It’s All in the Words: Reading Our Literary Grandmothers

Today I am excited to be posting the third of the Guest Blogs that I’ll be sharing in the run up to the release of Listening to our Grandmothers in September.  For the guest blogs I have asked a number of wonderful women to reflect on their experiences of Grandmothers or elder women in their lives.  This post is about our literary Grandmothers, is by Rebecca Selman, an English Teacher and a dear friend of mine.

Becky SAs an English secondary school teacher I am inspired by many women writers and their female creations.  Having not been particularly close to my biological grandmothers, I turn instead to my literary grandmothers when reflecting on the wisdom of older women.  What strikes me particularly is the way that many of these writers, both now and in the past, have challenged tradition and defied convention, both through the act of writing and in their own lives.  They encourage me to be who I am to the utmost of my capabilities; to make choices because they are right for me, not because I am expected to make them; and to not fear the censure of others if I am happy with myself.  Whilst there are countless women I could refer to, I am going to confine myself here to just three women whose writing spans centuries and whose lives, whilst very different, are all marked by their refusal to simply adhere to the social norms of the time:  Margery Kempe, Jane Austen and George Eliot.

Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1438):

Margery Kempe is the author of what is thought to be the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe.  In her book, which she dictated to a scribe, she tells of her desire to desist from sexual intercourse (not surprising since she had given birth to fourteen children!) and that in preference to it she would rather “have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter”.  She tells her husband, John, a few weeks after she has persuaded him to take a mutual vow of chastity, that should he be threatened by a sword-wielding man unless he make love to her, she would “rather see [him] being killed” than that they resume their sexual life again.  Whilst partly sympathising with Margery’s long-suffering husband, I cannot help but admire her outspokenness and her radical belief in her right to use her body as she sees fit.

Another lesson Margery offers us in the 21st century is to lead your life as feels right to you and not worry about what other people think.  A profoundly religious woman who wanted to lead a life of devotion to God without entering a convent – which didn’t sit comfortably with fifteenth-century views of women’s lives – she also unsettled the medieval Church and society with her excessive manifestations of religious piety.  Her tendency to weep loudly at portrayals of the Crucifixion or at the sight of a mother and baby – which reminded her of Mary and Jesus – led to criticism and social ostracism: on pilgrimage in Europe she was abandoned by her fellow pilgrims who found her displays of devotion unbearable.  But none of this stopped her.  Whether or not one is religious, Margery’s refusal to behave as a 15th century woman was expected to, provides us with a positive and liberating template for how we lead our lives nowadays.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

When I read Pride and Prejudice at the age of 14, Jane Austen became one of my favourite writers.  Whilst some might argue that her romantic plots – which always end with the heroine’s marriage to a man of good financial means – simply perpetuate a myth of feminine dependence on men, I think there is something far more radical going on.  At a time when women mainly married for status and stability, Austen created heroines who were brave enough to reject the sensible choice if love was not involved: Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice springs to mind.  At the same time Austen knew that the heart could not over-rule the head when it came to romantic matters, and that financial stability was important in a marriage – hence the difficulties portrayed in the “imprudent marriage” of the poverty-stricken parents of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

This radical balance between heart and head can be seen in Austen’s own life.  Austen herself never married, and is thought to have rejected the one proposal she received – from a rich family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, in December 1802 – because she did not love him, even though her family had welcomed the prospect.   In a letter she wrote to her motherless niece, Fanny, Austen imparted this timeless piece of advice:  “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”.  Austen, who died at the age of 41, obviously followed this advice and, as a 43 year old woman who is currently single and has neglected to have children – more by chance than by design – I find this advice helpful when told that perhaps I am single because I have set my sights too high or am too fussy; I don’t think Austen would have thought there was anything wrong with that!

George Eliot (1819-1880)

And so to George Eliot, my final choice, the woman who adopted a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously as a writer.  Eliot’s life was a model of unconventionality and nonconformity: for 24 years she openly lived with George Lewes, who was already married; after his death she married a man 20 years her junior; throughout her life she fought against the limited expectations placed on women authors who were expected to only be able to write light-hearted romantic novels.  Theology, philosophy and politics run throughout Eliot’s novels, alongside realistic and psychologically complex portrayals of characters.

Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch is probably Eliot’s greatest female creation.  Introduced on the first page as ‘remarkably clever’, she marries first the aged academic clergyman, Causabon, and after his death, his penniless nephew; her choices are criticised by her neighbours in the small Midlands town of Middlemarch.  She is also remarkable for her desire to do good, in a quiet, understated way.  As is noted in the book’s final paragraph:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

In these words lie also, I think, something else that is so inspiring about these three women writers – and many others that I have not mentioned.  Through their writing, they tell the world of “unhistoric acts” and “hidden lives” of remarkable women which might otherwise remain obscure; they challenge us to ensure that women’s voices are heard loud and clearly down through the ages.

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