On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, August 11, 2006

The More Things Change...

This week I've begun, in earnest, doing my preparation for my fall "lit class with the girls" (that in fact is what I call it). This year we are going to be studying women authors. Now I could have just coasted. I did women authors with a previous group of girls and I still have tests, etc. on my computer. However, I really wanted this to be a fresh start for me as well. We are going to be doing at least a few different female authors (adding Flannery O'Connor and Fanny Burney at a minimum and probably eliminating Agatha Christie).

As is usual for my lit class prep, I headed out to the UVM library on Tuesday. I found way more books than my 10 book limit would allow me to bring home, so I settled on 10 with a promise to come back later for more. I've spent a significant chunk of time the last couple of days a. tackling a biography of Charlotte Lennox b. reading Dr Johnson's Women (which I actually own) and c. reading Mulieris Dignitatem(which I downloaded from the internet). Now while that may look a little like getting sidetracked, it's really not. One of the significant questions in looking at women authors has to do with the Christian concept of womanhood. In pursuing feminist goals many women authors abandoned Christianity, although not all did. The women authors we will read are of both sorts, although most of them started out in a Christian context, and all grew up in nominally Christian settings. So we will end up looking at women's roles in society at various points in history, how this is described by the authors, and what impact society has on the life of faith of both the characters in the novels and the authors themselves. In fact it's pretty hard to read Jane Eyre for example and not examine those questions.

Yesterday I was reading a book entitled Reader I Married Him, written by a non-Christian feminist. In it were several quotations from Elizabeth Gaskell, speaking about Charlotte Bronte. What struck me is how contemporary the comments seemed. "Henceforward Charlotte Bronte's existence becomes divided into two parallel currents -- her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Bronte, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each charcter -- not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled. When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him...But no other can take up the quiet regular dutie of the daughter, the wife, or the mother, as well as she whom God has appointed to fill that particular place; a woman's principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents... One thing is pretty clear, Women must give up living an artists life, if home duties are to be paramount. It is different with men, whose home duties are so small a part of their life. However we are talking of women. I am sure it is healthy for them to have the refuge of the hidden world of Art to shelter themseves in when too much pressed upon by daily small Lilliputian arrows of peddling cares; it keeps them from being morbid as you say, and takes them into the lad where King Arthur lies hidden, and soothes them with its peace. I have felt this in writing, I see others feel it in music, you in painting, so assuredly a blending of the two is desirable. (Home duties and the development of the individual I mean), which you will say it takes no Solomon to tell you, but the difficulty is where and when to make one set of duties subserve and give place to the other. I have no doubt that the cultivation of each tends to keep the other in a healthy state -- my grammar is all at sixes and sevens I have no doubt but never mind if you an pick out my meaning."

Several days later she added a postscript: "If Self is to be the end of exertions, those exertions are unholy, there is no doubt of that--and that is part of the danger in cultivating the Individual Life; but I do believe we have all some appointed work to do, which no one else can doso well; Wh is our work; what we have to do in advancing the Kingdom of God; and that first we must find out what we are sent into the world to do, and define it and make it clear to ourselves, (that's the hard part)and then forget ourselves in our work, and our work in the End we ought to strive to bring about."

Now does that not sound like the modern dilemma that faces serious Christian women who are called both to motherhood and some other vocation? Plus ca change... I do think that for contemporary Christian men the problem is not dissimilar. Fathers have become more aware of the need for active fathering than many men seemed to be at the time that Elizabeth Gaskell was writing. I truly believe that rural men of the soil, or craftsmen whose sons worked beside them probably even then were active fathers, but in the same way that the boss in Baby Boom saw home and family as his wife's responsibility, it was easy for the pater familias to simply leave domestic things up to his wife. Now it is also easy for a mother to leave domestic things to day care centers, or nannies and housekeepers, but I don't think that Elizabeth Gaskell would see that as an improvement. It seems to me that she saw the very balance between the human needs we are surrounded with and our intellectual pursuits to be a very good thing.

It was so encouraging to read these words and realize that here was someone who looked at the "Woman Question" from within the context of Christian faith. The author of the book was very dismissive of Gaskell's submission to Divine Will, no big surprise there. It was an example of how readers bring different world views to their reading of a passage. I happened to really relate to Gaskell, which means of course that my next library trip I'm going to have to search her out.

A message to my niece: So you see, Laura, I'm not unaware of the feminist side of things, even if I won't insist on the girls reading Simone Du Beauvoir or Sylvia Plath.


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