Sunday, May 15, 2005

Are women their own worst enemies?

Ten years ago if I wanted to look up a saying I would turn to The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations. Today I go to Google.

This week, while I was reading posts on a forum, the phrase "women are their own worst enemies" came into my head. I have yet to find out who was the first to express that view, but whoever it was has been widely quoted. Google has 23 pages of links.

The reason the phrase occurred to me was because of comments made about The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska,
one of the three novels shortlisted for this year's Dundee Book Prize.

The prize was won by Whales for the Wizard by Malcolm Archibald, of whom Catherine wrote to some colleagues, "he is such a lovely, unassuming man that it was impossible to be anything but delighted for him."

Normally I never disclose anything I've read on a private forum. But I found the rest of Catherine's post so disquieting that I asked her permission to quote her comments in this blog.

The three titles on the short list were selected by Ian Rankin, Edie Stark and John Burnside and have all been published by Polygon, best known perhaps as the publisher of Alexander McCall Smith.

Final choice

The final choice was made by reading groups throughout Scotland. Polygon sent the comments on her book by members of these groups to Catherine and she shared them with other members of the Romantic Novelists' Association's online forum because "I find them faintly disturbing for reasons I thought other Romnans might find interesting." [Romnan being
the name for a member of the RNA forum.]

Catherine went on, "Essentially, the reports are testimony to the huge variation in taste among the readers, pretty much as varied as the books themselves. Although some very good things were said about mine, I wasn't really surprised to find myself being marked down because of its romantic content - there's no denying that it's a love story. But what did surprise me was that I was excluded for that reason by women more than by men."

"Somebody suggested that my book was too Rosamunde Pilcher-ish. (I only wish...) One person, of indeterminate sex, said damningly that it was something his/her mother might enjoy reading! Various women stated that it was a "guilty pleasure" which they couldn't vote for because..... Without saying it in so many words, they implied that love stories, however well written, couldn't possibly win literary prizes.....I find this profoundly depressing. But I do wonder if there might not be some kind of key to a marketing strategy in those words. "Guilty pleasure" suggests ice cream and chocolate to me, and people now seem to have no trouble at all in perceiving that these particular guilty pleasures can also be well made, life affirming, addictive and rewarding."

Guilty pleasures

"I'm new to Romna, so if this is a point that has been made many times before, please forgive me! (Although perhaps it can't be made often enough.) I'm never going to start apologising for what I write about and what I enjoy reading. On the other hand, I rather like the idea of a defiantly guilty and superbly sinful pleasure. But isn't it a sad state of affairs that so many women are still so guilt ridden about their own particular pleasures while so many seriously literary men have managed to make a virtue out of theirs?"

I, too, feel it is worrying that it was women readers, rather than men, who gave the thumbs down to Catherine's novel because of its romantic content. As for the denigratory reference to Rosamunde Pilcher, that is disgraceful.

  • Daphne du Maurier

  • Ann Bridge

  • Georgette Heyer

  • Mary Stewart

  • Rosamunde Pilcher

Five great names whose books I - and millions of others - have read many times with undiminished pleasure. Their achievements should be acclaimed, not belittled. I thought it would be interesting to see how their reputations are faring web-wise

" saying one's prayers or making love"

There is no danger of the first writer on the list being forgotten. Today is the last day of the ninth Daphne du Maurier festival held at Fowey in Cornwall, UK. At the D du M website, I read "These pages were first set up in 1996 for all fans of Daphne du Maurier around the world - now
attracting around 30,000 visits every month. We hope you approve of the new layout and design. If you wish to be kept informed of the latest news and events associated with her work, you are invited to join the free mailing list on the left - it's free
and you can leave at any time." [I had to add the apostrophe to "it's" in that last sentence. Daphne would *not* have been pleased!]

In an obituary published in The Independent on Friday 21 April 1989, Richard Kelly, Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, wrote: "Daphne du Maurier was not the sort of person to join the ranks of authors who appear regularly on television talk shows to promote their books. As her fame grew through her novels
and the films based upon them, she became more reclusive. She viewed success as 'a very personal thing, like saying one's prayers or making love'."

While at the site, I read: "In the Christian Science Monitor, September 14th 1938 page 12, V S Pritchett reviewed Rebecca for the American public. He said that it had received fabulous reviews in England, reading almost like advertising copy. He then went on to say that it would be absurd to make a fuss about Rebecca, which would be here today and gone tomorrow like the rest of publicity’s masterpieces. How wrong he was, Rebecca became the most famous of all Daphne du Maurier’s novels and is still the one that she is best remembered for. Daphne could never understand its popularity saying that it was simply a study in jealousy."

Also: "Daphne started to write Rebecca in the late summer of 1937. Her husband, Tommy had been posted to Egypt as commanding officer of the 2nd battalion of the Grenadier Guards and she had left her two little girls Tessa and Flavia in England with their nanny while she accompanied him. This enforced separation from her beloved Cornwall must have caused Daphne to turn her thoughts to writing a novel set in that area and although she could not know it at the time, she was writing the book that was to become her most famous work. The book was completed when Tommy was posted back to Aldershot and the family were reunited in a house called Greyfriars near Fleet in Hampshire. Victor Gollancz published Rebecca in April 1938."

Dragon Harvest, the private life of a bestseller

It's more than five years since I wrote about Ann Bridge in The Bookseller [1 October 1999]. At that time biographies were "hot" and I forecast that Dragon Harvest, a biography of Bridge, would soon be joining other best-selling biographies. Sadly, it hasn't happened...or not yet.

I have the text of Dragon Harvest on my computer. Knowing my enthusiasm for Ann Bridge, who was one of those rare writers who achieve bestseller status *and* are admired by literary critics, her biographer kindly let me have a copy. In my opinion it needed a good deal of editing, but all the ingredients for a big seller were there. Bridge had an extraordinary life, far more extraordinary than is suggested by these bare bones

Though the papers chiefly concern Lady O'Malley's works and their publication, there is correspondence relating to her experiences as the wife of a diplomat, some of which were incorporated into her writings. These include her impressions while traveling in China (1925-27), Dalmatia (1930), Albania (1936), and
Portugal (1946-47). Also of interest are a small group of letters written by others to Lady O'Malley which describe wartime England, 1940-41. Her relief work in Hungary (1940-41), Poland (1944-45), and France (post World War II) is also documented.

found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Interview with Mary Stewart

An old [1989] but still interesting interview with Mary Stewart is worth reading. I preferred her suspense novels to the Arthurian stories. Most of those early titles are still in print, with some recent reprints by HarperTorch.

I read a couple of reviews by one of Amazon UK's Top 50 reviewers Adrian Weston in which he wrote: "They don't write 'em like this any more. Mary Stewart manages to produce complete escapist nonsense with verve and literary style. As pulp it is very classy and intelligent.
The perfect sort of thing to read when you're off sick or feeling self-indulgent. The values are of another era, but her books are still very evocative and (for bizarrely improbable plots rich with sexy evil seductresses and ex-Nazi thugs) weirdly convincing" and "if only new pulp fiction could manage the same alluring balance of literary poise and good swash-buckling plots. No one else does it as well."

Pulp fiction seems a patronising term to describe books which have probably been in print since before Mr Weston was born, but he's not alone in being unable to give unqualified praise to bestselling novels.

Great display of Georgette Heyer jackets

Georgette Heyer's popularity continues to wax. Her dot com site, maintained by Sally Houghton, is a must for fans, but also worth a visit is the display of early Heyer jackets at the site of Michael and Ann Sims. They have been buying and selling books for 20 years and have had a website since 1996. Based in Lowestoft, the
most easterly town in the UK, they used to run their big house as a private hotel and do the bookselling in the winter, but now most of the eight bedrooms have been converted to book rooms.

They say on their site - "We always carry a reasonable level of stock in a number of early 20th century popular authors, in World War II non fiction and in local (to us) history and topography and have a fluctuating number of smaller interest areas.
Our total stock is in the region of 9000 books."

It sounds the perfect place to spend several hours on a wet day. I know from my time as a junior reporter in the nearby town of Great Yarmouth that East Coast winters can be extremely bleak and summers can have their off days.

Rosamunde Pilcher memoir coming?

At Rosmunde Pilcher's authorised website there's a letter -
"News both bad and good. I saw Ros last weekend, and she is happy, very vigorous and as always great fun. Alas, the novel stalled some months ago and she has put it aside with very little done. "I just didn't like the characters," said she. However, she has decided to start a memoir. I say this rather than autobiography which is "everything" from birth to present; rather, something more like snapshots from a long life. She turns eighty in late September, and she's
thinking of an episode/anecdote to illuminate each of the eight decades of her life. I think it could be wonderful. And, who knows, once back into the routine of writing, even non-fiction, perhaps the muse will decide to hover nearby and inspire a novel or some stories. We can hope so....All the best, Tom Dunne"

Tom Dunne is the American publisher who, after RP's British publishers had failed to recognise her star quality, encouraged her to write her most famous book. His letter was posted on the site last summer.

You might also want to read an interview with RP.

It's interesting that while three of the five authors I've been discussing have one outstanding title - du Maurier with Rebecca, Bridge with Peking Picnic and Pilcher with The Shell Seekers - any discussion of Heyer's and Stewart's best book
always leads to impassioned arguments.

The White Rose resistance group

Next month I'll be resuming membership of a public library. The most recent addition to my long library list is a book by a woman whose brother and sister were executed in a particularly horrible way because they were fighting for freedom
of speech and thought in Nazi Germany.

I came across this book – details later – via one of the treasure hunts which make the Web so exciting for anyone blessed with insatiable curiosity. The first clue was this -
"Literary tradition holds that Dorothy Parker once aced an Algonquin Round Table contest to knock out the most sensational
possible snap headline. Her winner? "Pope Elopes!"

It is the opening line of an article by Carlin Romano, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in criticism. The theme of the article is whether the new Pope is a good guy or not. Romano has doubts.

He writes : "Yet Ratzinger doesn't mention Catholic student dissidents of his era. He says nothing about the heroic White Rose group led by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, which operated in his Bavarian backyard. That group's principled bravery -- it denounced Nazism's slaughter of innocents through fliers distributed at both the University of Munich and towns around Munich -- resulted in the Nazis' beheading both Scholls after a fast trial in the dreaded People's Court. Such silence from a German Catholic turned high Vatican official disturbs."

This sent me in search of the White Rose group of whom I had not heard before.

"Six decades ago, at the end of February 1943, three students from the White Rose, a resistance group in Munich, were arrested, sentenced to death and summarily beheaded. Their names were Hans Scholl, 24; his sister Sophie, 21; and Christoph Probst, 23. The executions were announced in a city paper, which opined that the condemned were “typical outsiders” whose criticism of the Volk made them despicable criminals. “They deserve a speedy and dishonorable death,” it concluded."

After the war, the Scholls' sister, Inge Aicher-Scholl, wrote a book which can be bought from
Amazon. The White Rose: Munich, 1942-1943 Inge Scholl, Dorothee Solle Introduction), Arthur R Schultz (Translator) Wesleyan University Press.

I also want to read Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany: 1933-1945 (Cambridge Perspectives in History)by Frank McDonough.

What (Most) Women Want

The White Rose search also led to Bruderhof, "an international communal
movement dedicated to a life of simplicity, service, sharing, and nonviolence". While no one can disagree with the Bruderhof principles, having a strong solitary streak I should dislike community life.

The Bruderhof's senior pastor, and author of numerous books, is British-born Johann Christoph Arnold, father of eight grown-up children, who now lives with his wife in upstate New York. There's an onsite article by him on Sex: Heaven or Hell
which includes a mild rant about Viagra. Those of us who have been spammed with sales spiels for this product will sympathise with Arnold's views on it.

Read Ireland, whose newletter I've been receiving for some years, is currently offering Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy by Peter De Rosa. "At the dawn of the Third Millennium and with the
death of Pope John Paul II, this acclaimed international bestseller is the dramatic and terrible story of the papal abuse of power in the first two thousand years. A resident of Ireland and former priest, the author calmly plays Devil's Advocate. The book has everything we never wanted to know about the supreme pontiffs - cruelty, simony, nepotism, despotism and sex. The book is a powerful and somber study; a disturbing but important book."

When reading book blurbs, I don't often have to look up words in a dictionary, but I didn't know the meaning of simony which is the buying or selling of spiritual or Church benefits such as pardons, relics or preferments.

Getting back to the question asked in the heading of this week's blog - are women their own worst enemies? - I recommend a review by Christine Rosen, headed What (Most) Women Want, of
Steven E. Rhoads' book Taking Sex Differences Seriously.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington D.C.

Next week I'll be writing about two novels I re-read every five years or so.