This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.
It's always with great pleasure that I take...moreThis read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.
It's always with great pleasure that I take these reading journeys in the past and meet these women writers that were then perceived as eccentric, mad and severely lacking virtue when all they were trying to do was live with the freedom that was only bestowed upon men.
It reminded me of my work on the fascinatingly enigmatic Margaret Cavendish and of how much I admire these women and the way they fought against the establishment no matter the cost. I certainly envy them their strength and how they were fearless in the face of alienation.
Marie-Catherine de Villedieu, born Marie-Catherine Desjardins (1640-1683), was a professional writer, one of the first French female writers to claim so. She wrote novels, plays and letters and was a pioneer in more than one aspect as Mémoires was the first fictional autobiography of its kind.
Villedieu is a pen name taken from a lover who promised to marry her before withdrawing his promise. Although, their relationship later resumed, no marriage ever took place. In fact, the young man ended up marrying someone else before dying in battle. Marie-Catherine took his name after his death. While this was quite a bold decision, what is even more surprising is that the young man's family accepted that she did so based on the multiple promises the young man had made when he was alive.
Madame de Villedieu as she is now referred to, was not notably beautiful but she seems to have benefited from a lot of freedom from a very young age. This probably encouraged her fiery temper. She was lucky enough to have a lot of connections with the world of literature and arts and became quite famous for a poem entitled Jouissance (which can be translated as "climax" or "orgasm") when she was just 18. The poem was destined to the lover who never married her and the existence of the poem was not so shocking as the fact that it had been written by a woman. As it was often the case, it seems that her bad reputation had more to do with her free spirit and her liberty of speech than anything else.
Mémoires was published between 1671 and 1674 anonymously. I'm not quite sure why given her reputation and the fact that the book contains nothing particularly scandalous, Madame de Villedieu bothered with trying to hide the fact that she had written it. The book's success was immediate and durable though it was eventually forgotten. Like so many women writers, Madame de Villedieu greatly influenced the evolution of the novel but as she didn't follow the regular norm of conduct, her legacy was unfortunately set aside.
As previously mentioned, Mémoires is a fictional autobiography, a "roman-mémoires", the first of its kind in French literature (as far as I'm aware of anyway... which should probably not count for much...). Mémoires can be easily dated as Madame de Villedieu quotes battles, cultural and many historical events. A lot of historical figures and famous people of the time also make appearances in her tales. Yet, I wouldn't regard Mémoires as a piece of historical fiction per say. It's more an account of what life was at the time: clandestine weddings, cross-dressing, life in convents, duals and trials.As far as I know, this mix of history and fiction is quite unusual for the times. Even more unusual is the idea of a memoir for an ordinary woman and not someone famous, well at least not famous for the right reasons.
Mémoires is by no means meant to be serious but entertaining and light. The main protagonist, Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, is writing her story to a female noble person she addresses as "Your Highness". From the first sentence, it appears that Henriette-Sylvie's name has been wrongly associated with certain scandals and that she is attempting to clear her name, explaining the "innocent mistakes" of her youth. Nevertheless, the aim is to please and entertain and Henriette-Sylvie has a lot of stories to tell and she is not at all as innocent as she could be... and the wonderful thing is that she makes no apologies for it, despite the novel's initial aim.
It all begins with Henriette-Sylvie's birth which is shrouded in mystery: birth on a beach, a mother's disappearance, childhood among farmers and here comes in a duke who sees something different in this child and knows she's destined for more than this. The duke places her with wealthy friends of his who have children of their own. Henriette-Sylvie grows up to be a young woman of breathtaking beauty. The one she then believes to be her father attempts to rape her when she is thirteen during a hunt. Henriette-Sylvie accidentally shots him trying to defend herself. She is then rescued by her "mother"'s lover who also falls in love with her and that is only the beginning of her adventures...
Henriette-Sylvie is not afraid of enjoying life and its multiple pleasures. Her tale is in drastic opposition to the literary inheritance of the classical age. And yet, I'm not quite sure why Madame de Villedieu chose anonymity to write this. It's been said that those who knew her and her story could easily recognize her style and aspects of her life. Mémoires is not an autobiography (well, only a fictional one) but some elements and places frequently visited do echo ones from Madame de Villedieu's life. Henriette-Sylvie is meant to be a sort of role model for women who have been accused of not being virtuous enough for their times. Though one must admit that it is hard to believe that Henriette-Sylvie is completely innocent; she does put herself in the strangest situations, and yes, she does admit to having had lovers. If there really needs to be something scandalous about the whole novel, it's probably it's total lack of guilt, but even that is drowned by the humorous aspect. Though the novel is meant to be a clarification, Henriette-Sylvie does not make any apologies for her behavior as she often depicts what courtship and what takes place around and after passion.
I really enjoyed reading this. I'm sure I didn't get all of the humor, not knowing enough of the times' lifestyle and famous figures, but I got enough to make it worth while. And so, even if you're reading this novel on a superficial level and don't really care in what ways it relates to the life of the person who wrote it, you'll enjoy it. But if you read it bearing in mind the reputation of Madame de Villedieu's, you'll enjoy it even more. Highly recommended for entertainment but also for the historical and feminist perspectives.(less)
This is again a book I picked up at the agency. I wasn't sure what to expect, I wasn't even sure whether it was fiction or non fiction but, being the...moreThis is again a book I picked up at the agency. I wasn't sure what to expect, I wasn't even sure whether it was fiction or non fiction but, being the arthurian mythology lover that I am, I couldn't let this book pass by without at least giving it a look. Turns out it's non fiction and I did more than simply giving it a look. I read the whole thing.
This book did more than simply entertain my fascination about Merlin or Arthur. There's more in there than a mere retelling of all the myths and literature about those famous characters. It starts from there but it also deconstructs the various existing narratives about Merlin and Arthur, gives them a context and really tries to unearth the truth behind the lies.
If you go to the amazon page, you'll see that a lot of people are not too happy with Ardrey's new interpretation of history. For starters, according to Ardrey, Merlin and Arthur were Scotsmen (not Welsh, not English) and lived during the late sixth century. They were also men of the old way celtic ways and so they fought the Angles and the Saxons but they also fought the Christians and that explains the reasons why Merlin was so often portrayed as a madman or a demon and Arthur preoccupied by the quest for Graal.
Ardrey sheds light on the old ways, the way sexuality, homosexuality and even tranvestism were perceived. Women were not seen as the creatures of temptation and deception that Christianity claimed them to be. It's fascinating to see and realize how much Christianity changed everything and, most often than not, for the worse. When you look at it, the reason why Christianity was embraced by most sovereigns (including King of Francs, Clovis) is because it completely squashed individuality, marginality and replaced it with blind obediance (I'm not setting on an anti-Christian quest here, I'm just saying that at the time, you weren't really asked whether you believed in God, you were forced to). People of the old ways who favored discussions, arguments and couldn't agree on anything didn't really stand of chance. When you look at it, living conditions during the old ways were much more in accordance with nature and human nature in general.
This really struck a chord because I'm all about alternative models of society. I can't understand how we came to be as close-minded as we are and this helped me understand. I can't figure out why we ever thought that spending most of your life working and not with your loved one could ever be a good thing. Society as it is doesn't give you time to develop and grow as an individual and why should it? It's far more content with letting you become a sheep whose only source of information is TV propaganda and is unable to think for itself. Bitter, much? Just a bit... back to the book.
I understand writers who say they find more inspiration in non fiction than in fiction and more essentially history books. Whether Finding Merlin is historically accurate I don't know and quite frankly I don't care. The research and the methodology appeared solid enough for me but hey, I'm no sixth century expert. I know this book dug up some amazing characters for me, namely Languoreth, Merlin's twin sister who was also Queen of Scotland (married to a possibly gay king), played a huge part in the country's history and was contemporary to the greatest figures of the period (Arthur, Merlin, Mordred, Mungo, etc.). There's story to be told here. It tells a lot about Christianity when such a great and powerful woman is simply remembered as an adulteress.
A highly recommended read for both amateurs of arthurian myths and history in general. Ardrey has done a considerable amount of research and crosses results in various fields of study including geography, linguistics and of course, history.
Finding Arthur: The Once and Future King came out in April 2009. Finding Camelot is planned though no release date is available yet. I'm eager to read both.
In Black Milk, Elif Shafak tells her readers about her postpartum depression following the birth of her first child. I think it to be a very sensitive...moreIn Black Milk, Elif Shafak tells her readers about her postpartum depression following the birth of her first child. I think it to be a very sensitive subject to approach. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to open up and tell your insecurities about being a mother to the rest of the world. Especially, when most of the world still assumes that if you are a woman, you will be a mother at some point. That is after all what you were made for, weren't you? Whoever said "one is not born a woman, one becomes one" really didn't what they were was talking about!
But Black Milk is not just an intimate account of the author's experience before, during and after her pregnancy, it's also a wonderful insight into the lives of female writers throughout the ages and how, each in their own way, tried to resolve this dilemma posed by motherhood. In Black Milk, you will read about the lives and works of Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Ayn Rand, Anais Rand, Doris Lessing, Lou Andreas Salomé, Rebecca West, Audre Lorde, Sandra Cisneros, George Eliot, Toshiko Tamura, Yuko Tsushima, Carson McCullers, to quote but a few. In that aspect, I found the book to be a great introduction to feminist criticism and literature. I've compiled quite a list of female writers that I need to get to. Elif Shafak interweaves her personal experience with that of these writers of the past and present to try and comprehend the notions of womanhood, motherhood and how they can be balanced with the life of a writer. I'm no writer, but I know these questions hit home and so, her approach has more to do with personal space and the need to continuously grow as a human being, than simply the activity of writing.
All mothers will at least agree on this, having a child changes everything, for better or for worse. And so, at some point in your life, are you supposed to simply stop being you to become a mother, entirely dedicated to childrearing? Can you ever get back what you lost (I'm aware that motherhood is not without its rewards, but come on, you have to at least sometimes reflect nostalgically on the moments when you could sleep late and step out of the house on a whim with nothing but your purse). How do you balance the needs of a little one, entirely dependent on you, with your own needs? And does the fact that I'm worrying about this means that I will be a bad mother? These are questions I've been asking myself for quite some time and even more so now that most of my friends are getting married and having children of their own and I don't feel ready for that. And it's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one!
I was amazed at the extent to which I could relate to Elif Shafak's experience. It's true that, at first glance, apart from being born in the same city 14 years apart and having traveled quite a bit from an early age, our lives don't have much in common. And yet, I could completely relate. I've always been one who enjoyed solitude and never get bored when I'm left to my own devices. I think it's a good thing my parents had a second child after me, otherwise I fear I might have felt even more alien than I do now! I'm too often caught up in my own little world and never seem to be on the same page as everyone else. One has to be very precise and specific when addressing me, if there's any ambiguity, consequences may be tragic. For that reason, I'm really bad at getting jokes. When everyone will understand Meaning A and see that there's also a Meaning B which makes the joke a joke, I will find a Meaning C without having understood A or B. Yes, it's that bad.
Dating and living with someone that's very practical, down-to-earth and logical in everything that he does (my complete opposite) has been very enlightening in that respect. And it's the source of daily miscommunication and misunderstandings that while most of the time are funny, can also offend or hurt people when I don't really mean to. In brief, I am socially retarded! How can I ever possibly be a good mother?! I sincerely fear for the child. And to get back to Black Milk, it's something Elif Shafak asked herself and part of the reason behind her postpartum depression was because she didn't feel that she would be up to the task. She feared that she would lose herself, her writing, her career, her intellect and not even manage to be a good mother in return.
One thing that bewilders me in our society is how when you are young, people encourage you to complete long studies, during which you read in vast quantities, discuss, debate and write about a variety of issues, only to find a job that is mostly admin and repetitive (as most jobs are) and expect you to be happy about i!. I stayed in university for seven years and while I wasn't quite sure why I was there the first three, my master's degree changed everything. It gave me a chance to formulate questions about identity, race and gender that I had carried with me for years but didn't have the tools to express. I know a lot of people remember their university years as parties and getting pissed, I did do that, but it also felt like my brain was buzzing, like I was being intellectually challenged on a daily basis, because I had the time and luxury to think. Let's face it, when you come home from work, you're not going to sit down and read philosophy (well at least my brain can't process much at the end of the day!). You merely switch on your TV and let others do the thinking for you.
It's sad to realize at 25 that your best days are behind you and that you will never have that freedom of thought back. It's simply not compatible with society as it is. I've been thinking that working part-time is probably more suited to my personal needs, but besides the financial impossibility of that, there's also the pressure that I need to have a career and that working part-time will leave me an assistant ten years from now! Imagine, adding a child into the mix! When will I find the time to read, blog, think and live inside my little bubble? (But then, ten years ago if you'd told me that I would be in a stable relationship and sharing a flat with roommates, I wouldn't have believed you!)
If Elif Shafak seems to have resolved these issues, I've yet to. It's fascinating to see the author's fragmented selves argue and lash at one another and finally come to some sort of a peaceful understanding, at least for a little while. I know this is a bit of a weird review, it's a very subjective and personal reaction to this book, but that's what it triggered in me. It does not read like non-fiction at all. It's both a powerful and emotional account of a woman's journey into motherhood and a writer's historical analysis of the lives of female writers of the past. I can't recommend it enough. (less)