Not this again. After the success of “Bridesmaids” seemed to finally sound the death knell for the whole “women can’t be as funny as men” canard, we’re right back to hearing “women can’t write like men.” The culprit this time? Acclaimed novelist V.S. Naipaul, who dissed all women writers, and said none were his match. He even declared that his own editor churned out, in his words, “feminine tosh.”
Naipaul, prodigiously talented as he is, has not only earned my wrath with these blanket generalizations he shot off in an interview, as reported in the Guardian, but also for his singling out of Jane Austen for criticism, thereby raising both my feminist and Janeite hackles (and these are, essentially, my two main sets of hackles):
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose,” was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “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.”
As I prepared for the beginning of the perennial Purim question of “Esther vs. Vashti” at the same time as I delved into Jane Eyre-mania, I began to think about how women are always pushed into dichotomies. I wondered cynically how soon someone would write about the new Brontë films by declaring Jane Austen passé. I didn’t have to wait long. This article about the “Battle of the Bonnets” in the Washington Post is a witty and sharp look at women’s cultural obsessions and it contains some great literary observations. But the headline, and the “battle” premise, rankles.
It always seems to me that when it comes to women who take different paths there’s a meme out there that there’s only room for one. Virgin or whore, Esther or Vashti, Austen or Brontë. Yes, the two most famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and Jane Austen took divergent approaches to writing about the “woman question.” Austen was sort of an Esther, using her brilliant wit to dazzle readers but containing steely critique of the system under her perfect prose, while the Brontës, Vashti-like , seethe with rage at women’s unfortunate lot and churn with a desperate desire for escape.
These women were writing in different styles, and in completely different cultural eras. Why not just appreciate the fact that both of those approaches worked so well that readers can’t get enough of them even today?
In Cathleen Schine’s “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” — currently on The New York Times’ extended bestseller list — Jane Austen’s tale of two very different sisters, “Sense and Sensibility,” is transposed to the world of Manhattan and Connecticut Jewry. Miranda Weissman is a headstrong, romantic and a disgraced literary agent, while her practical, prim older sibling, Annie, is a librarian and divorcée. When their beloved stepfather abandons their mother, Betty, for a younger woman, and pushes her out of their Central Park West apartment, Miranda and Annie join her in self-imposed exile in a cousin’s each cottage in Westport, Conn.
There, the sisters and their mother learn lessons, large and small, about their family, themselves, romantic love and even etiquette. For example, Betty relays to her daughters the directive to always bring food when invited to a non-Jew’s house: “Just because we must respect the customs of other cultures, does not mean we have to starve,” she explains.
The Sisterhood’s Sarah Seltzer spoke recently with Schine about finding the perfect Jewish last name for her characters, fighting the crowds at Manhattan’s Fairway market, and Jane Austen’s legacy, beyond “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”