Tag Archives: feminist fiction

Dear Virginia Woolf,

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One’s Own

Thank you for A Room of One’s Own which I read as a freshman in college in 1958 and didn’t fully appreciate. The scaffold on which your brilliant series of lectures on women and fiction balances so solidly is “— a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction . . . .”  Simple, right? What’s not to understand? Even with your witty encapsulation of women’s history and astute critiques of the work of women writers you admire, I still didn’t get it, didn’t see how your edict applied to modern middle-class only-child, eighteen-year-old freshman me. Then I graduated, married a grad student, took a teaching job that paid $4,850 a year, acquired debts, and had kids anyway.

I responded to my students’ papers at a small “ladies” desk in a corner of the dining room in our apartment or, more often, at the kitchen table.

Lady's Desk

Lady’s Desk

When we moved to Hoboken, I continued to teach and did my paperwork on a desk made of a door bridging two metal

Writing at Kitchen Table

Writing at Kitchen Table

file cabinets in a corner of our bedroom. Sitting there listening to a husband’s snores, I recalled your pronouncement. You were right. I didn’t begin writing for publication until my first husband died, leaving life insurance sufficient to send our kids to college and my parents died leaving me enough money to pay debts, stop teaching extra classes, and even contemplate my eventual retirement. By this time I was fifty years old and in grad school myself.

I installed my first computer in the corner of the middle room on the bedroom floor of our row house. This room boasted no windows but offered a lovely view of the bathroom immediately to my left and a front row seat at the practice sessions of my son, who was learning blues guitar in the adjacent bedroom. My nook was also a great spot for overhearing my daughter’s phone conversations and the footsteps of our exuberant upstairs neighbors. It was in this shared space that I wrote Going by the Book.

Woman Writing in Closet

Woman Writing in Closet

Once both of my kids were in college and stopping home only occasionally, I moved my PC into a reconfigured closet in my daughter’s room. Emboldened, I replaced her bed with a pullout sofa bed and an end table and lo! An office! And most of the time it was all mine. Here I wrote the first three Bel Barrett Mysteries. And here I came to truly understand and appreciate your marvelous insights into women and fiction. We need money and rooms of our own, yes indeed.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway

In grad school, I elected to take a course focused entirely on your fiction and met the memorable British matron Mrs. Dalloway, protagonist of your novel named for her. After reading just a paragraph, I felt Clarissa’s experiences and her inner life resembled my own. We shared a zest for hostessing and for morning air. Like me she reflected on the friends and suitors of her long-gone youth. But our ruminations are not all about the past. From her window she sees her own grim future in the bedtime routine of the very old lady across the street just as I had read my future in the lines of my late mother’s face.

Woman's Lined face

Woman’s Lined face

Clarissa and I both enjoyed walking in our respective cities. In London on her oh-so-genteel errand, buying flowers for her party, Clarissa confronts the sounds, smells, and sights of a metropolis full of folks recovering, or not, from World War I while I, walking  the streets of Hoboken and Manhattan, came face to face with the homeless and dislocated. Clarissa and I are distressed by our confrontations with present realities as well as by thoughts of the future.  Clarissa’s daughter’s liaison with a foreign female tutor as well as Clarissa’s own recollection of her attraction to a childhood girlfriend, remind her that, for better or worse, it is the Twentieth Century and all the frocks, good crystal, and obedient servants will not stop Big Ben from inexorably marking the passing of time.

Big Ben

Big Ben

            Into Clarissa’s day of reunions, reminiscences, and party preparations you weave the day of Septimus Warren, a misdiagnosed veteran of the War suffering from what we have come to know too well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While Clarissa muses on her old boyfriend, her choice of husband, and her penchant for party-giving, Septimus hears terrible voices which evoke nightmarish visions of bloody battle scenes and irreparable loss. To your credit, news of Septimus’s death intertwines seamlessly with Clarissa’s life when, to her dismay, a party guest mentions it. “Always her body went through it first . . . ; her dress flamed, her body burnt. . . .”  At the time I read Mrs. Dalloway, a member of my writing group was working on her dissertation, a study of PTSD experienced by nurses who had served in Viet Nam, and like Clarissa, I was moved by their war-caused suffering.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway lets the reader into her head, makes this reader privy to her feelings and the thoughts they inspire, half-formed, fleeting, and unedited. But unlike Leopold Bloom and Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway is a woman, a full-grown upper-class female whose reflections on love, aging, marriage, motherhood, patriotism, and war moved me while also adding to my understanding of women of her time and place. And, as you taught me, understanding women who came before us enables us to figure out our own place in the world and, if necessary, to work to change it.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Charlotte Brontë,

Let me add my feminist yawp to the melodious chorus of readers grateful for Jane Eyre. I first met your small, plain, and bookish orphan girl over a hundred years after you wrote her into existence. I was in high school in the fifties, not my best decade. Like Jane, I was skinny, plain, and bookish, but our similarities ended there. For Jane is brave and I’ve always been fearful. I knew I could never survive the many physical hardships she did, but I figured I could follow Jane’s example and hang onto my virginity until, like her, I married my true love. So I guarded the temple through high school and just said no  in college until I graduated in1962 when, on schedule, a wedding band joined the engagement ring on my finger. In the century since you published Jane’s story, little had changed vis á vis the options available to young women.

But that was just before Women’s Liberation. In the early seventies in a grad school course on the 19th century novel, I read Jane Eyre again. Jane had not changed, but the way I read her had. I’d been married ten years and had a little girl. My bra was in ashes, my armpits tufted, and I was teaching English to community college students. These factors plus my male professor’s determination to paint Jane as an early feminist helped me to see her that way too. This prof taught us about male preference primogeniture, the English system of inheritance decreeing that property went to the oldest male heir leaving his sisters to either marry or find work as servants, clerks, or governesses and his brothers to become clergymen or lawyers or find some other vocation. I’d not come across this patriarchy- preserving piece of legislation before, and learning about it changed the way I read your novel.

 Suddenly I understood why you didn’t allow Jane to participate, however  unknowingly, in an illegal marriage to the already married Rochester. Such a union would have offered her no protection and her status would remain unchanged. Before the fire that killed the first Mrs. Rochester, you depicted Rochester himself as extremely powerful. Physically strong with dark eyes and hair, he rode a demonic black stallion and owned a fierce black dog. Together this testosterone-heavy threesome roamed the wild moors, which suited Rochester’s stormy temperament. He also had money, a time-tested virility enhancer. He was powerful. In contrast, Jane is physically weak, fair, virginal, and penniless. But after the fire, Rochester is blind and has lost the use of one arm, a not so subtle phallic reference. The ruins of his mansion  show his decreased finances. However thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Jane is finally financially independent. They are equal. It is only then that you allow them to marry and live happily ever after. Only then can he literally see the world through her eyes and literally follow her lead. Bravo!

So for me Jane Eyre became a highly readable primer on how the personal and the political overlap in the lives of women. Jane helped inspire Aliza Rudinsk, the diarist of my novel The Bones and the Book. Aliza is a gutsy but poor and orphaned Jewish immigrant struggling to work and love in a world where she has pride but little power and monetary  inheritance to allow a happy ending to her story. Thanks for creating a memorable character, one who still moves me to think and write about how hard life is for women when the boys have all the money and clout.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction