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About ten years ago, I bought a big, heavy trade paperback called Women of the Left Bank.  I’d give you the author here, except that the thing is in the living room on my coffee table, and I’m in here, and AOL is doing the thing where it won’t load more than one web page at a time.

The book is, technically, a work of scholarship in Women’s Studies.  Like another book I also own in a big, heavy trade paperback edition, Sisters in Arms, it’s proof positive that not all of women’s studies is, or needs to be, tendentious politicking.

Women of the Left Bank consists mainly of biographical sketches of the (often lesbian) women who populated 20s Paris–Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Molineau, Djuna Barnes, H.D., and a host of others.

The book fascinated me when I first read it, and I have read it several times since, since it seems to be an illustration of what has always been the basic reason why I am never anti-feminism.

I am sometimes anti-feminist–in the sense of being anti- the ideas of some woman who calls herself a feminist–but anti-feminism is beyond me.

The reason for this, and the memory of Women of the Left Bank, came to me while I was reading the long section of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition dedicated to George Eliot.

For those of you who don’t know, Eliot was a woman named Mary Ann Evans.  She is the author of at least one book most of you hate, Silas Marner. 

I haven’t read Silas Marner

The only book of Eliot’s that I have read is one called Middlemarch.  And I read it because it was assigned in a course, not because I picked it up on my own.  There isn’t a lot of fiction in English I can say that about.

The plot of Middlemarch is this:  Dorothea Brooke is a passionately intellectual young woman prevented, by birth and breeding, from doing anything serious with her intelligence.  Since she cannot be great herself, the best she can hope for is to marry a great man and help him in his work.

The man she marries is Mr. Causabon, hard at work on his Great Book, The Key to All Mythologies.  Mr. Causabon wants to marry because he believes he needs a soft, light feminine touch to help him get away from it all, but also because he thinks a suitable wife will be able to help him as a secretary, and therefore speed the finish and publication of the book.

They marry, and Dorothea goes to work with Mr. Causabon on the book–only to find that it is utterly mediocre, and that Mr. Causabon’s mind is utterly mediocre, and that she is now cut off irrevocably from the life of the mind she has dreamed of.

Now, I know this is not the kind of thing most of you would be interested in reading.

It is the kind of thing I would be interested in reading, but the first time I read it–in a course on the 19th Century English Novel–I found myself almost unbearably put off by Eliot style.  Eliot’s style tends to be–what’s the word?


Very heavy.

I finished the course and honestly thought I’d never read the thing again.  I was wrong.

And I was wrong largely because Dorothea and Mr. Causabon stuck with me.  Who they were.  What they were.  How they ended up.  It’s as clear in my brain now as when I first read it, and thought the book was boring because Eliot’s prose was so sluggish and dense.

To understand what George Eliot’s Dorothea–and George Eliot herself–have to do with lesbian women in Twenties Paris and what all that has to do with my ambivalent relationship to modern feminism, you have to start by looking at the life of George Eliot herself.

Mary Ann Evans was a very interesting person for a (pre and) Victorian Englishwoman.  She was, of course, what Dorothea was–a young girl with truly impressive intellectual talents, born into a world that had very little use for that sort of thing in “girls.”

Unlike Dorothea, however, she did manage to make use of those talents, not only as a writer but as a translator and an essayist.  The use of the pseudonym “George Eliot” seems to indicate that she had to do that under cover of darkness, pretending to be a man, because she would not have been accepted as a woman.

The fact of it is that the pseudonym was not a disguise.  Everybody in literary London knew that George Eliot was a woman named Mary Ann Evans–and that she was living as man and wife with a man who was already married, named Lewes.

I once got into an argument about feminism with a (male) friend of mine, using my mother as an example.  My mother would have been a much happier woman if she had pursued her ambitions, or even if she’d just had a job.  My father refused to allow it, because he believed that people would take it as a sign that his own career was going to hell–why else would his wife have to go out to work?

Even so, my friend said, she could have followed her ambitions or taken a job.  Women did that kind of thing in the Fifties and early Sixties, and even before.

And, of course, in some ways he was absolutely right.  There was certainly sexual discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties, and quotas on women students in law and medical schools, but women were indeed moving into all kinds of professions, and the existence of them there was being increasingly taken for granted.

In the old sci-fi horror classic Them, two of the three people with “Doctor” in front of their names are female.  You can find women physicians–and not just pediatricians–all over Fifties television.

The issue of feminism has been framed wrongly, I think, but making it an issue of women’s access to male careers. 

What is striking about the lives and careers of George Eliot and many of the women who came after them is not their lack of access to male education and careers, but the fact that, having achieved that access, their success did not become their identity.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet.  Thomas Hardy was a novelist.  George Eliot was a homely woman who had to settle for an irregular living situation and, who–yeah, did things.  Like write books.

What’s more, George Eliot took this matter of identity to heart.  She never rested until she finally got Lewes to marry her, and was apparently relieved to finally be “respectable” in spite of the fact that Lewes was her Causabon–a tenth rate mind without half her ability.

This was the case as well with many of the women intellectuals who came after her–that they were women fundamentally, but only contigently intellectuals.

You can see it in the life of Mary McCarthy, a woman who was in no way homely, and who used her beauty to go through a succession of men each of whom successively defined her position in New York’s literary society.  For a while she was “the girl at the Partisan Review.” After that she was, for a while, “the woman at Bard.” 

In both cases, she was where she was because she was dating or living with or married to a man who could bring her into that fold.

This is a theme that runs through Women of the Left Bank without ever being made explicit, and that ran through most of my growing up before modern feminism permanently changed the way this society looks on the work of women.

I can’t imagine anybody saying, as my father did about a friend of the family, that a woman is getting a doctorate to “compensate” for the fact that she isn’t very attractive to men–and this was my father, who wanted to send me off to the Harvard Law School and who went slightly crazy at the fact that “not attractive to men” was not one of my problems.

I don’t think he was ever aware of the discrepancy.

In Women of the Left Bank, we are given short biographical sketch after short biographical sketch of women who either tried to find a solution to their cultural contingency or who tried to work it out as George Eliot had and Mary McCarthy would.

I am not trying to trivialize the work of bringing down institutional barriers to female achievement.  I can still remember the spring when the law and medical schools dropped their female quotas and just admitted on merit.  Vassar traditionally had five or so women in every class go to law or medical school.  That spring, the numbers were suddenly in the forties for each.

Even so, I think it was the issue of contingency that mattered–the change from a world where a woman was always a woman first, no matter what she did, to one in which a woman’s work, like a man’s, was accepted as primary.

And I can remember when that changed for me.

And that’s why, no matter how crazy some of the feminist stuff can make me–“equal pay for COMPARABLE work” has to be one of the stupidest and most pernicious ideas ever to hit print–I can’t think of feminism at base as anything but a positive.

Written by janeh

June 12th, 2012 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Contingent'

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  1. I think if I understand your correctly (which I might not) I disagree with you. If by issue of contingency’ you mean that my (or anyone’s, for that matter) primary identity should be that of their work, I don’t agree. Nor do I think it should be me as a woman. Perhaps I think this way because although I like to think I perform useful work, it’s hardly earth-shaking or creative or special in a way that would make me want to use it as my primary identity. My primary identity, if I had to have one, is as a human being. This incorporates everything from my sex (or is that supposed to be ‘gender’ now?) to my work to my relationships with my family and friends to my religion, to my nationality and ethnicity and so on and so forth. The only time I’d want to have my work treated as the primary part of it is when I’m engaged in it.


    12 Jun 12 at 12:11 pm

  2. I checked. Dorothea Brooke grew up in the same small town as Edward Casaubon, turned down other prospects, accepted a proposal of marriage, and was engaged to the man–and only after they were married, noticed that his intellect was inferior. Was this symbolic? Or perhaps Miss Brooke wasn’t the only person to be joined to someone of inferior intellect.

    I think it might also be fair to point out that there are worse things a spouse might be than less intellectual. Many worse things.

    As for the pen name, or seeking intellectual glory through one’s husband, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN in 1792. Austen finished PERSUASION in 1816, and Mary Shelley published FRANKENSTEIN in 1818. I’d have said 1871 was a little late in the game for Elliot to be claiming that women couldn’t publish under their own names and be taken seriously. And considering she’s about 60 years behind Caro Lamb and GLENARVON, Elliot’s not too early to be living with a man she’s not married to–she’s just out of cycle. As for her getting married after Lewes’ death, marrying at 60 a 40 year old man may get you something, but probably not respectability. (Did he jump from that balcony on the honeymoon, or was it an accident?)

    I’d have also said Mary McCarthy was a little late to need to sleep her way to the top, but I’m less sure of New York in that period. Certainly you could write an interesting story about a man who moved heaven and earth to get the woman he loved a job at a magazine, only to find out he was a placeholder, until someone at a think tank made a better offer.

    Plenty of men are users–but not all of us. And not all users are men.


    12 Jun 12 at 5:56 pm

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