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Questioning the Rescuer...

The current issue (March) of the Literary Review contains a review of Hilary Spurling's new work, Burying the Bones – Pearl Buck’s Life in China. Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature, yet has drifted into the shadows. The reviewer claims that this new work promises ‘to repair Buck’s literary fortunes and restore her to the pantheon of feminist heroines’. The reviewer is Elaine Showalter, the doyenne of gynocriticism, author of A Literature of One's Own, and more recently A Jury of Her Peers. A long-standing rescuer of ‘forgotten’ women writers, Showalter has long applauded those who do likewise. Over the years this push to rescue has had a noticeable effect. There are now a slew of women writers producing books that champion and ‘rescue’ not just women writers, but virtually any woman they deem to have been, to use highly emotive words, ‘forgotten’ or ‘abandoned’. I now think it’s time to question not those rescued, but the rescuers themselves.

A good illustration of the effects of rescuing is implied in David Pryce-Jones’ review, separated by only a few pages from Showalter’s, of The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders. This endemic need to rescue seems to have blinded Stonor Saunders’, rendering her in denial to the true measure of her subject. The woman who shot was the Honourable Violet Gibson, who could more accurately have been named Violent. Planning to shoot the Pope, Gibson instead plumped for Mussolini (the bullet merely scraped his noise). Yet this incident came some time after she shot herself – obviously not successful there either – perhaps a better title could have been The Woman who Missed - Twice? Yet Stonor Saunders attempts to position Gibson as a tragically misunderstood feminist heroine. Thankfully Pryce-Jones points out that Gibson was nothing of the sort – a danger to herself and others. No pantheon for her then!

The first question has to be why do women writers want to rescue so much? Many (men) might say that it’s in our (essentialist) nature. Yet wouldn’t it be healthier if we were to see that many of these women have been ‘forgotten’ or ‘abandoned’, simply because they were unable to maintain a sufficient level of interest amongst readers? It isn’t just writers, however. Virago Modern Classics can be accused of doing this with their need to keep in print authors such as Mary Webb, who now reads as an anachronism. Why shouldn't they fall away, or must every writer be saved? Aren’t they being treated only, in EP Thompson’s words, with 'the enormous condescension of posterity'? And doesn’t this preoccupation stand as obstacle to the discovery of contemporary writers and figures?

Besides, isn't this feminist preoccupation largely just dictating what other women *should* be reading, a cultural imperialism that falls only into the same territory that many women charge against the men? Mary Webb’s ‘Modern Classic’, whilst acclaimed by a few critics in her own time, seems only to have captured public imagination because it was spoken of by the then PM, Stanley Baldwin, after her largely ignored death. This only served to add a large dollop of tragedy to her status as unjustly-ignored-abandoned-neglected-writer-genius.

The Virago Modern Classic series was only born because of Carmen Callil’s identification with Antonia White’s Frost in May. The same is true of Spurling’s latest. Showalter notes that Spurling ‘dates her fascination with Buck to her childhood reading. The first book she remembers was The Chinese Children Next Door, about a family of six little girls totally over-shadowed and enslaved by the seventh child, a baby brother. However, when she reread it as an adult, Spurling recognised ‘echoes of stories my mother told me about her own childhood when she, too, had been the last of six unwanted girls...it is also a fable about male supremacy and the silencing of women’s voices...’ But herein is the nub. Many of these books are not chosen for their literary merit, or even what they say about current social issues, but because they mirror the critic/writer/publisher.

Eighteen months ago I started writing a novelised biography of 19th century factory worker Mary Burns, the long-term partner of Friedrich Engels. I was attracted to her because I identified with her and shared her politics. I even grew up in some of the same areas as her, and in which she and Fred lived. Yet she was afforded only a few lines in his biographies, due to a dearth of information. So I decided to rescue her by novelising her life. It was two long drafts later that I realised it wasn’t her I needed to rescue, but myself. It doesn’t mean that Burns is suddenly ‘abandoned’ again, but that she is used in conjunction with, and to inform, my own work-in-progress, now transformed into an experimental, non-linear, semi-autobiographical work, more akin to Helene Cixous' notion of ecriture feminine. I also had to confront myself as being that figure I have always found questionable, that of the middle-class missionary falling into a pseudo-feminist line, and not as the working-class writer I identify myself as. In short, I was using Mary to hide behind. Now Mary serves my story; I do not serve hers. This brings me away from a sickly grandiose leeching to an assertive positioning of myself as writing in the female tradition, and not the feminist. Perhaps that is the female tradition we need to embrace more of if we are to come into our own? And in doing so, encourage not the resurrection of voices fallen to the wayside, but those voices that come to us direct in our own time? Needless to say, Showalter’s review didn’t make me want me to pick up the Buck, but it did make me wonder about Spurling’s own real story – and Showalter’s.

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