It was a measure of my dullness, my dizziness, that it took me until mid-afternoon to see that this was Achilles’ doing. His gaze was on me always, preternaturally sensing the moment when a soldier’s eyes widened at the easy target I presented. Before he drew another breath he would cut them down.

We chose The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller for my book group via a poll, probably because there was so much talk about it and because it had won this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. It’s a strange thing. I began to see reviews trickling through my blog timeline since early in the year. Glowing reviews from all sorts of book blogs, many with an interest in contemporary rather than classical literature. And yet they were all uniformly fervent in their enthusiasm for this book. I love Greek mythology. But the story of Achilles and Troy has been recounted so many times, the last version in a rather tedious film version. So I was curious about this book but not enough to bring myself to read it just yet.

But what a find. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I read the first page of a book and felt its rhythm, the poetic trilling of the language, the little pauses between each phrase that pricked my emotions like darts.

Miller’s Achilles is the epitome of godliness with just enough humanity and wide, clear-eyed honesty to make him the most desirable of men. And Patroclus, the mortal who catches his eye, the greatest of the Myrmidons with such compassion and honour to be just the one to tell Achilles’ story. At The Song of Achilles‘ core is their love story in its purest form, the siege of Troy unfolding in the background, the inevitable, grief-stricken climax the only plausible ending to their tale.

I devoured this book and yet I didn’t want it to end. I read it in snatches, inching towards the finale, knowing what was coming, straining against it and yet, Miller’s beautiful, lyrical prose kept nudging me forward. In all the violence and machismo of Ancient Greece, she has teased out its beauty and I wanted to feel the warm sunshine on my skin, lying on the beach staring out at the sea just like Achilles and Patroclus.

One of the things I loved about Miller’s retelling is that she kept the gods and their divine powers intact. She didn’t try to explain them away in some rational way. The whim of the gods as they played their games is all the more cruel because of their effect on the mortals. Achilles’ tutor Chiron, the wise centaur who first so frightened Patroclus at the beginning. Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis is cold and frightening in her majesty, all her love and ambition poured into her only son, the result of a forced union with Peleus, the King of Phthia.

She would return only to visit the boy, never for any other reason, and never for long. The rest of the time the child was raised by tutors and nurses, and overseen by Pohinix, Peleus’ most trusted counsellor. Did Peleus ever regret the gods’ gift to him? An ordinary wife would have counted herself lucky to find a husband with Peleus’ mildness, his smile-lined face. But for the sea-nymph Thetis nothing could ever eclipse the stain of dirty, mortal mediocrity.

And all the kings of the Greek kingdoms, many heroes in their own tales including Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his sly, silvery tongue who lures Achilles into Agamemnon’s war to rescue his brother Menelaus’ beautiful wife, Helen from Troy. They are all there, muddied by their mortality against Achilles’ semi-divine majesty. The injustice of the women’s plight in a man’s world, told with compassion through Patroclus’ eyes.

Patroclus’ retelling of his love for Achilles is beautiful and melancholic, overcast by the prophecy of Achilles’ death sealed by the slaying of Hector of Troy. And so they both embark on the war against Troy while avoiding any encounters with Hector so as not to fulfill the prophecy. And yet the gods are cruel. And we see Achilles change as he becomes the Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. In a camp of hardened soldiers and proud kings, it is not only the Trojans Achilles must best but his destiny. But when Patroclus dies at Hector’s hand, Achilles goes on a violent rampage to seek his revenge. And although Achilles dies before the fall of Troy, this is only accomplished with the arrival of Achilles’ monstrous son Pyrrhus, moulded again by Thetis’ ambition.

Miller’s gift is that she has recreated something beautiful and new out of a tale told over a thousand times. I’m truly curious as to what she will produce next. And I do hope she does. It’s an astonishing feat and truly deserves its prize. And it’s Donna Tartt’s book of the year.

You may also want to check out Danielle and Karen‘s thoughts on the book.

A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.

I’ve been meaning to re-read some of my favourite books but have gone down the book blogger’s rabbit hole where, frankly, I have so many unread books I don’t have time for the books I’ve already read. One of the lovely things about book group is sometimes you get the chance to re-read. And this month, it’s Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys chosen by Polly for our book group (do also check out Kim’s review).

It’s almost ten years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea. I remember the lushness of Jamaica and Antoinette’s crumbling life. But not much more. Rochester is a nameless, faceless man. That’s the thing about classics. You often find that on first reading, much of the story escapes you. It was the same with Jane Eyre which I read at school. I read a lot of classics back then but I suspect most of them were too complex for me to understand fully. So when I re-read Jane Eyre as an adult, I was shocked at the intensity of Jane’s feelings, the beauty of Charlotte Brontë’s prose, the immediacy of her situation. And like many others, I couldn’t shake the nagging, troublesome vision of the woman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. And when I learnt that Jean Rhys had written a prequel, I had to find out more.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the tale of Antoinette Cosway and how she became Bertha Mason. Born a creole in Jamaica in the early 19th century to a British slave owner for a father and a mother from Martinique driven by poverty and loss to madness, Antoinette is unable to shake off her familial legacy in a newly emancipated Jamaica. She is constantly questioning her identity and searching for her place in this world because, Rochester notes,

creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.

When her step-father arranges a mutually beneficial marriage (money for him, repectability for her), she is at first wary but soon falls in love with her new husband. But Rochester, young, naïve, superficial, initally dazzled by Antoinette and the strange magic Jamaica casts upon him, slowly grows suspicious of this wild, enchanting thing he has married. And when they return to one of her family homes for their honeymoon, the people and land from her past whisper ugly truths into his ears and he starts to believe he has been tricked. For a man like Rochester, who is all pride and who guards his love jealously, he can only torment his wife. As Antoinette desperately seeks to save their love, she turns to Christophine, her mother’s maid and the only person she feels is like family, begging her to make Rochester love her. But this only sparks the flames and drives Rochester to make a drastic decision.

Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I am struck anew by the pathos and crushing unfairness of Antoinette’s plight. What I had remembered from my first reading (and from what I had read about others’ reactions to the book) was Antoinette’s knowingness and the way she manipulated Rochester. And yet, it’s her innocence and naïveté which left an impression this time. It is only Rochester’s bitter and twisted mind that cannot see past the rumours about Antoinette.

Like some have said, this isn’t the picture of Rochester you get from Jane Eyre. But then Rochester is a pretty horrible man at the start of the novel. So it’s interesting to see why he is that way. Rhys doesn’t name Rochester and he remains a nameless and faceless man; a jailer. I can’t say it’s Antoinette fault really, it seems Rochester has always been that way and his meeting with Antoinette somehow solidifies his persona.

I couldn’t help but compare this with Romesh Gunesekera’s recent novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, which was so light and different in tone even though it did cover some dark history. Rhys’ novel is more primal. The wild greenery, the colours, the sound adds to the gothic chill when you contrast it to the silence laden with secrets and sorrow in Antoinette’s family.

But however much colour and vibrancy Rhys injects into the story with her beautiful and stinging prose, Wide Sargasso Sea is a dark tale with an ever present sense of foreboding and claustrophobia. But this may be because we know of Antoinette’s inevitable fate which will naturally colour our reading.

Even though Jamaica is where Antoinette belongs, she is still ‘other’, separated by the colour of her skin and ancestry. But this is a different ‘other’ to what Rochester feels. Rochester is an alien in a bewitching land he does not understand and yet is seduced by it.

Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.

And this is while they are on their honeymoon.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first is Antoinette’s tale from her childhood until she meets Rochester. The second is told by Rochester interspersed with Antoinette’s explanations. And the third is told by Grace Poole and Antoinette when she is incarcerated in Thornfield. The structure of the novel in this way works brilliantly. If it had been one long continuous narrative, it would have become too heavy, too disturbing and I would have felt reluctant to continue, knowing what was going to happen.

The thing that I kept asking myself throughout was why was Rochester so angry, so hurtful? Why did he treat Antoinette in the way he did? Was it because he believed he had been tricked and made a fool of? If he didn’t love Antoinette, why didn’t he let her go? No one would know in England. But he didn’t want to release her. And he mentally abused her by changing her name to Bertha and erasing her identity, something that was so vital to her. It’s chilling.

In his introduction to her novel, Francis Wyndham aptly called Rhys one of ‘the purest writers of her time.’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a stripped down novel of raw emotion; superb, masterful, vivid and rich. It doesn’t answer all your questions but it does leave you thinking about the unhappy couple long after you’ve turned the last page.

Published by Pushkin Press, Antal Szerb’s literary masterpiece Journey by Moonlight is indeed a masterpiece. I had never heard of the title or author until it was chosen by Polly for book group and I have to admit I inwardly groaned to hear it was an East European title and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for something dark and heavy. I know, I’m such an ignorant uncultured. But this, Journey by Moonlight, was truly sublime. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. I thought it was a confused mixture that reminded me simultaneously of Sandor Marai’s Embers which left me lukewarm and my favourite novel of all time, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Yet this feeling lasted only for a chapter or so and it quickly began to morph into something else.

Mihály is on his honeymoon to Venice with his new wife Erzsi whom he has seduced and stolen away from her first husband Zoltán Pataki. It is his first time in Italy, a country he has often dreamt of as an adolescent with his friends, Támás and Éva, and later their schoolmates János and Ervin. Now 36, Mihály suddenly finds himself in a bout of intense nostalgia and longing for the friends he has lost and, leaving his wife on a train back to Rome, escapes from his world that has lost all meaning. In doing so, he sets about a train of events that will lead him to ponder his life, re-encounter his friends who have all struck out on their individual paths and shake the ghost of Támás once and for all.

This is quite a difficult novel to describe. In some sense it is a bildungsroman but of a 36 year old man who has never really grown up. Mihály, who has always been different, has spent his whole life conforming and has finally reached breaking point upon completing what he has set out to do by making a respectable marriage approved by all. It’s like a version of what happens next to the Generation X of the interwar years. There is a heavy air of melancholia particular to Mittel-European literature that pervades this novel, but Szerb’s skill as a writer keeps a light touch throughout. There are episodes that made me laugh at the absurdity of people, especially those to do with Zoltán, a businessman playboy who has lost the only thing he has ever loved and would do anything to get his beloved wife back, and Mihály’s university friend Rudi Waldheim, a pompous academic who forever lives as though he was still a student even though he is saddled with a wife and child who abhor him for his common ancestry.

In some ways Journey by Moonlight is a love letter to pre-WWII Italy. Yet for a novel written in the 1930s, it felt incredibly modern. There is a lot of history, culture and philosophy, profound thoughts that Mihály has on his journey, but Szerb is a wonderful writer, and his translator Len Rix does him justice, making this a smooth and interesting reading experience. He describes the small, petty cowardices in man, things which we have all experienced and hence recognise in Mihály. It could be middle-age crisis, but it feels like something he has been dragging throughout his life. What I really liked about the novel was the vitality of the characters. They had an intimacy that drew you in, an empathy which kept you hoping that things will work out.

I didn’t know how the ending would have worked out, but after I read the last page, I felt that this novel was complete. In the afterword, Len Rix says that Journey by Moonlight is a novel that every Hungarian school kid is made to read. I can understand why because it is a beautiful and brilliant book. But I’m not sure whether I would have understood it as teenager myself.

However, I will leave you with my favourite quote from the book which left me smiling:

‘In London November isn’t a month,’ he said, ‘it’s a state of mind.’

SO true.

Kim and Polly have also written about the book so do check them out.

I am stunned. Stunned that this book is so unflinching, honest, visceral and that it was published in the 1930s. I watched the film starring Elizabeth Taylor for which she won an Oscar many years ago and recall being taken aback at the raciness in the film. It’s black and white and I’d always assumed those films never had any sex in them. Boy was I wrong.

It’s timely that I started reading BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara straight after finishing Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast set during the same era but in Paris. They speak of the same people, the Depression, the bright young things and cocktails and speakeasys and O’Hara even mentions one of Hemingway’s books. I think what really struck me was that BUtterfield 8 is a contemporary book and I can only imagine how shocking it must have been when it was first published. The frankness with which O’Hara discusses sex and the problems with sex from the women’s point of view is refreshing. But then there’s also sexual abuse, paedophilia, rape. What comes across is how modern this novel is. How modern O’Hara’s interpretation is of the reasons and results of people’s actions because of what has gone on before.

Part of the reason why I felt this book resonated is that I really liked the character of Gloria Wandrous. What a wonderful name. She’s flawed, impetuous and contrary, yet there is a softness at her core that you can’t help caring about. She reminded me a little of Holly Golightly, the iconic hero of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, lost yet looking for love. Although I was surprised at the freedom Gloria experienced, going out, staying out all night, O’Hara’s story isn’t just about her, but also about marriage and expectations and there are enough characters to show a spectrum of lives amongst the privileged. It’s the Depression, so they may be out of pocket, but they are far removed from the characters populating Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side in Depression-era New Orleans.

I was very unimpressed with the character of Gloria’s lover, married Mr. Weston Liggett. I couldn’t understand what she saw in him and thought he was much creepier than creepy old Dr. Reddington. In fact, I don’t think she knew what she saw in him either. However, I really liked her friend Eddie Brunner, a young illustrator living off pennies but ever optimistic, just like the other Yale and Princeton boys so reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s crowd.

This book was chosen by Claire for our book group and I’m really glad she did. It also provided a very interesting discussion at book group with a whole spectrum of opinions where I gave my first 9/10 score. Yes, I loved it that much. And check out Polly and Kim’s posts to see what they thought of the book.

BUtterfield 8 has been on my radar for many years and I’m glad there’s been enough years in between watching the film and reading it to make this a surprisingly shocking read for me. Especially since Gloria Wandrous is based on a real person. But don’t go and google Starr Faithful until you’ve read the book! If you want something along the lines of Hemingway and Fitzgerald but with no holds barred, give O’Hara’s novel a go. I’m definitely interested in reading more.

I’ve been curious about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House since I first came across how influential it was in Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar’s intellectual upbringing. Chandrasekhar was the subject of my PhD thesis and I read everything I could on him and his work. Being a serious and rather grave young man, his letters show his reading interests to be Virginia Woolf, Henrik Ibsen, Ivan Turgenev and the Bhagavad Gita. Alas, I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them except for Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own last year. In contrast, his hero and nemesis, the great Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington who was instrumental in introducing Einstein’s general relativity to Britain (portrayed by David Tennant in the film Einstein and Eddington), was a huge fan of murder mysteries and went through them like nobody’s business.

I had initially gone into A Doll’s House thinking it was going to be a grand tragedy and when I started reading the first few pages, my suspicions seemed confirmed. What surprised me greatly was how masterful Ibsen is in imbuing the text with tension from the outset and slowly and inevitably cranking it up. A little like torture. Which is how I felt Nora must have been feeling when she realises that her secret may be exposed. You can read Emily Jane’s introduction here and some discussion points here at the A Year of Feminist Classics blog. Do go and check it out to see what others thought of this play.

A Doll’s House centres on Nora, mother of three and wife of Torvald who has recently received a promotion as bank manager. Torvald treats her preciously, often calling her his pretty little pet and making petty remarks and scolding her for not fitting in to his vision of ideal womanhood. Reading his words was simultaneously chilling and revolting and added to the increasing tension. There can be no doubt that Torvald is in love with his wife, or the idea of his wife, but often treats her like a spoilt child. Things go awry when Krogstad, a colleague of Torvald’s with a blot on his reputation, drops in and it becomes clear that Nora had borrowed some money in secret to help Torvald recuperate when he was ill some years ago. A forged IOU and the threat of exposure drives Nora to desperation as she tries to cover her tracks and keep her family life intact. Things are not helped when Nora’s childhood friend Mrs. Linde, a widow, arrives asking for help and Torvald hires her to replace Krogstad.

I am actually astounded that this play was written by a man and published in 1879. No wonder there was such outrage when it was first performed, especially in such a tight-laced and religious society. To question what society (i.e. men) deemed was appropriate in life, marriage and finances was almost sacreligious.

In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Ibsen is quoted as saying in his notes

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.

It seems that for a woman, there can be no win-win situation and that is what Ibsen was trying to address. I was actually rather worried that Nora would consider taking her own life and dreaded finishing the play but was pleasantly surprised when she showed her strength and finally awakened to who she really was. I’m sure she knew all along who she was, but I feel that she played along to what was expected of her and in doing so constructed her own prison.

None of the characters are especially likeable, even Nora at the beginning. Torvald is repulsive as a husband and a man, pompous and self-righteous spewing words without the strength of action behind them, ready to sacrifice his wife to save his own reputation. I was especially surprised by Mrs. Linde’s actions as she was the one person who could have saved Nora, yet didn’t perhaps from a misguided sense of fairness. I am assuming that it is because she didn’t know Torvald’s character well but it could well have been due to envy. Krogstad redeems himself and only wanted another chance. And Nora, well Nora, I was genuinely surprised. Yet I was also bewildered at her decision when it came to her children. I felt it was too hastily made. But then maybe I am also constrained by what society expects of women and cannot myself break away so easily. Ultimately, it is a choice between what is true freedom for a person and what society deems is freedom.

I genuinely did not expect to enjoy reading A Doll’s House as much as I have. I was expecting a somewhat dry and, dare I say it, boring play but this was tense, fast-paced and exhiliarating. And very modern. The questions it raises are still very much relevant to women today. And now I really want to see the play!

I read this as part of A Year of Feminist Classics project for March where you can find out more about the monthly reading list. Also please do check out Violet’s fantastic review which really puts some of these issues into perspective.

I won this book courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics in their weekly twitter competition on Fridays.

I’ve had A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf for a number of year now and although I had every intention of reading it, somehow time slipped through my fingers and it lay unopened on my shelf until the Women Unbound challenge thrust it into the spotlight. I’m not the first to admit that Woolf scares me a little. And I haven’t attempted to read any of her fiction yet, although I have To the Lighthouse and The Waves on my shelves. You can probably tell I didn’t do a literature degree! This was the first book that came to mind when I began the challenge a year ago and I was determined to read it before the close. And I can bang my head against the wall because I wish I hadn’t dithered so and just opened the d*mned book and started earlier because it surprised me at how easy Woolf’s prose was to read. Really. But there’s a lot in there. So just to warn you, this is going to be a REALLY LONG post, but I hope you read it:)

Woolf’s most famous words were:

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction

Or to paraphrase, in order to write, a woman will need a room of her own and £500 a year (which is what Woolf’s aunt left her upon her death). I calculated what this meant in modern currency and it gave a sum of approx. £16,500. And I’m assuming that is without having the need to work. I suppose I could live on that amount alone and if I didn’t have to work, I may even be able to write. And to have a room which can be locked from the inside would indeed be bliss. You can shut out the world and all the chores you are required to do and just get some head space. I did, however, blink in surprise when she said if she had to choose between the vote or money, she would take financial freedom (married women over 30 were given the vote in 1919). And she urges all women to get out their, find work and become financially independent.

What really warmed me to Woolf is how funny she is. She doesn’t write like some pontificating grande dame who looks down upon the unenlightened and tells you how to think. Her prose is engaging and what shocked me was how relevant her arguments are even today. Men may bang on about how tiresome the same old arguments are, but frankly, they can go on banging on about it because unless things change, the plight of women will remain the same. I kept nodding at each page because I agreed with Woolf and because she manages to articulate the anger and bewilderment that many of us experience including myself. I really didn’t expect to keep on agreeing with every word she said because they are relevant today.

One of the things that struck me in the past when I first began thinking about feminism and women’s place in society is that behind each oppressive act was an anger towards women that I simply could not understand. Why would you need to keep a women in her place, tied to the bed and kitchen? Why weren’t women allowed to work? Why weren’t they allowed an education? And why weren’t they given the opportunity to make their own choices? Why is it that women had to conform to rules made by men which didn’t apply to themselves? The hypocrisy alone makes me boil with rage.

My bewilderment may sound naïve, but I was brought up in a household where I never had to question these things. I, and most of my friends, grew up thinking it was our right to have an education and a job and not to think that marriage was the endpoint to our upbringing and that motherhood was the sole reason for our existence. And I still believe that, although I have no quarrels with marriage (provided I get to choose my own husband) or children (I love babies and it’s good to have family around you when you grow old). Our fathers never had to exert control over our families because they made decisions together with our mothers. I’m not against men and I certainly don’t hate them. I rather like most of the men in my life and I feel women need men as much as men need women.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses precisely this anger that many male writers were unable to hide in their rantings against women. And the only conclusion she can rationally come up with is that women have the power to shrink a man’s ego, an unforgiveable sin. It’s interesting because in many a discussion I’ve had with friends, we always end up saying that it is because men fear women that they feel the need to oppress them. But I don’t understand this fear either. But Woolf explains,

Possibly they were not ‘angry’ at all; often, indeed, they were admiring, devoted, expemplary in the relations of private life. Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.

Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most human, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!’ The exclamation to me so surprising – for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? – was not merely a cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself. Women served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticsm. for if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrink, his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing native, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquest, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?

This may be a simplistic argument, and rather tongue-in-cheek, but you get the drift.

In the introduction, Hermione Lee says A Room of One’s Own is about education, exclusion and writing. Woolf tackles all three subjects and shows how intertwined and inseparable they are. Published in 1928, A Room of One’s Ownwas originally a lecture titled Women and Fiction. Going back through literary history, Woolf shows us why there is no female equivalent of Shakespeare, how circumstances would have prevented say, for example, Shakespeare’s sister (if he had one) from accomplishing the same even if she had the gift. (On an aside, I’m really happy coming across the term Shakespeare’s sister here as lots of connections and quotes fall into place:))

Woolf also spends a large part of the essay discussing Austen and the Brontës, comparing the way they created their work: Austen hiding as she wrote and Charlotte Brontë rebelling against her lot in life. It seems as though Charlotte’s anger and rebellion, although creating an interesting and real character in Jane Eyre is also the cause of it’s failure as a novel compared to Pride & Prejudice. Interesting, no? But why is this? Woolf goes on to explain,

But how all this be affected by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist – that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer? Now in the passages I quoted form Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience – she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve. But there were many more influences than anger tugging at her imagination and deflecting it from its path. The portrait of Rochester is drawn in the dark. We feel the influence of fear in it; just as we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain.

Here Woolf is referring to her earlier theory that if you are a woman and weighed down by poverty, it is almost impossible to write not only because of the lack of finance and space, but because of the feeling of bitterness that will pervade you.

She continues,

And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to ficton. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. … One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism;… She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. it does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. … She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.

But how impossible it must have been for them not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticsm, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue – write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that the voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-consicentious governess, adjuring them … to be refined

However much she admires Charlotte Brontë, you can’t but get the feeling that there is too much raw passion and anger in her writing that somehow jarrs with Woolf. And regarding the importance of men’s fiction over women’s, don’t you get a sense of déjà vu re: Franzengate?

But then she contradicts herself with this:

The very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice and cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.

Hmm. So I’m a little confused now. It’s as though in order to be a writer, you must keep your own voice but not write like a woman. What does that mean? Anyone?

I could go on and on and probably end up quoting the whole book, so I’ll stop here. But I highly recommend you read this book. It’s a great introduction to issues that are still relevant today and will give you an idea of the complexity and inherent misogyny in our society. And she highlights the struggles faced by women writers who not only have to write spectacularly but outside the constraints of being a woman.

There have been some criticism of A Room of One’s Own where Woolf is accused of not being angry enough and having too soft a tone. It certainly isn’t a vitriolic diatribe against men, but I feel it brings out all the issues women should think about, sinks its hook into our minds and lets these ideas ferment and grow. This I think is the first step in thinking independently about our place in society and the choices we make.

I’m trying to finish Three Guineas, its sequel (about education, exclusion and war) which is also in the edition I have, but I don’t think I’ll have enough days to finish reading, thinking and writing about it in time for the challenge. But I will of course discuss it with you as I’m on a roll!

This completes my Women Unbound challenge. Yahay!

So, I’m sure a lot of you out there have read A Room of One’s Own. What did you think? Did you agree with Woolf? Did I misunderstand her? Did I put too many quotations in this post???

As a student I worked in a Japanese bookshop in London for many years and was surrounded by so many Japanese authors, but was rather slow in reading any of their books. So I jumped at joining Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literary Challenge 3 which was a metaphorical kick up the backside and made me read a few books that had been hanging around my TBR shelf. And it was a revelation because I enjoyed everything I read and it was a welcome break from the usual mysteries I can’t seem to keep my hands off. The JLC3 was also the first challenge I joined since I started blogging and it was a wonderful way of meeting so many interesting and charming bloggers and learning about books that I might not have normally gone for. So thank you Bellezza for the challenge and for warmly welcoming me into the blogging world!

For the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 I read the following:

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Out of this lot, I think my favourites were Kafka on the Shore for Murakami’s lyrical style and fantastic story and The Makioka Sisters for Tanizaki’s insight into the lives of the four sisters in early 20th century Japan. His modern prose style was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

So, I’ve already started hoarding books for the next JLC4 and can’t wait for it to arrive!