Dear readers and friends,
This blog has two subjects: lesbian arts and spinsters. About a year ago I was so enthused by a review of Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts, and now I’ve been sent it to review and have skimmed the book as a preliminary move. First it’s a beautiful book, an art book, about 18th century landscape and gardening and the popular images conferred and imposed.
If one wanted seriously and earnestly to persuade readers that Jane Austen had some lesbian tendencies (as when she and Martha spent the night on the floor together one fall evening at Steventon), to substantiate Emma Donoghue’s thesis about a type of individual recognizable in the 18th century (thought not openly admitted), the lesbian spinster, one could not do better than advise the person to read this book and Moore’s previous, Dangerous Liaisons, together of course with reading selections of letters and diaries from literary women of the later 18th and early 19th century. Dangerous Liaisons close reads the overt lesbian patterns in Edgeworth’s Belinda, Austen’s Emma and takes us from a group of 18th century artists (including Mary Delany and Anna Seward) to 20th century lesbian poetry and art through nineteenth century poets (Emily Dickinson one) and into contemporary aligned art, Mickalene Thomas.
A precious – mouldering pleasure – ’tis -
To meet an Antique Book-
In just the Dress his Century wore-
A privilege – I think -
His venerable Hand to take-
And warming in our own -
A passage back – or two- to make -
To Times when he – was young -
His quaint opinions – to inspect -
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind -
The Literature of Man-
What interested Scholars – mos t-
What Competitions ran -
When Plato-was a Certainty -
And Sophocles – a Man -
When Sappho – was a living Girl -
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante – deified -
Facts Centuries before
He traverses – familiar-
As One should come to Town -
And tell you all your Dreams – were true -
He lived – where Dreams were born -
His presence is Enchantmen t-
You beg him not to go -
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize – just so –
371 — Emily Dickinson
Moore opens by going through lesbian genres, lesbian type arts hitherto not recognized nor I see the woman who were one another’s partners (as in Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd). Sister Arts is filled with color plates and drawings — all by women, often flowers and still lifes. Moore wants to show us a kind of taste or aesthetic crossing across countries and time too, and claims should be part of the lesbian matter we will attached to Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure Moore is not simply identifying l’ecriture-femme (the best book is still Beatrice Didier’s):
It may be because the general culture at large either ignores women-centered writing and its characteristics or downright despises it that it begins to seem lesbian. But I’ll withhold judgement until after I’ve read the book and more about Moore’s thesis.
I was asked to and am also reviewing, this one for a Burney journal Volume 5 of Burney’s Early Journals and Letters and there I’ve come across long pieces on Mary Delany and have been reading about her. She’s a woman who may be said to have begun life all over again several times, from devastating falls/disappointments (except maybe the second husband). As a biography about her says (Mary Peacock’s The Paper Garden), Delany’s best time began at 72! Another book which focuses from a different perspective on some of these women is Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows.
As background one has to read books like Ann B. Shteir’s Flora’s Daughters: Cultivating Women, cultivating science. I cannot say this is an entertaining read; Shteir’s style is dull, but she does convey important information about women in science in the earliest days they entered consciously. She tells of how plants were organized by different taxonomies and the superiority of Linnaeus’s precisely because he used sexuality as a marker; the arguments to keep even this knowledge from women as too sexualized. How that was successfully fought off. Latin could be used to exclude women, but Lineaus’s terms had just two words. Then a chapter on the popularizers, who women read and where they got these texts. I’ve been aware of how much information women in the 17th through later 18th century had of what was useful in medical science as well as plants and vegetables. They were responsible for putting food on the table. (Shteir does not make that kind of point).
The chapter seemed to me to present essential foundational knowledge of books read and information understood for women in science and the art of botany.
I also found it telling that one source of botanical knowledge was a book by Rousseau: Lettres elementaires sur la botanique (1771-73). Here’s something Mary Trouille in her Women Read Rousseau overlooked in trying to figure out why Rousseau had such a positive reputation among women. The readers and comments in letters on botanical knowledge include the French Swiss (the Constants) and English so-called bluestockings whose lifestyle again exemplifies Emma Donoghue’s findings.
Reading about learned ladies, bluestockings (how resented, despised) and the one area women made their first forays into as scientists; botany (which did move into archeaology), I came across this poem by Charlotte Smith:
To the Goddess of Botany
Of Folly weary, shrinking from the view
of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts forever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swoln eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your “bells and florets of unnumber’d dyes”
Might rest — And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
&;Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the Ocean’s
Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, 1797
Her Rural Walks were not meant just for children, but contained available sound scientific women’s delights As her sonnet tells you she was also escaping a hard life and resulting depression (she had a violent abusive husband, many children to bring up and place and was cheated out of a legacy for them).
Mickalene Thomas also turned a life of hardship and abuse into beautiful art:
Now three days ago I queried Austen-l thus:
IN the Latino (would it be called? or hispanic?) film adaptation of S&S, From Prada to Nada, Mary-Marianne arrives home the morning after the central party of the film (the second during which Mary/Marianne (Alexa Vega) is snubbed comes much later and is denouement). Mary has gone to bed with Roderigo-Willoughby. Nora-Elinor (Camille Belle) marches her away from their boarding house and Mary explains she wants to marry Roderigo for his money, class, all he can give her of freedom from having to work for a living, that being very unpleasant. Nora says “that makes you a whore.” To which Mary replies, “that’s better than being a spinster.”
Now I know the word “whore” is nowadays a slang word for slut, promiscuous. It’s not used in its more accurate sense of prostitute receiving money for sex. But I find the use of “spinster” odd there. Does anyone else? I never hear that word used by anyone. I’ve heard “old maid” not all that long ago, but not “spinster.” It would have been used of Austen in the 18th century.
Does it jar others? It could be that young women today do use the word “spinster” for an unmarried woman whose style of life they dread, but not among the people I know.
Is there a Spanish equivalent of spinster this use of the word reflects?
After 3 days & nights one person had responded by referring to an essay on spinsters as represented in films and dictionary definitions of the term: the term is not just to refer to a woman who “spins” – it was until the turn of the century  a legal term meaning an unmarried or single woman – it is used in legal proceedings as a title, or addition to the surname; as it was / is? in the Book of Common Prayer.
To which I replied: Thank you. I think the answer to my question is this: people think with the word spinster but rarely use it. It’s such a dreadful state (irony). I asked her since she still had not replied directly: let me put my question up front to you: “Do you use the word spinster?” If it’s embarrassing to be asked this question, it’s okay to answer off list.
I have not called someone a spinster aloud that I can think of ever; I have also not used the term seriously for anyone today. I mean that. I have used the word “spinsters’ when talking of characters in historical fiction or in history, as say “Jane Austen would have been called a spinster.” “Verity Poldark was on her way to be a spinster.” When I was young I did want to grow up, get married, have children; around age 9 I dreamt of a wedding, and husband (never very distinct image) and 3 children. But the state to be dreaded as “old maid,” the word in use was “old maid.” I used the term “old maid.”
So, in the movie, From Prada to Nada, had Mary-Marianne retorted to Elinor-Nora, “It’s better than being an old maid” it would not have jarred on my ears so much as spinster.”
Despite that useful article on film — thank you I’ll save it — I do not believe that the public attitude towards unmarried women with no children has improved. I used to screen a powerfully great movie, Wit, about a woman who is a professor in her later 40s diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. It was a shock to me the first time the students wrote about it, how many of them held against her that she had never been married. I cannot remember if they used the word spinster but a whole host of negative terms for her as cold, dried up, isolated (that’s a negative one) were trotted forth.
From the article and remembering these students, I conclude it seems that people think with the word “spinster,” but they might not voice it aloud — it being such a horrifyingly unacceptable state for a woman. I use heavy irony here. So when Elinor-Nora defies a taboo in effect and calls Mary-Marianne a “whore” for spending the night with Roderigo-Willoughby and planning to marry him based on his wealth (as well as good looks and romance charm), Mary-Marianne is licensed to break a taboo and trot out the “other label” for “unacceptable women;” spinster.
I suggest all the words in the second part of your posting from dictionaries are euphemisms.
The thing protested is a virgin. What’s scorned is a woman who has not let a man fuck her.
Deeper: How dare she? Who does she think she is? Does she not realize the ends of her being is having children for men, by men, with men. The single mother with no husband defies this norm. She is having a child for herself.
The resentment of bluestockings is precisely they don’t want men; they want books first and to study, read, make art, sit in groups and talk. (“How useless to the ends of their being?”)
We might take a step back as Austen-lovers and admit the the ambivalent attitude towards Austen emerges in many ways. One we’ve seen here is the refusal among other things to see that she’s basically asocial outside her family — much of the false way of presenting her comes from hiding from, compensating for this fact.
In both Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets Jane Austen is presented as really depressed for much of her life because 1) she never married, and/or 2) everyone is nagging her to marry. Miss Austen Regrets has her trying to tell people she didn’t want to marry but they refuse to believe her, and in the final scene implicitly suggested she and Cassandra had an inactive lesbian relationship. That Cassandra convinced her not to marry Bigg-Wither in the opening scene and now in the closing one is herself drenched in remorse and asks for forgiveness for this.
The African Queen with Katherine Hepburn is a movie that tries to defy the stereotype but does not succeed.
Women alone in modern movies are often semi-promiscuous, are these aggressive detective types. When Helen Mirren is Jane Tennison, her state of mind remains opaque. Such programs are said to be transgressive, but I feel they usually have too much else to do beyond delineating the state of mind of women detectives. A few hours did do much to convey what’s it’s like to live as a single woman having a career, and much of the time we were to see that Helen was not personally happy though she was professionally fulfilled. She loved to be genuinely useful to other women and the vulnerable and powerless.
To invoke Downton Abbey the coarse (insensitive, unsubtle, prejudiced) way of understanding the humiliation of Edith for trying to marry Sir Anthony Strallon was she was so despicable as to marry him rather than be a spinster. I believe one of the characters uses the word of her at the close of that hour. She’ll be a spinster … And those who can’t feel the cruelty of the dowager for her egregious part in it are glad to see Edith exposed because Edith was so “not getting it” that she was open about her intense desire to marry. I can see Fellowes meant it somewhat differently from that and is now going to make Edith the journalist of the family, but we are to understand she became this because she couldn’t marry not because she wanted to be a writer first and foremost.
On commercial popular TV, the program “Girls” does not to me make much progress. (See Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker article, Barbaric Hannah.) Why? well for a start all these girls are into sex, and supposedly realistic sex at that. Like many a women’s film the sex in Girls is not idealized. I did watch 3 episodes of the first season myself and went from feeling liberated by what I was seeing to feeling it was a one joke or one paradigm scenario. Girl rises above humiliation, puts her clothes on, and walks away, only to return the next day.
Does this show really put an end to the demand that women marry, have sex with men and babies? No. it does show an alternative lifestyle going on for a small group of upper class white women living in Manhattan for the time of their later 20s. These are precisely the terms of Sex and the City. And fashion, however differently presented, is central to both, the women costuming themselves.
The two topics come together in the strong prejudice against, refusal to recognize lesbians and continued hostility to unmarried women and women who haven’t had any children. The sources of the stigmatizing, ostracizing are the same. Women’s central function is to provide sex and children for men.
Do not they look like they are waiting to be taken?