Have you booked your tickets yet for the Transatlantic Literary Women Symposium on Saturday 3 June? Talks, workshops, lunch, and a friendly welcome await. And it’s all free! Reserve a place here.
We’re also looking for volunteers. As part of our afternoon workshop, “Vote for YOUR Transatlantic Literary Woman”, volunteers will be giving brief talks on their favourite transatlantic literary woman. She can be a figure from hundreds of years ago, or someone out there today, a transatlantic literary woman who has inspired you, achieved great things, and/or someone who has been forgotten and you want to bring out of the shadows. The choice is yours!
In ‘Sylvia’, the second of the two poems she read at our Creative Writing Showcase, Maria Sledmere looks back on her discovery of another woman writer, another “tragic muse” figure in the traditional literary canon: poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963).
You made pain feel celestial. I reached out to you
across the North Atlantic and back
to South Ayrshire, fifty years later…
I first came to you in a tizz on my sixteenth birthday;
borrowed from the school library, your cut-glass smile
too bright for the grease of a well-worn book.
I’m in love, I thought, with hate for my body;
but you made everything sensuous, electric.
To grab a poet at a party and bite their cheek
like an apple! You knew what you wanted;
too much of it, gorging like a fat capitalist
who only ever got skinny, slim with the silver
slink of your dress, your cigarette, your college-girl body.
You gave me an avocado
cut in half, with crabmeat stuffed in the middle.
I’d never heard of avocados, especially these ones: pale green, soft
and rooted with poison. Standing over toilet bowls
stuffing toothbrushes down my throat, I thought of your poetry;
of Doreen’s halo of gold, of Esther
with her white china, purged and holy.
You made pain feel celestial. I reached out to you
across the North Atlantic and back
to South Ayrshire, fifty years later. I felt
the cold cobalt of the sea, its enticement
strong and slick as morphine. That egg of a rock
calling forth your brain, the disarray
of virginity a kind of drowning. I claimed
my own place in the beaten ocean. The pages
flaked out away from me, crushed
between desperate fingers. I was so wholly absorbed
I forgot your words. Instead there were images: tulips,
candles, mushrooms and flutes; the incision
in paper, the falling, calling, folding of text.
I shared your curtailment of all excess.
Each slice of line would drowse my veins
like novocaine, and in the morning I’d wake indulgently,
still thin in my skin for your sylvan grin, a distant tryst;
my book loaned out for another crisis.
Maria Sledmere is a postgraduate student, studying for an MLitt in Modernities at the University of Glasgow. In her free time, she writes poetry, reviews music for RaveChild Glasgow, is assistant editor of SPAMzine and works as a waitress. Her chief passions include making mix tapes, painting and Tom McCarthy. She’s currently working on a collaborative zine called ‘Gilded Dirt’, and blogs about everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.
If you’ve already had a look at our new programme for March and April, you may have heard of our upcoming talk on Angela Carter.
With the 25th anniversary of Carter’s death and the publication of Edmund Gordon’s biography The Invention of Angela Carter last autumn, the past few months have been filled with events inspired by her life and writing. A transatlantic woman in her own right, Carter lived and taught in America several times in her life, and her stories and novels give a significant place to the stories, myths and legends of the New World.
For the Carter fans among you, we decided to organise an evening dedicated to Carter’s representation of the American continent, with a talk by Dr Heidi Yeandle (University of Swansea). It will take place in a week, on Tuesday 14th March, in Room 203, 4 University Gardens, University of Glasgow. As usual, this evening is free to attend, and open to students and non-students alike. We’d love to see you there! We are also excited by Katrina Falco’s latest creation for this event:
Here’s a little idea of what the talk will be about, along with a short introduction of our fantastic speaker, Dr Heidi Yeandle:
“In this talk, Heidi Yeandle will discuss Angela Carter’s depiction of America in both her fictional writing and her journalism. Carter’s conflicting representations of the USA will be discussed, in relation to her generally negative experiences of living and teaching in the states as well as her fascination with Hollywood. In both her fiction and non-fiction, America is depicted as dystopian and as a “vicious fake”: it is apocalyptic and artificial. The American land is also frequently represented as a female body in Carter’s writing, leading into discussions of fertility and motherhood. Mainly focusing on The Passion of New Eve (1977) as well as ‘John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ and ‘The Merchant of Shadows’, two of Carter’s short stories from the posthumously published collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993), the talk will discuss the implications of Carter depicting America as female, and simultaneously apocalyptic and artificial. Yeandle’s talk will also note the multiple resemblances between the dystopian New York depicted in The Passion of New Eve and the United States in 2017.”
Heidi Yeandle is based at Swansea University, where she completed her PhD in 2015. Her first monograph Angela Carter and Western Philosophy was published earlier this year by Palgrave, and she has published a journal article on Carter’s depiction of America, as well as a book chapter on her representation of the apocalypse. Heidi has also published articles on other contemporary female authors, including Ali Smith and Helen Oyeyemi. She is currently convening an MA module dedicated to Angela Carter, and is starting to plan a second book on how contemporary female authors depict female writers in their fiction.
All updates on this event will be posted here. We hope that you will join us for an evening of discussion on Angela Carter! Looking forward to seeing you there!
Thank you very much to everyone who entered our writing competition, linked to our first book club choice, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), narrating the exploits of a certain Undine Spragg. We really enjoyed reading your entries, which – in true transatlantic literary women style—were received from both sides of the Atlantic.
We asked you to write a dating profile for Undine Spragg or create one of Mrs Heeny’s newspaper clippings, writing a journalistic report on one of Undine’s parties.
There was no shortage of ideas, but we do have a winner. Congratulations to Deborah Molloy from Kent, who gives us a contemporary twist on a dating profile as Undine opts for the direct, targeted approach. Forget about being the Ambassador’s Wife!
Here’s Deborah’s winning entry. Enjoy!
I Mean To Have The Best
Dear Mr President
I am taking the unusual step of placing this personal ad as I realise that a terrifically busy man like you might not have time for niceties. I am currently between husbands, and really feel we were made for each other. I really, truly admire the way you always get what you want, power is the biggliest thrill, don’t you think? My daddy was a Wall Street man and I feel we speak the same language – alternative facts are the way forward. I have always felt I belonged on Fifth Avenue; why we’re practically neighbours! So, if you decide you want a First Lady who’s the home-made article my mamma will be happy to receive you at the Stentorian Hotel, 1 W 72nd St. Perhaps we can talk about lifting restrictions on pigeon-blood rubies.
With warmest regards,
Ms Undine Spragg-Marvell-de Chelles-Moffatt.
Many thanks to Deborah! We will be in touch with you about your customized prize. For all those interested in attending our next book club, we will be discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. You can pick up a copy at our Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop on Wednesday 8th February, or just email us at email@example.com to ask how to get your free book! More information can be found on the page of the event here.
See you all on Wednesday!
PS: Feeling inspired? You can still submit your entries for our Student Creative Writing showcase until February 14th! Send your submissions of no more than 1,500 words of prose or 3 poems (maximum reading time 5-7 minutes) to: firstname.lastname@example.org, with Transatlantic Literary Women Series as the subject title.
Plans are underway for a fabulous Transatlantic Literary Women event at Glasgow Women’s Library in June. Here’s a taster of the last event I went to there, and what we might expect to see as part of the TLW series in the summer. Looking forward to it!
This time last week I was enjoying the fabulous #herland Burn’s Night Woolf Supper at Glasgow Women’s Library. There are many alternative Burns nights in Glasgow, but this was unmissable. Robert Burns and Virginia Woolf share the same birthday, a fascination with Mary Queen of Scots, and much more besides. One line in Woolf’s feminist tract A Room of One’s Own stands out – or should I say blazes out? – in particular:
‘Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence.’ — Virginia Woolf
The Herland event took the connections between Woolf and Burns as a prompt for night of poetry, music and feasting. We gathered in the library dressed in our best ‘Bloomsbury with a Burns twist’. Picture women in feathered hats, wearing creative fusions of tartan, tweed and sweeping patterned shawls. Library volunteers have decorated the room in suffragette colours with thistle-like patterns that evoke the work of Woolf’s sister, artist Vanessa Bell. One wall exhibits Woolf’s book covers (some are even projected, in purple, green and white, on the ceiling), with smatterings of pamphlets on Woolf’s connection to Scotland. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to display my own Woolf/Burns cut-up book art. Our salonnieres for the evening are poets JL Williams (dressed as a wolf) and Jane Goldman (with thistle-purple hair). The tone is set for a unique event.
Throughout the evening we have a feast of wonderful performances. Rahat Zahid ‘blazes out’ with her translations of Woolf and Burns into Urdu. Nuala Watt blazes out with her polyvocal poetry and singing. Poet Lila Matsumoto plays the fiddle as she leads us into the reading room where we enjoy a delicious Malaysian buffet from Julie MacLeod’s Street Kitchen. Then Sophie Collins shares an autobiography-poem inspired by Woolf’s Orlando, followed by a trio of local poets (above) who take full advantage of Mrs Dalloway rhyming with Galloway. Performer and writer MacGillivray gives a blazing performance that fuses electric harp, mermaid song and sound recordings of Mary Queen of Scots’ old haunts.
Although the supper is not a transatlantic event, it still forms a bridge, between Woolf’s England and Burns’ Scotland. The event also reaches across time: Burns was born in 1759, Woolf, on the same day in 1882, and both of them are channelled through our contemporary performers. It makes sense then, that we’ll be reaching across the Atlantic at Glasgow Women’s Library this summer.
Put June the 3rd in your diaries, for the summer extravaganza of the Transatlantic Literary Women series. There will be music and food. There will be poetry, talks and workshops. There will be keynote papers given by Professor Melanie Dawson (William and Mary College, USA) on ageing, advertising and modernity, and by Professor Gary Totten (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) on African American women travel writing. You’ll have the chance to nominate and give a pitch for your transatlantic literary woman of the year (perhaps even dressed in your own TLW inspired get-up). We’re looking forward to a day of translatlantic voices, blazing out! See you there – sláinte!
In Saskia’s last post before the holidays, we left off with Woolf’s parting shot to Edith Wharton in her essay “American Fiction” – her accusation that Wharton was ‘obsessed with surfaces’, and that her representation of Englishness reflected a focus on the most superficial aspects of foreignness. This week, my task will be to grant Wharton her right to reply, by looking at our inaugural book for the series: The Custom of the Country, published in 1913. British identity was not the only one Wharton took an interest in, and The Custom’s heroine, Undine Spragg of Apex, ‘American-branded’ as she may be, leads a cosmopolitan life on both sides of the Atlantic, moving between New York and Paris. Edith Wharton’s love of France and Europe is well documented. A famous expat, she travelled multiple times to Italy, and lived in France from 1909 until her death. But how did she look at expatriation?
In The Custom of the Country, pre-war Europe, and France in particular, both feature primarily as a holiday destination for fashionable New-Yorkers. When she first sets off to Italy, Undine is appalled by this ‘dreadfully dreary’ country, and quickly leaves to console herself in Paris. No wonder she looks back rather bitterly on the first months of her stay on the old continent:
She knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for their empty weeks in Italy.
Wharton’s portrayal of Undine’s ascent from ambitious debutante to femme du monde hints at unspoken cosmopolitan hierarchies. Upon arriving in Switzerland, Undine quickly befriends her fellow compatriots, only to ditch them when she eventually sets her views on the more desirable circles of the Parisian ‘Faubourg’ and their attractive whiff of ancient nobility. ‘The Faubourg’, which is short for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, now part of the 7th arrondissement of Paris, has a rich literary history, connecting Undine to the novelist Honoré de Balzac’s ambitious young heroes. This prestigious lineage is completely lost on Undine, for whom the Faubourg is only shorthand for the glamorous…
Indeed, through Undine, Wharton paints a rather damning picture of the ‘expat’: cynical, shortsighted, devoid of poetic sensibility and mingling with bland cosmopolitan crowds peopled with the likes of Mrs Shallum, a caricatural example of the species:
Mrs Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular, managed to express a polyglot personality as vivid as her husband’s was effaced. Her only idea of intercourse with her kind was to organize it into bands and subject it to frequent displacements…
Undine’s own ignorance is later exposed when she naïvely surmises that:
Paris existed for the stranger, that its native structure was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves.
In contrast with her heroine, Wharton took a deep interest in France and its culture. She even became involved in the French war effort between 1914 and 1918, an experience she drew on in her novella The Marne (1918), and which seems to redeem her from Woolf’s accusations of shallowness.
To Wharton, it is only by blending with the culture of one’s host country that one can hope to become a part of it. And yet those who, like Undine, adopt a utilitarian view of cosmopolitanism and only take in as much as they can use to reach their ends, seem to have the upper hand, while those who cling to their identity are fated to fade in the past. Wharton’s vision of France with its ancestral hierarchies and its Théâtre français is portrayed through the eyes of such characters as Ralph Marvell, the heir to the honourable but destitute Dagonet clan.
At the turn of the twentieth century, anxiety about national identity and culture is in the air. It was even a predominant theme among modernist writers. Critic Juliette Taylor-Beatty talks of the sudden peak in ‘awareness (…) of the condition of Babel’ to describe the pull of the theme of foreignness on the authors and thinkers of that time, where travelling is as frequently associated with linguistic and cultural creativity as it is with fear and hostility to otherness.
Wharton’s portrayal of Undine as the corrupt child of the century makes it very difficult to sympathize with her, and we are more inclined, as readers, to choose Ralph Marvell’s view of Europe over hers. And yet, if Undine’s behaviour betrays her ignorance and selfishness, Wharton’s elegiac view of France seems to preclude all possibility of mingling, of métissage – a surprising position considering her own cosmopolitanism. National identity and ancestral prejudices – the titular ‘Custom of the Country’ – weigh upon the protagonists with crushing ineluctability. In its loving homage to France, the novel does not entirely resist the temptation to reify the culture it reveres.
The Custom of the Country was, after all, published in 1913, and we cannot reproach Wharton for embracing the prejudices of her time. Still, not all writers agreed with her. In 1915, a young Katherine Mansfied published the short story, ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, where she took abundant liberties with France and French language by portraying a British woman travelling to the war front to see her lover. The story reveals a more intimate and questioning relationship to French identity and symbols: ‘But really, ma France adorée, this uniform is ridiculous’, the narrator muses when thinking about the French military uniform. A life-long expat, Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand, and does not quite qualify as a transatlantic woman. Still, her approach of foreignness reveals the playfulness with which writers, and especially women writers, in the early twentieth century, could assume new identities.
Undine’s transatlantic progress raises many questions on women, writing, and expatriation. We will broach this topic, and many other, over the next few months of our series, starting with our launch on January 16th: we hope to see you there!
Mansfield, Katherine, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin Twentieth-century Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1981)
Taylor-Batty, Juliette, Multilingualism in Modernist Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
Wharton, Edith, The Custom of the Country (Penguin Books, 1987)
Plenty of transatlantic women writers including Edith Wharton visited, lived in, and wrote about both Europe and the US. One famous writer, however, published work on America despite having never crossed the pond. In 1938 an American magazine, Hearst’s International, asked Virginia Woolf: ‘What interests you most in this cosmopolitan world of today?’ She replied with her article ‘America, Which I Have Never Seen’. To read it in full check out The Dublin Review. Woolf’s article gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favourite author.
So how do you write about a place you’ve never visited? Apparently you ‘Sit on a rock in Cornwall’ and let Imagination (‘not an altogether accurate reporter’), ‘fly to America and tell you’ all about it. Woolf claims that ‘America is the most interesting thing in the world today.’ Given the recent US elections, some might agree with this sentiment, though for reasons altogether different from Woolf’s.
In her article, Imagination flies across the Atlantic, passing fishing boats, steamers and a cruise ship, until she finally sees ‘the Statue of Liberty. Liberty introducing America!’ In New York ‘everything shines bright’, the city ‘is made of immensely high towers, each pierced with a million holes.’ Here, ‘The old English words kick up their heels and frisk. A new language is coming to birth –’
Woolf interrupts Imagination, she wants to know more about how people live. Imagination replies, ‘The houses stand open to the road. No walls divide them; there are no gardens in front and no gardens behind.’ Imagination sees a building which in England ‘would be the King’s palace. But here are no sentries; the doors stand open to all.’ Perhaps things were different when Woolf wrote this article in 1938, or perhaps she was being naïve. I doubt it, given that she wrote her pacifist manifesto Three Guineas that same year. She certainly wasn’t ignorant of exclusionary politics and rejected nationalist boundaries, claiming that ‘As a woman I have no country, as a woman I want no country, as a woman my country is the whole world’ (Three Guineas, p. 234). Woolf uses Imagination to remind her readers of the values the nation is built on, and what life could be like, what the alternatives could be. In her article she says that ‘America has room for all ages, for all civilizations’ and from ‘this extraordinary combination and collaboration of all cultures, of all civilizations will spring the future –’ And here we are, in what was then the future.
Well. That was 1938. Back then, Woolf asked Imagination to ‘tell us about the Americans in the present – the men and women. What are they like now, the inhabitants of this extraordinary land?’ That question is just as pertinent now as it was then. The answer is complex, and we have an exciting series ahead of us to help navigate our understanding, not just of Americans, but of Europeans, and the transatlantic relations that shape our cultures. There are new boundaries, yes. But there are also new connections. Woolf says that, while the British ‘have shadows that stalk behind us’, Americans ‘have a light that dances in front of them. That is what makes them the most interesting people in the world – they face the future, not the past.’ Bringing transatlantic women writers together we can look at both the past and future, and reassess the shadows and light of the present.
At the close of Woolf’s article, she says ‘we must remember, Imagination, with all her merits, is not always strictly accurate.’ The accuracy or inaccuracy of Woolf’s Imagination probably had a lot to do with the books she read by or about Americans. After all, she’d never visited the USA. So what does Woolf think of American writers, specifically American women writers? Our answers might be found in Woolf’s article ‘American Fiction’. In it, she praises Willa Cather and a few other women writers who I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of, including a Miss Canfield and Miss Hurst. Woolf claims that ‘Women writers have to meet many of the same problems that beset Americans’, as they stumble, ‘eager to shape an art of their own.’ They have some of the same opportunities too, as each is ‘the worker in fresh clay’. She waxes lyrical about Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman: ‘the real American undisguised’.
Woolf is not so generous when it comes to Edith Wharton, who we’ll be discussing at our first reading group. Woolf claims that Edith Wharton and those like her are ‘not Americans; they do not give us anything that we have not got already.’ She accuses Wharton of having an ‘obsession with surface distinctions’ and of ‘exaggerating the English culture, the traditional English good manners, and stressing too heavily or in the wrong places those social differences which, though the first to strike the foreigner, are by no means the most profound.’
Is Edith Wharton as shallow as the lead character of her novel Custom of the Country? We wouldn’t have selected it for our book club if we thought so, but the best way to find out is to read the novel and discuss it with us. Whether you side with Woolf of Wharton, or neither, there’ll be plenty to talk about. We’ll be holding our first book club session on January 30th but in the meantime, give our Edith Wharton competition a go, and make sure you keep an eye out for the series launch on January 16th too. See you soon!
Virginia Woolf. ‘American Fiction’. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2014.