I scribble, you write

Tessa Hadley

  • The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack
    Yale, 330 pp, £9.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 19720 4
  • Curious Subjects by Hilary Schor
    Oxford, 271 pp, £41.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 992809 5

Is there such a thing as ‘the woman reader’ – as a category, that is, suitable for study? ‘Readers’ constitute a real category, and ‘women’ do. But Belinda Jack believes that reading women are a sisterhood under the fancy dress. For her ‘history of women’s reading’ she has assembled potted biographies of women readers and writers through the ages. She presents them as ‘colourful examples of women who were not prepared to toe the line’, who were ‘distinctively feminine’, desperately in need of ‘free expression’, often critical of the ‘male aggression’ they read about, and keen to refute ‘aspects of’ tradition. She wants, in other words, for them all to be fighting for the same thing. She begins with Enheduanna, a king’s daughter and priestess in Sumer in the third millennium BCE and perhaps the first poet, male or female, known to have her name attached to her work. Her goddess Inanna, queen of heaven, is magnificently ferocious: ‘In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint.’ What does Enheduanna have in common with Hrotsvit, a noblewoman and poet writing lives of the saints in Latin in tenth-century Saxony? Hrotsvit hopes that ‘the Giver of my talent all the more be justly praised through me, the more limited the female intellect is believed to be.’ No doubt the self-deprecation is mostly literary convention, but it feels a long way from crushing flint with teeth.

And what do either of those women share with Moderata Fonte in 16th-century Venice, whose chatty polemic on The Worth of Women is subtitled ‘Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men’? ‘You ought to consider the fact,’ Moderata says, ‘that … histories have been written by men … And if you consider, in addition, the envy and ill will they bear us women, it is hardly surprising that they rarely have a good word to say for us.’ With her precocious appetite for reading, Moderata was seen as something of a prodigy in her well-to-do family – a ‘freak of nature’, she’s called in a contemporary biography – and her romance Floridoro is about a girl disguised as a knight, fighting as a man. And yet there were plenty of women intellectuals and writers to inspire her in Renaissance Italy, and her polemic belongs in a whole genre of writing that argued the relative merits of the sexes, the querelle des femmes, weighing nature against nurture.

The Woman Reader makes it seem as though Sumer, Gundersheim, Venice – as well as tenth-century Baghdad and 18th-century China – are all staging posts on a long and tortuous ascent to our present summit, where at last the sisterhood find their fulfilment as novel-reading dons in Oxford colleges (apart from a few lingering spots of resistance in Tehran and Kabul). Individual stories are cemented together with Whiggishly optimistic statements of progress. Hrotsvit ‘cast an eye back over recent history, no doubt hoping that the future might be brighter.’ ‘It was a very long time indeed until Dhuoda’s bold vision of a future in which women would participate in learning as fully as men became anything like a reality.’ ‘Reading gradually emerged, among other things, as a way to make sense of how to live, particularly in the face of terrible events.’ And, with wonderful insouciance, ‘the events of the Reformation … were particularly exciting and encouraging for women readers: a large number of women became martyrs.’ The lengths women will go to, just to get their hands on a good book!

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