Wednesday, 30 September 2015

For the Guardian: There’s no way to defend the Jack the Ripper museum while women are still being murdered by men

After a brief argument with the PR man for the Jack the Ripper museum, I wrote something for the Guardian website on why this museum remains pretty indefensible.

It has the long headline:

There’s no way to defend the Jack the Ripper museum while women are still being murdered by men

And look! LOOK! I'm on the Guardian homepage:

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Women of the Left bank Series Part 6: Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap

What do you think about, if you think about it at all, when you think about the Little Review? Most people think of James Joyce, or of Ezra Pound, the man who Gertrude Stein described as a:

village explainer. Good when you’re in a village, not when you’re not.

The person people don’t often think of is the review’s founder. And who was the Little Review’s founder? Only Margaret Anderson – one of the most impressive, fabulous and don’t-take-no-shit women of her era. 

(Stein wasn’t a huge fan of Margaret either, but she was fond of Jane Heap, more of whom later)

Writing about Margaret Anderson in my series on Women of the Left Bank is a bit of a cheat, as Margaret started her illustrious career on the other side of the pond. But she did spend a fair bit of time on the Left Bank, and she’s included in Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank, so I’m claiming her.  

Anderson was born in Indiana which – fact fans – is also where Janet Flanner was born. She was a talented pianist, and moved to Chicago in 1908 to pursue music, as well as writing books reviews for the Dial, and Chicago Evening Post.

Writing for other people wasn’t enough for Margaret though. She wanted to set up her own review, and so in 1914 Little Review was born. It really was a labour of love – when the money ran out the whole outfit decamped to a cabin on the edge of Lake Michigan. 

Anderson’s early life and the beginnings of Little Review are recorded, with wit and verve, in her sparkling memoir Thirty Years War

Unfortunately the book is now out of print, but I am lucky enough to have my very own copy – and a first edition no less. It really does need to be reprinted – it’s a vital history of one of the most important literary and arts moments of the 20th Century, and by one of its most interesting and influential women. The memoir is packed with stories and anecdotes about some of the most exciting women of the teens and twenties of the last century, including Emma Goldman and the Dadaist and character Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who some say was the real artist behind THAT urinal.  

In 1916, Anderson met Jane Heap, and persuaded her to become the co-editor of Little Review. Heap’s brilliant intellect and excellent writing ability helped shape Little Review into the force it became, as it attracted all the new and exciting writing that was happening during the birth of modernism. 

Anderson and Heap fell in love, and if you want to see how in love just take Margaret’s gorgeous description of Jane in her memoir:

I felt in 1916 and feel to-day that Jane Heap is the world’s best talker.

It isn’t a question of words, facility, style. It isn’t a question of erudition. It isn’t even a question of truth. (Who knows whether what she says is true?) It is entirely a question of ideas. No one can find such interesting things to say on any subject. I have often I should my life over to talk-racing, with my money on Jane. No one else would ever win – you can win against magic.

Moving from the cabin in Lake Michigan to a ranch in Muir Woods and then Greenwich Village in New York, the pair published Little Review and, along with their London editor Ezra Pound, transformed it into the leading review of the time Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, Hemingway – the list of authors and artists who contributed is pretty much a roll call of the most revolutionary and extraordinary people of the period. 

But it is perhaps for Ulysses that Little Review is most famous – and another example of how the women who helped bring Ulysses to print have been ignored by history (see Sylvia Beach). 

In 1918, Little Review began to serialise Ulysses, and they continued to serialise it until 1921 when the US Post Office seized copies of the magazine and refused to distribute it, citing its “obscene” content. 

Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up into the courts, charged with obscenity. They famously lost the case – having to pay a fine of $100 and Ulysses was banned in the US until 1934. During the trial, Heap defended their decision to publish Joyce’s most famous work. She said:

It was poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.”

I love this quote. You can see what Anderson means, can’t you, about how Jane Heap talks? 

After the trial, the pair decamped to Paris (making them officially women of the Left Bank) and continued to publish Little Review there. Famously, they didn’t pay their contributors, proving that it’s not just today that writers have to work for free…

I’m tempted to say that our cultural forgetfulness of Anderson and Heap, without whom one of the most influential modernist publications would simply not have existed, is down to sexism. After all, the other great taste-makers of the age are remembered, although I am willing to concede that this could be contributed to the fact that they also produced their own novels and poetry (Anderson and Heap did too, although it’s not well circulated). I do think there is a whiff of sexism in particular about the forgetting of the three women who made such a difference to Joyce’s publishing history – especially as Joyce so spectacularly betrayed Sylvia Beach. 

There were a huge number of women publishing and distributing work in the modernist era, and most of their names are forgotten now. And yet, without women like Heap and Anderson, journals like Little Review would not have been the first publishers of some of the century’s most famous and revered writers and artists. We should celebrate these women; we should remember their names. They helped shape literary and cultural history. They were loved and respected by their peers and contemporaries. Let’s not allow them to be forgotten. 

Read the rest of the series

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Good Old Days, or the dangers of Nostalgia

When I was a child, I had this book set in the Victorian era, about a family living in a nice house with servants. I can’t remember what it was about now, but there was an ice-house and a black servant boy who brought the rich children hot chocolate. The gorgeous illustrations, the excitement of the ice-house – all this gave me a very rose-coloured view of Victorian life, and the life of Victorian servants. I wanted to be one of the maids in this book, mainly for the frilly apron, and the friendship she had with the rich kids. 

I was seven, I was a bit weird, so cut me some slack! 

As I romanticised the idea of Victorian maids, I remember my mum telling me how her nana – my great nana – was ‘in service’ in Wales as a teenager. I remember my mum saying that her nana never spoke about what happened to her during that time. 

I was reminded of my great-nana – who would have been ‘in service’ around the teens or twenties of the last century – when reading this startling article about a couple who have dedicated their lives to living like ‘the Victorians’. I thought about how her mother, so my great-great nana, would likely have been in service during the Victorian era, the period this couple are so happy to fetishize. And I thought about how their idea of Victoriana would not be at all recognisable to my family, or to the thousands of families who grew up without rights, without money, without healthcare, without sanitation – women like my great nana and great-great nana who grew up scrubbing rich people’s toilets. 

To be fair to this couple, there are some laudable statements about their desire to live in the Victorian age. They talk about sustainability, about being more connected to where the things we use come from, to combating the disposability culture that we live in today. That’s all well and good. They seem remarkably willing to forget that the Victorian age was the height of the industrial revolution, a time of great mechanical innovation that paved the way for the modern machinery we have today. It’s actually quite insulting to look at the huge scientific leaps of discovery, the artistic revolutions and the brilliant novels of the 19th Century and think of it was a ‘simpler time’. But to be honest, that is the least of my worries. 

To pretend that living in a ‘simpler time’ is something that can be achieved by eschewing all modernity in favour of living a fantasy of Victorian life is a nonsense. 

What the couple seem to ignore in their idealisation of the Victorian era is that the vast majority of Victorian married couples were not upper-middle class. They did not spend their time riding penny-farthings and completing embroidery projects. They were poor. They were child labourers – boys choking to death up chimneys, girls losing hands on cotton looms. They were children dying of diphtheria and cholera in slums because there was no sanitation. They were women dying in childbirth, men dying down coal mines. 

Many Victorians were servants like my ancestors, forced to work long hours with no legal rights, and in some cases at the mercy of violent masters. The Victorian age wasn’t genteel and noble. It was just as corrupt and unequal as any other era. 

And that’s just England. What else do we know about the Victorian era? It was an age of Empire – of rapacious and bloody wars designed to repress and destroy the cultures of the countries we invaded. It was decades of white supremacy, building on the history of the previous centuries that treated other countries and other cultures as a resource for us to plunder. The experience of a Victorian living in India or Zimbabwe is miles apart from the romanticised gentility imagined in this article. There was nothing polite about Empire. It was bloody and brutal and nations are still living with the legacy of that brutality today. 

Let alone the fact that this couple are American – whose ‘Victorian’ era included slavery, the Civil War and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. I’ll say it again: the Victorian experience was not limited to white, middle upper class families. 

Anyone who knows me knows about my love of vintage clothes. I have a gorgeous collection of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s frocks that I wear out and about to parties, revelling in the beautiful cut and delicious fabrics. But that love of a vintage aesthetic has never fooled me into thinking that ‘things were better when…’ (7 year-old book reading me aside). No woman should look back on the Victorian era and think of it as a better, more ideal time. We should never idealise a past where women were the legal property of their husbands, where we were forced to give up our rights as soon as we said ‘I Do.’ 

In the UK, women fought hard for our rights during the 19th century. They fought to change the divorce laws that said women had to prove adultery and cruelty against their husbands, whilst men only needed to prove adultery. They fought to change the laws so after divorce, they could maintain custody of their children. Women stood with the Chartists under the mistaken belief that an extension of suffrage to men would lead to suffrage for women. Women went to prison to secure the right to vote. Women worked together to improve education for girls, labour rights for men and women – they fought and fought and fought to have the rights we take for granted today. 

Think of Eleanor Marx, think of Caroline Norton…

They fought for rights that even a romanticised view of the good old days can’t take away. Rights that anyone who fetishizes the past are still grateful to have when the chips are down. 

There’s a reason why so much changed for working people in the first half of the 20th Century – why the early decades saw an end to workhouses, education bills, a trade union movement, labour rights, contraception, the suffragettes. They looked to the past and thought, right, enough. Children need education. Workers need protections. Women should have the vote. People should stop dying of cholera. 

Of course, things are not perfect now. We are far from an equal society and there’s an argument to be made that our unequal society, the continuation of entrenched inequality, and our deifying of capital, is a hangover from the Victorian era. 

But it was a start. As this Government slides us back towards that past, with its restrictions on striking and its dismantling of social security and the NHS, we should be grateful everyday to those women and men who fought for our rights back then. We should stand strong and ensure their legacy is not destroyed a century on.  

I’ll leave the last word to historical fiction writer, Phillippa Gregory, who was once asked which of the periods she wrote about she would most like to live in. She responded that no woman should ever be nostalgic for the past. She said that everyday she is grateful to live in a time and a country where we have modern medical care, and where women are at least entitled to basic rights – such as education, financial independence and bodily autonomy (even if we don’t always have access to them).  

I look at this couple, and I think about what it would mean for me to live as a Victorian. 

It would not be their vision of the era. 

I think of my great nana and her mother before, and why they never spoke about what they knew. 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

For Open Democracy: Friendship and violence The genius of Elena Ferrante

Like most people I know, I've been voraciously reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, and Open Democracy kindly asked me to review them.

You can read my review here.