A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Introduction to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I cannot wait to read and discuss Jane Eyre with all of you. I know this is a book that many love, but also one that some people have major issues with. Personally, I fall into the former category. I read Jane Eyre in high school, but it was a little too spooky for me. Almost two years ago, I became slightly obsessed with the book, and reread it a number of times, during a few months of studying abroad. I am a little nervous, but also very excited, to pick it up again for this project.

Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, 1850.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the third of six children, all of whom were girls except Branwell, who was born in 1817. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth village, the village where the Brontës would write most of their novels. In 1824, Charlotte went to a Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, together with her older sisters Maria and and Elizabeth, as well as her younger sister Emily (who we know for her novel Wuthering Heights). Maria and Elizabeth died at school, leaving Charlotte the eldest child of the Brontë family. The circumstances and Charlotte’s experiences at school were to serve as inspiration for Lowood school in Jane Eyre.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne (the latter known for her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) started making up stories about fictional kingdoms at a young age. Branwell and Charlotte wrote about a kingdom called Angria, while Emily and Anne wrote about Gondal. Some of these stories still exist, though (I think?) they are believed to have been heavily edited (and several stories thrown away) by Charlotte.

Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels in 1842, but their stay was cut short when their aunt died. Charlotte returned to the boarding school to teach. During her stay she felt lonely and isolated, and became attached to Constantin Heger, who ran the school together with his wife. Her attachment provided inspiration for Charlotte’s novels The Professor (written before Jane Eyre, but published posthumously) and Vilette.

Jane Eyre was written while watching over her father’s operation on his eyes. It was published in May 1846, and was very succesful, even though there was also criticism that her writing was coarse, doubts about the gender of the author, as well as questions about the morality of the novel, to which Charlotte responded with a preface to the second edition of the novel, in which she refutes the attacks on her views of morality and religion.

Jane Eyre was published under the pen name Currer Bell. The fact that Charlotte and her sisters all used pseudonyms when they published their work may in itself be an interesting starting point for the discussion of gender, as their pen names were meant to disguise their gender but retain their initials (C.B. for Currer Bell and Charlotte Brontë).

After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë kept writing. First, she worked on Shirley (published in 1849). However, before publication she suffered the loss of both her brother and her two other sisters. Her third novel, Vilette, was published in 1853.

Charlotte married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nichols in 1854. While pregnant, she became ill, and both she and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855. Charlotte’s father and Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom Charlotte became friends from 1850 onwards, subsequently worked together to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Further reading:

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Brontë and her sisters (I am in no manner an expert on her or her sisters!), I would recommend the fictional account of their lives written by Jude Morgan: The Taste of Sorrow. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography might be interesting, but I have heard that it is very much a sanctification of her life. I have been recommended The Brontës by Juliet Barker as a good biography, as well as The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller as a cultural history of the Brontës as cultural icons.

Jane Eyre

I hardly think it is necessary to introduce Jane Eyre, but in short it is the story of Jane Eyre, and her growth to adulthood. Jane is an orphan who grows up with her aunt and cousins, is subsequently sent away to Lowood school where she experiences the harsh regime that religion can provide (according to Charlotte Brontë, this is not true Christianity), but also finds her first and only friend, Helen Burns. When Jane Eyre finishes her education, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester…

Jane Eyre is available in many versions, in print and online. I will be reading the Oxford World’s classics version, with an introduction by Sally Shuttleworth. I think it would be interesting to compare notes on what the introductions of different versions might tell us about feminism in Jane Eyre. The novel is also available in the public domain, for example here on Project Gutenberg, and here on girlebooks.

Reading Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre can be read as an enjoyable love story (also as a creepy one), but also has a lot to say on the topics of feminism, religion, schooling, etcetera (I know I will have a hard time not being distracted by the love story and the topic of religion myself, eek).  When it comes to feminism, the story of the girl Jane Eyre is interesting, but I also think it would be interesting to look at the portrayal of other women in the story. The former will provide more than enough to discuss, but I think in comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea, the whole cast of female characters will be interesting to look at.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I hope you will feel free to look at the text in any way you want. I look forward to sharing thoughts! Discussion questions will be posted somewhere closer to the middle of March. Feel free to comment or email with suggestions [email: irisonbooks (at) gmail (dot) com].

May: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

In May The Year of Feminist Classics group will be reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Jodie, as my co-host, and I, believe that reading these books together will lead to a nice juxtaposition and complimentary view of feminism in literature, and the position of women from different backgrounds as portrayed by novelists. Today, I will post an introduction to Jane Eyre . The introduction post to Wide Sargasso Sea will follow shortly. I believe this month’s reading can be approached in several manners, and I welcome each and any of them: You can read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea separately, or in comparison with each other. You could start chronological, and read Brontë’s work before reading Rhys’ interpretation, but you could also read them the other way around, and juxtapose Rhys’ interpretation with Brontë’s earlier portrayal. I am curious to see what you will come up with! In a week or so, I will put up some discussion questions, hopefully covering both books separately and in comparison with each other.

I am looking forward to discussing both books with you in the upcoming weeks! Feel free to contact me with suggestions for discussion topics, or guest posts.

Thank You & See You Next Year?

We wanted to thank all of you for participating in the Year of Feminist Classics project in 2011. We know we have not been the greatest hosts, at least 3 out of 4 hosts experienced some difficulties this year and because of this we were absent a lot more than we should have been. Nevertheless, we hope you found this project as fulfilling as we did. Moreover, we hope you will consider joining us next year!

We are still putting the details together and we hope to reorganise a little so as to make the project more workable for all hosts. More details will follow in the upcoming week or so, we are just putting the final touches to the list. In composing it, we have aimed to take your recommendations and comments on the 2011 list in account. If there is anything you think we should consider, be it in books to read or organisation-wise, please feel free to leave a comment.

Again, thank you for joining in on our somewhat messy, but hopefully worthwhile, journey into the works that have defined and changed feminism through the years.

Happy 2012 to all of you!

Update on “Ain’t I A Woman?” and the “Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology”

I am very sorry about being such a lousy host this past month, or rather, disappearing completely. Life has been crazy and I cannot give you any more excuses than that. Below you will find a small introduction to Bell Hooks. As I haven’t finished the book myself, I do not have discussion questions, but I do hope some of you have written about it and will post the links here. I will edit the post as people comment. I personally only finished the introduction, but knew immediately that I had to finish it sometime soon. She raises such interesting points and it baffled me how I never looked beyond the issue of whether race was at all mentioned in feminist text, to ask how it was represented.

bell hooks is the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins. She was born on September 25, 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Her childhood was spent in a working class family of five sisters and one brother and her school career started out at a racially segregated school. She received a BA in English from Stanford University and a Master in the same subject from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967. Her doctorate studies were completed in 1983 with a dissertation on Toni Morrison.

Gloria Jean Watkins’ interest revolve around the intersection of race class and gender and how these categories work to perpetrate systems of oppression. Her first book, Ain’t I a Woman? was written as an undergraduate and published while she was not yet a doctorate, in 1981. She published a collection of poems before this book ‘An There We Wept’ in 1978, also under her pen name bell hooks. She choose this name because it was the name of her grandmother, who she says was “known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired.” The lower case lettering was chosen to distinguish herself from her grandmother.

Ain’t I a Woman has since become an influential work of postmodern feminist thought. In it, bell hooks tackles questions of the devaluation of black womanhood, the marginalisation of black women, the disregard for questions of class and race within feminism and the influence of media and representation on these issues.

Since 1981, she has published a wide range of books, most of which tackle the issues of feminism, race, representation and media from a postmodern perspective.

Have you written about bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman? Then leave a comment below and I will compile an overview post as soon as possible.

About the collection of essays that is also listed for this month. We originally included it because of the article “Under Western Eyes” by Chandra Talpade Mohanty. I have reviewed it previously here. It is an interesting article and related to “Ain’t I a Woman?” in that it raises questions about the disregard for colonial discourses in feminist studies.

However, there are many more interesting articles in “Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology”. There is one, for example, that explores the many ways in which women’s rights and headscarves were used in politics of the Revolution in Iran.

My original idea was to request whether people wanted to read specific articles and then sent me a link, or a review, of the article, by email. I would then compose an over view post or several guest posts throughout the month. If anyone is up for it, I would still like to do so, and post throughout the months November and December.

Again, I am sorry for the rubbish hosting this month.

For anyone who is wondering: I haven’t yet wrapped up “The Second Sex” because it appears only Ingrid reviewed it up to now.

Introduction: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

It is quite a prospect, isn’t it? This 770 page book (in the edition I use). I have to say I am very intimidated by it. But the prospect of reading and discussing it together is also very exciting to me. Because of the length and my late introduction post, the hosts have decided to leave the discussion open throughout August as well. I know I will be needing the time to get through this and give it the attention it deserves. I will try to post updates on the book and the posts discussing it a couple of times, to keep the discussion going.

I do apologize beforehand for the length of this post. Also, I am no expert on De Beauvoir, so this may be faulty. Either way, I hope it is of use to you.


Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, 9 January 1908. Her parents were devout Catholics with aspirations to nobility. Simone herself was catholic, and even considered to become a nun when she was in a convent school together with her sister. However, that changed when she lost her faith in 14. For the rest of her life she was an atheist.

Simone’s intellectual interests were present from an early age. She passed the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925 and afterwards went on to study mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature at the Institut Sainte-Marie. At the Sorbonne she studied philosophy and wrote a thesis on Leibniz. At university, she met several now-famous intellectuals, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, but her most famous relation is to Jean-Paul Sartre. She met him when preparing for the agrégation, the most competitive post-graduate examinations in France. Sartre came in first on this test, de Beauvoir second. Sartre and de Beauvoir had a polyamorous relationship, seeing other people with the consent of everyone involved. De Beauvoir felt attracted to both sexes and Sartre and her frequently ‘shared’ other girls. Both Sartre and De Beauvoir are considered to be great philosophers of existentialism and are iconic for French intellectual life during those decades.

De Beauvoir wrote several kinds of texts during her life, including metaphysical novels like She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954); a collection of short stories based on women important in the early years of her life called When Things of the Spirit Come First (published 1980, written much earlier); and her autobiography in four parts (the third part is often published in two separate volumes in English).

Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986, aged 78. She is buried next to Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

For more on De Beauvoir’s life, I would like to point you towards Emily’s posts on the first and second parts of Simone de Beavoir’s memoires: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée and La force de l’âge.


De Beauvoir, like Sartre – or maybe even following Sartre? (people seem to disagree on that) – was an existentialist philosopher, and together with Sartre she makes one of the great French philosophers of her age. I cannot here provide a thorough summary of existentialist philosophy, especially since it took diverse forms ever since its rise during the nineteenth century. However, a few key characteristics are important to situating Simone de Beauvoir’s work.

  1. First, existentialist focus on question of concrete human existence instead of speculating about humanity’s essential characteristics. As such, you could say they focus on individual lives lived and the subjective like emotions and states of being than questions of objective knowledge, etcetera.
  2. Second, existence precedes essence. The actual life and circumstances decide the ‘essence’ of a person and the notion that there is a human essence present in everyone independent from lived experience is rejected. Sartre, for example, states: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. Like all theories that emphasize experience over essence, this can also imply that people might (in a way) “choose” who they become: they are not something to begin with, and thus may choose to become a better person instead of a cruel one.
  3. This idea has to do with the third characteristic of existentialist thinking and that is the concept of freedom. People are not free to do anything they choose, per se, as they are situated in a certain space and thus in some ways constricted by that space. The existentialist notion of freedom thus does not imply that there are no values and everyone can think and act as they choose. However, they do accept that values are situated and can therefore be changed. While we are constricted by values present in the world, they are not absolute (since there is no essential nature) and people are thus responsible for their actions as well as the values they hold.
  4. This leads to a fourth characteristic which is existential angst: the negative feeling that arises from this human freedom and responsibility.
  5. The idea of situated freedom, so to say, is explained further in Sartre’s concept of facticity, tied to the word “in-itself” which de Beauvoir uses in The Second Sex as well. Facticity, and I quote from the wikipedia page on existentialism, is:”both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one’s facticity consists of things one couldn’t have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition in the sense that one’s values most likely will depend on it. However, even though one’s facticity is “set in stone” (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one’s facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. (..)
    However, to disregard one’s facticity when one, in the continual process of self-making, projects oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and would thus be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one’s projection will still have to be one’s facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially).
  6. As such, existentialist often claim that one should lead an authentic life. Being authentic, as opposed to inauthentic, constitutes ‘finding oneself’, but not in the way of finding humanity’s essence. Finding oneself implies living in accordance with one freedom and that freedom in turn is related to your facticity, your situatedness.
  7. Especially relevant to De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is the concept of the Other, but I have to admit that this explanation on wikipedia did not make it easier to understand for me. And of course, all the books I own on philosophy somehow do not consider De Beauvoir a philosopher at all (really, they talk about French existentialism quite thoroughly, but she isn’t mentioned once – nor is the idea of ‘The Look’ or ‘the Gaze’). Maybe someone can help me out with this concept? What I can tell you is that De Beauvoir was inspired by Sartre’s idea of an opposition between a sovereign self as a subject, and an objectivied other inspired her. And in The Second Sex, she uses this to argue that women are made the Other by men, receiving an aura of mystery around them that caused men to be able to claim they did not completely understand women. The Other denotes the wholly other. And while ethnicity, religion and class were also often part of a distinction in which one group could constitute a hierarchy over other groups, De Beauvoir argues that women are the quintessential Other.

The Second Sex

The Second Sex (published in French in 1949) is arguably the best known work by De Beauvoir. It is also a classic of gender studies, or may even be considered the starting point of the distinction between gender and sex: while sex constitutes a biological difference, gender is a ‘socialized’ difference, springing from ‘nurture’ instead of ‘nature’. De Beauvoir, following the existentialist notion that experience precedes essence, argues that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. Furthermore, she argues that throughout history, woman have been defined as ‘the Other’, an aberration of the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ male. Because women were always considered to deviate from the normal, and furthermore busy to try to emulate normality (i.e. males), they were constantly subjected. Only by letting go of this assumption, De Beauvoir believed, feminism could move forward.

Famously, De Beauvoir started writing The Second Sex after trying to write about herself and found the only way to start was to write that “I am a woman”. She then started to question this, since she felt men would never start a text like the one she was writing with “I am a man/male”, since this was a given to them. Trying to understand what the idea of being a woman was, she started writing an essay on women. On a trip to America, she was encouraged by Nelson Algren (one of the men she had an affair with) to turn the essay into a book. According to Judith Thurman, in the introduction to the new English translation of Le Deuxième Sexe, the confrontation with racism towards blacks in the United States, combined with her experience at home with anti-Semitism (do not forget, the Second World War was of great influence on existentialist thinking), let her to conclude that “The black, the Jew, and the woman, were objectified as the Other in ways that were both overtly despotic and insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliché (“the eternal feminine”; “the black soul”; “the Jewish character”) that served as a rationale for their subjugation.” (Judith Thurman, Introduction: xiv)

The Second Sex is divided into two volumes. In the first, “Facts and Myths”, de Beauvoir chronicles the history of womankind, looking at biological, psychoanalytical and historical perspectives and zooming in on the latter when describing the history of ‘the role of woman’. The second volume, “Lived Experience”, is a case study of contemporary womanhood (in the 1940’s, the research for The Second Sex was done by De Beauvoir between 1946 and 1949) and the various stages in life.

A Note on the Translation

There are two English translations available of Le Deuxième Sexe. The first was published relatively quickly after its publication in France. Translated by Howard Parshly, and published by publisher Alfred A Knopf in 1953, it is often said to be a faulty translation, especially since it lost much of the original existential overtones and was abridged, cutting substantial parts of the original texts where De Beauvoir was considered to be overtly long in her descriptions. However, it should be noted that some scholars have argued that there was a form of female oppression at play in these cuts as well. Margaret Simons, for example, argued that examples of women’s anger were cut, while parts referring to men’s feelings were kept.

In 2010, a new translation was published, again by Alfred A. Knopf, this time translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. While the cover will tell you that it is “a new translation of the landmark classic” “complete and unabridged for the first time”, the new translation has been criticized too. Toril Moi, who has thoroughly criticized the first translation, now stated that the first was “lively and readable”, while the new translation does not convey Beauvoir’s “voice and style”. Furthermore, she argues that some words are definitely translated wrong, often substituting “man and woman” for “a man and a woman”

More on the issues with both translations can be found in review articles such as this one in the Chronicle. (Thanks to Ingrid from the Blue Book Case for pointing this article out to me – I think it was you?)

Just out of curiosity, which translation are you using? I am using the new one. Hopefully I will not find it to be “awkward reading” as Toril Moi says it is.


Having just read the introduction written by Simone de Beauvoir, I admit I am slightly baffled at where to start with discussion questions.I have a feeling I may need to just read it and see where my mind feels like engaging with at this point. Basically, I wanted to quote that whole introduction as extremely relevant and interesting to discuss. I have already decided that I am just going to read it, see where it takes me, and reread it at some later date, hopefully with the critical questions posed by all of you to engage with the text more critically.

I do believe that De Beauvoir’s most famous assertion; “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” should offer us a good starting point for discussion. Recently it has been questioned with research in biology and the social sciences, how do you feel about this idea yourself? And what is it significance to feminism?

However, since I have only read a few pages up to now, I feel there should be much more to discuss. Do you have any ideas? Please let me know and email me at: irisonbooks [at] gmail [dot] com. Feel free to raise questions in the comments and your own posts as well.

An Introduction to “Herland”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived from July 3, 1860 to August 17, 1935. She was an American socialist and a utopian feminist, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction (poetry, short stories and novels). She was widely known during her lifetime, but (at least, from my non-American point of view) not so well-known today. Women and Economics and The Yellow Wallpaper are her best known works. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution is a work of non-fiction about the necessity for women to change their cultural identities: to become more independent and specialised so as to become better mothers, wifes, etcetera. The Yellow Wallpaper is, I’m sure, the best known work by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the world of book blogging. It describes a woman who suffers from mental illness and is locked in her room by her husband for her own health. In this room she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper on the walls. The short story is said to be based on Charlotte’s own experiences with mental illness and the rest cure treatment she was prescribed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.

The biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman is worth looking into for this project. Charlotte’s life is interesting, to say the least, but also seems to have been very tough. Charlotte, born as Charlotte Anna Perkins, married twice. She first married Charles Walter Stetson, with whom she has a daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson. After the birth, Charlotte suffers from depression (not recognised back then as post-partum depression) and is prescribed the rest cure treatment, which involved not being allowed to write and a sharp limitation of her reading time. She ends up rejecting this treatment and fled to California, without her husband and child. Four years after marrying Charles, they separate, and the child ends up living with her father. Charlotte’s reputation suffers from the separation from her husband (being considered to be on no valid grounds, as they were still friends and there was no adultery) and the fact that she left her child behind. [It is nice to see how all of these books fit together, A Doll’s House flashed before my eyes while reading this]. Charlotte’s second marriage is to Houghton Gilman, her first cousin. They get married in 1900 and live in New York until 1922, when they move to Connecticut. In 1934 Houghton dies, just after Charlotte is diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. In 1935, she commits suicide with chloroform.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was active in several social reform movements. She considered herself a socialist and humanist from the Nationalist variety. Nationalism is described on wikipedia as: “a movement which worked to end capitalism’s greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race.” She was also part of Social Darwinism, in the variety of Lester Frank Ward, which believed that despite evolution, human beings could influence and change society for the better. Gilman rejected Marx’s ideas of violent revolutions, but instead believed in a peaceful change of society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman especially believed that women had a large role to play in the movement towards a better society. She believed that only when women take it upon themselves to be independent (and are allowed to be so), society can change for the better. As Ann J. Lane says on page xv of the Women’s Press introduction to Herland:

Describing herself as a humanist, Gilman argued that since “it is only in social relations that we are human… to be human, women must share in the totality of humanity’s common life.” Women, forced to lead restrictive lives, retard all human progress. Growth of the organism, she said, the individual, or the social body requires the use of all of our powers in four areas: physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social. In each women are denied their share of human activities. (..) “Women are not underdeveloped men,” Gilman said, “but the feminine half of humanity is underdeveloped humans.”

As more feminist of this area, Gilman’s feminism and social Nationalism, involved ideas on preserving national and racial purity, which she observed was being threatened by immigrants that came from non-American or British descent.

Almost all of the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman were serialised in her 32 page magazine, The Forerunner, which she wrote and edited on her own between 1909 and 1916. Even the advertisements were from her own hand. It was in this magazine that Herland was first published. Herland describes an isolated society that exists of only women, who reproduce through parthenogenesis. The society is presented as ideal: it is free of war, conflict or domination. The story is told from the viewpoint of three men who stumble upon Herland by accident. Throughout the story, the social construction of gender is the main theme. The women, in Herland, are represented as loving mothers as well as strong and independent. On the other hand, the men slowly become more feminine: thy, for example, grow their hair long, while all the women in Herland have short hair. Herland is the second out of three utopian novels written by Gilman. The first is titled Moving the Mountain and was published in 1911. The third is called With Her in Ourland (1916), and is a sequel to the in 1915 published Herland.

I have to admit that I have never read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before, even if The Yellow Wallpaper is waiting patiently for me on my bookshelves. I am curious to see whether I will enjoy Herland as much as I have seen others like The Yellow Wallpaper. The plot summary looks promising and thought-provoking. I will post discussion questions in a week to 10 days time. I also want to apologize for putting this post up a little late, my life is a bit chaotic at the moment.

Have you read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before? Have you started reading Herland yet? Are you enjoying it so far, or looking forward to it? Which edition are you reading?