Monday, March 22, 2010
What Have Women Done?

Does it follow then that feminine genius of the secular order is also traced back to this source, i.e. the drive of passion, rather than action? What of Diotima, Sappho, Scheherazade, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Marie Curie, Isabella of Castile, Maria Theresa of Austria, Maria Spartali Stillman, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Annie Oakley? Are these women simply freaks of nature, and were their aspirations nearly crushed in the face of omnipresent, masculine chauvinism?

It may not establish a universal to analyze such a small field of particulars, but the pool of feminine genius does not afford many examples, and even less of the earth-shattering sort. There is no female equivalent to Beethoven in the musical order, nor to Dante in the poetic, nor to Plato in the philosophical. The ancient pedant may argue that Diotima, even though she instilled the heart of Socrates’s metaphysics in his soul, was still the inferior in reason to the Gadfly of Athens.

The poetess, Sappho, is not likely to be confessed the equal of Homer. The other authors—Miss Jane Austen, Mrs. Gaskell, and Maud (listed as they would have preferred to be addressed)—have been counted amongst the greatest prose writers in English history, yet it is often joked that a character from Dostoevsky’s novels, if placed in a work of Jane Austen, would cause the book to explode. Female critics have occasionally complained that many novels by Mrs. Gaskell tend to be sparse, as she wrote on a productive time table (though I still consider her threadbare works superior to many of Dickens’s fully worked tapestries), and Lucy Maud Montgomery herself said through her heroine Anne (to whom it had been suggested by the character’s husband to undertake the biography of a sea captain):

…I only wish I could. But it's not in the power of my gift. You know what my forte is, Gilbert--the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty. To write Captain Jim's life-book as it should be written one should be a master of vigorous yet subtle style, a keen psychologist, a born humorist and a born tragedian. A rare combination of gifts is needed. Paul might do it if he were older…. (Anne’s House of Dreams, Chapter XVII- A Four Winds Winter)

Many might argue that the above quotation is far from a denunciation of what Maud saw as a woman’s ability to write. After all, she is talking about Anne, not herself. Everyone who knows L. M. Montgomery also knows that it is Emily of New Moon that serves as her twin in the fictional realm and chief representative. In the realm of the psychological, the sweet, impulsive Anne is a blossom of spring. Emily is the ripened pomegranate, and merits the most intense scrutiny to decipher the psychology behind Maud’s inspiration.

Emily was not called to write any particular story. She continued to write even after the devastating loss of her first great tale. There was no incident in history, no archetype in the back of her mind, and no hero or heroine whom she sought to memorialize in her works. Her sagely tutor, Mr. Carpenter, saw in her one who would give voice to the Canadian spirit. Emily herself saw her works as an attempt to describe her personal relationship with Beauty. I again, present, as I have in the past, this quotation penned directly from the author:

It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, that, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it, and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse, but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile. (The Alpine Path)

Just as Diotima spoke to Socrates of love, so have the female champions of literature focused on the desires of the heart. Whether romantic, filial, religious, political, or even philosophical, has there yet been a female writer whose strength was not in the intimate interchanges between the characters? One thrills in Austen’s novels at the news of a coming ball; this scene of intense social intercourse is bound to ignite something incredible! When calling hours have commenced in the works of Gaskell, the anticipated arrival of a visitor lends ineffable romance to the chiming of the clock. The wild elfin Montgomery refuses to be pinned down; her exciting collisions with kindred spirits can happen anywhere at anytime, provided that the surroundings are beautiful. An enchanting, broken down graveyard, a pristine beach, a secretive grove, and one may very well encounter another member of the ‘race of Joseph.’

What these women did in words, so have female painters done with pictures. The lush portraits of Maria Spartali Stillman, and the other Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, were all keenly intimate, as were the illuminated manuscripts of medieval nuns and aristocratic women. The works that stand out from the Renaissance and the Baroque are those of enclosed portraits and still lifes. Even Elizabeth Butler’s dynamic paintings of war do not extend beyond the width of fifteen men abreast. And in Scotland Forever, I think one remembers more than anything the expressions of the charging horses, the turned of the head in the lead rider, calling or singing out to his men to follow, and the two cavalrymen to his right—one with his mouth howling the war cry and the other with his teeth set to the task forthcoming.

As to Isabella of Castile, Maria Theresa of Austria, and others—well, why are they not praised as highly by women of the Left as Elizabeth I and others? Is it due to the moral accusations raised against them? Hardly. Those issues are hardly resolved, and if Maria Theresa was a conqueror of Poland, then Elizabeth was the murderess of Ireland.

It is more likely that the ‘progressive’ minded thinkers resent the way these women came into power. Not grasping, conniving, or scheming, but by accepting. As G. K. Chesterton observed, there is a world of difference between the ‘public’ woman and the ‘political’ woman. Isabella would not have chained herself to a fence post for the sake of a vote. She refused the Archbishop Carillo’s urges to revolt against her imbecile half-brother, but said that she must respect the position of her brother’s crown, if her own monarchical rights were to be honoured.

Maria Theresa did not win over her noblemen with a rousing Crispin’s Day Speech or with the adamant logic of a Roman statesman. It must raise the blush and ire of many a third wave feminist to read how she secured her power:

Making her way to her old capital, she summoned the Hungarians to a great meeting in the castle. It was September 11, 1741, a day ever remembered in the annals of Hungary. The great hall was already full when the young queen entered. She was in deep mourning, for it was not yet a year since her father had died. Her dress was Hungarian, the iron crown was on her head, the sword of state in her hand. Though her step was firm, her tears were falling fast, and for some time after she had ascended the throne she was unable to speak…

…Maria Theresa had now recovered herself. On a cushion before her lay her baby son Joseph, afterwards Emperor of Austria. The queen now took him in her arms. She held him up to the assembly before her. Her face, still wet with tears, was "beautiful as the moon riding among wet, stormy clouds." She spoke in Latin, the official language of Hungary to this day.

"The kingdom of Hungary, our person, our children, our crowns, are at stake," she cried to them amidst her sobs.

"Forsaken by all, we seek shelter only in the tried fidelity, the arms, the well-known valour of the Hungarians."

The beauty and distress of their unhappy queen roused every Hungarian to the wildest enthusiasm. Each man drew his sword, and all cried as with one voice, which re-echoed through the lofty hall, "Our lives, our blood for your Majesty! We will die for our king, Maria Theresa!"

The young queen burst into tears.

"We wept too," said one of the nobles present; "but they were tears of pity, admiration, and fury." (M. B. Synge, The Awakening of Europe)

Yes, that is right. One of the most dynamic queens in history saved her realm by appearing before her nobles with a babe in arms and weeping profusely. Feminine genius turns its head, and another aspect is now introduced: the greatness a woman can elicit in a man.


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Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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