Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
Review by Veronica Schwarz
Virginia Woolf once remarked that "very few women have written truthful autobiographies". If you are intend-ing to write an autobiography or the biography of a woman, you will find this book both informative and pro-vocative. Carolyn Heilbrun maintains that writing about a woman (yourself or another) is constrained by tradi-tional views of what it is to be a woman.
Female destiny has, for thousands of years, been defined as putting one’s own desires and quests as secondary to those of a man and/or one’s children. Some women have put God or Christ as the centre of their lives but the results are the same. The woman’s desires are always secondary. For a brief time during courtship, the illu-sion is maintained that the woman is central. This is the part of women’s lives depicted in romance novels and may account for the popularity of those novels among women who no longer enjoy that centrality.
In addition, there are emotions that are condemned when expressed by women. One such emotion is anger. To write one’s expression of anger is quickly labelled "shrill" or "strident". For example, Virginia Woolf’s "Three Guineas" was universally condemned because of its anger, its terrible "tone".
Two other unacceptable areas for women are ambition and power. Both of these preclude putting others’ de-sires and needs ahead of one’s own and are, therefore, unwomanly. When biographers write about the lives of a woman, they have to struggle with presenting her as a womanly woman and presenting the very facts – her desires, her ambition, her talents, her achievements in the public sphere – that make her worth writing about in the first place.
Women writing about themselves have felt constrained to play down their accomplishments, their importance or their ambitions. Women’s presentation of themselves is often muted. It is difficult for women to admit that their successes were not the result of luck or the efforts and generosity of others.
To write the biographies of women whose lives include risk and the desire for individual achievement in the public world, as well as, or in place of marital love and/or children, is a juggling act - to write her as she truly was or to retain her image as a womanly woman, not an eccentric or a monster.
The bulk of society is still quick to condemn the "unnatural" mother or the woman who is childless by choice or the woman who enjoys her career more than domesticity. Women are still valued first for their appearance and their attractiveness to men. Our laws may have changed but many attitudes have not and those attitudes are held by women as well as men. It is often women who are the first to cut down the tall poppy among them. Carolyn Heilbrun’s book challenges us to write women’s lives as the lives of whole human beings with the full range of human potential, desires and emotions. To write the truth unconstrained by tradition.
BOOK REVIEW: In Lonnie’s Shadow
By Meryl Tobin
Set in the early 1890s in Melbourne only a block from the Wheeler Centre, Chrissie Michaels’ Young Adult book, In Lonnie's Shadow, would be of interest to SWWV members and other users of the centre for that reason alone.
Little Lon was the name locals used for the block of slums bordered by Lonsdale, La Trobe, Spring and Exhibition Streets. Chrissie Michaels’ meticulous research and that of her co-researcher and editor, Michael Gaunt, recreates what it was like living there in the 1890s.
The story follows the lives of three teenage friends, Lonnie, Pearl and Daisy, who live in the precinct. Life is hard for the girls with no parents around to support them, and for Lonnie whose father is dead. Managing to survive the hardships of the times is an achievement, even more since the young friends are not ground down by the violence around them.
Lonnie, a stable hand, has to be careful if he is not to be drawn into a world of gangs or into a world of upper class corruption. At a young age, Pearl was forced into prostitution and resides in a house for prostitutes. Daisy is more fortunate and works as a seamstress.
The opening lines introduce readers to a no doubt true to life incident:
Pearl clapped a hand on one ear and rolled over on the iron bedstead. Cruel enough trying to grab some shut-eye with all these nitties chomping ferociously at her crevices and her having to scratch and flick them on their way, now she had to battle with the wails from the room below.
However, the graphic depiction of a brutal abortion which follows could put off some readers, as could other violent incidents dotted throughout the book. Fortunately, all is not as dark as the violence suggests, and the camaraderie of the three main characters and others and less dramatic scenes and incidents from everyday life certainly help leaven the book.
Visiting Museum Victoria’s Little Lon Exhibition, a display of artefacts from archaeological digs in Little Lon, fuelled Chrissie Michaels. Fascination with the area and its history. ―I spent ages there, trying to unravel the stories behind this vanished community.‖ she says. ―Shortly afterwards, I decided to do some historical reading and In Lon-nie’s Shadow began to emerge.‖
Selecting some artifacts and looking under ―the scum on the surface, to see what really goes on,‖ the author set about recreating the historical period and the people who lived in it. As she puts it herself, ―The story’s narrative structure draws upon the artifacts (some real and many imagined). Each chapter title is an object and has some significance to the storyline, either literally or metaphorically.‖
Published by Melbourne publisher, Ford Street Publishing, In Lonnie’s Shadow was launched at the Wheeler Centre at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in May this year. Its RRP is $19.95 and it is readily available at bookshops and online.
For more details about Chrissie Michaels and In Lonnie’s Shadow, go to http://sites.google.com/site/chrissiemichaelsorg. Also do a web search on In Lonnie’s Shadow.
[Note: Chrissie Michaels judged the SWWV Kathryn Purnell Award, 2010.]