Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Examined Life: Images of Women in Fiction, Part 2

How does the reader decide if a book is good? It depends as much upon the reader's meaning of the word "good" as it does on the book. A book that is deeply moving to one person can be leaden to another. A book which excites the interest of one person will be dull reading to the next. For a reader (such as I) who likes to sit down after finishing a book, rate it and write a review of it, answering the question as to why I enjoyed a book can take longer than did reading the book.

That said--did I enjoy E. F. Benson's Mrs. Ames? Yes. Not, I think, for the reasons that many other reviewers seem to have enjoyed it. I expected another light book about the petty machinations of superficial women and men. I expected to read about upper middle-class people who spent their time manufacturing ways of keeping busy. I expected to read about people who cared more about who preceded whom into the dining room than who was returned in the next election. I expected to read about a small group of people who were so fixated on the petty comings and goings in their own village that they were unaware of the rising level of class discontent and the looming war to come.

Yes, all that was in the book. But there was more. This is a book about what it was like to be a woman in that time and in those social circles. At the heart of the book lies the story of two marriages. Each marriage looks staid and unexceptional from the outside and yet each of the wives is emotionally unfulfilled. The book follows less than a year in the life of the village of Riseborough and yet over that short period of time each woman comes to the realization that, on an emotional level, her relationship with her husband is dead. Or perhaps, had never really been alive. Each woman struggles to find a way out of the emotional deadness at the center of her life and each undertakes a different way of "solving" the problem.

I didn't pick up this Benson expecting a thoughtful and empathetic examination of the interior life of a woman exiting middle-age. And though Mrs. Ames attempts at regaining her husband's interest are often amusing, from the point of view of the cynical watcher, they are never mocked by the author. The reader sees into the secret corners of her life and so appreciates her quiet heroism even when she does not.

Nor did I pick up this book expecting a thoughtful and empathetic portrait of the interior life of a woman who has "lived on" her beauty and charm but is now facing the depredations of middle age. Although the reader does not inhabit the mind of Mrs. Evans to the extent they do that of Mrs. Ames Benson presents a finely-etched picture of a woman who has never felt deeply about anything and wants finally to experience some of the emotions she has missed.

Did I like Mrs. Ames? Yes. I plan to read it again, soon. I also plan to read the books its author published before and after in the hopes that I will find something similar.

Was I surprised by Mrs. Ames? Again, yes. Because I have learned not to expect a deep, thoughtful and loving examination of lives of middle-aged women, irrespective of whether the book in question was written yesterday or a hundred years ago. Too often now I hear the excuse that author A or writer B should not be criticized for their misogyny or their racism or their homophobia because everyone was like that then.Well, I would not claim that Benson does not show evidence of racism or elitism or gender essentialism but Benson does not despise his characters. He may not approve of their actions, he may doubt their wisdom, he may be aware of their petty motivations and cognizant of all their weaknesses and vices but at the same time he embraces their humanity.

I wish I could say as much for many other writers.


  1. Do you think it's the difference between misogyny and sexism? that is, individual contempt vs. institutionalized discrimination?

    My "go-to" answer to "but everybody was like that!" is to point at Anthony Trollope. Victorian among the Victorians, a man of his time, took for granted that there were separate "spheres" for men and women, different rules of conduct, essential differences of nature. But women matter in his books. They are as individualized, if that's what I mean, as well characterized, as his men. What women say, what they do, what they think, what happens to them, is as important as anything to do with the men. He got it, that half the people (OK, humans, if you must!) in the world are women. Or, that women are people. Some writers, you have to wonder.

    That 70's SF novel happened to come up in conversation at work today. I'd read part of it, years ago, before I gave up in disgust.

    Me: "oh, yes, that's the one where the only woman in sight is a vapid sex object, and also it has the non-human race where the females are literally sub-sapient, like dogs or horses; I found it annoying."
    Men: * blank looks *
    Men: "But it's a classic!"

  2. Do you think it's the difference between misogyny and sexism? that is, individual contempt vs. institutionalized discrimination?

    That is a good way of analyzing it. Benson still "buys into" gender essentialism but he doesn't see women as "lesser" just different. Indeed if you read his books it is clear that he thinks that in many ways women are often stronger and more moral than are men. In this book that fact (their strength and goodness) is positioned as their weakness. They are fettered, Benson tells us, because they want (a) man to love them and therefore they continue to rescue that man from the consequences of his own behaviour.

    Now, I have to ask you -- was the classic "Ringworld" by any chance?

  3. That was the one!

    Now I'm almost tempted to re-read it, to see if it's as bad as I remember--after all, it won two major prizes, it must have had something going for it-- but life is short and the List is long.

  4. Now I'm almost tempted to re-read it,

    I tried to reread it some years ago and found it, more than offensive - stupid and embarrassing. Reading it was peeking in on the daydream fantasy of sex-deprived teenager.

  5. Ringworld is a brilliant, groundbreaking work -- and nearly unreadable these days. So much fail interspersed with nuggets of awesome... not a balanced meal.

    If the idea of a ringworld intrigues you, there are others who have done a lot more with the concept. Halo takes place on one, so you could explore the storyline of the games. Or there's the Journal Entries of Kennet R'yal Shardik which, admittedly, is furry kinky pansexual SF erotica, BUT the SF is good SF that follows its own rules and creates a believable universe. (In which lots of sex happens.) The characters (male, female, neuter and hermaphrodite) are fully-rounded, and the author explores gender dynamics and the role of identity in a post-human world. (If trans/post-humanist SF annoys you, then don't bother, unless you're reading it for the sex and/or BDSM.)

    There are probably other writers who set their stories on Ringworlds. Maybe even some who have attempted to rehabilitate Niven's universe.

  6. "If the idea of a ringworld intrigues you, there are others who have done a lot more with the concept. Halo takes place on one, so you could explore the storyline of the games."
    No it doesn't. HALO (the first one, and good parts of 2 & 3) takes place on a ring-shaped planetoid. A ringworld is a (much larger) structure that encircles an entire star.

    -- Base Delta Zero


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