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Six Feminist Books



When I use the term “feminist book” here, I’m referring to strong, muscular books written by strong, muscular writers who happen to be women.  To me, these books are part of what feminism is all about — the creation of great art.

I greatly admire the six writers in this list.  The book I highlight for each writer is an example of her skill and insight.  I would recommend reading any of the works by these six.  Of course, there are many other women writers whom I could have included in this list.

Here’s the list:

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

If you’re not familiar with Vita Sackville-West and her writing, you’re missing out on a lot [I wrote in the Chicago Tribune in an essay, “Deriving pleasure from books read, and unread,” published December 9, 2007].

Born into British aristocracy — she grew up in a stately 15th Century mansion that had been a gift to her family from Queen Elizabeth I — Sackville-West was deeply in love with her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, a prominent British politician. Which might not sound like much, except that, throughout her life, she took a series of lesbian lovers, including Virginia Woolf, while Nicolson had his own string of homosexual affairs. Nonetheless, as their son Nigel Nicolson showed in his 1973 book Portrait of a Marriage, theirs was a match that was exceedingly happy and successful, if unorthodox.

Not that you need to know any of that to enjoy Sackville-West’s poetry, non-fiction and novels, of which All Passion Spent is a sparkling example.

The title is ironic. Lady Slane, whose much celebrated politician husband has just died after long, eventful life, including a stint as prime minister, is 88 years old and is seen by her elderly children as a doddering non-entity. Yet after a lifetime in her husband’s shadow, she seizes on her sudden freedom to begin to rediscover the life she gave up more than half a century earlier when she agreed to marry.

I can’t tell you how many times during my reading of the novel I couldn’t help but smile at some penetrating self-insight of Lady Slane, or some gently jarring plot twist, or some delightful exchange between characters, such as when one of her sons says to a sibling, “Mother is a person who has never had her feet on the ground. Cloud-cuckoo-land — that’s Mother’s natural home.” He just doesn’t get it, but the reader does.

Memento Mori by Murial Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say:

Remember, you must die.

He tells the boy to go to hell.

Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message.

“Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment.  I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink. 

The voice asks if his guest is Mannering.   Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message.  But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s.   

It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Why does Newland Archer leave?

Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years? 

She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment.  His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him. 

He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony.  He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.”  Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away.

Advice for Future Corpses (A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying) by Sallie Tisdale

So much comes down to the frame of mind that the dying person — and the caregiver — bring to the process.

Tisdale may shock some readers when she writes, “I want to meet death with curiosity and willingness.”  She knows she won’t be free of fear or denial or all the other things that come into play as the body is shutting down, but she also knows that she can control whether she cringes at the approach of death or looks at it wide-eyed.  It’s the same, it seems to me, as heading to the first day of school or to U.S. Marine boot camp.  Envision things ahead of time and know how you want to go through the experience to whatever extent you have control.

What do you want to do?  Do you want to meet death with devotion, love, a sense of adventure, or do you want to rage against the failing light?  Cultivate those qualities now. Master them.  Then you will have a deep and not even conscious attitude…”

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness? 

Crazy.  Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss.  Loved that, love it still.

And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit. 

Happiness in the American credo is a job.

No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long.  No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.

No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as “looking out the window and taking things in — not pursuing them.  Taking in whatever is out there, seeing how it beckons.  And letting it go.  On and on, out of range, a cloud passing, changing shape but still a cloud still moving.”

Or, as Walt Whitman — “that model lounger” — wrote: “I loaf and invite my soul.  I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”

The Whitman quote gives an insight into Hampl’s project.  He talks of loafing, but not killing time, not filling the minutes and hours with stuff.  He talks about observing a spear of grass. 

Daydreaming, for Hampl, isn’t passive, it’s active.  It’s paying attention to where the mind and imagination go.  And hanging on for the ride.

Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting by Anne Hollander

For me, reading about fashion is like reading about science.  I’m a dolt at both.

No, that’s not really true.  With science, I just don’t get it.  But, with fashion, I do have an idea of how colors, textures and lines are brought together to create something pleasing to the eye.

I also have the idea that fashion design is a much over-looked aspect of art.  Perhaps some future generation will study and ponder dress creations the same way we study and ponder such works as the Mona Lisa.  And perhaps some future generation will create a Museum of Fashion with the same cultural status as the Art Institute of Chicago.

Again, I’m talking from a position of ignorance.  But of interest.

And, in my attempt to dig myself out of that hole, I’ve gone again and again to Anne Hollander, a wonderful writer who has spent her career analyzing the pictorial use of fabric in art and its relation to the actual use of fabric in the world.

Her books include the 1993 Seeing Through Clothes, an examination of the way the body, clothing and nudity have been represented in Western art; the 1991 Moving Pictures, a look at how painting, prints and movies depict the flow of human life; and the 1994 Sex and Suits which traces the evolution of the suit as male attire and the meaning behind that evolution.

Hollander’s Fabric of Vision was published in 2002 to accompany an exhibit at the National Gallery in London that she mounted.  As with her other books, this one is lavishly illustrated with great and not-so-great works of art — in this case, in a large 11-by-9-inch format with color images throughout.

Okay, a big part of reading Hollander is to have her whisper in my ear as I’m looking at some interesting painting, and that was the case with “Fabric of Vision.”

I never gave much direct thought to the erotic charge that a bare shoulder brings to a work until Hollander took me step by step through the centuries from Titian and Tintoretto, through Caravaggio and Remi, to Cindy Sherman and Marilyn Monroe.

In this larger format, her re-examination of the changes in clothing worn by men over the centuries is enhanced by the works of Hogarth, Ingres, Delacroix, Monet, Callebotte, Munch, Beckmann and Lucien Freud.

And who would have thought that a work by 17th century artist Jacob Ochtervelt showing a woman, from the rear, playing a virginal was emphasizing, by the size of the heavy, full lower half of her dress, the heavy, full lower half of her body?  I wouldn’t have — until Hollander’s chapter explaining how the dress in some art is designed to reveal the body underneath, even if no skin is shown.

Then there’s this odd strategy of some artists, such as Jacopo da Pontormo and Michelangelo:  Painting skin-tight clothing onto portions of some bodies being depicted.  I’ve seen this without actually noticing it, but, after reading Hollander, my eyes are opened.

Still, there is much in this book — about stays, taffeta and stuff like that — that mystifies me.  I work through those mystifying parts in order to revel in the beauty of the art Hollander shows and the delight of having her whisper in my ear about that art.


[NOTE: I wrote this review in 2011 before I had a website where I could publish it.]


[See also:]




Patrick T. Reardon






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