We’re back in 1962 in an English lesson about Jane Austen. To be precise, we’ve been reading Mansfield Park, preparing for what then were called ‘O’ level exams. We’ve been given two questions to choose from for prep but the teacher has asked if anyone has a third suggestion. I put up my hand and say, ‘Jane Austen is a woman writer, writing about women, for women.’ This was accepted. Not a single pupil met the challenge and that included me.
My final three books I will always have with me are: Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs Dalloway, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Three women writers, setting their novels in domestic places (let’s agree that a small, private hotel can be a home for a brief time), the lead characters all women, men playing the parts of either interlopers disturbing the domestic peace or the enemy. Mr Dalloway is always in a committee; a suitor in Hotel du Lac is refused for insisting on making ‘the arrangements’ and Charles the cousin is set, it seems, as being a thief.
Let’s look briefly at the settings, characters and situation.
The title of Mrs Dalloway gives the game away re the main character, a woman living in London. The setting is domestic: Mrs Dalloway is giving a party at home and she must buy flowers. The action is over one day but the words cover over thirty years.
Hotel du Lac is the setting for a holiday, so not set at home, but the atmosphere is still domestic and the drama is focussed on women: Edith Hope, a writer, who has embarrassed her friends and banished from home to the hotel where she meets four women all with their own story. A suitor appears but is dispensed with. The important lover is waiting for her at home.
We Have Always Lived in a Castle is an American gothic novel. Shirley Jackson was once described as ‘Virginia Werewolf’. But this story is also about a close family living in a large house, if not a real castle. The reader gets the feeling the family are locked up, living behind fortifications. The family composes of a not-quite-mature girl, Merricat, her elder sister, Constance and their Uncle Julian who has some unspecified disablement or illness. Not, therefore, a real man. The interloper to this cosy arrangement is their cousin Charles – a man.
To sum up for now, I see Virginia Wolfe’s writing as being aimed at women; Anita Brookner’s novels are not always about men but I’ll stick my neck out here and say I prefer her stories centred around women. However, Shirley Jackson’s writing must attract men readers with their creepy characters, the implication of witchcraft and her ‘other world’ stories.
Why they are special to me? For next week.