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Corner Shelf (all other genres) > Ruth Rendell/sexism

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message 1: by Barbara (last edited Feb 09, 2009 04:17PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) I just read From Doon With Death, her first book and Shake Hands Forever, written in 1975, about ten years later. I was really struck by the gratuitous contempt RR seem to have for women. She puts it mostly in the mouth of Wexford, who is far more vulgar and ungentlemanly than he is in later books. For instance, "that land girl or whatever she calls herself" about an agricultural student ,and in answer to the qu 'could a woman have done it? -"if she was a strong young woman always sitting about on her backside and feeding her face" and "stupid women and their damn lipsticks" All these comments are not in anyway due to the actions of the women , indeed in the case of the lipsticks they had all gone out of their way to be helpful.
If a women is groomed she is inevitably a tart,and if not, then she is a dowdy frump. And all of them apparently contemptible.
RR is not nearly this bad in this in later novels - I wish I hadn't gone back to read the early ones now!



message 2: by Barbara (last edited Feb 09, 2009 10:15PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) Well I have to boast that I can put my hand on my heart and say I read and loved it. I read almost all the "Great Feminist Tracts" of the 70's and still have them despite many being lent and not returned.






message 3: by Reggia (new)

Reggia | 2187 comments I have never read The Feminine Mystique...maybe someday. Not having read any of Rendell's books either, I have to admit that character does sound sexist. Is there ever a circumstance that shows what might've brought about the change in Wexford's character? or do you feel she just decided to 'tone him down' a bit?

This conversation has made me remember the Leon Uris book I read last year, Ireland. It was mostly a great read but the way he portrayed women was annoying. Each of his female characters was one of two extremes: either they were after power and looking for their next sex romp or they were worn out and frigid. I know he's popular for these historical novels but it made me distrust him somewhat; he seemed so out of touch with real women.


message 4: by Barbara (last edited Feb 10, 2009 08:25PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) The comment Reggia just made about Leon Uris is the precise reason why I gave up, by and large, reading popular books by men, unless I knew their politics beforehand, or were recommended by someone I trusted.
I get so sick of - and angry at the unexamined, throwaway sexist and contemptuous manner in which women are portrayed. The unspoken assumption is that men are the standard human, the normal, the representatives of the human race, be they hero or villain or Man In The Street.
Women on the other hand, are The Other, the temptress/love interest/distraction/wife/add-on.
Some day I feel like the feminist gains of the 70's were but a dream.......


message 5: by Reggia (last edited Feb 11, 2009 09:46PM) (new)

Reggia | 2187 comments That Uris book is one of the worst I've run into. Too bad because I was very interested in his Exodus book, but now feel a bit wary. Thankfully, I've never had a problem with any of the characters in Michener's historical novels. The female characters he portrays have widely varying personalities that are more easily believable.


message 6: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1822 comments If a feminist is someone who believes strongly that a woman has the same worth as a man and should be treated and respected accordingly, I'm a feminist, too (you can be one without being female! :-)). I've always had a liking for strong, competent heroines, and I don't appreciate sexism in literature or drama.

One common mistake we readers make, though, is assuming that a main character's ideas and attitudes are always necessarily identical to the author's. A writer may use characters as a mouthpiece for his or her own views; but writers also sometimes like to create characters who are very unlike themselves, or use characters who espouse views the author detests as a way of critiquing those views more subtly. I haven't read anything by Rendell/Barbara Vine (who are the same person), so can't say if that's going on with Inspector Wexford. But maybe the obvious disconnect Barbara mentioned, between the behavior of the women he was talking about and his snide comments, was intended to make the reader realize that those kind of knee-jerk, put-down judgments don't have any legitimate basis in reality?


message 7: by Reggia (new)

Reggia | 2187 comments I lost my reply to this earlier. :( I'll have to get back to it tomorrow.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Werner wrote: "If a feminist is someone who believes strongly that a woman has the same worth as a man and should be treated and respected accordingly, I'm a feminist, too (you can be one without being female! :-..."

Excellent point Werner! Long ago I dated a guy who was a member of NOW (National Organization for Women) and I was so amazed! I didn't know men joined but he enlightened me.




message 9: by Barbara (last edited Feb 13, 2009 04:21PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) Werner wrote: "If a feminist is someone who believes strongly that a woman has the same worth as a man and should be treated and respected accordingly, I'm a feminist, too (you can be one without being female! :-..."
Yes, of course, but I also think to be a real feminist there needs to be a degree of action , not necessarily of the street rally type, but at least in terms of serious and wide reading and understanding the philosophy of feminism, And of putting that philosophy to work, to redress balance etc.
I'm not suggesting that the following is true of you Werner, but those who simply state 'oh yes women are men's equal and should be be treated as such' are hardly feminists, thats just an easy 'motherhood' style statement. Feminism is a committment, and not always an easy one to follow, it means giving up a lot of comfort etc .
As for Rendell/Vine, I think as Vine she is much more developed and mature in style and thinking , the early Rendell - notably the Wexford series probably represent her thinking in the day , ie 60' and early 70's.
I am, of course , well aware that authors and their characters are not the same people ( is there any real reader who isn't aware of this! ) and that an author can put beliefs in the mouths of characters that they wouldn't personally hold, of course they do! But Wexford is her hero, he isportrayed as a decent right-thinking man. Indeed as a uxorious man , the loving father of daughters.

I hold to my understanding of the text. And of my ability to distinguish between unexamined sexist/mysogynist belief and mere character-speak in literature


message 10: by Reggia (new)

Reggia | 2187 comments We are definitely all in agreement in noting the difference between an author's views and the literary characters they create. My contention with Uris's females were that he created two unrealistic types to cover all the women in his story. Anyway...

Was Wexford a hero in the earlier books as well? or did he grow into this? I'm trying to figure out if Vine was trying to show a maturation of sorts.

Uxorious. I learned a new word, thanks, Barbara!

Werner wrote: A writer may use characters as a mouthpiece for his or her own views; but writers also sometimes like to create characters who are very unlike themselves, or use characters who espouse views the author detests as a way of critiquing those views more subtly.


It surely can go either way. I wonder how a writer keeps it all straight. I mean, do you have to keep notes to remind yourself what a character is all about, and what direction they are going? or just go with the flow as they develop?


message 11: by Barbara (last edited Feb 13, 2009 10:00PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) Hi Reggia ,yes, good point about the two types thing , not at all uncommon with writers, mostly male but some female too, who do the Madonna/Whore division of women, unlike their portrayals of men, who range over all sort of behaviours without being thus categorised.
Rendell's Wexford, a country Chief Inspector was always a hero , or at least the chief protagonist on the side of 'Good', that is. Part of my point was that Wexford was doing his dismissive stuff of women, whilst being the hero. I do not believe at all that it was meant to show that he was wrong in any way, his behaviour was normative , if not actaully laudable.

I think what Werner was saying- he used the term 'disconnect ' -was meant to imply that there was no need for a feminist reading of the text ( or that such a reading was wrong) Since he also said he hadn't read any of RR or BV, I was not that convinced by his asseveration ,and await his further comments with interest.
I do like a good literary discussion!


message 12: by Werner (last edited Feb 14, 2009 05:44PM) (new)

Werner | 1822 comments Barbara, I didn't assert that Rendell had any problem with Wexford's attitude; I just posed the possibility. Obviously, I really don't have a clue whether she actually did or not, and since you're the one who's read the books, you're in a much better position to judge that than I am. It is also a fact, though, that we all read literature, and guess at authorial intent, through the lens of our own attitudes and experiences, and sometimes become aware of more complexity than we saw the first time around (I've had that experience more than once). My earlier comment was coming from that perspective, but it wasn't meant as an attack on your ability to interpret literature, and I apologize if it came across as such.

Obviously, my sentence that contained the word "disconnect" was unclear, since you completely misunderstood it (it certainly wasn't an attack on a "feminist reading!") I'll try to restate my thought more clearly: you said that Wexford's snide comments "are not in any way due to the action of the women... they had all gone out of their way to be helpful." When I read boorish comments from one character about other characters whom I can see don't deserve that treatment, I'm apt to view that as his problem, not theirs, and conclude that he's the one who's off-base and in the wrong. In this case, maybe that's not the interpretation the author intended, but I'm not wholly prepared to discount the possibility. The fact that the hero in a detective story is "the chief protagonist on the side of 'Good'" does not always, in itself, furnish an iron-clad guarantee that the author views him and presents him as without any serious flaws (and the same would go for a heroine) --though, in Wexford's case, perhaps that's exactly how Rendell views him. It would be interesting to see if she has commented on that at any point, and you've piqued my curiosity enough that I want to do a bit of research on that!


message 13: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) Ah, yes, I see I misread your intention in using 'disconnect', ie between what the character said of the women and of their actual actions.
I remain unconvinced that RR was intending this a salutary commmentary on Wexford, she likes him far too much


message 14: by Werner (last edited Feb 18, 2009 03:50PM) (new)

Werner | 1822 comments Literary critic Rebecca Berg contributed an article on Rendell to Supplement IX of Scribners' excellent British Writers series; it has a long section on the Wexford novels. She describes Wexford as portrayed as "always right" and "God brought to earth," and quotes Rendell as saying "Wexford is me," which suggests a pretty strong authorial self-identification with the character! This supports Barbara's interpretation.

Berg suggests, though, that there may not be a total identity between Wexford's gender attitudes and Rendell's. "I think that all women," Rendell has said, "unless they are absolutely asleep, must be feminists up to a point." She advocates election of more women to Parliament (she is herself a member of the House of Lords), and the appointment of female bishops in the Anglican church, and has spoken out against female genital mutilation. Also, she tends to identify Wexford with her own father; and in the novels, this father-figure's fictional daughter is an outspoken feminist. Berg and some other critics suggest that the author has "an internal censor that requires Rendell, despite her own interest in women's issues, to maintain an objective distance from those issues, not to seem to advocate, and above all to avoid being like 'them'" ["them" being radically extreme, anti-male feminists like the ARRIA members in An Unkindness of Ravens, the Wexford novel that deals most directly with gender issues --though the inspector recognizes that the group "is not entirely unjustified in its complaints about gender inequities"). Also, Berg suggests that Rendell deliberately avoids making Wexford into a too-obvious mouthpiece for her own ideas, because it would be unrealistic for his own persona.

Of course, all of those theories may be a bunch of critical hooey --the only way to judge for oneself would be to read some of the books! That's actually something I may eventually do. Before Barbara started this discussion, I knew little about Rendell and wasn't interested in reading her work. But what I've read in the British Writers article (there's obviously much more I didn't quote here) suggests that her fiction might actually be morally and philosophically substantial and worth reading.


message 15: by Barbara (last edited Feb 18, 2009 08:21PM) (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) What interesting stuff about Wexford and on RR herself from Werner and Gabi, thanks so much for this!
I like her later stuff much better, when she leaves 'father Wexford' for more sinister figures,and more sinister crimes. And in terms of the moral substance , I think when she is writing as BV this is much more evident . Her criminals are never nice people but often complex and always interesting and their motives are psychologically very plausible-seeming, at least to me.
PS I will follow up the British Writer's article, thanks for pointing me towards this, Werner



message 16: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1822 comments You're welcome, Barbara --thanks for getting me interested in another writer! (Like I needed any more books on my to-read list --but we all know how that goes. :-))


message 17: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (sema4dogz) Werner wrote: "You're welcome, Barbara --thanks for getting me interested in another writer! (Like I needed any more books on my to-read list --but we all know how that goes. :-))"
Oh I know, I know....( to be intoned a la Sybil in Fawlty Towers)




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