Tag Archive | Maternity

Béatrice Didier on L’écriture-femme: Female Writers and their Texts

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‘L’écriture féminine est une écriture du Dedans : l’intérieur du corps, l’intérieur de la maison’; this is a statement which very well exemplifies Didier’s thoughts on female writing in her book L’écriture-femme, a brief but very interesting selection of female writers since the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The book is lovely written and very reccomendable for its analysis of the works of a few authors. Didier approaches her analysis from that which makes singular a female writing in contrast to a male writing; in this context, she outlines writing and text characteristics usually belonging to women writers – she repeatedly warns against dangerous generalizations but insists on a set of particular details usually found in female writings. At the end of the book she calls for a mutual enrichment between male and female authors learning from what they can teach to each other being her critique directed towards the historical Western general exclusion of female approaches to the text and over-valorization of what is masculine. For female writers to be awarded there is no need to write like men but to accept how  – and what – they write.

Historically, being women more confined to their domestic spaces, they wrote about what was inside the house, about topics talked mostly among women, and issues they were concerned about, and they have done it differently than men. Yet in the 20th C. there are big differences between Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford being they both recognized Modernist and cultivated writers. Henry James and Edith Wharton are another example of fellow contemporaries who read each other, and still an attentive reader can draw a line from Jane Austen to Emily Brontë finishing in Wharton, so different from James’s narrative, style and approach to reality. Didier, Cixous did, relates female writing to the female body, but also to women’s relationship with the house and maternity: ‘Le désir d’écrire, aussi fondamental peut-être que le désir d’enfanter et qui probablement répond à la même pulsion, ne pouvait être utilisé de la même façon par la société. Si l’enfantement apparaissait comme la condition même de la survie de tout groupe humain et par conséquent devait être organisé dans une structure sociale, le désir d’écrire, lui, semblait au contraire marginal, subversif, à tout le moins inutile’. Therefore, creation and pro-creation going hand by hand, and indeed, it is not till Modernism that most women wrote and wrote subversive literature. According to Didier, psychoanalysis may have pushed these women to write due to its assertion that differences on identities were important: ‘La véritable conquête de l’écriture féminine moderne aura été peut-être, aidée là encore par tout un courant de pensée issu à la foi de la psychanalyse et de l’existensialisme, d’inscrire différemment l’identité dans le texte’.

Some of the characteristics Didier attributes to female writing are its orality: being women the ones who repeated tales inside the house, they transmitted oral particularities to the written text: ‘une écriture telle que le flux de la parole s’y retrouve, avec ses soubresauts, ses ruptures et ses cris’. Another characteristic is the temporal perception strongly marked by women’s biological cycles: ‘Il est possible aussi que la femme ressente le temps autrement que ne le fait l’homme, puisque son rythme biologique est spécifique. Temps cyclique, toujours recommencé, mais, avec ses ruptures, sa monotonie et ses discontinuités’. And finally the body makes another big difference: ‘‘La présence de la personne et du sujet impose immanquablement la présence du corps dans le texte. Et il est bien évident que c’est peut-être le seul point sur lequel la spécificité soit absolument incontestable, absolue. Si l’écriture féminine apparaît comme neuve et révolutionnaire, c’est dans la mesure où elle est écriture du corps féminin’.

The body is undeniable, and marks a very visible difference and one may say it makes physical the two previous points: voice and biological temporality. But the female also feels different from the male one, and experiences sexuality in another way – being of course, at the same time, different for every single person – so that it may affect the writing. It explains again the boom of female writers, so to say, after Freud, writing not only in a very particular way but of their bodies: the female body, so under control during the 19th C., is put into paper by women- men did it before – at the turn of the century: ‘Monde de sensations jusque-là inexplorées et qui supposeraient, pour etre exprimées, une autre langue’.

Mme Bovary as Literary Example of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Claims

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley, was a feminist author who wrote in 1792,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an exhaustive critique of women’s education in her time, and their consequent place in society. To a contemporary reader, Wollstonecraft’s feminism may be similar to Christian or conservative feminism: she bases women’s right to education on its importance to be a good female Christian, that is mostly, to be a good wife and daughter, and, simultaneously, she exalts the virtue of chastity. Wollstonecraft’s text gives to the reader a good insight of what might be going on in genre relationships at the end of the 18th C. The author repeatedly shows her distress with the position women were left to: objects of desire. The lack of intellectual education was the cause, according to the author, of adultery and debauchery in marriage and within the family, affecting the whole of society. Women’s education taught them to be superficial limiting themselves to elegance and in being worshipped by men, or, and that is the dangerous point for Wollstonecraft, by seducers: ‘The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them’.

Understanding is placed as touchstone of domestic virtue and social freedom, while mere female slaves will never really understand their duties becoming thus completely vulnerable and morally weak. Wollstonecraft claims that her contemporary females obeyed without understanding, and, mostly were flattered by their husbands-to-be which supposed that once passion finished, the wife may be in need of another flatterer. If there is an author Wollstonecraft attacks is, easily to imagine, Rousseau who created the ‘angel of the house’ which pervaded the whole 19th C and beyond. Rousseau related knowledge with evil, therefore women should not need the reasons but the aims they were intended to achieved. Wollstonecraft’s reply is: ‘The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural. Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. So that if they have any sense, it is a kind of instinctive glance that catches proportions, and decides with respect to manners, but fails when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed’.

Women, follows the author, only learn to imagine and dream with romantic and passionate love; they are taught how to please and expect a perpetual worship from their husbands for the rest of their marriages without any need for intellectual affinities or friendship. The relationship between imagination and adultery, as well as the exaltation of feelings in women brings close the figure of Mme Bovary, especially in this comment: ‘I own it frequently happens, that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid affection every day, and all day. But they might as well pine as single, and would not be a jot more unhappy with a bad husband than longing for a good one’. Mme Bovary is a work from 1856, and it is the work of adultery par excellence as the obsessive nightmare of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert describes a situation and a character which Wollstonecraft warned against more than half a century earlier.

Another treat of Emma Bovary is her fetichism and need for consumption, consumption to improve her body, her appearance once she is completely led astray by her multiple affairs. Emma’s debt can be seen as an unlimited desire for physical self which is fed by an unstoppable need for being desired. Wollstonecraft argues women were enslaved to their bodies because they were made weak since childhood paying not enough attention to their health, this situation endured her subjection: ‘Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison’.

Wollstonecraft finally relates the private with the public sphere, a very Victorian idea: the good inside makes the good outside. The notion of Victorian privacy was crucial (and still is, just look for example to the American relationship between politics and private life) to a welfare state, and here are already some thoughts on that: ‘Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens’.

The author also criticizes the difference in what is expected from men and women: while women are insisted in being chaste, men are forgiven for their lust. Mme Bovary could only die, as it does Anna Karenina or Effi Briest, but there is no a bit of social critique to their lovers. However, as Tolstoi exemplifies in his book The Kreutzer Sonata, male promiscuity affects as much as female the wellbeing of marriage; being women the only bearers of the fault was of course naturally unfair but the conclusion of the whole system of thought Bourgeoisie society depended on.

CfChapters: Evil Women and Mean Girls

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Texas Tech University is editing a book dedicated to historical representations of the female evilness from an interdisciplinary perspective. This book aims to explore topics such as the relationship between evil and female sexuality, female villains, or any association of evil with women and how have they historically differed from those of men.

More information here: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/56763

Elisabeth Badinter, L’amour en plus (II): Rousseau, and the Nouvelle Mère

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It seems that Rousseau has really been the first creator and promotor of this new mother: the one who appears at the end of the 18th century and, even if one may acknowledge another revolution with Freud, she still pervades nowadays. Rousseau’s work Emile was literally a manual for the new mother who learnt there how to wash, feed, educate and take care of her child, it was the beginning of ‘le règne de l’enfant-roi’. The new mother was mainly the middle class woman, the plain bourgeoise, not the aristocracy or high bourgeoise neither the lowest classes but the woman whose world was the house and had no ambitions neither economic independence. The domestic space is thus this place where the new mother and the ‘new’ child inhabit, it is the sacred place of privacy where their mutual relationship took place and where the child may become a good citizen. Rousseau establishes in Emile a parallelism between the convent and the house, the noon and the mother, it is Julie, the new Heloïse one the new mothers who sanctified this new space, while the first Heloïse spent her life in a convent.

This idea is empowered along the 19th century when ‘en gouvernant l’enfant, la mère gouverne le monde. Son influence s’étend de la famille à la societé, et tous répètent que les hommes sont ce que les femmes les font’. Now she is also the governess, she should teach and educate her children at home, while the father keeps reduced to the workplace and outside the kingdom of mother and child. The aristocracy however despises this new bourgeoise mentality and aristocratic women decide to enjoy life without changing the previous attitude towards children. One of the best writers to depict this reality was Balzac who often shows the difference between la mère et la séductrice.

Another important figure in the 19th century is the family doctor: he helps the mother in all her concerns. The doctor is very present for example in Mme Bovary (especially in the form of pharmacist), or The Awakening, and his main role is to have plenty of knowledge of not only the physical state of the family members but also of their moral state becoming a primordial moralist against the adulterer.

Elisabeth Badinter, L’Amour en Plus (I): on maternal love

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In her work L’Amour en plus Badinter puts in question the authenticity of maternal love, and analyses the cultural influences which have built such a feeling. The book starts with an overview of maternity before the Enlightenment in France and ends with the 20th century. The first part of her research is focused on the 16th and 17th centuries when maternal love as known today was almost inexistent in society regardless of social status. There was no appeal for kindness, the child was mainly a nuisance which caused the common practice of abandoning the newborn with nurses. In the lower classes the child was left with a bad-paid nurse who often did not care about the child which actually died before the first year of life; among the high classes, parents use to choose the nurse more carefully, but some of them did not ask for news during the 4 years the child used to be away from home with the nurse. When the child came back, he had probably never meet his or her parents, and shortly after the child was put in a board school after which he/he was supposed to marry or enter religious or military life. Badinter insists in the main aim of the parents: getting rid of the child.

The second part of the book focuses on the late 18th century when, due to economic and political reasons, a new discourse begins to safe newborn lives which meant to avoid foreign nurses and keep the child at home. The new nation was in need of more -and healthy – population, therefore, a lot of propaganda was made to convince fathers and mothers of the value of parenthood. This policy was based on capitalist principles: every citizen is a source of wealth, a producer, so it is necessary to reduce mortality. A new concept was created: maternal love; mothers should breast feed their own children and fathers should become their mentors. Two main discourses were built in order to change mentalities: to men it was insist on economic reasons, to women on equality and happiness, which shows that the beginning of this new fashion was no less selfish than the previous one:

‘Soyez de bonnes mères et vous serez heureuses et respectées. Rendez-vous indispensables dans la famillie et vous obtendrez droit de cité’

To make parenthood easier, a new concept of marriage and family attitudes were also necessary, it was the turn of l’amour-amitié, and the marriage for love from where having children was the happiest fruit. This discourse was supported for the enlightened idea of earthly happiness which argued that only through freedom happiness can be achieved. Therefore, marriage should be based on free choice of the spouses which became equal as they both were free. The new mother appeared, she is now responsible for the education of her child, that is, of the nation.

In this context the modern family was created; the nuclear family and the importance of intimacy which may help to built friendship among the family members was a result of political and economic interests.