House of Ladies Intrepid, In Danger & Into Good Books
Apologies for a Gothic Tuesday at this late hour, ma petite belles! I am in France, and today I was trapped in a manor, the power off, our electric gates not working, and my friends trying to scale the walls.
Gothic problems, man. Gothic problems.
Don’t worry, I kept a cool head.
SARAH: I know what to do! We’ve got to eat all the ice-cream IMMEDIATELY!
So, the time has come to reveal my favourite modern Gothic novel by Barbara Michaels! (Your who in the what now? … Shh, just come.)
And it is… HOUSES OF STONE.
I’d like to open this particular Gothic Tuesday with some quotations.
‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’ Jane Freaking Austen, talking about the world as she experienced it, as a writer.
And whenever the pen is, in fact, in ladies’ hands…
‘Literature is not the business of a woman’s life, and it cannot be.’ – Southey (who? Okay, I do know who, but dude is considerably less well known than the lady he was offering this awesome advice to, namely…) Charlotte ‘Oh No You Didn’t Mofo’ Bronte
‘America is given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed’– Nathaniel ‘Cry More You Big Baby’ ‘Sour Grapes’ ‘Actually Is Still Quite Famous Despite Those Dreadful Ladies’ Hawthorne
‘All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write.’ – Nathaniel ‘Didn’t Deserve To Have Emma Stone In His Movie Adaptation’ Hawthorne again!
‘Female writers should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex’ – Sir Egerton Brydges, 1928
‘They (women writers) lack that blood-congested genital drive which energizes every great style’ – The New York ‘Very Subtle, Guys’ Times, 1976
‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me… their (women’s) sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’ V.S. ‘Sorry, Whose Narrow View of the World?’ Naipaul, 2011, discussing his infinite superiority to Jane Austen.
All of it adds up pretty well to…
“She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…” – Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing.
Same Joanna Russ who wrote the essay on Gothic fiction, ‘Someone’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband.’ How things go round and round! And she is summarising all the dudes’ quotes in style, isn’t she?
All the quotes above, except for Joanna Russ’s and V.S. Naipaul’s, are taken from Barbara Michaels’s HOUSES OF STONE. The quotes are either chapter epigraphs
or quoted by the heroine, Karen, who is a professor of literature.
Karen’s big discovery was a book of poems by a previously unknown nineteenth-century woman writer who went by the name Ismene. Now a Gothic novel by Ismene, from around the same time as JANE EYRE, has been found.
Karen has to protect her treasure from two academic rivals, a dude and a lady, who may be willing to kill her for it (academic life: go big or go home!) and also investigate a Gothic manor where Ismene once lived to find out her true identity and how much of the Gothic novel she was writing was based on Ismene’s real life.
And the whole novel is hugely influenced by the position Karen’s in, as a woman in her field who has less access to cash and less standing, and the position Ismene was in, competing with other women and dependent on a guy who might marry her, betray her or even murder her.
And it is, as you may have noticed, full of quotes.
SIMON, KAREN’S SEXIST BUT KINDLY (BUT SEXIST) BOOKSELLER FRIEND: Boy do I have the academic discovery of your career for you!
KAREN: Name your price. Which my college will be unlikely to pay but somehow I will find a way!
SIMON: I’d better let your academic rivals in your field, Bill at Yale and Dorothea at Berkeley, know about this discovery so we can determine a price.
KAREN: One of them might drug you and steal it!
SIMON: Don’t be silly, Karen. You’re the Gothic heroine: I’m sure you’re the one everyone will try to rob and mistreat.
KAREN’S FRIEND, HISTORY PROFESSOR PEGGY FINNEYFROCK (NO THAT’S REALLY HER NAME ISN’T IT AWESOME): I am a secret millionaire who will loan you the cash because ladies should help each other! Also I am a historian totally prepared to help investigate the mysterious author!
KAREN: This is a lucky break for me!
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: It will be your last.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: Let’s wear disguises and sneak around watching your rivals! What’s Bill at Yale’s last name?
KAREN: Well, he sort of goes by a nickname.
KAREN: Well, I sort of gave him the nickname.
KAREN: Well, to be totally honest, he patted me on the head in public, I had a tiny aneurysm, and he’s been known as Bill the Bastard in academic circles ever since.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: I like your moxie.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: So how bad would it be if Bill the Bastard got hold of this book?
KAREN: Let’s examine how critics ignoring books by women, about women, popular with women, affects the survival of said books. CHARLOTTE TEMPLE was the first ever American bestseller, published in two hundred editions, popular from 1791 to 1912. Have you heard of it?
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: Point taken.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: So you’re saying this book is like a damsel in distress?
KAREN: I will not let Bill the Bastard tie this book to the railroad tracks!
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: Two sisters, let’s call the oldest and the hottest something like… say… Ismene, stagger through a storm toward a Gothic manor to a mysterious relative’s house. They collapse on the doorstep only to find it opened by a guy fine like a July day, hot like molten lava, and dreamy like opium.
KAREN: I think this is a literary work to be enjoyed on many levels.
CAMERON: Hi I’m sorry I didn’t make an appointment, I’m the owner of the Gothic manor where Ismene’s Gothic novel was found?
KAREN: I can tell at a glance that you have the very thing I find most irresistible in a guy… sexy, sexy academic information.
CAMERON: My Gothic manor is falling down and the electricity is dodgy.
KAREN: Baby can I come over some time and… see your family papers?
CAMERON: Um… yes…
KAREN: Oh sugar, I wanna explore your attics. Like, thoroughly.
KAREN: Creeping around Gothic manor in the dead of night seemed like such a good idea before it was the dead of night.
KAREN: Whoops, I have fallen into a window well. Uh, a little help here?
BILL THE BASTARD: Certainly, let me assist you, fair maiden!
KAREN: … Changed mind. Please put me back in well.
CAMERON: Hope you like the place.
KAREN: It’s awesome! Except that you have mice in the attic.
KAREN: Also I believe you have the eldritch spirits of the damned in the attic.
KAREN: What I’m trying to say is GET AN EXTERMINATOR.
PEGGY FINNEYFROCK: Amazing, the manuscript is ours for only fifty grand! Yay for colleges undervaluing the work of women!
PEGGY FINNEYFROCK: Karen I hope this book does not get you into any trouble.
BILL THE BASTARD: I’m not saying I’d be willing to murder you for the manuscript. Dorothea at Berkeley probably would, though.
PEGGY FINNEYFROCK: …
BILL THE BASTARD: Canape?
DOROTHEA FROM BERKELEY: Could I offer you some threats? They’re going to be very mysterious and ambiguous.
KAREN: I like me a genre-appropriate threat!
KAREN’S LADY FRIEND: I like me some summoning the police.
CAMERON: Uh, so you and Bill the Bastard, did you use to date?
KAREN: I guess I could spin a story about how he tossed me aside like a soiled glove, but fluttery lashes and quivery lips only work on dudes who underestimate ladies.
CAMERON: Aw, you trust me!
KAREN: Also the idea of me and Bill the Bastard is double plus yuk.
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: You know what’s wrong? Slavery. Sexism. Incest. Murdering beautiful innocent damsels in nightdresses. Just some examples.
KAREN: I’m with you, book.
KAREN: Hey Cameron! I just dropped by to see your dank cellars.
CAMERON: Chicks love cellars.
KAREN: Oooh creepy carvings just like in the Gothic novel! This is so awesome!
CAMERON: Karen there are snakes down here…
CAMERON: Just once couldn’t we go for coffee?
KAREN: Time to make friends with a sweet elderly lady librarian who will help me research… who is that foxy lady in the skin-tight jeans?
TANYA THE SUPER FOXY LIBRARIAN: Business on top, skin-tight party in the back. I love big books and I cannot lie. What can I do you for?
KAREN: My rented apartment was searched for my precious manuscript by someone! It is both scary and very Gothically thematic not even to feel safe where you live!
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: Do you have any suspects?
KAREN: They left hardly any trace!
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: So we suspect an academically inclined ninja.
KAREN: Augh it is so hard to find out Ismene’s true identity! Historical ladies were either not married and so not economically independent enough to write or married and had four basquillion children! It’s very hard to write when you have four basquillion children!
KAREN: Augh now I have to give a speech about Jane Austen to a literary society that expects me to wear pink and puffed sleeves! PEOPLE I AM BEING ATTACKED BY BOOK-LOVING NINJAS. THERE’S NO TIME.
KAREN: Okay there’s time to make a few dirty jokes.
TANYA THE SUPER FOXY LIBRARIAN: You go, girl.
BILL THE BASTARD: Take it off!
BOOK-LOVING NINJA: attacks in the night
KAREN: All I can say is that my attacker was wearing heavy floral perfume… and I suspect Bill the Bastard.
BILL THE BASTARD: I always patronise you/and this is crazy/but your Jane Austen speech was so hot/academically collaborate with me maybe?
KAREN: Go home, Bill.
BILL THE BASTARD: What if I save you from this SPEEDING VAN INTENT ON YOUR DESTRUCTION?
KAREN: … Guess I owe you a thank-you.
BILL THE BASTARD: Yay!
KAREN: … I’m working up to it.
KAREN: … I may be some time.
BILL THE BASTARD: I like a girl with academic spirit! Kiss me you madwoman in the attic!
KAREN: Uh, this is very flattering, but…
BILL THE BASTARD: I don’t know what I’d do if a perfumed ninja killed you! Please let me protect you! I promise to guard you with my life!
KAREN: Bill, I’m good. But if a perfumed ninja kills me, I promise to regret this decision.
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: A madwoman appears, who murmurs of a dread family secret! My handsome cousin tells me it’s totally nothing and she’s totally crazy, and locked up for her own good. Well, dudes who lock up ladies are obviously trustworthy…
KAREN: I wake in the night from dreams of an eldritch figure who… HOLY CRAP NINJAS SET MY BED ON FIRE.
KAREN: Well, time to save myself and my horrible landlady.
KAREN: Hey landlady, I hope you have ninja insurance…
KAREN: And now on the grounds of the Gothic manor, we have discovered a tiny house of stone where one might have total privacy.
CAMERON: Now you’re talking!
KAREN: And write a novel!
CAMERON: …. Oh.
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: And then the beautiful heroine, let’s call her Ismene, discovered that the Gothic hero was in fact… her unfortunately foxy secret brother.
KAREN: Sweet flowering madwomen in the attic, say WHAT?
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: Let’s sure hope this novel isn’t based on real life, because if Mr Super Sexy But Super Related married the heroine’s younger, less hot sister, suddenly there’d be a really compelling reason for someone to shut Ismene up and stop her writing her tell-all Gothic novel…
KAREN: It’s funny how ‘shut up’ both means making someone be quiet, and trapping them somewhere.
ISMENE’S GOTHIC NOVEL: This isn’t linguistic byplay o’clock, Karen.
KAREN: Excuse you, it’s always linguistic byplay o’clock.
CAMERON: I have something to tell you, Karen. I’m afraid of enclosed spaces.
KAREN: Aw, Cameron, that’s nothing to be asham-
CAMERON: Specifically, I’m afraid of being chased through the Gothic woods by a gang of ruffians and trapped with you in a tiny stone house.
KAREN: … Oh Cameron. Who could have guessed your incredibly specific nightmare would come true?
RUFFIANS: By the way we were paid to drive a van at you, Karen. The guy who paid us was about this tall, and he went by something like Will the Wastard…?
CAMERON: How could this night get any worse?
KAREN: I’m glad you asked, because I just found a tunnel.
CAMERON: That’s great news, Karen!
KAREN: It’s a dead-end tunnel full of the bones of a lady who I believe may have been a great literary talent buried alive before her time.
CAMERON: That’s terrible news, Karen!
KAREN: Ismene was literally buried alive! Weird how women get buried alive in THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and Victoria Holt’s novels like three times and in Barbara Michael’s novels at least twice and Bertha Rochester in JANE EYRE also totally counts because I say so! It’s the ultimate symbol of being trapped!
KAREN: Well, isn’t this a turn-up for the books.
KAREN: Also a literary archetype being thoughtfully explored.
KAREN: Also a skeleton in a scary hole at night auuuugggggghhhh.
KAREN: I hate literary archetypes.
LITERARY ARCHETYPES: Come on, baby. You’re upset. You know you don’t mean that.
KAREN: I’ve discovered Ismene’s real name and her weirdo family secret and also her bones from when she was buried alive!
KAREN: What’s next? Oh yes, defeat my enemies. Dorothea from Berkeley, would you like to join forces to ruin Bill the Bastard’s life? Also would you like some more champagne?
DOROTHEA FROM BERKELEY: The answer to both your questions is ‘hell yes.’
SIMON THE SEXIST BOOKSELLER: But maybe Bill the Bastard truly loved you and is sorry for his misdeeds.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: So are you going to marry Cameron?
KAREN: I’m not ready for marriage. I’m prepared to make out with him a lot!
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: Okay, fine, I’ll get married so we can live happily ever after! I’ll marry Simon the Sexist Bookseller.
KAREN: Oh man, but Simon the Sexist Bookseller is so sexist.
PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: Yeah, but a girl will put up with a lot from a dude who reads.
CAMERON AND SIMON THE SEXIST BOOKSELLER: Should we put ‘Rest In Peace’ on Ismene’s gravestone?
KAREN AND PROFESSOR FINNEYFROCK: … She wasn’t really peaceful or restful, so no. Quick, someone come up with some sort of paraphrase for ‘Badly behaved women make history!’
And what goes on Ismene’s gravestone is…
As you can see, people quote a lot in HOUSES OF STONE, but the final and most memorable quote is uttered by Professor Peggy Finneyfrock about our Gothic heroine: ‘Dying for a cause is just one of those silly notions men come up with. It has always seemed to me more sensible to go on living and keep on talking.’
Keep on talking. The reason I love HOUSES OF STONE best of all is because it really thinks about the issues in Gothic novels, for women, for women writers, and says: yes, here are all the problems that come with this, now keep on talking.
I love it because I love language, because I love books that engage in conversation with other books in the genre (keep on talking) and because a heroine who prefers baths to showers because she can read in the bath? I know that feel. Get outta my head, Barbara Michaels! I love this Gothic books because it examines the Gothic novel, ‘most of these books are about women who just can’t seem to get out of the house’ (E.C. DeLaMotte, Perils of the Night), and thinks about why, and what women can do in that house.
Talking—or writing—is something you can do even when you’re trapped, like the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, stuck in a tiny room writing out her frustration and growing madness. The recurring theme of people being buried alive in Gothic novels is the ultimate being trapped: but the heroine of this Gothic novel wrote her way out of being silenced. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘damned pack of scribbling women’ kept scribbling, no matter what he thought about it.
I quoted from V.S. Naipaul above to show people still think these kind of things now. If you are a girl, if you write about a girl, if you write about things that are perceived as ‘girly’, if you have a cover that looks girly—you’re seen as less worthy, you’re going to get less critical attention, less support as ‘worthy,’ you’re less likely to succeed and if you do succeed your success will be sneered at. There are more women writers than men. Yet the Forbes richest authors’ (meaning authors who are read by a LOT of people and pretty well regarded…) list: nine men, six women. Dudes sell better: dudes win more awards. People still think dudes write better, and ladies should hush up.
What’s to be done?
‘Keep on talking’ is the epitaph of the Gothic heroine and writer in HOUSES OF STONE. It’s not a bad motto for anyone.
A Gothic novel seemed to me, when writing Unspoken… which, BRAG ALERT, is out in fourteen days and which you can get a signed copy from HERE, as it seemed to Barbara Michaels, a pretty cool medium for a heroine who loves and believes in and works with words.