Pick the small ones

Marina Warner

  • Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from around the World by Mineke Schipper
    Yale, 422 pp, £35.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 300 10249 6

Dryden and D’Avenant’s debonair travesty of The Tempest pairs the innocent heroine, Dorinda, with Hippolito, a male juvenile lead of equal springtime guilelessness. While Miranda knows only Prospero and Caliban, and barely remembers her mother, neither Dorinda nor Hippolito has ever seen any other member of the opposite sex. Hippolito finds that Prospero left behind a single book, overlooked when he drowned his library. It’s a manual of proverbial wisdom, and Hippolito eagerly begins to read the adages and maxims, hoping to discover what a young man in his position should look for in a female partner, what he can expect from their relation, and how he should treat her. As Gramsci observed, ‘creating a new culture is not just a matter of individuals making “original” discoveries but also, and above all, of disseminating already discovered truths.’ Proverbs contribute to this process: they are repositories of ancient lore. A proverb used to be called a ‘gnome’, until the garden variety usurped the word, and ‘gnome’ comes from the same root as know.

This book of gnomes contains 15,735 maxims addressing the matter of Dorinda’s nature and future, from 240 languages, many of them unknown to Hippolito. It starts with a section on the ‘Female Body’ (an inventory from Head to Foot). Hippolito already finds Dorinda’s effect on him disturbing. ‘Women and sardines,’ he reads. ‘Pick the small ones.’ But while fish fill his net, he has no standard of comparison for his girl. Besides, he then reads that ‘the good essence comes in a small jar, but so does poison.’ Later, many proverbs recommend a woman without a tongue. Later still, she’s ideal if she has no brain. Further on, several recommend a headless sort. In one distant land, where English is spoken, the elders have decreed: ‘In marriage, the husband should have two eyes, but the wife but one.’ Other maxims hold that a woman should not go out and about, and if she does, she must not whistle.

Hippolito riffles through sections entitled ‘Phases of Life’ and ‘Basics of Life’. Girls are rubbish, he learns: ‘One lame son is more valuable than 18 golden daughters.’ When Dorinda was born there was a loud wailing and gnashing of teeth and she is lucky not to have been killed – the magnanimity of men must be responsible for this. Worse even than daughters are their mothers: in Persia they say that ‘the mother-in-law’s final breath is better than the nightingale’s song.’ Hippolito thanks Setebos, his god, that Dorinda hasn’t got any relatives. But she must be feigning the ingénue dewiness that makes him feel so loving and manly; females, he learns, are fiends of deceit. He’s fortunate that he has no rivals on the island for her favours, but the book warns that there are no depths to which a female will not sink. Union with Dorinda will be a cage, a chicken coop, a hangman’s rope, a bed of nails and an eel trap. But he will be able to escape it, the book reveals, as soon as life with her palls, by taking another wife. (‘Even a wolf is allowed to marry two.’) The adages of the ancients at this point become bewildering: ‘If you marry two, you’ll die all the younger.’ It’s advisable to take countermeasures: ‘“Every little lightness helps,” said the skipper, and threw his wife overboard.’

Before that eventuality, however, Dorinda must be beaten. Hippolito is not quite sure what this mysterious practice – much revisited and relished in the book – entails. It seems to be a kind of lovemaking. He hasn’t yet tried it, but has just found a stout stick (whips and belts are not available on their island paradise) when Dorinda comes merrily and light-footed over the yellow sands towards him, crying out that they have visitors: a gaggle of survivors from a shipwreck is coming up the beach towards them. And, Dorinda confides excitedly, putting her little hand (should it be that size?) in Hippolito’s fist, incidentally unclenching it from around his big stick: ‘I think they’re my kind!’ As they approach, she curtseys: ‘O brave new world, that has such women in it!’

Captain Simone de Beauvoir leads the group; her bosun Germaine Greer beside her, and her crew of investigators fast behind (they include Kate Millett, purser; Mary Daly, doctor; Erica Jong, navigator). Soon, the whole group is making earnest inquiry of the only untouched indigenous individuals they will ever have the good fortune to question, for Dorinda and Hippolito have no knowledge of custom, opinion, power and sexual mores in the outside world. Pure wolf-children, a wild boy and girl, Kaspar Hauser reborn.

But Hippolito shows them his book, Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet, and they know that corruption has tainted even this Eden. As analysts of misogyny, they soon rally; they know it’s important to work with the grain of tradition: ‘Better the devil you know,’ they mutter. ‘The reed that stands up to the wind breaks, the reed that bends survives,’ puts in Greer – a nugget from the world reserves of crone wisdom.

Proverbs are ‘the instruction of thy father and … the law of thy mother’, the Book of Proverbs declares, and commands that ‘they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.’ The chains are probably ornaments too; though, after reading Mineke Schipper’s anthology, the reader might be forgiven for thinking them iron restraints. Her patient accumulation of proverbs about women from all over the world makes grim reading, and a deep sadness, a generalised misanthropy overcame me. Schipper’s endeavours extend the research of first-wave feminism into the axioms defining the secondariness of the second sex. She has adopted a macrocosmic comparative method, rather than focusing on one social organisation, cultural system or literary lineage. Maxims from ancient Sumer, found on clay tablets near Baghdad in 1963, jostle Ghanaian proverbs collected by Schipper from Peggy Appiah and her son Kwame Anthony Appiah; Persian mottoes are lined up beside Brazilian, Finnish, Irish and Creole ones, as well as numerous examples from different African regions and groupings. Schipper stoutly defends her method: ‘Mutual knowledge is an important key to peaceful coexistence at all levels,’ she writes. ‘Today, from certain perspectives,’ she adds, ‘many of the proverbs discussed in this book may look disturbing, and their messages quite “politically incorrect”. But it would be a regrettably short-sighted reaction to reject or suppress, or even censor those cross-cultural ideas from the past, without further reflection.’ She goes on: ‘It is absolutely important to be aware of the sexist sentiments expressed in proverbs, because they have formed, and still form, part of the daily conversation in society after society, thus modelling people’s gendered legacies, and their identities.’ Outside the West, ‘negative messages about women easily reverberate in the minds of male policy-makers, and risk undercutting progressive legislation.’ Her research into sub-Saharan material inspired ‘enthusiastic letters’ from women who had adopted a ‘practical strategy’ – ‘not one of avoiding or boycotting the legacies of oral tradition, but to reappropriate those legacies. They succeeded not only in exposing the implicit meanings, but also to subvert those very meanings.’

I’ve quoted Schipper at some length because her arguments fail to persuade me: they may, indeed, be detrimental to the ideal of global coexistence. The work of Beauvoir, Daly, Millett and the Greer of The Female Eunuch confronted misogyny with the reflection of its own face in the mirror; Angela Carter practised the selective lighting, nonchalant hyperbole and parodic enhancement developed by fabulists such as Margaret Cavendish in The Blazing World, or, if you prefer, by Swift and Voltaire. In some of her most pointed exposés, Carter simply repeated stories without revision or change: in The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, she flipped our view of the protagonists of a dismal, proscriptive tradition, and the bold, bad, wayward, curious, talkative, uppity, single, independent, tomboyish girls – whom fairy stories were designed to reprove and reform – turned into women for our times. Such subversive skills also led to clever, contrary readings – Carter on de Sade was a scandalous and dazzling example, and so, more recently, was A.S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman – but Schipper determines that women’s voices remain largely mute in this vast homiletic heap, though she admits that closer knowledge of the context of these proverbs could deliver ironies and satire and resistance. Of course it could.

There are also questions to be asked about her own frame of reference and its exclusions. These are many, deeply arbitrary and wholly unexplained. Hundreds of miscellanies grangerised by travellers, folklorists, missionaries – what was called in China ‘treaty port literature’ – have been quarried, but there is no Aesop, no Bible, no Confucius, no Chaucer, no Arabian Nights, no Basile and no Shakespeare. The interplay between oral and literary transmission does not command her attention, though the vivid, durable synchronies between Latin tags and Indian saws, for example, are puzzling, and the nature/nurture question bears sharply on the vigour of misogyny: are we born with it, men and women alike? Or does it thrive in some places more than others? Are witchcraft and prophecy female arts for social reasons or psychological ones? Can psychology be split from social codes in this way? Can women make common cause when our security does not require male protection and consequent rivalry with other women? Proverbs are by Schipper’s definition conservative, and they present their tendentious opinions as self-evident truths about human nature.

Layered with caustic, tongue-in-cheek ambiguity, gnomic utterances are like oracles in their contradictions and double entendres. Schipper’s working definition of the proverb ignores the issue of gnomes, but her restrictions – a proverb must be anonymous, unauthored, the product of a group – still do not entirely account for her literary omissions: Shakespeare was a brilliant Mass-Observationist of imagery and language, with unsurpassed recording powers, and A Thousand and One Nights was compiled from popular and oral sources. Schipper is an Africanist, and yet she doesn’t draw on African fiction either; even the cycle of Anansi stories which have carried the monkey’s trickster wisdom to the Caribbean and Europe is ignored. (Incidentally, she has a cloth ear for English and gives many sayings off-key – as the publishers should have noticed.)

All these factors point to the deeper trouble with Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet. Aesopian fables – which have given us so many of the most familiar and most serviceable proverbs – target not just women but the folly of all humankind. Similarly, when Angela Carter took the title of her last novel from the proverb ‘It’s a wise child that knows its own father,’ the irrepressible children at issue are girls destined for the music hall, and the author’s irony certainly accuses their progenitors through the spirited voices of her heroines. Any number of Italian proverbs – from the most sober to the ribald – display women’s insider knowledge.[*] Proverbial wisdom cuts both ways. Consider the gender of the gnome that Wendy Doniger puzzles over throughout her book The Bedtrick: ‘In the dark all cats are grey.’

In a sense Schipper’s rubric actually serves to reduce the attention she pays to the vicious inequalities listed in these proverbs – wife-beating, despair at daughters, foot-binding, widow-burning, polygamous self-congratulation. It also obscures the history of other ways of thinking, and of changes in these societies. A ‘Hebrew’ adage she gives – ‘When will there be peace between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law? When a donkey climbs a ladder’ – adds nothing to our understanding of … Where? Israel? Where in Israel? The Hebrew University? A settlement? And what do we glean from the old English saying, ‘A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the harder you beat them, the better they be’?

Another question, even more crucial, is the value of tradition itself. Proverbs are splinters of experience, not full narratives. As Benjamin pointed out in his celebrated essay on storytelling, they have limits:

Every real story … certainly, openly or covertly, [conveys] something useful … The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to the tale … He has counsel – not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage.

The picture of our relations with the past and its wisdom has indeed become much less simple since first-wave feminists began their challenge to misogyny. The government’s education policies stress a retention of religious ‘values’ and encourage ‘faith schools’, making very light of the divisiveness caused by structural separatism, as demonstrated so clearly in Northern Ireland. When I reread recently Voltaire’s prankish parable ‘The White Bull’, translated with great glee by Jeremy Bentham in 1774, it struck me as shocking by today’s standards of religious sensitivity. Voltaire submits many cherished beliefs and many sacred cows (literally) to implacable ridicule. But to my relief the class I was teaching smiled and laughed in surprise, especially at the picture of the Serpent as the heroine’s loyal, much wronged ally in her forbidden quest for knowledge and experience.

The veil, the housewife, abortion, marriage by means of abducting a girl, the suicide of daughters, porn: fundamentalists of every sort invoke the time-honoured traditions of their authorised book of wisdom, and place women and the controlling of them at the centre of their claims. Tradition can be upheld for other reasons, however: Germaine Greer is on record defending the female excision and infibulation practised by certain African communities both in Africa and in the diaspora, on the grounds that Western opposition to indigenous custom betrays imperialist assumptions. (The title of Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet appears to insinuate something not unconnected to the practice.)

Hippolito needs to know who is telling him what when he begins to learn about Dorinda from the book he found on the beach; so does she. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked boat is lifted on the spring tide during the next full moon, and Captain de Beauvoir calls the party together on the beach to embark; everybody is arguing so fiercely it’s hard for her to make her orders heard – until bosun Greer repeats them. They take the book with them, but the two young lovers decide not to sail. They are confused, and want to think about what they have learned, independent of their elders and their contradictory advice.

[*] Over the last ten years, my mother, Emilia Terzulli, has been compiling an Italian-English lexicon of examples: it will be published by Tom Stacey Books.