Wonderwoman

Carolyn Steedman

  • The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-1985 by Germaine Greer
    Picador, 305 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 330 29407 5

This is the year of the collected essays of many women. Six years of Ann Oakley’s lectures and occasional writings on medical sociology have recently been published, together with some of her poems, in Telling the Truth about Jerusalem, Elizabeth Wilson has recently produced Hidden Agendas, and Cora Kaplan’s collection from a ten-year period has just appeared in Sea Changes. Germaine Greer’s Madwoman’s Underclothes, designed, according to the dust-jacket, to demonstrate ‘what a force in our cultural life she is’, covers a much longer stretch of past time, from 1968 to 1985, starting with a piece from Oz and ending with a report on food aid in Ethiopia from the Listener of two autumns ago. The Sunday Times, Esquire, Spare Rib and Playboy lie in between. We are meant indeed to understand that the road has been a long one, the times always obdurate and absurd in their different ways, but – the stated premise of this collection – that the seeing eye has always been informed by a central vision, and the story told essentially the same one.

We cannot, though, test this proposition, for The Madwoman’s Underclothes is a selection rather than a collection. There was student journalism before 1968; and there must somewhere be a beady-eyed hoarder of back issues of Oz and Suck who could tell us what has been abandoned, along with all the other ‘millions of minute words that lay ... like sand on a beach’ in the pages of the underground press. Greer reminds us of those long-lost days when day-glo pink print over a day-glo green photograph meant that no one could read what had been written, only know that it had.

To collect together a lifetime’s writing and publishing, and then make selections from it, must always be, to some extent, an autobiographical act. The writer has two main options open to her. She can allow the pieces to function as a memoir, in which the focus remains (as it originally was in the body of journalism presented here) people met, events witnessed, ideas taken apart or lived through. The collection will then operate historically at an evidential level, and be a reasonably useful source for those who want to chart, for instance, the baroque turns that an understanding of female sexuality has taken over twenty years, or to know how very badly Norman Mailer behaved in New York Town Hall in 1972. Alternatively, the writer can take herself as the subject of the collection, and its various parts as the items of a life history. There are various ways of doing this. A young and naive writer will prune and polish the material itself, as did the 13-year-old Elizabeth Moulton Barrett in 1819, when she transcribed in an elegant hand, and edited, the stories and journal entries she had produced as a much littler girl. Adding maxims and epigraphs, she thus collected her own archives for a history of her childhood genius, so that ‘all [her] past days’ might appear ‘as a bright star’. This is not a strategy available to the published adult. Ann Oakley linked lectures and conference papers with autobiographical sketches and poetry. What Greer has done is to ask us to read both forwards and backwards through an account she gives in her Introduction of a three-month stay in a Calabrian village in the summer of 1967. This is the filter through which we are asked to interpret everything that has happened or been written between then and now. The description of dignified peasant womanliness, of human stoicism in the face of extreme hardship, should carry us safely through all the rest, from ‘Lady love your cunt’ (Suck, 1971) and ‘Seduction is a four-letter word’ (Playboy, 1973) to the harbour of ‘Resettlement, Ethiopia’, 1985 (unpublished). She was delivered up, she records, to those Calabrian people in 1967: ‘they made sure I always heard a different drummer ... the experience of those three months underlies all my thinking, to an extent that can surprise even me, even now.’

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