10th Sep 2012
Back To School: The Missing Women
The New York Times recently published an article claiming new research shows that stories actively ‘stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.’ Since the beginning of our development, stories have been crucial in furthering our understanding of the human condition.
As such, it’s important that we don’t learn about the world and its stories predominantly through one gender’s perspective. Whilst female novelists are slowly and painstakingly gaining visibility in the English Literature syllabus for GCSE and A Level, they still only make up approximately 30%. Women need much more representation in the educational system.
There are so many talented women writers to choose from that selection is no easy task, but let’s start with Daphne du Maurier.
Du Maurier wrote fifteen novels, two plays, twelve non-fiction works and approximately six short story collections. She’s most famous for her novel Rebecca, and her work has received numerous television and film adaptations.
Yet du Maurier often suffers at the hands of literary critics, resulting in academic exclusion. She spent her life trying to defy her categorisation as a romantic novelist, but couldn’t always achieve acceptance as one of the ‘intellectual heavyweights’ of our literary heritage.
Du Maurier’s writing style is intense, simultaneously humorous and devastating, and displays an incredible command of narrative craft. Her plots are focused and her characters full of psychological depth.
Unlike romantic novelists, she rarely opts for the conventional happy ending. Thematically, she voyages deep into key facets of the literature syllabus – love, relationships, gender, class. So why not du Maurier?
Well, there’s no question that she exposes the complexity of relationships between men and women in a raw form. Her short story The Doll explores the sexual freedom a woman encounters with a futuristic sex doll, favouring this object over its human (male) counterpart.
It exposes a possessive male protagonist losing his mind over an unobtainable woman. It’s not a raunchy read – perfectly suitable for secondary level – but it’s a read that’s deeply rooted in feminist values.
In My Cousin Rachel, the male narrator destroys his life through a flawed interpretation of female behaviour. It’s an unrelenting, beautifully crafted story of a young man who so buys into societal myths about women that he destroys his hope of ever finding happiness. The writing is flawless but again, like so much of her work, it’s deeply rooted in feminist perspective. Is that the problem?
Then there’s Sarah Waters. A hugely popular, award-winning writer whose work has received film and television adaptation, but again lacks academic recognition.
Such an astounding command of plot and structure, such complex protagonists, and such expertly crafted language isn’t born from an average literary mind. She’s one of the greats.
The exploration of love, sexuality, class, relationships romantic, platonic and cross-generational, all under the most meticulously detailed historical back-drop come together to form the beauty of her style. The detailed world of the prison she creates in Affinity is one of the most arresting visual descriptions I’ve ever read.
The male narrator in The Little Stranger is utterly compelling, guiding us through the newly-faced economic distress of the upper classes in a changing society, with a wonderful collection of fascinating female characters offering diversity and valour. Again, all of Sarah Waters’ work feels deep-rooted in feminist perspective.
Finally, the wonderful Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield does receive a brief mention in English Literary Heritage academia, but she’s by no means a set text and, in my experience, it’s rare that teachers choose her for study.
Mansfield is often credited with the revolution of the short story in England. In her Journals, John Middleton Murry states ‘Many writers have tried to carry on her work; not one has come within a measurable distance of success […] and of the many critics who have tried to define the quality of her work which makes it so inimitable, everyone has been compelled to give up the attempt in despair.’ She’s certainly a woman who deserves more attention in the academic arena.
So, as the literature syllabus displays a keen interest in the thematic content masterfully explored by these three writers, and their success is marked by their considerable readership, why aren’t they included?
It would seem that the feminist nuances of the Brontës’ work is a safer bet. Their place on the syllabus is entirely deserved, but I can’t help feeling that feminism feels safer when you have a few centuries’ distance to keep it at arms’ length.
Without a solid, consistent and real presence from some of our greatest women writers, we’re in danger of denying our next generation a diverse and inclusive literary education.
And finally, if you haven’t yet devoured the works of these three, you’ve got treats in store. Who would you love to see on a future GCSE, A Level or university syllubus? Who is ignored and why?
(Image via velvettangerine)