Suffragettes & Satire (2015)

Votes for Women RosetteRecently it has felt as though the suffragettes are everywhere. In Sarah Gavron’s 2015 Suffragette film, marching the streets with Glasgow Women’s Library, even popping up in the BBC’s Sherlock over the festive period – a good critical article on which can be found here, although as always I disagree that Emily Davison definitely committed suicide. However, fashionable as the female campaigners for the vote are right now, their own first-hand stories are sadly missing from the public’s consciousness. Many of the well-known suffragettes and suffragists wrote on their lives and political struggles, including WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story (1914), her daughter Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement (1931), and NUWSS president Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s What I Remember (1925). These accounts are not widely read, and can mostly only be discovered in the history sections of university libraries by students conducting niche research projects. Because these first-person stories of the suffrage campaigners are not readily available, the tale of the campaign for the vote which the average person comes to know is coloured by the dominating sources of negative, derogatory, and incorrect information such as newspapers and satirical publications like Punch (1841-2002). I wish to correct this.

In late 2014 I discovered that the archives of the University of Glasgow, where I’m researching my PhD, hold the unpublished memoir of a Glasgow-born and Edinburgh-based suffragette called Elizabeth Thomson. I had never heard of Thomson but after visiting the archives and reading her autobiography I became obsessed with this amazing woman. Thomson travelled the world with her sister Agnes, working as teachers and missionaries, before they joined the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in their sixties. Thomson’s memoir details her many brushes with the law, her taking part in protests, her prison sentences, her hunger strikes, her arson attempts, and the female solidarity which she felt within the WSPU. I cannot believe that this piece of fascinating life writing, this unbelievable story, can only be read and enjoyed by those who happen upon it in the archives of the University of Glasgow. Even as a figure of the suffrage movement in Scotland, Thomson is not particularly well known, having only been mentioned briefly in Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland (2006) and Leah Leneman’s A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland  (1995) in relation to her part in the arson attempt on Kelso racecourse grandstand. In an attempt to gain Elizabeth Thomson a tiny bit of recognition, I undertook a research project on her life and work for the Hunterian Associates Programme. The culmination of this project is an online magazine about Thomson and other suffrage campaigners, comparing their views to those biased stories from the contemporary press that cloud our view of the women today. The magazine can be viewed as a cool flip book on Anyflip or as a PDF on Dropbox.


Sue Perkins, Spectacles (2015)

Sue Perkins Spectacles Despite being most definitely an autobiography, the comedian (and of course Great British Bake Off presenter) Sue Perkins’ 2015 memoir, Spectacles, begins in much the same way as Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection, Any Other Mouth: with a disclaimer. While Mackintosh gave exact percentages as to how much of her writing was factual, Perkins instead writes:

“Most of this book is true. I have, however, changed a few names to protect the innocent, and the odd location too. I’ve skewed some details for comic effect, swapped timelines and generally embellished and embroidered some of the duller moments in my past. I have sometimes created punchlines where real life failed to provide them, and occasionally invented characters wholesale. I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me. I have hidden the worst of my flaws in an effort to make you like me. I may at one point have pretended to have been an Olympic fencing champion. Other than that, as I say – I’ve told it like it is.” (Spectacles, 2015)

Perkins’ awareness of the fictionalisation of life writing continues throughout her autobiography, including this insightful observation:

“A memoir, after all, is as much about what you don’t shine the light on as what you do. It’s about judicious choices and edited picks. With that much primary and secondary source material, it would feel more like I was writing a biography than an autobiography.” (p. 16)

Discussing her parents’ tendency to hoard items from her childhood (meaning she has been left with a great deal of source material to aid her memoir writing) Perkins here notes the selective nature of life writing. This idea is something which the autobiographer and autobiographical theorist Liz Stanley has discussed in her critical work:

“Auto/biography is not and cannot be referential of a life. Memory is selective: paradoxically, a defining feature of remembering is that most things are forgotten.”
(Liz Stanley, The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography, 1995, p. 128)

It shouldn’t be surprising to discover this intelligence and critical thinking in Perkins’ writing, she did study English at Cambridge after all, but it is an unusual addition to a celebrity comedian’s memoir. In some ways, Spectacles feels like it is not just the story of Perkins’ life, although it is both a very funny and terribly sad autobiography; the letter to her dead dog in particular will bring you to tears. Instead, this is also the story of Perkins becoming a writer, something she notices herself when she once again dwells on the fictionality of autobiography:

“A perfect, full circle, the sort of thing writers write about. And I guess I am a writer now and could write that – I could write the perfect ending.” (p. 245)

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

anneliese mackintosh, any other mouth

Anneliese Mackintosh’s 2014 collection of short stories, connected by a recurring protagonist named Gretchen, are an interesting addition to the genre of semi-autobiographical women’s writing. Mackintosh is easily identifiable in Gretchen, sharing “unusual names […] German; it caught on your tongue like a mouthful of lace” (Any Other Mouth, 2014, p. 213) and yet it is clear that these stories should not be assumed to be autobiographical. Mackintosh prefaces the collection with the statement:

“1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.”

Writing one’s own life presented as fiction is not a new concept, women have been doing this for centuries to avoid the stigma which their stories might bring. Doug Johnstone, reviewing Any Other Mouth for The Independent, notes that “you kind of wish that a smaller percentage really happened because there’s some harrowing stuff in here, including self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental collapse” but that’s surely exactly why the author chose her preface; to protect herself because her (and her protagonist’s) stories are so bleak. Indeed, should the reader even believe those percentages? And does it matter? “I’m not sure that all the things he tells me are true” (p. 187) says Gretchen of a male acquaintance. Indeed.

Nevertheless, Mackintosh beautifully crafts the story of a woman’s life in her book, regardless of just whose story it is or how authentic the tale. The short story format works so well here because it allows Mackintosh to showcase her diverse storytelling abilities, seamlessly flowing from standard first person narrative to second person (Doctors, pp. 101-109) to a parody of a self-help book (A Rough Guide to Grief, pp. 133-139) and everything in between. Not only is Any Other Mouth aware of its semi-autobiographical status, it is also aware of its status as a piece of literature, with the protagonist Gretchen writing the stories which make up the book. This becomes apparent in Borderline (pp. 155-174) when Gretchen asks her boyfriend Simon “‘Do you remember that story?’ […] ‘The one I wrote after we had an argument? That day we listened to the radio play, then we had a row and you went home?'” (p. 164). This story features in the collection, titled If You Drank Coffee (pp. 141-145).

Writing for The Gutter, Departed Cat claims that the semi-autobiographical nature of Mackintosh’s collection mean the reader “can’t help but be seduced to play a game of hide and seek” and as such the stories “function as small pieces in a larger puzzle.” This may be true, especially as the stories are interlinked not only by their shared protagonist but also by their self-referential nature, but the puzzle should not be to discover how much is autobiographical. Instead, the puzzle is that of constructing a woman – Gretchen – through fragments of life; of grief and intense emotion.

Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl (2014)

Lena Dunham Not That Kind of Girl

I was initially sceptical of Lena Dunham’s “memoir-ish” because I had given up on Girls a few seasons in as I found the premise a bit narcissistic. This is probably hypocritical of me since my PhD is on Dorothy Richardson, whose writing Virginia Woolf of all people thought was ruined by “the damned egotistical self” (Diary Vol. 2: 1920-24, 1984, p. 14). However, just a few pages in to Dunham’s book I came across this line, which I’ve been using as the tag line for this blog ever since:

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” (Not That Kind of Girl, 2014, p. xvi)

Dunham was describing her odd fascination with a terrible 1980s self-help title (Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing) but it immediately struck me that Dunham’s book is not just an advice book, as the New York Times named it; nor is it simply a “self-exposing memoir” as the Guardian claims: this is a book about women’s life writing.

Yes, there are a lot of excruciatingly personal details to be found within the pages of Not That Kind of Girl. Details that led to Dunham being accused of sexually abusing her sister (lots of articles on this here) and many, many other private tales. She claims that “sharing is my first instinct” (p. 138) and lives up to this by providing 30+ pages on her irrational fears, therapy sessions, and OCD diagnosis. She spends a chapter discussing the intricacies of her naked body. She writes an anonymised letter to the first boy she ever performed oral sex on, berating him for never calling her back, and then gives his full name in passing just 61 pages later. Although whether or not the name is real is another question entirely, since so much of memoir is fiction (see Liz Stanley’s The Auto/biographical I (1995) for more on this) and Dunham self-consciously calls herself an “unreliable narrator” (p. 51).

However, under this layer of shockingly confessional memoir lies a narrative of encouraging women to tell their own stories and to use their own voices. Dunham was reportedly paid a $3.7m advance to write this book thanks to her fame as a TV writer, director and actor and so it could be easy to dismiss any thoughts she has on the struggle of women’s life writing, her privilege providing her with money and an audience before she had even written a word of the book itself.

What Dunham does well though is to weave the stories of other women’s stories into her own narrative. For example, she tells of a fascination with a writer called Nellie who cannot be tracked down online:

“A Google search of Nellie’s name was unsatisfying. She didn’t have a Twitter, a blog, or any other form of personal Internet expression. A scant web presence is so rare these days, alluring in and of itself. She was telling her story through the ancient medium of theater.” (p. 132)

Here, Dunham acknowledges that Nellie is successfully writing her own life but also that she is doing it in exactly the opposite way from Dunham herself, completely out of the watchful public eye of social media. Later in the book Dunham then talks about her grandmother, who she calls Doad, and her own attempt at autobiography:

“Doad wrote a memoir. […] She did it not glory but for posterity  – spare, practical prose designed simply to get the information out, to prove that she was there and that she is still here.” (p. 232)

I really like this. It’s an acceptance that perhaps her grandmother’s narrative of her life won’t be read widely, certainly nothing like the 300,000+ copies sold of Dunham’s memoir, but that it proves her place in the world nonetheless.

A Life of One’s Own

Writing Women, which is about women’s life-writing (mostly autobiography, but a bit of fiction too), has various motivations. I was signed up to attend a workshop on academic blogging which required me to have a WordPress to play about with. More than that, though, after six years of studying English Literature I’ve become a bit disheartened with the lack of coverage for female writers, of past and of present.

This idea pops up in the media every now and then, like in this (slightly outdated) article about the Canadian professor David Gilmour who apparently refuses to teach on female writers, and in For Books’ Sake’s #BalanceTheBooks campaign which they ran last year in response to news that with each passing year there are fewer and fewer female writers on the GCSE syllabus. There is also this great blog on how terrible white male authors are. Basically what I’m saying is that the lack of female writers, both inside and outside of academia, isn’t a particularly original complaint.

What I hope is original though is that I’m blogging about women who have dared to write their own lives, and my aim of covering a broad period of time and spectrum of women’s experiences, from slaves to suffragettes, from Virginia Woolf to Lena Dunham. We’ll see how it goes. Suggestions and feedback welcome!