On puritans and dashing writer men.

Posted on Aug 22, 2010 in Blog

Took in another event at the Book Festival this morning.  A discussion by authors Maggie Humm & Lesley McDowell around, among other things, iconic female writers and their often tumultuous relationships with their male counterparts. 

It was, to say the least, an interesting talk.  I wondered at first at McDowell’s focus on heterosexual relationships, as there are of course many same sex relationships that have given rise to great writing, or great creativity (Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West come to mind, for one).  But then she noted that she’d decided to focus on relationships that occurred in the early part of the 20th century, and, given that most women of that time couldn’t even vote, she noted that she was intrigued by the inherent inequalities present in these relationships.  Which I found a most interesting point.  She cited the case of HG Wells and Rebecca West as a prime example of this.  Older, experienced male writer, younger, inexperienced female ingenue who happens, while maintaining her own writerly ambitions, to fall hopelessly in love.  I found the differences that McDowell outlined in their separate writing careers most fascinating.  Women of that time, especially women writers, were of course at the mercy of so many things:  money, children, society.  A man like HG Wells could gallivant around the country and have affairs with scores of women, but his writing got done and was respected and there was no danger of his dalliances ever really denting his reputation as a writer.  Whereas Ms. West, who very quickly bore a child out of wedlock to her darling HG, had to deal with a different kind of situation altogether.

It is odd, I think, to realize that these things happened less than a century ago.  That women were this oppressed less than a century ago.  That female artists couldn’t have the kind of opportunities available to male artists unless, like Ms. Woolf, they had access to a steady stream of cash.

On a slightly different note, at one point in the talk Ms. Humm mentioned that a collection of Virginia Woolf’s photographs had been deemed too risqué for publication in a recent anthology put out in America.  She laughed and cited the puritanical nature of America as part of the issue.  That, coming on the heels of last night’s discussion of all things McSweeney, made me wonder.  Is it just that mainstream America tends to be puritanical, and uptight about things like this?  (While, of course, being perfectly fine with all the skin flashed on MTV, prime time, etc.)  Or has the global perception of America/North America — because I’ve learned, since being here in the UK, that people tend to see them as one and the same — been forever branded by the Bible belt fundamentalist creed?

I certainly wouldn’t consider McSweeney’s to be a publication afraid of the risqué.  Nor does that word come to mind when thinking of The Walrus, or maisonneuve, or Geist, or scores of other publications in the good old North of A that currently exist.

Have added a few titles to the must-read list, however, as a result of today’s discussion.  Don’t know when I’ll actually get around to reading Between the Sheets or The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, of course, but at least they’ve found a place.