FWSA Seminar: Welsh Women's Writing: Panel One
Writing about web page http://www.fwsa.org.uk/pgseminars.htm
The first panel included papers by Lucy Thomas of Cardiff University, Michelle Smith again from Cardiff University and Claire Flay from University of Glamorgan.
Lucy Thomas on Hilda Vaughan
Thomas’ paper was titled ‘“Wouldn’t my sisters say I was shocking?”: Spinsters, Lesbians, Heroines and the New Woman in Hilda Vaughan’s Novels’ and it focussed on Vaughan’s novels, The Battle to the Weak, Pardon and Peace, The Invader and The Curtain Rises. In these novels, Thomas identifies some stereotypical spinsters; certain female characters in The Battle to the Weak are described as being ‘gaunt and tall’ with faces ‘pale as parchment’ while being ‘clad in the black cloth of respectability’ along with the eponymous umbrella (Vaughan 1925: 84). In Pardon and Peace, a woman is seen by a male observer as the stereotypical ‘poor and ugly old maid with her social pretensions’ (Vaughan 1945: 16). Thomas argues that the spinster is ostracised in the society of Vaughan’s novels. She refers to The Invader in which one character comments that the spinster would be better off living ‘quiet and tidy in one of these cathedral cities I hear of, where old maids do mostly get together’ (Vaughan 1928:212). The spinster is only acceptable when far from Wales. Closely connected to the ostracised spinster is the suffragette who appears in Vaughan’s The Curtain Rises, and Thomas argues that the suffragette is closely linked to the figure of lesbian, who is Vaughan’s novels takes on the male gaze and becomes a sexual predator.
The real heroines of Vaughan’s novels are meshed in a dismissal of feminism as not suitable for Welsh women. In The Curtain Rises, one character is instructed that Mary Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempt was ‘weakness’ and is told how she ‘was pulled out and married’ even though it was ‘against her principles’ (Vaughan 1935: 199-200). Thomas recognises the dismissal of feminism here, but she is clear that where Vaughan’s writing is politically active is in portraying the social conditions of Welsh working class women e.g. the suffering of Annie Bevan in The Battle to the Weak along with its portrayal of tyrannical husband’s and women’s entrapment in sexual service. Thomas directs us to a review of Vaughan in Good Housekeeping in which the reviewer describes the power of Vaughan in her portrayal of ‘feminine strength, the strength that does not ape the masculine and is as simple and unselfconscious in its showing as the strength of those deceptive creatures, our grandmothers: the strength of Eve maternal, not of Ever enchantress.’ (Many questions could be posed about the use of language and the posing of the feminine here!) Thomas notes that one woman in The Battle to the Weak has arms that are ‘muscular as those of a man but more rounded’, possibly suggesting that aforementioned feminine strength (Vaughan 1925: 128). What Thomas is saying about Vaughan seems to be that although she is conservative and reactionary in her politics, there is a kind of feminism in her writing even if it is one that upholds tradition and the status quo. (The kind of feminism described here reminds me of some nineteenth century conservative feminists such as Hannah More, although Vaughan’s version is of course far more sympathetic to the working class woman).
Michelle Smith on Bertha Thomas
Michelle Smith gave a paper on Bertha Thomas’ short stories titled ‘“Out of your own country, your natural cycle, and your station”: Class, Gender and Displacement in the Fictions of Bertha Thomas’. Smith explains that Bertha Thomas was born and lived outside Wales, but much of her writing is concerned with or set in Wales. Her paper identifies the key themes and issues in Thomas’ work.
Firstly, Smith considers the story, ‘The Courtship of “Ragged Robin”,’ which tells the story of a ragged young man, Robert John David Morgan Lloyd, and his courtship with a lady of a different culture: the Londoner, Lois. Ragged Robin is of course a wild flower and Smith explains that the eccentricity of the young man is accepted in the rural, Welsh community. Lois however refuses to give in to the wild countryside and weather: ‘The mountain gales might blow the birds’ nests out of the bushes, but seemed powerless to rumple her edifice of hair’ (Thomas 2008: 147). Smith identifies a binary between civilisation and barbarity in the story, but she also highlights class as an important factor. When Robert travels to London, he is identified by a passer-by as a decayed gentleman in London. Smith suggests that this is Thomas’ way of indicating how class favours men. Consequently Lois intuites that their union would be wrong and relents.
Class is similarly at work in Thomas’ story, ‘The Madness of Winnifred Owen’. This story tells of Winnifred Owen’s love for a sailor in spite of the fact that she was already betrothed. Her father rejects her choice describing her as a betrayer of her own culture: ‘a girl who, for a passing fancy for a foreign vagabond, could be false to ties of home, country, kindred, religion’ (Thomas 2008: 10-11). However, it emerges that what Winnifred’s father really wants is the money and social advancement of the original suitor. She finally does manage to marry the sailor, but as a consequence she must move from Wales and her family is dispersed to Canada and other places.
‘The House that Was’ is another story that describes the loss of home and belonging as it describes the fate of the grey ghost, a woman haunting an abandoned house. Her story is that of a family on the margins of polite society and this marginal status means that the heroine is unable to meet her suitor, Frankie, at tea parties, but instead meets him alone. The heroine knows that ‘[o]nly farmers’ or labourers’ daughters did such things, and it was many generations since our husbandman ancestors had struggled up into the ranks of gentry’ (Thomas 2008: 137). When the heroine does marry, it represents a rejection and exile from home and family entering a poor and haphazard existence away from Wales. As a childless widow, the heroine returns to haunt the remains of her family home.
Class occurs again in ‘The Way He Went’ where Elwyn’s wife, Eileen is not tied down, but has money of her own. Elwyn’s mother disapproves of their relationship, suggesting that he has ‘some side motive’ for ‘rushing head-long and prematurely into this life connection, out of your country, your natural station and your station’ (Thomas 2008: 83). The act of marrying Eileen ignores the established network of power relations and class boundaries. The general feeling of these stories seems to be that going beyond one’s own class and culture can be dangerous.
Claire Flay on Dorothy Edwards
I particularly enjoyed Claire Flay’s paper on ‘Representations of Gender in Dorothy Edwards,’ as I didn’t know much about this writer beforehand. Flay explained that Edwards has often been overlooked and that a reading of her via feminist theory is long overdue. Flay gave us some background on Edwards explaining that her father. Edward Edwards, was a socialist and vegetarian and that he encouraged his daughter to question the nature of power. Edwards was an undergraduate at the University of Wales Cardiff studying Greek and Philosophy. She had been destined to take up teaching, but instead she became a full-time writer.
Flay notes that in the stories and novels that emerged, there is a notable absence of Edward’s own class, gender or Welshness. Her fiction is often narrated by male, middle or upper class characters and her stories are set in large country houses. However, Flay believes that Edwards still manages to challenge power imbalances in her fiction. Take for example ‘A Country House’ and its use of the male voice. The narrator is a middle-aged country gentleman who is damned by his own mouth for setting himself up as the possessor/owner of his wife. Similarly, ‘A Garland of Earth,’ the male narrator mistakenly believes that a female character is collecting flowers for pressing, rather than doing serious work.
In discussing Edward’s use of the male voice, Flay points out the contingency of masculinity and thinks about gender as a kind of impersonation in the mode of Butler’s performativity. There was some talk at the round table later on in the day about whether the masculinity was a kind of ventriloquism or a masquerade, but I think that in fact, Butler’s idea of performativity is far more interesting than either of these terms, since in her theorising, there is no true gender to begin with. It is not then perhaps that Edward’s is putting on a male façade or that she is only speaking her female concerns through a male puppet. What is more interesting is the idea that she might be adopting the ‘truth’ of masculinity to prove that it is constructed. (See my comments on Butler: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/bodily_inscriptions_performative/)
Thomas, Bertha. 2008. Stranger Within the Gates. Ed. Kirsti Bohata. Dinas Powys: Honno.
Vaughan, Hilda. 1945. Pardon and Peace. London: Macmillan.
—1935. The Curtain Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
—1928. The Invader. London: Heinemann.
—1925. The Battle to the Weak. New York and London: Harper Brothers.