Some time ago I was involved in a rather heated discussion on another blog about the expectations that readers may reasonably have of writers. Among the many questions under debate was how unreasonable it was of me to \”be hard on\” male authors who portrayed women in 1 dimensional and stereotyped ways if those authors themselves lived in a time and culture where such attitudes were normal.
The discussion soon focused on a rather narrow moment in time as one poster responded to criticisms of an author by making the argument that it was unreasonable of me to expect a more enlightened attitude toward women from an author writing in the late 1960s. When I demonstrated that other authors writing at roughly the same time had been published (and received awards for) books that showed far more nuanced, varied and challenging images of women the poster countered by claiming that such writing was extraordinary and exceptional and that thus it was unreasonable of me to expect it of the author in question.
I will leave for a future post a discussion of the tendency of people to find it personally insulting a writer they enjoy(ed) is racist, exist or homophobic in order to write to the poster\’s claim that to see and write about women in a way that recognized their varied abilities, intellects and interests and that recognized and valued them in a way that did not objectify them was, in 1970, extraordinary and exceptional.
I have been, for the last day, reading Mrs. Ames, a book written by E. F. Benson and published in 1912. Benson is probably best known and remembered today for his Mapp and Lucia series and for his ghost stories. He was a popular and successful writer who wrote both fiction and nonfiction but is not considered among the great writers of his time. Yet in reading this book, which follows the life a number of upper middle-class families in a sleepy English town in the years leading up to what they would come to call \”The Great War,\” I find a deeper, more thoughtful and, sometimes, chilling picture of interior and exterior life of women than in many books written in the intervening years..
The titular Mrs. Ames becomes involved in the Suffragette movement. As the book opened she had been vaguely in support of it and she becomes more active in it as a \”stunt\” to reclaim her place as social leader of village society. However her involvement has an unexpected effects on her and the others who follow her:
And no less remarkable than this growth of the league was the growth of Mrs. Ames. . . . The bonds of her barren and barbaric conventionality were bursting; indeed, it was not so much that others, not even those of \” her class,\” were becoming women to her, as that she was becoming a woman herself. She had scarcely been one hitherto; she had been a piece of perfect propriety.
The chairman asked Mrs. Brooks to address the meeting. Another and another succeeded her, and there was complete unanimity of purpose in their suggestions. Sir James\’ meetings and his speeches to his constituents must not be allowed to proceed without interruption. If he had no sympathy with the cause, the cause would show a marked lack of sympathy with him. . . . And as the discussion went on, and real practical plans were made, that strange fascination and excitement at the thought of shouting and interrupting at a public meeting, of becoming for the first time of some consequence, began to seethe and ferment. Most of the members were women, whose lives had been passed in continuous self-repression, who had been frozen over by the narcotic ice of a completely conventional and humdrum existence. . . . To the eagerness and sincerity with which they welcomed a work that demanded justice for their sex, there was added this excitement of doing something at last. . . . To this, a sincere and wholly laudable desire, was added the more personal stimulus. They would be doing something, instead of suffering the tedium of passivity, acting instead of being acted on. For it is only through centuries of custom that the woman, physically weak and liable to be knocked down, has become the servant of the other sex. She is fiercer at heart, more courageous, more scornful of consequences than he; it is only muscular inferiority of strength that has subdued her into the place that she occupies, that, and the periods when, for the continuance of the race, she must submit to months of tender and strong inaction. [Bolding added. Note: This work is in the Public Domain]
Benson is, in many ways, the most conventional of writers. One might theorize that he, the son of woman who found companionship in partnership with another woman after her husband, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, might have observed some of what he was writing about over the dinner table at home. Neither Benson nor any of his siblings married and some have claimed that he was himself was gay. What is clear is that this good, but clearly not exceptionally good, and thoughtful but anything but ground-breaking author was able to observe, and empathize with, the realities of life for women of his class.
So, to answer that poster, I do not think it was unreasonable of me to not \”give a pass\” to a man writing in the 1970s. I was only asking him to be at least as observant and empathetic as was Benson writing over 50 years earlier.