Feminist Sundays: The Woman Who Walked into Doors – Roddy Doyle

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

This week for Feminist Sundays I thought I’d put a downer on Christmas – if you’re full of festive cheer you may want to stop reading now.  I love Christmas, and I’ve had a great time this week decorating my flat (OK, so I’m a bit behind), wrapping presents and icing Christmas cakes.  I do this in anticipation of the day itself which for me will be fun, silly, relaxed, full of food, and getting slightly tipsy (OK, fairly drunk – when else do you drink alcohol at breakfast?  Why does the birth of Jesus make early morning Bucks Fizz acceptable? Whatever – it’s a fine tradition) in the company of my lovely family. I can confidently state in advance that there will be no weird atmospheres, no aggression, no physical assaults.  But this is not the case for everyone.  Unfortunately, the Christmas period consistently sees a rise in domestic violence compared with the rest of the year.  And although I’m looking at this topic as part of Feminist Sundays, (as the majority of domestic violence cases are male violence towards women) domestic violence can happen to anyone: any gender, any sexuality. It’s a subject Roddy Doyle explored in his 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

The novel is narrated by Paula Spencer, a woman who is beaten regularly by her violent husband Charlo.  Paula works as a domestic cleaner, and self-medicates with alcohol.  Hers is a voice rarely heard in fiction; Doyle does a brilliant job creating the character and all that surrounds her through a narrative that intertwines the present with reminiscences of the past:

“Where I grew up – and probably everywhere else – you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. You didn’t have to do anything to be a slut. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair, if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara. I had to go back up to the bathroom and take it off. My tears had ruined it anyway.”

Into this world comes Charlo Spencer, a sexy man who literally takes Paula’s breath away: “I suddenly knew that I had lungs because they were empty and collapsing.”  The romance of their first meeting contains a horrible irony in the soundtrack:

“His timing was perfect.  The Rubettes stopped and Frankie Valli started singing My Eyes Adored You.[…] He’d been drinking.  I could smell it but it didn’t matter.  He wasn’t drunk.  His arms rested on my hips and he brought me round and round.

-But I never laid a hand on you-

My eyes adored you-

I put my head on his shoulder.  He had me.”

This is immediately followed by a description of the aftermath of an assault:

“I knew nothing for a while, where I was, how come I was on the floor.  Then I saw Charlo’s feet, then his legs, making a triangle with the floor.  He seemed way up over me.  […] his face was full of worry and love.  He skipped my eyes. – You fell, he said.”

Charlo’s violence escalates, and Paula gradually comes to realise that he will not change, and that she is not alone in this experience. Doyle achieves the extraordinary balance of writing responsibly about a serious subject and still providing hope:

“For seventeen years.  There wasn’t one minute when I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t waiting. Waiting to go, waiting for him to come.  Waiting for the fist, waiting for the smile.  I was brainwashed and braindead, a zombie for hours, afraid to think, afraid to stop, completely alone. I sat at home and waited. I mopped up my own blood.  I lost all my friends, and most of my teeth.”

Ultimately Paula is a survivor: Doyle returned to her in the sequel Paula Spencer, ten years later.  I haven’t read the sequel (one of many on my TBR pile) but I highly recommend TWWWID. Roddy Doyle is hugely talented at capturing authentic voices in his writing, and TWWWID is no exception.

If you are affected by domestic violence, please, please contact Refuge (UK) or the equivalent service in your country.  They are there to help, not to judge.   Here’s a powerful video make-up artist Lauren Luke made on behalf of Refuge:

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Feminist Sundays: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

So, this isn’t my usual sort of post, with a theme and two book choices.  Instead, as part of Feminist Sundays I was thinking about any times that a feminist discussion has come up around something I’m reading.  And I remembered a tutor of mine saying that she thought she’d been such a doormat in her first marriage because she’d unconsciously integrated the misogynistic attitudes towards women from her specialism, Renaissance literature (inappropriate disclosure to her students about her personal life was another speciality of hers).

Now, I love Early Modern literature, but I’m not going to try and claim that sixteenth-century England was a progressive, proto-feminist society.  However, at the same time I think my tutor was talking nonsense.  When we look back at Early Modern texts, there are strong females for us to identify with, and I’m going to take a look at one of my favourites, the brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Here’s Emma Thompson in the role:

Beatrice

Image from: (http://www.monologuedb.com/comedic-female-monologues/much-ado-about-nothing-beatrice/)

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays; the city I live in (London) has seen 3 productions I can think of in recent years (one at the Globe in 2011, the other with Catherine Tate and David Tennant at Wyndams the same year, one this year with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones at the Old Vic); Joss Whedon also released a film version earlier this year.  I think this is a good indication that Beatrice is a character who still has something relevant to say to us.

For those of you who don’t know the story: a group of soldiers arrive in Messina.  One of the officers, Benedick, has some romantic history with Beatrice (niece of Messina’s governor), and they spend a lot of their time bickering and proclaiming they’re not interested in each other at all – lies, all lies.  Their friends conspire against them, convincing each of the other one’s feelings.  Meanwhile one of the younger soldiers, Claudio, wants to marry the governor’s daughter, Hero, but the evil Don John works to tear this all apart…

This being a comedy, it all works out OK in the end.  Along the way we have some brilliant sparky dialogue from Beatrice.  On hearing Benedick will arrive:

“In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse;”

Ouch.  Their first meeting:

Benedick. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick. God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice. Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.

Beatrice strives to establish and maintain her own personality amongst a society that deems women should be seen and not heard – something she resolutely refuses to do.  She’s witty, she holds her own against Benedick’s jibes, and she’s caring and honest.  She’s also feisty until the end:

Benedick. Do not you love me?

Beatrice. Why, no; no more than reason.

Benedick. Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.

Beatrice. Do not you love me?

Benedick. Troth, no; no more than reason.

Beatrice.Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

Benedick. They swore that you were almost sick for me.

Beatrice.They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

Benedick. ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

Beatrice.No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

[…]

Beatrice. I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,for I was told you were in a consumption.

Benedick. Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Most productions have him kiss her at this point)

Aww, true love conquers all.  And although my feminist side balks at her mouth being stopped once she’s in a relationship, I also think you could never keep Beatrice down, and marriage will not silence her. She and Benedick form a relationship of equals. Compared to the insipid rent-a-virginal-romantic-lead Hero, Beatrice is a fully realised, complex and intriguing female character.  She’s definitely one of my feminist icons.

Here’s a clip from the very enjoyable Globe production mentioned earlier.  Eve Best plays Beatrice, bantering with Charles Edward’s Benedick:

“You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” (Sherlock Holmes/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Yesterday I was vegging out in front of the TV, when I saw something that got me very excited:

Sherlock’s back!  Sherlock’s back!  Sherlock’s back!

OK, now I’ve composed myself, let’s have a discussion about books.  Sherlock’s back!

I’ve gone the obvious route for my first choice, one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I chose it because I think this was the first story that made me aware of Sherlock Holmes, watching an old black and white film version starring Basil Rathbone on TV (my mother told me the books were much better and the portrayal of Watson was rubbish – how right she was).  The story is not long, but it crams a great deal in, and is a fast-paced, creepily gothic read.  The story is narrated by Holmes’ loyal companion Dr Watson, who remains loyal despite being on the receiving end of such back-handed compliments from Holmes as: “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.” Charming.  The two are employed by Dr Mortimer to investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, and potential danger to his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville.  Henry has inherited a huge pile in the middle of Dartmoor, and rumours of a supernatural, vicious hound that roams the moor abound.  The eerie atmosphere is beautifully evoked, such as Watson’s first view of Baskerville Hall:

“We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. The driver pointed with his whip.

“Baskerville Hall,” said he.

[…]

The avenue opened into a broad expanse of turf, and the house lay before us. In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or a coat of arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes. To right and left of the turrets were more modern wings of black granite. A dull light shone through heavy mullioned windows, and from the high chimneys which rose from the steep, high-angled roof there sprang a single black column of smoke.

“Welcome, Sir Henry! Welcome to Baskerville Hall!””

The story really is expertly crafted, and it’s understandable why Sherlock Holmes endures.  Doyle succeeds in writing pacey, interesting, atmospheric tales that keep you hooked until the end.  And of course, at the centre of it all is one of the most intriguing characters ever created: a brilliant mind for whom no detail is insignificant, and whose genius means he is stimulated in ways that the rest of us may not fully comprehend: “He burst into one of his rare fits of laughter as he turned away from the picture. I have not heard him laugh often, and it has always boded ill to somebody.”

I’ll stop right there before I give away any spoilers as to the mystery.  On to my second choice, Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers (1923, my copy 2003, Hodder & Stoughton).  Sayers is one of the authors identified with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and this novel is the first to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic amateur detective, who likes to “go off Sherlocking” and went on to feature in many more novels and short stories by Sayers.

I found this novel hugely enjoyable.  It was well-paced (maybe flagging a little towards the end, but maybe I’m just used to Hollywood-style rapid denouements) it was witty, and didn’t take itself too seriously, with a few meta-comedy moments at the expense of detective fiction: “Sugg’s a beautiful, braying ass,” said Lord Peter.  “he’s like a detective in a novel…”; “Its  only in Sherlock Holmes and stories like that , that people think things out logically.”

As the meta moments suggest, Sayers is a clever novelist.  But I never felt she was trying to prove how clever she was.  The story, of a body found in a bathtub and a missing family friend (events Lord Peter believes are connected), remains believable and accessible. Sayers has a confident voice in her first novel, and an interesting turn of phrase: “His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.”

I have one proviso to this recommendation: I found offensive the anti-Semitic remarks made by some characters in Whose Body? . The inter-war period was obviously a time that saw a growth in fascism throughout Europe with devastating consequences, and Sayers is probably just putting in her characters’ mouths the repugnant views that were expressed at the time.  According the Wikipedia page on Sayers, she was surprised at accusations of anti-Semitism in Whose Body?, stating the only characters “treated in a favourable light were the Jews!”  Certainly those who express anti-Jewish views are generally portrayed as old-fashioned and/or stupid, but it still makes for uncomfortable reading in this day and age.

I don’t want to end on a negative, so for all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is a description of Lord Peter’s favourite room:

“Lord Peter’s library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris.  In one corner stood a black baby-grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sevres vases on the chimney-piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums.”

I for one could spend hours in that room.

Normally I finish with a picture of the books, but they have disappeared, nowhere to be found.  ‘Tis truly a mystery: who could I call on, that is up to the task of solving this curious case…..?

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(Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018ttws )