Honor Moore’s Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury is published this month. She shares five books about women’s choices and consequences.
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
Gwendolen Harleth marries a rich man to save her family/mother from poverty and loses the man who might have been a true and life-giving mate.
Jane Ciabattari: Gwendolen’s choice is a gamble: “She felt herself standing at the game of life with many eyes upon her, daring everything to win much.” What do you think makes Gwendolen feel empowered enough to visualize herself as having a choice? Was this a generational shift?
Honor Moore: I’m interested that you use the word “visualize” because when she chooses to gamble at the roulette table in a sparkling casino in Germany, Gwendolen, feeling “many eyes upon her,” mistakes her femaleness, beauty and allure as sufficient capital to back a gamble to win her own fortune so that she can in conscience turn away a rich suitor, Grandcourt, whom she rejected when she learned he had children with a mistress. She loses her winnings that night, and the next day her widowed mother writes that the family legacy has been lost. In a flash, Gwendolen’s choices narrow—she must marry Grandcourt for her family’s survival. The novel that follows is a meditation on the choice she makes; an alternative man is represented by Daniel Deronda, who watched Gwendolen at the roulette table, and, though wary of her arrogance, was so taken with her plight that he buys back a necklace she has pawned and presents it to her—a financial transaction altogether different from her marriage. The ins and outs that follow are intricate and fascinating, several hundred pages in which suffering changes Gwendolen and she realizes she loves Deronda and his compassionate values. By coincidence, he is in Venice when Grandcourt dies in a boat accident, leaving Gwendolen suddenly free—too late though: he has made his own discoveries. Learning that he is Jewish, he has pledged himself to a Jewish woman he rescued from drowning, and with her plans a voyage to the promised land—a future I read as a metaphor for male freedom. Gwendolen must settle for living her life alone and doing good works. I read her choice to gamble as trying out a new kind of freedom, and her final fate as George Eliot’s verdict on the true position of women.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Lily Briscoe chooses art over marriage.
JC: As the novel begins—as Lily begins her painting of Mrs. Ramsey—she so lacks confidence: “It was bad, it was bad, it was infinitely bad! She could have done it differently of course; the color could have been thinned and faded; the shapes etherealized; that was how Paunceforte would have seen it. But then she did not see it like that. She saw the color burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral. Of all that only a few random marks scrawled upon the canvas remained. And it would never be seen; never be hung even, and there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write…” Woolf captures the steady beat of naysayers who deny women their gifts, their accomplishments, their rights. How does Lily come to trust her own talent enough to make the choice to paint?
HM: The insults the men hurl or mutter feel aphoristic, memorable and relentless, and Lily, though not rendered as heroic or beautiful, is determined in her continuing to paint, even as her beloved Mrs. Ramsey tries to marry her off. The afternoon Lily paints Mrs. Ramsey leads to a dinner party in which Mrs. Ramsey and others talk, and Lily Briscoe is preoccupied with her painting, even moving dishes around on the tablecloth as the meal proceeds, trying to solve a compositional problem. The first of the novel’s three parts ends with everyone going to bed, leading into the second part, twenty pages that cover ten years: World War I happens, the house decays, people die—Mrs. Ramsey of a cancer, Andrew in battle, and Prue the beautiful daughter, in childbirth—all of this punctuated by gunfire in the distance and the haunting illumination of the lighthouse beam. The war is over and the survivors ten years older when the third part begins; plans are made for a journey to the lighthouse thwarted by threatened rain in Part I, and Lily is left behind. During the day she has a long reverie, mourning Mrs. Ramsey, memory and feelings of love and loss; later, rolled up in the attic, she finds her unfinished painting of Mrs. Ramsey and James—and as she sees it again, she realizes where the final line should go, solving the problem she had struggled over during that long-ago dinner. The final sentence of the novel is Lily Briscoe’s and also Woolf’s: “She has had her vision.” What Lily learns is not trust in herself or her talent exactly, but faith in the processes of loss and time that lead to the coherence of an artist’s vision.
Black is the Body by Emily Bernard
The African American author is assaulted as a young woman—and other essays.
JC: Emily Bernard begins this collection of essays with an intense account of being stabbed in a coffee shop while a student at Yale in 1994—how she remembers that day, and the assailant, the police account, her later reactions, what happened to the man. It’s vivid and interior and sets up the experience of reading her memoir. She ends with “My Turn,” in which she describes discovering a cache of poetry and essays by her mother toward the end of writing Black Is the Body. In one essay, set in the Jim Crow era, her mother describes a trip to the grocery store with her grandmother, Mama Tempie, in which they were pelted with rocks, and how Mama Tempie told her the boys didn’t know any better and should be pitied rather than hated. Bernard sees her own poetic gifts as an inheritance from her mother and the line of women before her. “My mother never saw her work in print, but her stories course through me,” she writes. I wonder, do you share that generational sense that you were able to move forward as a writer in ways your mother could not?
HM: Rereading Emily Bernard’s Black is the Body, I suddenly identified its author-narrator with my mother Jenny whose story I have discovered writing Our Revolution. Emily is stabbed and recovers and moves on, her life changed. But the outcome, as her opening essay and those that follow reveal, is not tragic. She does not die and she does not stop becoming who she becomes, does not succumb to the obstacles arrayed before her; on the contrary, she constructs for herself an extraordinarily imaginative life. In some sense my mother Jenny was also “stabbed” by her near fatal automobile accident, and she too survived to commit herself to her writing. Having lived life as what she calls “we”—marrying, raising nine children and being a bishop’s wife—she becomes, through writing, an “I.” Emily’s essay “My Turn” encourages me to look at my creative lineage in a new way. My painter grandmother Margarett (b. 1892) was not able to surmount her obstacles—“female obligation”—but my mother did triumph over, even integrate hers, publishing a successful book in her late forties. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at fifty, she declared, “Everything was just starting.” I have been able to sustain my writing into my seventies; I learned from writing Our Revolution that I have been able to do so by carefully studying my female forebears one of whom “failed” and one of whom was not able to live out the freedom she fought for. Black is the Body articulates that map in the voice of a woman a generation younger than I am. Though we come from very different places, there is much we share. Her book is a contribution to the literature of female creative evolution that sustains me, a tradition that includes A Room of One’s Own, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To the Lighthouse….I could go on.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
A teenage girl enters into a forbidden liaison with a Chinese man half a decade older to escape a disastrous family, suffers social ostracism and gains a self.
JC: Duras’s narrator focuses on an image of herself at fifteen and a half, crossing the “beautiful and big and wild” Mekong River, wearing a worn sleeveless silk dress of her mother’s, a leather belt, probably her brother’s, gold lamé shoes and a man’s hat her mother bought her, a flat-brimmed fedora with a broad black ribbon. On the other side, a Chinese man in a black limousine watches her. Their forbidden affair is the beginning of her journey. The text reads like a series of faded photographs interspersed with retrospective commentary, as Duras describes her beginning as an artist. Would you agree that to gain her self, she must sever her ties with her mother?
HM: I experience and re-experience The Lover as a sequence of fever dreams and images once in a while broken by moments that illuminate the colonial social order. Duras portrays her mother both as a character of great poignancy and of great danger to her teenage daughter. The mother chooses a voraciously brutal older son over both a physically delicate younger son, and her daughter, undercutting the daughter’s relationship with a very rich Chinese man by focusing attention on his wealth. The irony is that there is a kind of love in the relationship with the Chinese man and for the narrator a gate to freedom. You mentioned the wildness of the Mekong River in The Lover—there are many moments of wildness in this book which make clear the power of desire and destruction. In order to survive as a human being—and Duras makes clear she did not escape free of damage—she had to leave the mother, who enacted and unleashed among her children and in her household the cruelties of colonial racism and capitalism—beatings, insults, inconstancy. The way she sustained that life was to become a writer. I know of no other narrative in which survival as a human being is so closely bound up with a woman becoming a writer.
Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair
A young woman writes to Samuel Beckett asking to write his biography. I read this memoir as coming of age.
JC: Bair was finishing graduate school, where she wrote her dissertation on Beckett, when she wrote him a letter suggesting she write his biography. He agreed to meet her in Paris in November 1971. His first remark: “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan I am.” How did she change during the years she was writing the book? What steps indicated her coming to maturity as a writer?
HM: Deirdre Bair’s marvelous memoir is an extraordinary self portrait—all the more revealing to me because I have known her for decades. While in person, Bair is a woman of modesty and restraint, as her memoir’s narrator she is revealed to possess ambition which is voracious, graceful and entirely healthy. At the time she wrote to Samuel Beckett in Paris asking him to participate in a biography, she had two children, was married to a man with a job in the nonprofit world, was a graduate student with no independent income, periodic teaching jobs, and no publisher. In addition, her subject lived on another continent so the book would require travel. Her superpowers were a thorough knowledge of French language and of her subject. In this memoir, she brings Beckett and Paris and the young woman she was to vivid life in a story made gripping both by her candor about scaling a very steep learning curve and withstanding the ferocity of those who viciously tried to keep her in her place—how dare she write about this great man?—academic colleagues and proprietary Beckett scholars among them. In answer to your question: in the years it took to write the book, Deirdre went from being a modest young woman with a scholarly knowledge of her subject to a writer, and we feel it happen in these pages, beginning the moment she sat down alone in a Paris hotel room to prepare for her first interview with Beckett, and growing each time she had to overcome an obstacle, be it financial or professional, to realize her goal. Metaphorically I think of Samuel Beckett as Deirdre’s muse, a constant presence who inspires her own constancy and at the same time challenges her, teaching her by example how to keep her own writing vocation pure.