Dear friends and readers,
Who knows not the iconic image of the woman at the window? At random from among so many in the Austen films, Jane Bennet looking out of Mrs Gardiner’s house as she expects Miss Bingley’s call each morning (Miss Bingley doesn’t come):
Susannah Harker as Jane (1995 P&P)
I’d been reading a mind-transforming book by Nehama Aschkenasy, Woman at the Window, which led me to her Eve’s Journey, and I want to recommend them heartily to anyone interested in women of the Bible, iconic women, stories which bring out a woman’s point of view.
Aschkenasy takes familiar women characters from the Bible and teases out their hidden or obscured story, bringing out women as subject and real presences and what they experience, their motives, and the reactions of the patriarchical society. She begins with the woman at the window, then moves on to woman on the road, woman ventures ot (mobility and its benefits), woman behind the scenes, and in the palace of words. One of the strengths of her treatment is she rises to a level of general applicability so we can see ourselves and modern motifs in these Biblical stories, and as well as she tells them think of modern treatments of the paradigms, where they are however obscured. So the rape of Dinah (a woman on the road story) when examined shows the patterns of the erased Adela Quested in A Passage to India; in the story of the gang-rape of a Levite’s concubine, I saw so many different patterns, including (startling a little to me, the wife in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right — sexual anxiety drives him to accuse her of harlotry, break up the home and shunt her from place to place).
I’ve long thought novels were women’s response to endless stories centered on men and marginalizing, ridiculing, castigating, abusing them or (just as bad from a functional standpoint) idolizing and sentimentalizing them. They are still marginalized and from the middle 19th century men took over the economic reins and got thoroughly into the act (helped a little by Scott), but the women are the readers and still going very strong — in movies too, film adaptations especially in mini-series quality TV.
Amanda Root as Anne Elliot feeling trapped inside a flat with people utterly uncongenial to her, with the luminous world of Bath just beyond the window (1995 Persuasion)
Women covered by Aschkenazy include women not necessarily focused in by women, as Sisera, Yael, Tamara, Bathsheba, but they also do include women I recognize as favored by women: Deborah (Anne Finch has a couple of poems prefacing her volume of poetry where she likened herself to a Deborah), Michal by the window (I remember as a girl reading a novel where her life was the center, the subject and how sad it was, so unjust), Rebecca are some.
Then I laid my hands on Aschkenazy’s Eve’s Journey. The two books together amount to a new vision. They work together. I’d been reading Robert Polhemus’s book, Lot’s Daughters, and an essay by him on Anthony Trollope’s fiction, where Polhemus acknowledges how vile and horrible is Lot’s behavior: he is willing to give his daughters up to a mob of men in the street to rape and do with as they please; he is indifferent to his wife who turns to salt out of her longing for her home and fear of the future; he impregnates his daughters, supposedly in the dark so he doesn’t know who they are. Polhemus wants to use this cruel obtuse stuff positively as about how older men mentor younger women who they also have sexual relationships with. H eproceeds to discuss the spiritual and emotional incest between older men who mentor/befriend/protect/marry younger women, as well as fathers and daughters and siblings as something deeply fulfilling as well as good (productive) for the women — to hang on to these mens’ power I’d put it — he wouldn’t. He wants to celebrate how younger women are set up in life by older men (fathers, brothers, and yes professors) and sees in Trollope a similar urge to give young women to older men — especially after Trollope grows older.
Andrew Davies sees this in Trollope too and has Paul Montague, a hero in The Way We Live Now challenge Sir Roger Carbury, a very kind decent man, with unfairly taking a young woman, Henrietta (whom Paul wants), and says Roger is a hypocrite when he, Roger, criticizes Paul for spending a weekend with an older married woman at the shore.
Aschkenasy’s Eve’s Daughter presents a much more persuasive way of reading the story of Lot’s daughters. She says the daughter part of Lot’s story is part of a group of stories which have been called "the Ruth corpus." Here we ultimately find women in the Bible presented as living at an animal level wanting to be pregnant. She instances Judah, Tamar, and Ruth becomes a cleaned up version of this myth. It’s a fear of remaining empty, no existence. A version of this is a Woman at the Window, the Tamar story.
I had not thought of how Boas is so much older than Ruth; of the origin of the relationship, of how she is pregnant, seduced by this sentimental narrative of the last clinching step in the new family set up: the girl starts an abject loving relationship with a mother-in-law. Aschkenasy again shows us we are ignoring what would be a central part of the experience for Ruth: sex with an older man as a way of getting safety; pregnancy; and then the mother-in-law scene a reinforcement of security.
Lot’s wife turned into salt because she looked back, wasn’t keen to lose her home and all it meant is self-evidently the Pysche/Eurydice how dare you turn and look back, be curious, have regret, reluctance to follow that man. I didn’t need Aschkenasy for that.
To my mind the pro-Lot group are Lawrentians and Polhemus’s two books end on Lawrence (he who thought buggery was what women needed); I have no term for those women trying to reread this group as mother-daughter stories, perhaps some classical story going back to Ceres might make the coverup more palatable, less the story of an abjection of a younger to an older woman whose old son has now impregnated her.
In My One and Only (2009), Renee Zellweger as Anne Deveraux refuses to accept her husband’s affairs and leads her sons on a quest for a better destiny
Aschkenasy will enable you to throw off these male-imposed suffocating stories as in this archetype of Lot which urge women to see in men their saviors when what they are getting (in the case of Lot) is dismissal when inconvenient, being trafficked and thrown out, impregnated in exchange for minimal security and domination by the man’s mother.
Mother and sons (My One and Only, 2009)
The bibliographies at the back of Woman at the Window and Eve’s Journey are rich and notes superb, enlightening about rape for example. I began reading Woman at the Window because my good friend, Fran, told me it dealt in unusual and perceptive ways over the many brutally raped and abused women in the Bible. Compassion, insight, wide reading, decent humanity, all these are in these books. You see something as quietly diss (as feminist you see) My One and Only in a new light.