classic? She had issues of abandonment and intimacy. Is Pride and Prejudice a classic. 5 daughters that needed to find husbands because they could not own property. That’s an issue. What about Kate Chopin in the Awakening? Edna drowned herself because she did not feel like being trapped in a marriage that did not suit. How about Odd Women by (oh, drat I can’t remember). There were 2x as many women in England than men after the war. These women were being forced into complete poverty and starvation and drank excessively because there were simply not enough men to marry them. Okay, I’ll stop now. I also think your classmate was unkind to challenge your work in the way that she did.

  2. Unfortunately, this seems to be a problem even in contemporary literature. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the articles in the last year or so comparing the percentages of reviews of books by men vs. by women. (Way skewed in favor of men.) Even if there are more books being published by men, we still have to wonder why. And some have raised the issue that it seems that if men write about domestic issues (home life) it’s okay, but if women do, it’s just “women’s fiction.”

    I am a little surprised by the reaction to Gaskell, as I was under the impression that she was generally considered “classic.” Although, I did read recently that she was really only rediscovered in the past 50 years or so.

    • Well, if you visit my “Best Books of 2011″ post, you’ll see that I clearly tend to read fiction written by women. Not that I plan to do so, but I read more women authors and I like them more. That said, I am not disregarding men as authors, I would never ever do that.

      I have not read/hear of the articles but if you can find them and post them here, I would be very thankful (and I would probably write about them!).

      This is an interesting topic, but also tricky. You yourself said it: if men write about domestic issues (if they do) it’s OK, but women? “Poor things, they can’t write about other things”. It is sad, but this is how millions of people still think.

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