Aug 26, 2010

Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist by Jill Tweedie

Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist by Jill Tweedie

Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist is a collection of fictional letters from Martha, a stay-at-home mother of two, to Mary, her supposedly more “liberated” best friend. In the letters, Martha humorously recounts events from her daily life, makes wry and perceptive observations about gender issues, and talks about her struggle to balance her belief in gender equality with her very traditional lifestyle.

This is a book about what happens when idealism meets the constraints of daily reality. It’s also about something that shouldn’t happened, but in reality has: feminism’s occasional dismissal of the domestic; of traditionally feminine activities and lifestyles. Of course, the goal of the movement is not and has never been to replace a limited definition of what “proper” women should be with another, but the book so well works exactly because Tweedie is very much aware of this. She pokes fun at the failings and limitations of the practice of feminism without ever dismissing the theory.

Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist is written in a conversational style, but under the surface of Martha’s friendliness we find some serious sarcasm, constant denouncement of injustices and double standards, and plenty of acute observations. This is humour that comes from the inside, yes, but it’s not any less biting because of that. Tweedie’s writing is at times laugh out loud funny, and I loved it for that. But most of all I loved it for being so human – for her perpetual awareness that the world is not populated by monsters or saints, but by people doing the best they can.

Martha’s letters to Mary were first published in 1982, and it shows – in many ways, Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist is a very Britain in the 80’s sort of book. But this didn’t really bother me, because I’ve always believed that the idea that literature should strive for timelessness and universality is overrated. One of the reasons why I read is exactly to find out how the then and elsewhere differ from the here and now. There are plenty of references that timestamp this book, but personally I don’t see this has a bad thing – the clearly identifiable cultural and historical context actually add to its interest.

The tone of Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist reminded me at times of The Diary of a Provincial Lady – both are quiet domestic comedies with heroines who are far less conventional and much more prone to questioning the status-quo than it might seem at first glance. Fans of E.M. Delafield will likely enjoy this book.

Favourite bits:
Not that I think it’s done our Cause much good, some of the women who’ve made the Top Job. Men have managed to live under male monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Caligula, Peter the Great, Attila the Hun – without drawing any derogatory conclusions about their own sex, but let a woman add 2p to the cost of false teeth and all anti-feminist hell breaks loose. On the other hand, Josh voted for Mrs T and still thinks this makes him an honorary founder member of the Women’s Movement. Whenever I register an egalitarian complaint he says he voted for a woman Prime Minister, didn’t he, so how can anyone accuse him of being against women’s liberation?

So all day Tuesday I stayed in but I did, once, go to the loo. I have this weak bladder. When I got downstairs again, there was a card on the doormat. ‘Your repairman called but could not get an answer.’ Printed, it was, all ready for him to stuff, quick as a flash, through the letterbox and run off, chortling. Back on the phone to sleeping beauty, confined to barracks another whole day and the repairman finally cometh, regardeth the fridge and tutteth. Tut tut, he says. Nasty, that. Haven’t got the tools in the van for that. Oh yes? I say. Has this fridge broken down in ways no fridge has ever broken down before? Is this a First for Fridgedom? A breakthrough for Fridgekind? Has Dutch Elm disease struck again, is there dry rot in its private parts? The repairman’s eyes flicked from side to side, looking – I dare say – for the gents in white, and I wouldn’t have said no to a short interval in the funny farm myself.

Undeterred, she went on to say that she had tried telephoning me to tell me what time her train arrived but I had been out. Pause for implications to sink in. Daughter is Scarlet Woman, spends daylight hours togged out in Y-front frocks chatting up lounge lizards in sleazy Mayfair drinking clubs when should be suckling innocent babe and meeting clean-living Away Day Mother at Liverpool Street. However. She had then phoned Dear Joshua and got this charming girl who’d said Josh couldn’t meet her due to dining with Lord Dewberry that night. Wasn’t it nice, said Mother, that Joshua had such contacts, and nicer still that he’d forsworn them in order to welcome his Mother-in-Law and she only hoped I appreciated him as much as she did-
You’re always saying, Mary, that feminists should make friends with their mothers, but where do I begin? What possible way can I introduce mine to the Women’s Movement? Say to her, Mother, do you realise you are a member of an oppressed class? Mother, who’s squashed Father so flat all his life that he looks like a piece of lasagne with a moustache on one end? Mother, who wouldn’t recognise oppression if it leapt up and garrotted her? I read Nancy Friday’s book My Mother, My Self and all I could think was how lucky she was, having such an amenable mother.
Reviewed at:
Other Stories

21 comments:

  1. Oh Ana, I just want to give you one of those huge hugs where I spin you around in circles. (Don't worry, I wouldn't actually do that...so I hope you now don't want to go into hiding when Rich and I come over to visit. :P) But you did just make me very happy--I've never heard of this book, and I can just tell how much I would adore it! That passage about the refrigerator repairman made me laugh out loud. And then the last passage, well, it made me cringe...and you know why. Thanks so much for the review, Ana!!!

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  2. The idea of this book sounds very intriguing, but judging from the writing style in the sections that you quoted, I am not sure this would be a book for me, which is too bad because I think the book deals with some very interesting topics!

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  3. What an interesting book. I think it really hits an important issue - feminists dismissing housewives or people thinking that the movement dismisses them. Sounds like a fun read.

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  4. This sounds like a really interesting book. You've also reminded me I've got to get my hands on some E.M. Delafield. Thanks for your review.

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  5. It is difficult to proclaim yourself as a feminist when you accept a traditional role for yourself, but I do think part of the change that the feminist movement brought about is the right to have a choice in the role you choose. This book sounds great!

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  6. I like the term fainthearted feminist. I'd very much like to read this.

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  7. Oh yay, an epistolary novel that is also funny and also contains feminism stuff.

    Does the dismissal of the traditionally female lifestyle seem "occasional" to you in real life? I feel like it's pretty widespread, and I live in a conservative state. When I say I want to stay home with my eventual kids, I get a very disapproving vibe until I say I also want to write books. And then people will say "Oh, okay," like being a stay-at-home mother is only an acceptable choice if you're doing something else too. Hrmph.

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  8. Debi, I kept thinking of you as I read this, because it touches into so many things we have discussed! The bad news is that it's out of print, but it shouldn't be too hard to find on Paperbackswap (I got mine through Bookmooch). If not, I'm sure I can find you a used copy after I move :D PS: And from YOU I'd welcome a spinning hug :P

    Zibilee: Aww, you don't like the writing? I loved Martha's voice! She cracked me up. I can see how it's not for everyone, though.

    Amy: It is, but full of food for thought too! You'd like it a lot :)

    Brenna: Do read this, and do read Delafield! Both are a lot of fun, and plenty more too.

    Kathy: Yes, exactly!

    Lightheaded: It's an interesting term, yes :P

    Jenny: Oh dear, I hope that "occasional" didn't sound itself dismissive! I haven't seen much of it either way in real life, because there are very few people here I can talk about feminism with without them rolling their eyes at me. But I was trying to be cautious because I didn't want to sound like I was saying "feminism always does this and therefore it sucks" :P Anyway, yes, it sounds like it is a lot more than just occasional :\ And to end on a bright note, I think you'd definitely enjoy this! And Mumsy too :P

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  9. Ah, weepy face (re: being out of print). I will have to mooch it or swap it or somesing.

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  10. Oh...I MUST read this book! Why does it have to be out of print? I've been slowly working on educating myself in feminist theory which is a daunting task - lots of literature out there - and I would love to read this! Especially (I think) because it was probably dabbling at the beginning of third wave and we're flirting with fourth wave feminism these days (but again, "I think" since I'm still trying to keep everything straight!) People can be feminist in so many ways; I think feminism is all about having the freedom to choose what you want - your life, your body, your choices, etc. The dynamic between Martha and Mary sounds so interesting and would be so good to read. (I think I play Mary to a lot of my friends' Marthas.)

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  11. As a fan of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, epistolary novels in general, and anything dealing with the struggle between feminist ideology and domestic necessity, sounds like this is the book for me! Thank you for bringing it to my attention; it's certainly not a title I've ever come across before.

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  12. It is wonderful to see a book "about what happens when idealism meets the constraints of reality". An onlooker to my life may think I believe in "traditional gender roles" because the home is most definitely my domain. I have a full-time job as a college professor, but I only have to go in to work three days a week. Hence the cooking, shopping, laundry, etc. generally falls to me; whereas my husband, who is a farmer, works 14 hour days and does very little regarding housework. (I hate cleaning and he doesn't have the time, so we have someone come in once a month and clean.) We have these roles out of necessity, practicality, and logic, not because of some ridiculous belief that my female parts make me more suited to folding clothes than his male parts.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

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  13. This sounds like it could be a really good book. One of the challenges I've always had with feminism, and something that's been a sticking point for my mom, is the idea of domesticity and women who choose to be moms. For awhile, I don't think there was space for that in the movement, but I also think it's changing and has changed a lot.

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  14. raych: My offer to Debi extends to you - once I'm in the UK I'll keep an eye out for used copies for you both,

    Kate: I swear, the whole waves thing confuse me :P But yes, that's more or less the moment this book catches. People tend to see feminism as a lot less varied and inclusive than it is, which is a pity! I hope you manage to find a copy of this.

    Claire: I love how book bloggers bring these lost gems to the attention of one another - I wouldn't have heard of it myself if not for Kristy at Other Stories!

    Trisha: People tend to assume that certain arrangements can only be revealing of a power imbalance, which is certainly not true. There balance between abstract gender politics and concrete personal relationships never ceases to fascinate me. I think you'd enjoy this a lot!

    Kim: I do think it's been changing, yes - or at least I hope so! Even in the past it was probably not that there was no space, but that the most dismissive members were the loudest. Which of course has its consequences.

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  15. This is one of the books that I can recommend to everyone. It is a very interesting book and I know that story inside of it has a good lessons that we should all learn.

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  16. I love the excerpt, it makes me want to read the book.

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  17. Love the excerpt about the refrigerator repairman! The voice of the book sounds very fun. So now I have to read this - and also Delafield's book.

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  18. Today's entry, in my 'Book of Wise Things Ms Nymeth Has Said' (a thick book, mind you):

    I’ve always believed that the idea that literature should strive for timelessness and universality is overrated. One of the reasons why I read is exactly to find out how the then and elsewhere differ from the here and now.

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  19. Kathleen: I'm glad to hear it! And I hope you'll enjoy it :)

    Christy: Isn't it hilarious? As is Delafield, of course!

    Jason: I never thought I'd see "wise" and my name used in the same sentence unironically ;) But seriously, thank you <3

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  20. Honestly, I put this book on my wish list even before seeing your review. I LOVE the title. And when I saw that she defends domesticity in it... I loved it even more.

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  21. Aarti, it's a great title, yes! And I do think you'd love the book itself :D

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.