The Wisdom of Trees

Book Review: John Fowles, The Tree (Little, Toller 2016)

61g+LIn61VLJohn Fowles’ book The Tree is unlike any other book on trees I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few recently). It is also a very beautiful book, with beautiful illustrations throughout by Ed Kluz, and an insightful foreword by William Fiennes. There is little scientific jargon here, attempts to describe trees are hedged with awareness of the limitations of language, and really, trees are just a starting point for what is really a long essay on human nature, society, art, and many other things. Trees, Fowles implies, can tell us everything we need to know – and nothing. That is why they are worth paying attention to. The book opens with the well-tended, domestic trees of Fowles’ father’s orchard, and moves through many wonderful digressions to conclude with the otherness and wildness of Wistman’s Wood:

fairy-like… teeming, jewel-like, self-involved, rich in secrets just below the threshold of our adult human senses. … all words miss, I know I cannot describe it.

Fowles makes some fairly contentious statements along the way, but the more I turn them over in my mind, the more sense they seem to make. He discusses how the Linnaean system of classifying organisms may have damaged our relationship with nature: the desire to own something, tame it and control it by naming, has deadened us to the thrill of not-knowing, the just-being.

These question-boundaries (where do I file that?) are ours, not of reality. We are led to them, caged by them not only culturally and intellectually, but quite physically, by the restlessness of our eyes and their limited field and acuity of vision.

20160402_110433He describes later in the book the finding of a coveted plant specimen, and realising that he has measured and noted and photographed it, but was so much the collector that he couldn’t really see it. There is a smug pleasure in identifying every tree on a stroll, of course, but Fowles has made me wonder whether we should think less about facts, and more about our relationship with trees. How we respond to nature tells us more about ourselves, then, than it does about nature: all the research in the world won’t change the oak, but your silent contemplation of the tree might just change you. There is a mystery in nature which is, Fowles suggests, particularly significant in trees:

I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.

Likewise, he strongly states that to look for measurable benefits in our relationship with nature is to misunderstand the world around us. It has become ingrained in our society to look for measurable, tangible benefits in everything: what is the financial value of the bumblebee? What is the social significance of dandelions? Such approaches are 20160402_110833becoming necessary as we try to find ways to protect our natural world, but the monetised, jargonistic language used is off-putting. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that trees are good for us, and that time spent in their company has many health benefits, both physical and emotional. Recent research supports this, indicating that mental health can be improved by time spent outside. An article entitled ‘What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis’ in Environmental Science & Technology (2010) argues that:

Ecosystems provide important services driven by provisioning, regulation, and support functions. It is clear they also provide a health service arising from direct activities in contact with nature. Recognition of the potential contribution of natural ecosystems to human population health may contribute to addressing problems associated with inactivity, obesity, mental ill-health, and other chronic diseases.

Evidence shows that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments.

I don’t disagree, exactly, but I find the language of this and many other similar articles anachronistic. Of course, the authors are using the language of those who need to be convinced of the benefits, because if nature isn’t worthwhile to humans, it risks being eradicated (as if we could!) Fowles is well aware of the inability of language – even in the hands of a novelist like himself – to truly describe encounters with nature, but it is the language of utility which seems to destroy something:

To see woods and forests merely scientifically, economically, topographically or aesthetically, not to understand that their greatest utility lies not in the facts derivable from them, or in their timber and fruit, or their landscape charm, or their utility as subject matter for the artist, all this proves the gathering speed with which we are retreating into outer space from all other life on this planet.

20170325_114220_1493756467417_resizedNature is not there for our benefit, nor us for nature: it is a matter of peacefully co-existing and for humans, as sentient beings, to learn from trees – and they have wisdom to impart, as Fowles suggests. What we should do is retreat to the forest, the ‘green chaos’, not in expectation of any personal gain, but for the sake of the trees themselves, and this is something we can only experience individually. Fowles concludes:

It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened world, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality.

Collecting tree stories for the Tree Charter, I’ve seen so many people’s stories of what 20170402_115122_1493756020795_resizedtrees mean to them, and few of them are about classifying, or explicitly about what they ‘expect’ from trees. Rather, people write in their own way about how the beauty of a tree moves them, how trees console them in grief, or entertained them in childhood. Language may be imperfect for describing trees – we have no real arboreal terms of reference – but the experiences mediated through people’s own words are moving and genuine. And we do have a duty to protect trees, I think, from those whose sights are set more on profit than on wilderness, so please consider reading the Tree Charter Principles and signing the Charter.

The Wind & Trees by John Clare

I love the song of tree and wind
How beautiful they sing
The licken on the beach tree rind
E’en beats the flowers of spring

From the southwest sugh sugh it comes
Then whizes round in pleasant hums

It sings the spirit of the storm
The trees with dancing waxes warm
They dance and bow, and dance again
The very trunks, each branch and grain

Shake and dance and wave and bow
In every form no matter how

In every storm they dance on high
The semblance of a stormy sky
Then sob and roar and bend and swee
The semblance of a stormy sea

I love the song of wood and wind
The sobs before its roar behind

I love the stir of flood and tree
‘Tis all of natures melody
I love the roaring of the wind
The calm that follows cheers the mind

‘Tis like the good mans end of peace
When joys begin and troubles cease


Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.


Victoria, the Victorians and us

116365I often have conflicted views about books and TV programmes which deal with real historical figures. There are so many questions surrounding how we react and respond to history, how we filter it through the lens of modern thought, which problematises the narrative. These questions came up quite a lot at the recent British Association for Victorian Studies conference . The topic was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, and many of the papers addressed how we, as consumers – academics, writers, critics, and also readers and viewers – ‘consume’ the nineteenth century. The plenary panel began with this concept, as Professor Valerie Sanders asked why we seem to want to make the Victorians seem more like us. With reference to ‘Victoria’ the new ITV series on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sanders asked us to question whether our approach to popular historical dramas is a help or a hindrance. It’s a good question: no historical retelling is unmediated – there is no such thing as ‘pure’ history, and approaches to the narratives tell us more about us than about them. (For example, Cora Kaplan and G.B. Tennyson both pointed out that the search for hidden sexual innuendo in Christina Rossetti’s poems reflects more on the critic than the poet). This is true of ‘Victoria’, I think. Articles on the series have pointed out that this is an attempt to rehabilitate or recover Victoria from the ‘We are not amused’ image we have of her. Far from being obsessed with covering piano legs with tablecloths (an image passed on to us by Moderns such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, rebelling against their stifling Victorian childhoods), Victoria was a child of the Regency, familiar with vice. This much is true, though her very quiet and isolated childhood implies she was hardly on first-name terms with debauched rakes, but certainly she was more cheerful than popular views have led us to believe (see here for hilarious tales of Victoria).

Television such as ‘Victoria’ is trying to make the dour, older woman of our collective imagination more approachable. The young Victoria is played by Jenna Coleman, young, pretty and well-known; she creates a character who is impulsive, stubborn, fighting with her mother, perhaps slightly drunk on the power she has suddenly been given, falling in love with attractive, unsuitable men (like many teenage girls), and demonstrating a gratifying desire to undermine harsh treatment of the Chartists. Coleman’s hair is also artfully arranged just as the image above left. She looks the part – if prettier – but she is shaped by modern culture. Sanders asked if we like the Victorians more when they seem more like us, and I think that’s the point: for example, Victoria wasn’t that interested in the poor, and not particularly sympathetic to the fate of the Chartists (it was Lord Melbourne whose intervention caused them to be deported rather than executed for treason), but liberal values are important in our society, so the introduction of this element provides an opportunity to show Victoria as relatable. I’m glad the Chartists do feature; they are a significant part of British history, all too often overlooked, though the way in which her dresser brought their fate to her attention, allowing the benevolent monarch to intervene, does have distinct echoes of ‘Downton Abbey’. The introduction of the ‘downstairs’ element has this effect throughout, in fact; I don’t dislike it (in fact I applaud the way in which modern TV and fiction, like academic work, has taken more interest in narratives of working class lives recently) but it does sometimes feel a bit irrelevant or even patronising.


Lord Melbourne

A similar approach is taken in Victoria’s relationships. Personally I doubt she had quite such romantic feelings for Lord Melbourne (who was distinctly less attractive than Rufus Sewell with his magnetic cheekbones), but she certainly didn’t offer him an almost-proposal, and while it makes good TV, it doesn’t reflect history. Does that matter? I rather think it does, but probably only to purists like me. Of course it’s a fictionalised story – it’s TV, it’s entertainment; the ‘truth’, if we could uncover it, would be far less entertaining (and I am entertained by ‘Victoria’). Instead, we are presented with a burden of emotion in every scene, and never allowed to forget that she is both an impulsive young woman, and a queen. I think this is because, as we are so frequently reminded, human nature never changes, so of course the Victorians are like us. This is something of a fallacy: emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Academics are encouraged to find ‘relevance’ (a term I dislike) in everything we do. How do we make the past seem ‘relevant’ to students; how do we find ‘relevance’ in Queen Victoria for TV audiences? One way is to suggest that issues we see on our screens are played out in other contemporary arenas. Valerie Sanders mentioned an article in the Telegraph by Kate Maltby which suggests that, despite rhetoric suggesting Theresa May can be likened to Elizabeth I, in fact she is more akin to a young Victoria:

the surprising brutality of Theresa May’s approach to Team Cameron – sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne – recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series … will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.  Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.

We make the Victorians more like us, then, in order to imply lessons from history; to make the past sexy, if not educational, and also to entertain us. The vast differences between us and them are easily overlooked in the name of entertainment, and perhaps that isn’t too bad, as long as people aren’t simply learning their history lessons from TV. There are, after all, many ways in which the Victorians were like us: they were concerned, albeit in different ways, about the environment, about education, about poverty, health and living conditions; and also about their clothes, their relationships, and more personal aspects. We just can’t assume that this was the same as the way we think about such things, though, and while we might feel closer to the nineteenth century for watching ‘Victoria’, this is an illusion. We need, and enjoy, stories, but narratives constructed for entertainment are just that, not history.

Book review/rant: The End of Absence

Disclaimer: I now realise I’ve written not a book review but a general rant. I enjoyed thinking about it and writing it, though, so I’ll leave it as it is.

imagesI quite often think about how much the internet has changed the world in a relatively short space of time. When I went up to University in 1994, it wasn’t really there; a few people I knew had email addresses during their degree, but mostly we wrote letters (and I have boxes and boxes of them, exchanging often one long letter a week with my closest friends). Research was all done in the library, or quite often by browsing secondhand bookshops on the Charing Cross Road. Phone calls home meant queuing for the one phone box in the halls of residence. One of the big differences between my undergraduate experience and that of my students was that if I wanted to ask my tutor a question, I would leave a polite letter in their pigeonhole and await a summons to their office; this is a world away from firing off a 2am email that begins “hey Serina” [sic]. Sometimes I like to entertain students with stories of how we wrote off for university prospectuses which were delivered, glossy beautiful documents, with a thump through the letterbox. And sometimes I wonder how different my experience might have been if as a 15-year-old I had had access to the internet and discovered that, for example, there were actually other people out there who collected vintage dresses (which wasn’t really a thing in 1991).

Michael Harris’s premise in The End of Absence: Rethinking What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection is that ours (born pre-1980) is the only generation that will ever know what it’s really like both with and without the internet; we are now in a period of adjustment to new technology, as Marshall McLuhan put it, which may last another 50 or more years. My examples above are minor, really; rather, think how childhood has changed, how learning has changed, how easily mass-thinking is disseminated, how access to information has been broadened – though these are the same questions raised by Gutenberg’s printing, when suddenly information and ideas (often bad ones, as well as good) could be distributed more widely. Harris encourages his readers to think about whether the internet is really a benign technology, and there’s no answer to this: on the one hand, I love the idea that everyone now has access to the complete works of Shakespeare (for example); it’s great that I can keep in touch with friends far away through Facebook, that I can share research on twitter and here on my blog; living in a fairly rural location, I love online shopping which means I don’t have to tramp round shops (which I always hated anyway). I can pursue my love of vintage through eBay and vintage clothing blogs. And frankly I’m glad I don’t have to go into the office every day to deal with a mass of handwritten pleading notes in my pigeonhole. But on the other hand…on the other hand, I get a lot more emails than I ever would have got notes, because of the ease of the medium. I waste a lot of time browsing blogs and eBay. And, most of all – and this is Harris’s concern – I never really switch off. I might not check my emails/social media feeds as many times a day as some, but I do do it; I have an inability to not reply to/deal with work emails (and an equal tardiness about replying to personal emails – sorry, friends). Surely my life would be better if I spent more time reading? I have days when all I really do is reply to emails: setting up conferences, organising speakers for events, helping students think about their assignments, these all happen online. Even though I worked in offices before the advent of email, I now find it difficult to imagine how businesses actually ran before. But I also wonder: when did the business of being an academic become primarily conducted in front of a computer screen, rather than in a library with a pile of books?

Harris refers to Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which outlines the way in which the distracting buzziness and connectedness of the internet has changed the way people think and perceive the world (not for the better). I can see the truth of this: Harris points out that we are given easily digestible ‘bitesize’ news, often with a political spin which is tailored for us based on what we have previously read, listened to or viewed (although all I can say is: Spotify, you have no idea what I like). Consequently, our world-view is actually narrower than we think due to this filter bubble: the tailoring removes the things we might not ‘like’, and ‘Personalization – the glorification of your own taste, your own opinion – can be deadly to real learning’ (p.91). And though we are superficially encouraged to celebrate our ‘individuality’ through social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, we are also, perhaps, by using the same apps and the same groupthink, becoming more and more a homogeneous mass. Slow, deep reading of the kind which my discipline of English Literature requires is antithetical to the internet, despite the numerous websites and forums devoted to reading. I find this kind of contradiction difficult to deal with:  conceptually, it’s a good thing, but in practice – well, aren’t we overwhelmed with information? A problem I often encounter is that students struggle to differentiate between different sorts of information and sources on the internet; Wikipedia might be useful to give you facts (though, as I discovered to my cost during my PhD viva, it can be wrong) but it certainly doesn’t provide valuable literary criticism. Chatrooms are full of people with opinions, but most of them shouldn’t be cited in an essay on Tennyson.

There is something nostalgic and backward-looking about Harris’s approach, but I’m absolutely with him. Like me, he is a ‘digital immigrant’ who has embraced the internet and all its foibles, and sees its enormous benefits, but also is aware of its dangers. He is particularly emphatic on the subject of memory, and again this is something that concerns me professionally. As a child, I memorised poetry. I still memorise things; I have a good memory (hence my A for Latin GCSE: 35 pages of set translation memorised). For me, this has been crucial: I entertain myself on bus journeys, or overcome insomnia, by reciting my favourite passages from Shakespeare (silently!), but I also find it incredibly useful when teaching that I can remember ideas, details, passages of poetry. Using memory, we make connections; not the synthesised and often obvious connections that a search engine makes for us, but surprise ones, unexpected resonances, for example, which are crucial to research. Harris points out that the Web is becoming an external or ‘downloaded’ memory function, though: we don’t need to remember things as long as we have search engines. Why memorise a poem when you can find it on your phone? No wonder students find exams increasingly difficult; they don’t need to remember. With the increase of blogging, Facebook etc, we don’t even need to remember our own personal memories; we are constantly reminded of statistically significant moments in our lives (ie those posts which got the most likes). Yet ‘Memorizing something literally informs your mind … You are programming yourself’ (p.158). You are what you internalise.

One of the particular concerns of the book is that we have lost ‘absence’. There is no room, now, for boredom (which can be very valuable): from the endless range of TV channels, to the internet on our phones, we can be always switched on, always entertained. The space once taken up by watching the world go by, by staring at landscapes from train windows, idly thinking, praying, wondering, speculating – there is less room for that now. Harris is determined to make room for it: he forces himself to read War and Peace, and finds that his concentration is indeed – at first – much depleted, but he can, and does, restore it, learning the value of deep reading. This is significant: though modern thinking urges teachers and lecturers to engage with the changing brains and approaches of digital native students, I’m now encouraged to resist this: to try to encourage my students to spend more time away from their web-enabled devices in order to return to a slower but ultimately much more effective way of learning and understanding; the ‘learning’ we do online is often shallow, easily forgotten, and ultimately meaningless (not always, mind, but that is the danger). A life lived online is not ‘authentic’, according to Harris, hence the desire for ‘authenticity’ in other things (a return to crafts such as knitting, brewing beer, etc) because this kind of old-fashioned handiwork presents a stark difference. ‘Real’ life may go on outside the internet, but increasingly it is filtered through the medium of photographs of food on Instagram, experiences related on forums, Facebook status updates. We can create ‘brands’ for ourselves online, expressing our own views democratically, although Harris does point out the plethora of views which the internet offers, and suggests this isn’t a good thing either, in the Communist sense that too much choice and too much information doesn’t make us happy – there is ‘an uncredentialed, ambivalent plenitude of opinion’ – of which this blog is, of course, a part.

I’m not planning to give up my internet connection just yet; I enjoy blogging; I like my online yoga classes; I have Radio 4 podcasts with me at all times, and I couldn’t do my job without email and online research portals. The internet itself isn’t a bad thing, and times are changing along with it; it is literally reshaping our world, and there are a lot of books out there about it: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, The App Generation by Howard Gardner, to name a few, several of which are cited by Harris. There is much to embrace, despite this widespread anxiety, and I’m certainly not being Luddite about it; I just wonder, like Michael Harris, if we might just take a step back sometimes and think about how else we might do things. He cites Bertrand Russell’s comment that ‘the ability to fill leisure time intelligently is the last product of civilization’ (p.195). So I might just go on a bit of a diet: interesting as an evening pursuing a 1940s dress on eBay might be, or absorbing as it is (to me) to browse websites trying to understand problems in modern agricultural methods (I know…), actually, I’d be happier if I read a book, or talked to my husband, or played a game with my son. Perhaps, ultimately, it is about giving 100% attention to whatever we do: not checking phones every time they ping (I’ve turned off the sound), not browsing while we watch a film or texting while we talk. Absence, then, in Harris’s book, is also about presence. We might have gained the world, through internet access, but what have we lost?  The time we spend (waste?) on the internet is time we spend not doing other things; ultimately, it’s about how we value our time.

Book Review: The Trouble with Women

flemingThis is a book which succinctly summarises – and satirises – what everyone who’s studied nineteenth-century history or literature knows: a woman can’t be a genius, because that’s a man’s job, and besides, she’s too hysterical. Women are bound by their biology, with brains too small to think and bodies to weak to work, so it’s no wonder they had to leave everything to men (well, except the light, untaxing work of cleaning, childcare and running a household).

It’s a cliché of teaching nineteenth-century literature and culture that ‘the Woman Question’ is a focal point (and a popular essay topic for students). There is much talk about how women were restricted to ‘the domestic sphere’ (represented by the picture on the cover, left); how they weren’t encouraged to be educated, to write or paint, to have careers or, basically, to do anything that ‘ought’ to be Man’s Work. Of course, one also ends up spending time carefully explaining that not all women were uneducated; that some women could and did write and publish, or paint, or pursue careers, even if they weren’t the norm. Nonetheless, every now and again one comes across something which reminds us just how women were viewed historically, such as Ruskin’s comment in Of Queen’s Gardens:

[Woman’s] intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation.

Ruskin wasn’t unusually sexist, in my view, and was supportive of some women writers and painters; he is expressing a common view here (though he comes in for some flak concerning his wedding night in the book). Famously, Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.’ And it was a common view of doctors that if a woman studied too much, her uterus would shrivel up, and consequently she would become mad and unable to have children (that is, she would be no use at all).


All these ideas are drawn together in the delightful cartoons of Jacky Fleming’s book, and with the combination of the words and pictures these ideas are rendered even dafter than before. As Fleming writes, she was inspired by Darwin’s ‘proof’ that women were intellectually inferior:

His evidence was this: that if you wrote two lists, one of eminent men, and the other of eminent women, the list of men was longer. It’s an experiment you might like to try at home.  It was his contrtrouble_with_women_jacky_fleming_square_peg_01ibution to making gender inequality look normal, and inspired me to write a book in response – exactly what women have been doing for centuries. The body of work referred to as The Woman Question, or if you go back to the Middle Ages the Querelles des Femmes, has a format which often goes like this: a man writes (with wit) about why education is wasted on women who are fickle, lascivious, money-grabbing lightweights incapable of thinking rationally. Then a woman gets very angry, and writes something in response (also with wit). She then gets showered with abuse or ridicule. I didn’t realise, until I’d done a lot of research, that The Trouble with Women fits into such a long tradition.

Such gender questions have a long and troubled history, then, and perhaps not as much as changed as we like to think. By satirising it, though, Fleming is putting misogynistic views in the right place: the butt of jokes. I shared this book with some of my colleagues yesterday and there was much laughter, as well as a few nods of agreement. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to speak for the voiceless women of the past, Fleming slyly suggests that perhaps women weren’t as helpless as history makes them appear, and she invites the reader to think about those women whose lives were confined to a bubble of domesticity, through which they could only watch clever men with large beards pontificate about why women weren’t that bright, really.

I’m exhausted after writing that, so I think I shall have to go and lie down on the chaise longue and weep hysterically for a while now, before recommencing my domestic duties.



In praise of libraries

I’ve always had a very close relationship with libraries. When I was small (probably six or seven) my parents left me in the library, each thinking I was with the other. I was quite happy: the librarians knew me and kept an eye on me, and I sat and read until my horrified parents returned to collect their missing daughter. I still like to make them feel guilty about it, but actually it’s a happy memory: I spent a lot of time in Chesham Library when I was growing up, attending their summer holiday events,and going there every week to pick new books. I was reminded of the excitement the library offered me when I went with my small son to our local library in Bromsgrove last weekend. They have recently moved, and now have more space and a great, colourful children’s area, and it’s a delight for children – even those who can only read a few letters at the moment – to go and choose their own books. His excitement rubbed off on me (and his father), and we all spent some time browsing and choosing our books. Last year Edward did the summer holiday reading scheme, where children have to read 6 books over the holidays, and tell a librarian or volunteer about their favourite book, what happens in it and why they like it. Although I was reading the books to Edward, for img_2528him this was a crucial period, because suddenly the library became a place for him, somewhere meant for children, not a boring place where he trailed round after me.

Of course nowadays there is the internet, so children are less likely to follow up their interests by going to the library and more likely to use a websearch. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for being able to curl up with a book, turning the pages, flicking through it as you find out more about a subject, or following the unfolding of a story – and I don’t think that appeal has gone away even in these days of e-learning. And what a library offers is the opportunity to browse, to consider your options without commitment, and that’s what the excitement is all about. You just never know what you’ll see as you explore the shelves, and consequently I currently have 9 library books on loan from several different libraries (I belong to 15 libraries, but that’s another matter – reading is part of my job!) The books I’ve borrowed include knitting books, poetry, fiction, myth, art and academic books. Although I’m all for buying books to support authors, I wouldn’t have bought any of them – but I might once I’ve read and loved them. And if they’re not what I wanted, I’ll return them none the worse off. So a library really is an invitation to learn something new, for free. The only constraints are how much you can carry home.

A library isn’t just a place to borrow books from, either. Over the last year or so I have
been spending more and more time at the Birmingham Midland Institute library: this is a private library (though very reasonable to join) and is the sort of place you can just hang out, which is what I do most of the time (in fact I’m here so much they’ve put me on a committee). I bring my laptop and read, write, answer emails – all the things I could do elsewhere, but without the usual bmidistractions. The Institute organises events, has a tea-room, and a members room where you can just read the papers over coffee, as well as exhibitions of art in the foyer. I’m currently sitting in the library working before I attend a course on web coding this evening. Last week I came to a theatre production here; in a few months’ time I’ll be giving a lecture on Gothic. This is perhaps the ideal concept of a library: where the arts and sciences and all kinds of learning are brought together and offered to anyone. It encourages the exploration of different ideas, fresh viewpoints, and the opportunity to learn something unexpected, as well as a comfortable place to study, and such a place is valuable.

As the headlines frequently tell us, libraries are under threat. They are having to adapt fast to new technology, threatened by forms of entertainment other than books, trying to suit a very different world from the one for which many libraries were established. Yet all libraries, whether local, public libraries, private institutions or university libraries, all offer the opportunity to explore the world: think of a library as a portal to who knows where. And when you go through the looking glass, you’ll never look back. Emily Dickinson should have the last word here:gladstone2.jpg

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

NB: Other libraries I love: Gladstone’s Library (picture above) – you can stay there! And they have open fires and great cake!

Dr Williams’s Library – lovely place, and I have fond memories of researching 19th century theology there.

The Library of Birmingham – impressive building, which gets better the higher up you go!

The Hive at Worcester – lovely place, child-friendly and helpful staff.

The Morrab Library in Penzance – because some of us can’t help but work even on holiday! Wonderful independent library with comfortable chairs (and not just for academics!)