Jan 19, 2015

Bookish Events: The Life of Vera Brittain, Laura Bates, Marina Warner, Sarah Waters

Bookish Events: The Life of Vera Brittain, Laura Bates, Marina Warner, Sarah Waters

I was lucky enough to go to a lot of literary events in late November and early December of last year (I still can’t get over the fact that I live somewhere with so much going on). However, writing about them before the holidays rush proved impossible, so here are some belated thoughts. Apologies for the lack of detail (notes can only get me so far, and these recaps would have been better if I’d written them sooner), and also for the terrible photos — I keep forgetting to take my camera to these things and having to use my ancient phone.

The Life of Vera Brittain with Shirley Williams and Mark Bostridge: This talk was in honour of the Great War’s centenary, and also in anticipation of the release of the movie adaptation of Testament of Youth. Williams is Vera Brittain’s daughter, and Bostridge is her biographer and the editor of Letters from a Lost Generation (which, as some of you might remember, I absolutely loved).

The two started by discussing how the Virago republication of Testament of Youth in the late 1970s helped it become part of the WW1 canon in a way it wasn’t in the decades that followed its publication. Williams suggested that this had to do with a growing interest in her mother as an early feminist writer as well as a WW1 writer.

When discussing the book’s inception, Bostridge said it seemed to him that Testament of Youth was mainly fuelled by a desire to bring to life the four young men Vera Brittain had loved and lost, and in a way immortalise them. This, he went on to say, has happened in the sense that we know of them and remember them, which wouldn’t be the case if not for Brittain’s work.

Obviously I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable or well-versed in Brittain’s life as her biographer, but I couldn’t help but think about how the personal is so often lifted above the political when a woman’s work is being discussed. We have a well-known narrative onto which to peg the impulse to immortalise lost loved ones, but even today this is not the case when it comes to the development of a woman’s political consciousness and the social concerns that drive her work. The two can of course happily coexist, but the former seems to gain prominence over the latter again and again in a way we tell women’s stories, and this is a pattern that troubles me.

Shirley Williams said that in a sense her mother had a harder time once the war was over than when it was taking place — which was true for many of the people who survived it. Talking about the war was an important part of coming to terms with being one of the ones left alive, and she found other people’s unwillingness to do that very hard. Writing, then, was how she countered the social tendency towards silence, and also how she continued to make sense of her experiences in both personal and wider socio-political terms.

I liked how later in the discussion Shirley Williams outright rejected a narrative that framed her father as a man to be pitied because his wife was “haunted by the ghosts of Roland Leighton and Winifred Holtby”. I have a lot of feelings about the premises that underpin this assumption: in short, I don’t believe marriage means a man is entitled to the entirety of a woman’s affection in the past, present and future; or that a partnership with someone who has lost important loved ones and refuses to pretend that present-day happiness and fulfillment must mean their importance has diminished mean he’s somehow being cheated or disparaged.

This means I have very limited patience for “Poor him; his wife loved other people and talked about this throughout her life” arguments, and it was satisfying to see that Williams does as well. She said her mother’s affection for other people didn’t take away from her parents’ solid marriage, and described her father as a man who was truly supportive of her mother’s writing, political endeavors and existence as an independent human being at a time when these were still rare dynamics for a married couple.

There was of course a lot of discussion about Testament of Youth and the upcoming film version at the talk, which once again reminded me that I really, really need to make the time to read it. Please do hold me to that and feel free to tell me off if I still haven’t by the end of this year.

Laura Bates and Everyday Sexism: The way I felt about this event was very similar to how I felt about Everyday Sexism when I read it. It was, much like the book, moving and inspiring and unexpectedly comforting. And also much like the book, it can with its “BUT” moments.

First of all, it made me happy to see so many teenage girls in the audience. As I’ve said before, being exposed to a book like this would have made a world of difference to my younger self, and I’m so glad other girls have access to it today. Laura Bates, who was an excellent speaker, said she started the Everyday Sexism project after a bad week in which several incidents of street harassment piled up. Although she might have dismissed each of them on its own, when put together they brought a troubling pattern into sharp focus.

Bates started thinking about how the feelings of embarrassment and shame that rightfully belong to the perpetrators of harassment were routinely being directed at the victims instead — especially at women who dared to bring these things into the public domain. The belief that we have reached gender equality and sexism is a thing of the past is widespread, but both statistics and collections of personal stories paint a very different picture. Her initial goal for Everyday Sexism was to help move the idea that this is a problem that’s happening right now into public consciousness, as there’s no point in attempting to tackle a problem the vast majority of people won’t even acknowledge is real.

Everyday Sexism is structured in a way that groups stories into different themes — media, politics, education, the business world, etc. This has to do with Bates’ believe that daily experiences of sexism in these areas and instances of harassment and assault exist in a continuum. The same attitudes towards women underpin them all and move from one realm to another. You can’t, say, dismiss sexist jokes in the workplace as “harmless fun” and then expect people to draw the line a bit further along, when they cross into things you personally don’t see as permissible. The only way to put a stop to this it to treat women as human beings in all arenas.

Bates also talked about how within only a few weeks of starting the Everyday Sexism project she was already getting 200 abusive e-mails a day — this was before the project started getting any major media coverage, and it has of course only increased since. Also, the abuse came regardless of all her careful disclaimers and attempts to make it very, very clear she wasn’t trying to vilify men, which suggests the people sending it her way have a problem with a woman having a voice at all rather than with the specifics of what she’s saying.

Her next step after collecting stories was to start taking sections of the website to politicians in order to enact change in more concrete ways. Having said that, she believes we need a cultural shift, not just a policy shift. A lot of gender equality laws are already in place in the UK; what we desperately need now is to challenge the normalisation of sexism.

So far this is all excellent — my one big “but” moment came when Bates talked about the idea that “standing up to harassers” is an important way forward. To say I have mixed feelings about this is a bit of an understatement. She read stories from the book where girls and women respond to street harassment by being snarky, which were funny and satisfying, but in my view they most definitely don’t “prove we have a choice not to take it”. We don’t. The whole point is that preventing harassment is not in our hands.

I can see the theoretical appeal of the ideas about personal empowerment at work here, but this is the kind of thing that has to be worded very, very carefully if it’s not to become harmful. Some women can’t be snarky because it goes against the grain of their personalities and it causes them too much distress, and they shouldn’t be made to feel complicit in situations or harassment or like they’re holding back progress for other women if this is the case. Even more importantly, there are many circumstances in which women can’t be snarky because it simply isn’t safe. We have very real fears about situations escalating into even worse violence if we speak up, and the decision to bite our tongues has absolutely nothing to do with being brave or not. This is why telling everyone “this is how you fight back” can easily make women feel that we’re part of the problem every time we can’t or won’t shout back, and thus amount to a form of victim blaming.

To be honest, I think this is something Bates would agree with herself. There was a woman in the audience who said that when she was a girl, her parents told her, “If you’re groped in public transportation feel free to break their hands; we’ll be waiting for you at the next stop and we’ll back you up”, and she immediately acknowledged that a context of support is essential if women are to feel they can defend themselves. We need networks, strength in numbers, and the knowledge that there’s someone standing behind us.

So while I suspect that the above is more likely to be about imprecise wording than a real difference in outlook, this is a context in which I feel that precision matters. Once again this all boils down to my feelings about individual versus collective solutions to systemic problems, and which ones we privilege in the stories we tell. Anecdotes about women being snarky can make you smile and go “Hell yeah”, but it’s risky to highlight them at the expense of less individualized approaches that are safer and more effective in the long run.

Fairy Tales with Marina Warner: I went to see Marina Warner discuss her most recent book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, which I’ve since read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve been reading Warner since I stumbled upon a copy of From the Beast to the Blonde in my old academic library as an undergraduate, so it was great to have the chance to hear her speak.

One of the points she makes in her work is that we have a shared language of stories that most people are familiar with, and fairy tales both draw from and help establish this language. Stories and their variations spread through and across cultures largely because someone takes them up as inspiration for a new spin. What isn’t always acknowledged is that there’s plenty of originality to be found in each individual interpretation, even if the bare bones of the story are the same. To use a cookery analogy, each teller is not claiming to have invited potato soup, but that’s not the point. What matters is that they’re telling us, “This is how I make potato soup”. Additionally, different national storytelling traditions constantly intermingle, and this has always been the case.

Classical music also provides a good analogy for fairy tales, as it’s an art form where we recognise the artistry in both composition and interpretation. Though we tend to think of literature mainly in terms of single voices, the tunes of fairy tales are still here to be reinterpreted. This is of course very different from the Romantic individualistic notion of the lone genius — though interestingly enough, the Romantics were themselves big retellers of traditional ballads. This is why Warner is critical of Andrew Lang, even though she grew up with his fairy tale collections: because they were too standardised, to the point where they lost all local colouring. Lang believed in finding the universal essence in stories from around the world; but the more she studies fairy tales, the more Warner believes their distinct details matter.

Another important thing about fairy tales is that they imply a spoken voice: there has to be a teller. However, the format has always been characterised by a constant motion from page to voice and voice to page. There are no discreet oral and written traditions, but a perpetual back and forth. The implied tellers of fairy tales are often revealing of assumptions about and attitudes towards gender and class. They’re often assumed to be female, even in the Grimms’ collected tales, and they have undergone noticeable class shifts, from the courtly circles of Madame d’Aulnoy to Perrault’s popular Mother Goose.

Warner explained that she became interested in fairy tales in the context of late 1960s and 1970s “interrogation of the genre to see what to see what it would yield”, which was embodied by writers such as Angela Carter and Sara Maitland and of course informed by feminism. She believes that there’s a real emotional core to fairy tales, which is why they continue to resonate with contemporary readers and writers and are still being retold today. Speaking of recent reimaginings, she recommended Maleficent, particularly as “someone who has been engaged in thinking about what fairy tales have been saying about women for several decades”, and said she was impressed by the possibilities opened by the ending (I have since watched it, and have thoughts that may or may not eventually find their way into a post).

Lastly, Warner talked about how fairy tales have historically been used to disguise anti-establishment criticism, and how this continues to be true to this day. She finished by paraphrasing a Walter Benjamin quote she particularly likes: fairy tales often bring us portrayals of people with cunning and high spirits who defeat the system, and that at least opens the door.

Sarah Waters, Kim Newman, D.B. Pierre, and chair Mark Lawson on the Gothic tradition: Lastly, I went to one of the talks that happened around the British Library’s Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition. My main motivator to travel all the way to London was the fact that I’d wanted to go to a Sarah Waters event for well over five years; however, while this one was great, it was perhaps not ideal. First of all, because it was a panel discussion and there was a very big gap between my interest in Sarah Waters and my interest in everyone else. Secondly, because a gig I’d had tickets to for ages was rescheduled for the same evening as this, so I had to miss the audience Q&A and the signing afterwards. Woe. Better luck next time? On the bright side, seeing Sarah Waters walk past me with a Persephone tote bag was worth the journey in itself.

Before I tell you about the evening, let me pause for an acknowledgement of the huge bias in my notes. I wrote down what Sarah Waters said and didn’t pay all that much attention to anyone else. Nothing against the other speakers — I was just too distracted by Waters’ brilliance and by my long-standing brain crush on her.

At the start of the discussion, the panelists were asked to define Gothic, and Sarah Waters said that to her the genre is characterized by three main ingredients: a sense of confinement, threat and disorientation. The threat and confinement can come from all sorts of structures, physical as well as social. As for disorientation, Gothic works often echo this in their form as well as their content and are disorienting themselves. She gave Robert Aickman, whose work she said she was finally reading and loving, as an example: he writes stories that are untidy and unresolved, and wonderfully Gothic for that very reason.

There were brief readings after the opening comments, and Waters read the shuddering looking glass scene from The Little Stranger, which she called her “most Gothic work”. I’ve always found that scene terrifying, and listening to Sarah Waters read it was perfect. I know I’m always saying I’m not the biggest fan of readings, but really good ones always make me take those words back. Not every writer is a good public reader, which is understandable enough, but I’m happy to say that Sarah Waters is.

Later on she said that it’s very hard to tell when you’re writing if you’re succeeding when it comes to moving readers in such a visceral way as fear. I can see how that would be the case, but the scene she read is a triumph. Another thing Waters discussed was her research for The Little Stranger: she read a lot of Poltergeist stories and found them both unnerving and fascinating, particularly for all the repressed feelings, buried resentments and twisted dynamics they allow expression in a household.

The panelists also talked about different ways to convey fear across different media: Sarah Waters finds a book’s potential for having an unreliable narrator very useful when it comes to telling Gothic stories. Readers never quite know what happened, and as a writer you can play with that doubt. Kim Newman added that that makes it easier to be scary, because you can be suggestive and the readers’ imagination will fill in the rest, usually more effectively than you ever could. Both writers agreed that the 1950s horror film Night of the Demon, based on M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes”, wrecks the suggestive power of the short story by portraying the demon as a literal monster. However, Newman added that he feels that excess and parody have always been a part of the Gothic tradition, both in literature and in film. For example, he thinks The Castle of Otranto is meant to be funny rather than just seeming that way to us now.

Finally, Sarah Waters said that one of the unspoken rules of Gothic is that just gore is not enough — it has to be uncanny and unnerving. She also added that Gothic has always dealt with issues that felt very urgent at a given time. The feeling of being at the end of times was very much present for the Victorians, and, much like today’s apocalyptic stories, early Gothic novels dealt with this. On the other hand, they were also often narratives that allowed the demonization of the vulnerable in a society — for example, Lucy Westenra as an embodiment of the New Woman in Dracula. The Gothic tradition is also marked by randomness and unfairness. Like the shooting of the Albatross in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, events become triggers for a devastation that’s far beyond what’s merited by whatever initially set it off. Disproportionate punishment is a very Gothic thing, and that can be a way to address disempowerment and shed light on social conditions beyond the control of isolated individuals.


  1. I absolutely loved this post! I have only just discovered your blog and am thrilled to read other thoughts from a reader who also has a passion for feminism.

    I especially loved hearing about Sarah Waters because I just finished my first book of hers (The Paying Guests) and I am thrilled she has a whole body of work I can now enjoy. She also did a great interview on KCRW (a Los Angeles public radio station -- you can listen online), on a show called The Bookworm.

    The Gothic tradition is one I am just beginning to understand. Have you read "The Uninvited Guests" by Sadie Jones? This was the first book to re-introduce me to the Gothic novel. It's not perfect (it did lose me here and there) but I was totally enchanted by the mood of it, and also by the dark humor and humanity of it.

    Thanks for another excellent entry! I look forward to reading through your archives and your new work, too.

  2. You go to so many amazing talks! My interest is piqued by Marina Warner in particular; I've never read anything she's written but I think I'd like to.

  3. Oh I SO agree with you about the message that we don't have to put up with harassment and can stop it ourselves by some means if we just do it right. There have been times when I've snapped back at street harassers and it's been tremendously satisfying, but for each of those occasions there have been five times where I didn't feel it was light enough outside or crowded enough that I could make those remarks. And that's what's so maddening -- that random assholes who perceive women as movable street art have the power to stop me from behaving like myself and saying what I'd want to say. Blech.

    The Sarah Waters panel sounds great! Of course she had brilliant things to say about the Gothic -- and now I want to reread The Little Stranger with all of that in mind.


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.