Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy.

Fuck the Patriarchy!

This incredible book is a battle cry. So I thought I’d start with one. The one Mona uses whenever she is asked to speak at a podium on feminism. I started reading this morning, thinking I would sample a couple of chapters each day over the weekend, but before I knew it, the clock said 3pm and I’d read the whole thing. Once finished, I felt a renewed anger about things that had happened in my life, some of which chimed with the author’s experience. She shows that the patriarchy isn’t just ‘over there’ in the restrictions women live with in Saudi Arabia or in conflicts like the Balkan War or the massacre in Rwanda where rape was used as a weapon. It isn’t just with the celebrities and actors who accused Harvey Weinstein, it’s just that their voices were heard louder than the young black teenagers who accused R.Kelly. Every woman, regardless of race, colour, religion, class, sexuality or the gender they were assigned at birth, are ruled by a global patriarchy. It’s here, with a 47 year old middle class, disabled woman living in the rural wilds of Lincolnshire. You can shop at Waitrose and still be fucked by the patriarchy.

In case you wondered about the profanity, it’s one of the seven necessary sins the author would like women to reclaim and use to fight for equality. So I’m reclaiming it, because this book roused me and made me angry (another necessary sin).

‘Patriarchy is universal. Feminism must be just as universal. I want patriarchy and all who benefit from it to have the same look of terror, as that man in a Montreal club who, before he ran away, took a look at me so he could see the woman who dared strike back. I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are’, all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men, for the benefit of men’. We must declare a feminism that is robust, aggressive and unapologetic. It is the only way to combat a patriarchy that is systemic.’

Every woman who reads this book must be roused by these words and understand that unless we all fight this, unless we all fight dirty and loud, nothing will change.

I could tell you about the author’s arguments, the incredible and eloquent rage that comes through in her writing, and the journey that brought her to who she is today, but I want you to discover this for yourself. I want you to read it and find your own connections to the arguments, the events she describes and have your own awakening. I can tell you about two ways I felt a personal connection with the author’s story and as I was reading how a righteous anger started to awaken within me.

I had a late awakening, about ten years ago really. That sounds terribly late, but there are reasons for that. I believe my mother was a feminist. Until I was around ten years old, she subscribed to Spare Rib magazine and read feminist books. However, our parents then discovered a new church – an offshoot of the American Evangelicals that the author talks about in her book – and everything changed. Despite having been in the Roman Catholic Church previously I hadn’t been old enough to feel it’s restrictions and I had always felt the ability to argue with it’s teachings, encouraged by the visits of our priest to school every week for question and answer sessions. So unfortunately, just as I was becoming a teenager, I came up against one of the most fanatical and restrictive forms of Christianity we could find. I was taught I should be quiet, demure, pure, and ruled by my father. I was taught a shame I’d never felt before, an awkwardness about a body that was growing, sprouting, forming curves too obvious to fit into their rigid boxes. I had to cover up, be modest, but still dress like a girl. Then as I grew older, I was taught the most important rule of all; I should not share my body with anyone else. The author describes this from the Islamic perspective:

‘My upbringing and faith taught me that I should abstain until I married. I obeyed this until I could not find anyone I wanted to marry and grew impatient. I have come to regret that it took my younger self so long to rebel and experience something that gives me so much pleasure.’

It’s a reminder that the ‘cult of virginity’ isn’t restricted to just one religion or culture.

For me, weird youth group sessions ensued where we were taught about which sexual activities were ‘acceptable’ -kissing – and that everything else should be saved for marriage. I was told about the ‘Silver Ring Thing’ phenomenon sweeping America, where a teenage girl would go through a ceremony where she pledged to her father that she would remain a virgin until she married. A silver pledge ring was then placed on her wedding finger, until it was removed for her wedding ring; one symbol of ownership replaced by another. I remember feeling that this was beyond creepy. My sexuality had nothing to do with my father. He didn’t own my body. Eventually I made the decision for myself that what I did with my body was my own business. I couldn’t imagine that God would truly be that interested in what a young woman did with her body. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, but the truth was the Bible was written by men, edited by men, for the benefit of men. I reasoned that a supreme being had better things to do than police my vagina! So I did what I wanted and lied about it for a quiet life. Once old enough to decide I stopped going to church. This was the 90s, and I would sometimes drive to pick up Mum from church playing Rage Against the Machine and wearing my Hello Boys T-shirt and Wonderbra. We thought we had it sussed, that our mothers had sorted out this feminist lark. We were ladettes. We thought we could drink like men, have sex like men, and do any job we liked. The Spice Girls told us we had girl power and we believed it, but it was all surface and no substance. The patriarchy remained.

Years later, now a 35 year old widow with a disability, and in a very vulnerable place, I met up with my old youth pastor from the church. He didn’t attend any more and assured me he didn’t hold any of the beliefs he’d been trying to in-still us with as teenagers. I realise now that my world had turned upside down and I was looking for safety, but I mistook control for security. As we embarked on a relationship I felt happy and I really needed something positive in my life, not realising that given time, I could find my own happy. I thought the church was the origin of his patriarchal ideas, but really he’d been searching for a community that thought like he did. A place he could find a good, quiet, chaste girl who wouldn’t question walking three steps behind. The abuse started as soon as we were engaged, phases of total withdrawal of attention, time, and sex. Followed by rages if I questioned his behaviour, kicking furniture, throwing things and threats to leave. He was master of this house, he made the decisions, just like at work where he employed seven workers – all women. He isolated me from family and friends and made it quite clear that I was fat, ugly and nobody else would want me if he left me. If I’d had a bad spell with my multiple sclerosis he said I was lazy, needed to try a bit harder and did I realise how hard it was to find me attractive when I was ill? He flaunted cards and Facebook contact from other women and raged if I dared to complain. Luckily my family are persistent, so to get rid of them he took a huge gamble. Behind my back he made sexual advances to my Mum who was ‘more his type and age’ he admitted he liked her ‘quiet nature’ and had ‘fancied her for some time’. When I found out, a huge rage took hold of me so I drove home and asked ‘why haven’t you packed your bags yet?’ I ran round like a whirlwind, packing his bags and I threw them and him out onto the drive. I told him that I knew about his antics and that he had been psychologically abusive for the past three years. I told him I was done. That I wasn’t scared of him leaving any more. I’d rather be alone.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the letter he sent me afterwards, still controlling the situation by telling me he didn’t want to be with me any more, as if I hadn’t thrown his arse out on the driveway. He wrote that he found me ‘too much’. He wanted a Madonna and had found a whore. That he’d tried and tried but he simply couldn’t control me. Everything he wanted in a wife, was described by Mona in her chapter on profanity.

‘Women are supposed to be ‘less than’ and not ‘too much’. Women are meant to be quiet, modest, humble, polite, nice, well-behaved, aware of the red-lines. They are supposed to tread softly and within their limits. I am proud to be described as ‘too loud, swears too much, and goes too far’. When a woman is ‘too much’ she is essentially uncontrollable and unashamed. That makes her dangerous’.

At first his letter made me cry, I was hurt and vulnerable. Then that anger was roused again as I realised I liked the woman he described in that letter. She sounded fun, ballsy and exciting. She was intelligent and didn’t take any shit. She was formidable. So I made a pact with myself that I would always be that formidable woman and teach other women to do the same. Now I have two stepdaughters and I encourage them to speak up, to get angry, to be feisty and loud. This is the passage I read to them this weekend:

‘What would the world look like if girls were taught they were volcanoes, whose eruptions were a thing of beauty, a power to behold and a force not to be trifled with’.

I want my girls to know this. To go out into the world unashamed, uncontrollable and ready to smash the patriarchy for themselves and their sisters around the world. This book reignited my fervour. It may challenge you and your beliefs, but you must read it. Mona Eltahawy is a force to be reckoned with and I applaud her for this manifesto. It is moving and comes from a deeply felt sense of injustice. It is necessary. It’s impolite, brave, forthright and packs a mighty punch. Read it, then give it to your daughters, your nieces and your friends, because every woman should read this.

Meet The Author.

Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author and award-winning commentator and public speaker. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications around the world. She is a frequent commentator on current affairs on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and other media outlets, where her goal is always to disrupt patriarchy. She is the author of Headscarves and Hymens and recently launched her feminist newsletter Feminist Giant. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @monaeltahawy

About Tramp Press

Tramp Press was launched in 2014 to find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent. Based in Dublin and Glasgow, they publish internationally. Tramp Press Authors have won, been shortlisted and nominated for many prizes including the Irish Post Book of the Year, the Booker Prize, the Costa, the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.

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