Thursday, November 09, 2006

Do Men Ever Write in Women’s Voices? A Survey

What classic male authors have written in a female voice? Or failing that, name some fully developed female protagonists (not just a pastiche or caricature of a person) that have been created by male authors? Think of this as a meme. (Is that a correct use of this term?)

Background

I’d like to have a list to take with me to the next meeting of my book club. The club is currently studying Camus’ Plague. The club started as the result of a conversation at the office about L’Étranger. We, two of us, decided to read and study another of Camus' classics. I put up a sign-up sheet in my office lunchroom inviting other participation, but no one else was interested in reading this particular book. What is wrong with these people? Is the choice not upbeat enough?

So we had our first meeting. As my husband would have predicted, it deteriorated to a discussion of feminism (not completely.) My husband says that I can start on any topic and eventually I will link it to feminism. It makes him really mad. (Not that he disagrees necessarily, but I think he’s bored hearing my same opinions over and over again.)

So, the feminist question that arose was, Do male writers ever write in a female voice, and if so, what are the best examples? Failing that, name the well developed female protagonists in classic literature penned by male authors. I know there are plenty of cardboard representations of women in literature written by men, but who are the fully developed female protagonists. Help me here!

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reynolds Price in Kate Vaiden. I'm not sure he's classic. Or good. But it's a male author with a female protagonist. I have a friend that really loves it a ton.

Anonymous said...

Here is a panoply of suggestions from a friend who used her "phone a friend" to glean this great suggestions from her father ( clearly divided into different groupings.

Russian

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Italian

I Promessi Sposi (the Bethrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni;
L'Esclusa (The Excluded Woman) by Luigi Pirandello;
Tra Donne Sole (Women on their Own) by Cesare Pavese;
La Ciociara (Two Women) by Alberto Moravia;
Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (the Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s) by Giorgio Bassani,

English

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe;
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence;
Fanny Hill by John Cleland

French

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Greek

Medea by Euripides

brd said...

In answer to my own question, I thought today about E.M.Forster. Room with a View, Howard's End, and Remains of the Day are all filled with female characters who are well developed and who reveal an deep perception by the author of the human spirit.

Walter Scott in Ivanhoe also captures a unique viewpoint in the character of Rebecca, I think, though the book is certainly not enlightened generally.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

this feels like a post to enter cautiously...

...but i can't stop myself from bringing up my favorite: gabriel garcia marquez. as my wife is presently pointing out, his work, although littered with strong women, still centers on 'the mother' and 'the lover' - but i have to present 'love in the time of cholera' as a possible exception to this general rule: although the lady of the novel is a bit catty, she is incredibly complex in her development and seems almost an enigma in terms of the collision of those two archetypes.

i'll be back later with more ideas, once i peruse the bookshelf a bit longer...

Anonymous said...

Betsy: Henry James' novels more often than not center on female characters; males are adjunctive, nuance is the focus; events matter only as they carry the enormous gestalt of social custom.

brd said...

Wonderful thoughts all. Anne GG mentioned Henry James also. I'm hoping she will post her other suggestions. If not, I'll come back later and post them for her.

Your suggestions are making me post this confession because I'm not familiar with all of the authors mentioned. Here it is. I have only been doing fiction for about the last 3 1/2 to 4 years. For almost the first 50 years of my life I have been a reader of non-fiction. I know. This is psychologically telling. But folks I have changed. I swear, I have changed. And I will, at this juncture, go to the library and check out my first Henry James as will as looking for a Price and a Marquez.

brd said...

In thinking about this a bit more here are some other suggestions. Thanks to Anne GG and others.

C.S. Lewis—Til We Have Faces;

Hugo—Fantine and perhaps Cosette from Les Miserables; Hunchback of Notre Dame--Esmerelda

Thomas Hardy—Tess & Jude the Obscure (With a Sue Brideshead that Anne GG assures me is very fascinating.)

Sophia from Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Then I thought about opera and female protagonists and got lots of interesting ones, and if the plots don't always give equal footing, the scores generally do.

Norma
Brunhilde
Aida
Turandot
Tosca

Baba from The Medium
Magda from The Consul (Who says: ``Oh let all flags be burned / And guilt be shared.
Oh give us back the earth / And make us free.'' This is free political commentary.)

Then I thought about Miss Tina and Juliana from the opera, The Aspern Papers. That was when I realized that I had read at least one Henry James novel already and this is it. I have also seen the opera.

Anne G G said...

Jeff mentions Euripides' Medea, which I see has already been mentioned. He also mentioned James Joyce's last chapter in Ulysses, which showcases Molly, who is, I believe the Penelope to Ulysses' Odysseus.

Let my confusion not imply that Jeff is confused. He knows Ulysses and Joyce very well.

Jeff promises more ideas when they come to him. It may be worth a look at Tennessee Williams. Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and perhaps most notably, Blanche Dubois of Streetcar Named Desire. Not to say strong women, or women not dependent on men, but interesting women. Laura particularly, for me.

I'll try to think of some more Dramatic Literature examples. I'm sure I can think of a better one than this . . .

brd said...

Not that this is of significant interest to anyone but Anne. However, one of the events of my honeymoon was watching "Streetcar Named Desire" in our hotel room across the street from the Watergate in Washington D.C.

Stella! I don't recommend this course of action for premier honeymoon enjoyment.

Anne G G said...

You and your honeymoon. No, Streetcar isn't completely honeymoon material. You should have seen Barefoot in the Park or something.

Another mention: Samuel Richardson, who wrote the famous and loooong Epistolary novels Pamela and Clarissa.

Anne G G said...

Here are some thoughts from Virginia Woolf about men's treatment of women in novels, which perhaps explains in part why they haven't historically created female protagonists very often. I bring it out as a historical relic, not as a comment on the way the 21st century man might write. But I think it's useful; it's also very long:

"That perhaps accounts for some of the characteristics that I remember to have found here, I thought, taking down a new novel by Mr A, who is in the prime of life and very well thought of, apparently, by the reviewers. I opened it. Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself. One had a sense of physical well–being in the presence of this well–nourished, well–educated, free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked. All this was admirable. But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. it was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I’. One began to be tired of ‘I’. Not but what this ‘I’ was a most respectable ‘I’; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding. I respect and admire that ‘I’ from the bottom of my heart. But—here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter ‘I’ all is shapeless as mist. Is that a tree? No, it is a woman. But . . . she has not a bone in her body, I thought, watching Phoebe, for that was her name, coming across the beach. Then Alan got up and the shadow of Alan at once obliterated Phoebe. For Alan had views and Phoebe was quenched in the flood of his views. And then Alan, I thought, has passions; and here I turned page after page very fast, feeling that the crisis was approaching, and so it was. It took place on the beach under the sun. It was done very openly. It was done very vigorously. Nothing could have been more indecent. But . . . I had said ‘but’ too often. One cannot go on saying ‘but’. One must finish the sentence somehow, I rebuked myself. Shall I finish it, ‘But—I am bored!’ But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing can grow there."

brd said...

Please check out Fernham a blog by Anne Fernald, author of Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader. She offers a response to the second (more interesting) part of our discussion, i.e. Who are well developed female characters written by male authors. She suggests, Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Tess, Isabel Archer. But check out her blog. It is just the kind I like.

Gavin Weston said...

Hi there. I have just stumbled on this discussion and thought that you might be interested in taking a look at my novel 'Harmattan' which will be published by Myrmidon Books (UK) in August 2011. It tells the story of Haoua, a twelve year-old Nigerien girl struggling to survive in sub-Saharan Africa. The narrative is in the first person and came about partly as a response to a woman writer I met who was adamant that 'men cannot write as women'. Regards, Gavin Weston

brd said...

Gavin, I will look forward to Harmattan. It sounds wonderful. I saw online that this is your debut novel. Best wishes for a successful release. I will be interested to see how you handle the "woman's voice," especially an African woman's voice. I think that the voices of women from Africa can be especially powerful.

Gavin Weston said...

Many thanks BRD. That is kind of you. I realise that the notion of a Caucasian European male in his forties attempting to narrate a story in the voice of a twelve year-old West African girl is a somewhat preposterous one and may also be perceived as arrogant, but the book came about after I discovered that just such a child, whom my family and I had 'sponsored' for six years, had been married off. She was removed from the sponsorship programme and never heard of again. This is a huge problem in Africa and many other parts of the world. I desperately wanted such children to be heard, so my main character kind of kicked her way into existence. Had I not also lived and worked in Niger I would probably not have attempted such a project. Undoubtedly I will have made cultural faux-pas but hopefully these will be outweighed by the experience of 'a good read' and a raised awareness.

brd said...

I think if an author were too afraid of making mistakes, they would never write. The most difficult thing, I would think is to get the matters of the heart correct. It is quite interesting to hear the backdrop for your story. And it makes me want to read more.

Gavin Weston said...

We're having a few teething problems with a new website www.gavinwestonbooks.com but these will be ironed out soon hopefully. This includes a radio interview. I'm happy to answer any questions. Thanks for your interest.

cadh 8 said...

Well, I don't think that this has been mentioned, but I am currently reading "True Grit" by Charles Portis, which is totally written from Mattie Ross' point of view..most definitely in her voice. And he has beautifully captured and toughness and adventurousness that I think is in every woman, although rarely does it come out quite as bluntly as it does in this book. But most women I know DO have some true grit to them, and Charles Portis captures that quite well.

brd said...

We should do a whole post on True Grit. I'd like to review the old movie and read the book. Then having just watched the new movie, I'd be ready for a post--if, cadh-- you would assist! You have the grit to do it.