It’s Friday, folks! You know what that means: another installment of Feminist Fridays, in which I discuss books, media, and topics relating to feminism. Today I’m showcasing a book that I read about a year ago called Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees. This book was actually sent to me for review, and I agreed to review it as soon as I read the subtitle: “Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature.” Sign me up!
I could go on and on about why I enjoyed Not Just Jane immensely; however, I already wrote and posted a book review that does just that. As I wrote in my initial review of this book:
Not Just Jane offers so much more than a mere summary of these writers’ texts; instead, DeWees provides a comprehensive view of the lives of these incredible women in order to help explain their rise to (albeit temporary) success. She discusses both their familial and romantic relationships, their struggles with poverty, mental illness, and overcoming the stigma surrounding women writers at the time. Several of them turned to writing as a last resort, a way to financially support themselves in troubling times of financial need. Though many were not respected by their peers, a few of these talented women climbed the ranks of the social ladder and worked their way into impressive literary circles. For instance, who would have known that Catherine Crowe rivaled Charlotte Bronte in social prowess, was betrayed by Charles Dickens, and influenced much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work? DeWees shows us these women as human beings first and foremost before delving into their literary lives on the page.
Rather than discuss this book in general, I would like to dive deeper into an important topic that DeWees specifically raises: our inability to separate women’s lives from their work. Back in the Victorian Era, women writers were constantly associated with whatever “scandals” or controversies happened in their personal lives. DeWees emphasizes how readers often knew about changes in the marital status, mental health, living situations, etc. of women writers, which inevitably influenced how readers perceived what they read. Anything that had a negative connotation in Victorian society– affairs, mental health problems, losing money– would ultimately impact the success of their work, for better or worse.
However, this phenomenon did not end in the Victorian Era and it does not solely apply to women writers. We can see this obsession with the personal lives of women in all kinds of spotlights, from politics to music to the red carpet. It seems as though we still have different criteria or standards when it comes to judging the work of women versus the work of men. An obvious example is the music of Taylor Swift (which I discussed in last week’s Feminist Friday post!), which listeners are always trying to decode for details regarding who she was dating, how the relationship went, and why it ended. Swift is often criticized for putting so much of her personal life into her music– yet those specific details are what many fans love to hate. Why don’t we place this much emphasis on the romantic lives of male artists in association with their music?
This gendered emphasis might not seem all that significant in the moment, but over time and on a grand scale it can have a serious impact. In an article for The New York Times titled “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women,” Amanda Hess exposes the problem with the way people have made a distinct separation between men and their artistic work. When it comes to recent abuse allegations by numerous men in Hollywood, supporters have been quick to push for continued separation between the two spheres; however, critics have finally declared that enough is enough.
This idea of assessing an artist’s work in light of his biography is, to some critics, blasphemous. Roman Polanski’s 2009 arrest inspired a New York Times round table on whether we ought to “separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior.” It stands as a useful artifact of the prevailing attitude on the question in the early 21st century. The screenwriter and critic Jay Parini wrote, “Being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one’s personal behavior.” Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies scholar at Duke University, put it this way: “Let the art stand for itself, and these men stand in judgment, and never the twain shall meet.”
If we associate women’s work with their personal lives, then we should certainly hold men to the same standard. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Victorians.
If you’re interested in learning more about these topics in a Victorian context, then I would highly recommend checking out Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees.
Let me know in the comments section below!