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Reading from my Shelves: October

Books started: 9

Books finished: 6

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 6

October was a bumper reading month due to my much-needed two weeks of half term. I spent a wonderful week in Devon, relaxing by the seaside, going on lovely country walks, eating a lot of fish and chips and cake, and generally taking life slowly. It was just what I needed. I then had an equally lovely week at home in London, making the most of my time off to visit museum exhibitions and the cinema. I saw the fascinating Arctic exhibition at the British Museum, which explores the lives of the various Arctic peoples and how they have coped with the challenges of living in such an extreme environment over several hundred years to the present day. Aside from environmental concerns, it is also focused on cultural and religious traditions, the roles of men and women, their relationships with the landscape and the animals they share it with, and how they have adapted to modern living standards and increased interaction with neighbouring, non-tribal communities. I loved watching videos of modern Arctic dwellers, who showed how to perform traditional crafts, how to make clothing from fur and skin, and how to prepare the foodstuffs that have to be so carefully preserved to last them through the winter. I also found it so interesting to see how communities are adapting to changing environmental conditions, but also how they are assimilating elements of more Western, modern culture into their own. It was so lovely to be back in a museum and enjoying learning about something new; I was very lucky to make it into the exhibition before London closed for its second lockdown. I am also very grateful that I went to see the British Library’s new exhibition on the women’s rights movement in the 20th century, entitled Unfinished Business (isn’t it just!), which was brilliant and I will be going back to see again when the Library reopens. It’s so rare to have an exhibition solely focused on women – and wonderful to see so many examples throughout twentieth century history of ordinary women coming together to affect change in their communities as well as on the wider world stage. There was even a small display about the influence of Virago publishing on the women’s movement! I can’t recommend both exhibitions highly enough once these spaces reopen to the public, but they do have fantastic websites and exhibition catalogues should you not be able to make it in person.

On to the books! I spent the first couple of weeks of October slogging my way through On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’ve been meaning to read this classic of the American Beat generation for years, and as someone with grand ambitions to one day drive across America, I thought I would find it inspiring and evocative. Instead, I found it repetitive, self indulgent, and after a while, just plain boring. I made it three quarters of the way through before deciding life was too short, I had got the gist of it after the first chapter – nothing new really happens after that! – and did I really need to spend any more time than I already have to on a daily basis listening to a man talking endlessly about himself?! No thanks! So on the charity shop pile it went, and I can at least now say with conviction that Jack Kerouac is not for me. However, what it did give me was a renewed longing for the wide open roads, motels and diners of America…oh, how I can’t wait to travel again!

The exciting new publication of the month was Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited fourth book in the Gilead series, Jack (interesting side note – I thought the UK edition was so ugly I ordered from the US – I wonder if anyone else hates the UK cover as much as I do?!). Focusing on the disgraced son of Reverend Boughton, who we are first introduced to as the wayward prodigal son in the second volume in the series, Home, Jack looks at what happens to him before he slinks back into the family home in the earlier novel. A beautiful, sensitive and incredibly moving portrayal of a damaged, despairing man, who can’t seem to ever do right for doing wrong, and whose life lurches helplessly from one disaster to another, Jack once again reveals Robinson’s wonderful ability to write completely three-dimensional, painfully real characters. Largely told in dialogue between Jack and his lover, Della, an ambitious, intelligent young African American teacher, whose compassion and affection for Jack quickly blossoms into love, the novel explores the slow flowering of their relationship, as Jack learns how to allow himself to be loved. Irrevocably complicated by the ban on interracial relationships in their state, Jack and Della have to cope with Della’s family’s fierce opposition to their relationship, and the very real fear of Della losing her teaching job if they are discovered. Their bravery in sticking together despite the odds against them is a powerful avowal of how perfect love casts out fear, and I devoured every single word of this beautiful paean to the eternal possibility of human redemption.

Another standout read of the month was one of the summer’s new Persephone books, The Oppermanns, by Lion Feuchtwanger. Written in the 1930s, during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but before WWII, it is a rare contemporary viewpoint of the horrors of what took place as Hitler gained power, and the ease at which so many Germans were willing to become complicit in these. Told through the story of two generations of the sprawling Oppermann clan, Jewish Berliners who have had a prosperous and well respected family furniture business for several years, it reveals how suddenly and humiliatingly Jewish people were persecuted as Hitler’s party began to dominate German politics. It starts with small, and seemingly insignificant indignities, such as young Berthold’s Nazi teacher’s insistence that he apologise for criticising a legendary German hero in a speech. Indignant, Berthold refuses. The dogged campaign against him by his teacher, determined to prove that this Jewish student is a traitor to the Fatherland, will have horrific consequences, despite his family’s belief that it will all blow over. Gustav, his uncle, thinks that his wealth and status will cushion him from any of the unpleasantness he is hearing is happening to Jews on the streets of Berlin – surely no one would dare to treat him with such disrespect. Soon, to his utter dismay, he will find out the reality of the stories of concentration camps for himself. The family’s prosperous business, their leisured, fulfilling lives, their friendships, romantic partners and trusted associates, will all, in a matter of months, come crumbling down, the price paid for the whole family’s complacency in the face of the horrors that are coming. Feuchtwanger portrays brilliantly how easy it is to think ‘that could never happen here’, until it does, and the here is your country, your city, your house, and it’s too late for you to do anything about it. I was so utterly absorbed in this that the pages flew by; it’s a terribly difficult, challenging and emotionally charged read, that certainly makes for uncomfortable reading in our current, increasingly rightwing political climate. Everyone should read this, and everyone should understand – what happened in the 1930s happened because everyone thought it couldn’t. We must never allow ourselves to become so complacent again.

London’s Notable Women: Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan by Philip de Laszlo

The second in my series of women honoured with Blue Plaques in London by English Heritage is Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (1879-1967). She was a celebrated botanist and the leader of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Force and later Women’s Royal Air Force during WWI, being made a Dame in 1919 for her extraordinary contribution to the war effort. While it must be acknowledged that Gwynne-Vaughan was born into an aristocratic, wealthy household, and was able to pursue much of her interests due to a good education, financial security and excellent connections, it cannot be denied that she made the most of her opportunities and carried them out with an exceptional level of skill and talent.

Born in London in 1879, Helen had a peripatetic childhood due to her stepfather’s diplomatic career. Educated by governesses and then later at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she became one of the first female students to study for a degree at King’s College London, where she gained a BSc in Botany and Zoology. She followed this up with a DSc in 1907, while working at the women’s college of the University of London, Royal Holloway, as a research assistant, specialising in fungal reproduction. While she was at Royal Holloway, she became very active in the suffrage movement, co-founding the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson, sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1909, aged 30, she became Head of the Botany department at Birkbeck College in London, where she met her future husband, David Gwynne Vaughan, a fellow academic who died of tuberculosis in 1915, after only a very brief four year marriage.

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan by William Orpen

In 1919, it was decided that due to heavy casualties in France, a women’s batallion needed to be sent out to do some of the ‘back of house’ jobs such as cooking, typing and driving, so that men would be freed up for the front lines. Helen’s family connections to the military, as well as with prominent women suffragists, meant that she was chosen as an ideal candidate to become the leader of this women’s force in France, which would eventually number 10,000 and be named the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC. Her leadership skills – honed during her teenage years working in girls’ clubs, bringing working class women into line – proved to be exceptional, and despite some initial scepticism from male military leaders (naturally!), she became so respected for her organisational might that she became the first woman to be awarded a military CBE, and was promoted to head of the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918. Her further success at this earned her a DBE, making her Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

After the war, Helen returned to academic life, becoming the first female Professor at Birkbeck College in 1921. She published widely in her field of mycology, and made Birkbeck a highly respected and popular centre for the study of botany. She also took a keen interest in politics, standing three times as a Conservative candidate in general elections (though she was never elected), and her reputation in military circles continued to be so great that she was asked to lead the ATS – the women’s branch of the army – on the outbreak of WWII, which she did until 1941, when she was delighted to see the success of her campaign to have the women’s branches of the army given full military status, meaning that the women were no longer ‘just’ volunteers and would be paid for their work.

This remarkably talented woman, who was an organisational powerhouse as well as a gifted academic, made huge strides forward for women in two very different fields that were largely dominated by men. She didn’t find this easy; brought up as an aristocrat, and to flirt and please men, her use of these skills to charm male academics alienated her from her female peers. She was also considered to be ‘aggressive’ and too determined to further her own career, and faced resentment from members of her department as a result. Some of her students found her too demanding, and her colleagues, a micro-manager. In the army, she faced a huge amount of sexism, and yet her attempts to create rules and regulations to prevent this led to her being labelled as too rigid and controlling. Trying to get ahead in a man’s world was a tightrope for Gwynne-Vaughan. Getting ahead often meant being criticised and disliked – both for behaving too much like a woman, and then for behaving too much like a man. She often complained that she had been prevented from progressing as far in her career as she would have liked due to her sex, and I don’t doubt it – though it seems to me that she managed to succeed exceptionally well regardless.

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan lived for most of her adult life in Flat 93, Bedford Court Mansions, where her plaque was erected earlier this year. This portered redbrick Victorian block of flats is a very smart address, and would always have been exclusive, reflecting Gwynne-Vaughan’s aristocratic roots. It’s just off the hustle and bustle of Tottenham Court Road, behind the lovely Georgian Bedford Square, and a stone’s throw from the British Museum. It must have been a lovely place to live; a very suitable address for such a redoubtable woman.

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Last week I was on holiday in Devon, and while browing a lovely second hand bookshop in Topsham (a very pretty town on the River Exe estuary – well worth a visit!), I came across an entire bookshelf filled with Viragos. These weren’t just the usual Viragos; there was a huge collection of very early ones, in a design and by authors I didn’t recognise. Intrigued, I spent some time reading the blurbs to find out more, and ended up walking away with one that sounded like a British precursor to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale: Benefits, by Zoe Fairbairns. Published in 1979, the novel starts in the author’s contemporary world, before eventually moving through to a projected future in the late 1990s. It centres around Lynn Byers, who, in the 1970s, is a young, married journalist who feels ambivalent about having children and is interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement, but not actively involved. She and her husband live on Seyer Street, a Victorian slum in South London that really should be condemned, and at the end of the street is an abandoned Local Authority tower block of flats, Collindeane, which immediately after its building was deemed unfit to house people and so has been left to slowly rot, and is then taken over by a group of radical feminists as a commune. Lynn has no relationship with her neighbouring feminists until the government decides to stop paying women Child Benefit, which causes a great deal of feminist outrage, and so Lynn heads over to Collindeane to hear what the women have to say about it. While there, she meets Posy, the enigmatic Australian ringleader of the commune, and timid, impressionable Marsha, its well-to-do young financier, who has run away from her wealthy background and its expectations to live life on her own terms. Posy sees herself as the head of a new worldwide feminist revolution, but her desire to lead is at odds with the women’s opposition to hierarchical structures. She is in love with Marsha, but Marsha’s fear of leaving her boyfriend David, and a conventional life, is creating a great deal of tension between the women. Into the fray enters Lynn, keen to know and understand more about the women’s movement and how to bring about societal change.

Fast forward a few years, and the government has been taken over by the Family Party, who want to pay women to stay at home and look after their children and restrict them from working. Family First and a return to traditional values is touted as true freedom for women, who can devote their energies to the home, without having to worry about money. However, this payment, called Benefit, can be withdrawn if a woman is deemed not good enough at her work of motherhood – if she is a feminist, or a lesbian, if she refuses to have sex with her husband, leaves her husband, or tries to earn any money outside of the home, and if this happens, she has to go to a reeducation centre in order to learn her true role and earn back her right to Benefit payments. As the book progresses, Family First’s policies become even more extreme, with enforced sterilisation of ‘undesirable’ women, the encouragement of people reporting on neighbours and friends who might be ‘undesirable’, increased removal of Benefit payments from ‘unsuitable’ mothers, and a corresponding plunge into mass austerity, as families struggle to make ends meet in a country whose economy has declined rapidly. When Marsha returns from a decade of travelling the world with Posy, spreading the message of feminism, to find her former boyfriend David in charge of sterilisation in the Family Party and a country in tatters, she decides that it’s time she stopped relying on everyone else to take action and did something herself. Rallying the women of Collindeane together, with the support of Lynn and her husband Derek, they start to mount a resistance. But how far are they willing to go to achieve change, and if they are successful, can they agree on what an equitable future would look like?

The story is far more complicated than this brief summary can explain, and I’ve left out various characters and details that would spoil the plot if I told you, but the overarching story of how quickly a government can take control of women’s rights, freedoms and reproductive choices is both compelling, and chilling. The blurb on the back compares it to an H.G.Wells novel in its dystopic vision, and I can see the comparison, but there is also much to compare with Atwood in its sensitive, complex and emotive exploration of women’s experiences, relationships and internal conflicts over their life choices. Lynn fears what motherhood would do to her intellectual life, her career, and her marriage and friendships, but she also has a genuine desire to be a mother and bring up a child, and in her thirties, she doesn’t have much time left to make a decision. If she does have a child, will she regret it as much as if she didn’t? Would the sacrifices she had to make be worth it? The fact that women still need to have these debates, forty years after this book was written, is a powerful indictment of how little progress really has been made for women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Derek, Lynn’s husband, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter, as he knows it won’t affect his life in the same way; after all, it will be Lynn juggling the childcare while still trying to have a life of her own, and we know from the statistics of how much childcare and housework women do compared to men, despite working full time outside of the home, that this is not a situation that has changed for many women. The feminist commune’s outrage at a male government making choices about women’s reproductive rights also feels depressingly contemporary; you only need to look at the debates surrounding access to abortion in America to know that this is still so many women’s daily reality in the so-called liberal Western world.

Benefits is a brilliantly written, incisive exploration of the complexities and absurdities of gender roles and expectations, and while it absolutely advocates the power of women to bring about change through collective action, it also sensitively and realistically depicts how difficult it can be to have a collective movement when everyone’s experiences of being a woman are very different. It also has much to say about the challenges of social economic policies and of juggling support of the vulnerable without incentivising irresponsible behaviour; David, Marsha’s former boyfriend, is a fascinating character in this respect. While it is a little dated in places, it really doesn’t feel forty years old, and I loved every minute. It gave me so much to think about, and I really can’t understand why it hasn’t become a more foundational feminist literary text. It’s easily on a par with The Handmaid’s Tale, and would be an excellent comparative text to teach alongside it. I’m going to be recommending this to everyone; it’s still in print, though no longer by Virago (I wonder why not?) and I really encourage you to read it. I’m so excited to have found Zoe Fairbairns’ writing, and I can’t wait to read more of her work!

Talking about women

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. A slow, simmering anger at the way women are treated as second class citizens in society has bubbled underneath the surface of my seemingly placid exterior for many years. Most of the time when I’m harassed, heckled or, worse, touched – this happens a lot on crowded public transport, so I have one thing to thank coronavirus for – I put up and shut up, as we women have been conditioned to since time immemorial. Just ignore it. Just keep walking. Don’t engage, don’t escalate. As we women know, those who think we ask for it by wearing too much make up and too short skirts, the level of harassment we face is not in any way correlative to our appearance – I have even been harassed and heckled while on a school trip with a gaggle of my students staring wide-eyed behind me. I can promise you that my regulation school trip raincoat is not in any way sexy. That was a great lesson for my students on why Miss is always banging on about feminism.

My anger reached boiling point last week in a meeting where as a department we were talking about teaching Of Mice and Men to a class, and how we would handle the racism in the novel without upsetting or making uncomfortable the black students in the room. The n word is said numerous times in the novel, and it’s a discussion so many teachers have around the world every year, I’m sure – do we say it? Is it ok to say it even after we’ve explained the context? Is it a word that should now never be said? As a word, it carries such a weight, and it’s one that needs to rightly be measured with such care when it’s encountered in the classroom. What made me angry in that meeting was the sudden realisation that we weren’t having the same conversation about the words used to describe Curly’s wife in the book. Why weren’t we worrying equally about how the girls would feel about hearing a girl, of a similar age to them, described as a bitch? As jailbait? As a tart? As a rattrap? As a tramp? As poison? Why aren’t these words treated with the same horror and aversion as the n word? Why don’t they carry the same weight of violence and trauma? Because they should, shouldn’t they? Calling a woman a dog means she is being called subhuman. Therefore less than, and not entitled to the same rights as, men. And to call a woman ‘bait’ or a ‘trap’ for men – suggests that they should carry the full responsibility of men’s reactions to them. This is where our victim blaming and shaming comes from. Our language forms our way of seeing the world. The n word is now very rightly recognised as being a horrifically derogatory and demeaning word. However, the fact that similarly derogatory and demeaning words in our vocabulary used to describe women are not seen as such, and have become accepted and normalised, says everything about women’s place in our society.  Every time we use these words we are reaffirming the fact that women are seen as less than men, in every way. And yet no one bats an eyelid at them. In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.

I watched a powerful documentary last night, on Netflix, called Missrepresentation, all about how society’s way of viewing women is formed by the media we consume. It told me nothing I didn’t already know, but seeing it laid out in facts and figures was incredibly upsetting. So many people tell me that feminism isn’t necessary any more – that we have equality now – and yet this documentary shows in indisputable statistics that we’re actually going backwards, not forwards, in the fight for equal rights for women. Less than 10% of films made have women as the main character, but even in those films where women are the main character, the plot of almost all of those films involves the woman’s pursuit of a man to complete her life. What message does this send to the children in our classrooms, who now spend most of their free time watching Netflix? When they see women represented, they see them represented entirely within a context of their relationship to men. Success for a woman, in a film, is, over 90% of the time, seen as achieving a successful relationship with a man. The same cannot be said if you reverse the genders, of course. Men in films are out saving the world, achieving career success, defeating enemies and generally proving how strong and brave they are – of course, this carries just as much of a problematic weight as the passive depictions of women in media, because it makes boys and men think that they have to ape this almost toxic level of masculinity in order to be successful in life. But at least men are told that they have a contribution to make to the world – for women, the overriding message is, success for you is getting that ring on your finger and a baby in the oven. No matter what else you achieve in life, ultimately, without a man by your side, you’ve achieved nothing. Sounds like a plot of a nineteenth century novel, doesn’t it? And yet here we are two hundred years later, still peddling the same narratives.

Last week, one of my female sixth formers said that feminism has gone ‘too far’. I could have cried. The fight is so far from over, and yet the greatest victory patriarchy has achieved in the twenty first century is normalising misogyny to the point where many people have become convinced there was and is no need for a fight in the first place. What’s the solution? Well, we need better stories, and we need better language. And more of us need to recognise that we need these, and we need to fight for them to become reality. No more putting up and shutting up. Because if we keep doing that, nothing will ever change, and in two hundred years’ time, we’ll still be reading novels and watching films where women are bit parts in their own lives.

READING FROM MY SHELVES: SEPTEMBER

Books started: 4

Books finished: 3

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 2

It’s been a slow reading month again here. I am continuing to struggle with exhaustion, despite being back at school for six weeks now; many of my colleagues feel the same. We normally feel pretty tired when we first come back to school in September and are thrown back into the fray again after our bodies and minds have become used to a lovely long rest, but by now, the tiredness has normally abated and we’re back in the rhythm of the teaching day. This is an exhaustion that makes me want to curl up and sleep at 8pm, leaves me struggling to wake up in the morning, and makes me find it hard to concentrate on anything once I get home from work. Discussing it with a colleague yesterday, we came to the realisation that we’re all suffering from an anxiety so deep-seated we haven’t even noticed it anymore. I liken it a bit to how leaving background apps running on your phone slowly drains the battery without you realising. Living in a world that is so different in so many ways, remembering all the new rules, constantly being alert about where you’re standing and what you’re touching and who you might be making feel uncomfortable, as well the lack of certainty about anything, the fear of things never going back to normal, and the general feeling of being totally out of control of your own life, has all contributed to a deep-boned tiredness I’ve never experienced before.

So, I’ve been taking care of myself as much as I can; not pressuring myself to do more than I feel able to, and focusing on what brings me joy, as Marie Kondo would say. The highlight of my month was going to the theatre. I went to see An Evening with An Immigrant by Inua Ellams at the wonderful Bridge Theatre, which was absolutely wonderful – so powerful and thought provoking, but also funny and heartwarming and truly inspiring. I loved every minute, and it was euphoric to be back in a theatre again. As I sipped on my interval wine and sat back and enjoyed the people watching of my fellow audience members, I felt, for a moment, like I had slipped back into my old life. It gave me hope to be there, in that space, with other people who love the Arts and were clearly thrilled to be there too, experiencing something communally again. If you’re in London or its environs, I would strongly recommend booking one of the upcoming performances; we need to support our theatres! The National Theatre is also opening again this month…I shall be booking tickets and can’t wait to get back inside one of my favourite places in London!

Reading this month has been minimal and has consisted of two re-reads and an Agatha Christie, as well as some fantastic Gloria Steinem essays. I kicked off the month with the marvellous The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which left me an emotional wreck for the second time in my life, and is still one of the best books I have ever read – not having read it since I was at university, I was worried it wouldn’t have the same profundity as I had found the first time, but I was delighted to find it just the same work of genius as before. Simon and I discussed it on our Tea or Books? podcast here, and we both agreed it is just the most quietly, brilliantly devastating novel. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a butler, Stevens, in the 1950s, looking back over his career and his relationship with the former housekeeper of the Hall where he continues to work despite its heyday being long gone and its rooms largely shut up, and it has to be the most heart wrenching depiction of emotional repression and missed opportunity I have ever read. Though it’s funny, too, I must mention that – there are some lovely moments and humorous asides that lift the tone and add to the complexity of Stevens’ character. Ishiguro’s artfully restrained prose is pure pleasure to read and the story will continue to stay with me forever. It’s a perfect Autumnal novel, and if you haven’t yet read it, now is the time!

I also re-read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea for teaching purposes, which I found even more brilliant than my first reading back at university. Rhys was a phenomenal writer; this has reminded me I must explore more of her work. The exotic, superstitious malevolence of nineteenth century Jamaica is so vividly drawn, and the descriptions of lush groves singing with the pattering of summer rains, and the stifling nights filled with the fear of eyes watching and plotting revenge in the darkness, are mesmerising. Rhys’ reimagining of the Bertha-Rochester marriage and the experiences that formed both of the characters’ personalities and behaviour towards one another is such a magnificent example of both feminist and postcolonial literature. In giving Bertha a voice and a life outside of the attic of Thornfield Hall, she opens a window into a nineteenth century patriarchal and colonial world that entirely shifts the narrative of Jane Eyre into a new and deeply troubling direction. We’ve been having marvellous discussions in class about it, after having just studied Jane Eyre; it’s a challenging novel for my sixth formers to grapple with, but they’ve loved exploring how an author has taken a story and made it into another one all of her own. We even wondered today whether Jane would one day end up the same way as Bertha, trapped in the lush green dell of Ferndean when Rochester decides he wants a new, younger model…a revisionist sequel lies potentially in the making there!

Here’s hoping October has me finding more time to read; I need to get back to those shelves of mine – I’m still stuck at K!