By Ellie Scorah
I always knew the patriarchy existed. And it’s no massive revelation to point out that the literary canon is ‘pale, male, and stale’. But the real revelation came in my first year at Durham when I noticed the female protagonists in our ‘Introduction to Drama’ module all went mad. Hedda Gabler shoots herself. Mary Tyrone is a morphine addict. Harper Pitt gnaws down a tree. She literally eats a tree.
Why does this matter though? Why can’t we just attack the canon with some Judith Butler and kick-ass feminist literary theory? We all know it’s problematic. History is problematic. We just have to read between the lines; take things with a pinch of salt. But when a module that is supposed to be an accurate representation, an ‘introduction’, to a literary genre tells a predominantly female student body that they have to be ‘mad’ to be interesting, surely something is wrong?
I actually happened to really enjoy that module and I don’t think studying any of these texts is wrong. We can’t rewrite history. And I don’t have any ambitions of resurrecting Henrik Ibsen and requesting that Hedda turns the gun around and shoots the patriarchy instead. I am an English literature student: I expect gender issues and I analyse them to death. What I worry about is teenage me. Or rather any teenager, like me, that learns a good proportion of life experience from the library.
I worry for the fourteen year old that reads Jane Eyre and idolises Rochester; for the girl that picks up Pride and Prejudice and dreams for a Darcy. Aware of the contexts and literary debate surrounding such novels, armed with a copy of Madwoman in the Attic, these texts are fruitful, meaningful insights into womanhood in the nineteenth century. Picked from a library shelf by impressionable teenagers, they are problematic.
Yet Jane Eyre has, for a long time, been my go-to favourite book, and I cannot imagine my teenage years without it. It is about self-discovery, about staying true to yourself, about education and growing up. And it is no more damaging than a Hollywood rom-com oozing with unattainable beauty standards. Or a modern young adult novel like Twilight, in which a girl’s life doesn’t really start until a really quite dangerous male vampire falls in love with her. Perhaps in picking my fight with literature, I am failing to recognise that I am taking on the whole of culture.
But literature is where we expect standards. As teenagers, we felt intelligent (if quite a bit nerdy) clutching our copy of The Great Gatsby instead of collapsing in front of the TV. We expected to learn something. We didn’t turn off – we absorbed.
There are, of course, plenty of strong female role models in classic literature, and these were in the books I gravitated towards. I enjoyed the Jane Eyres and the Jo Marches. I liked how they stood out as something different, something I could identify with. I also wasn’t stupid. I knew these books were set in different periods, when it meant something different to be a woman. It was from them that I learnt about being unafraid to resist the expectations of society. But they are resisting a nineteenth century world and are limited within it. I am a young 21st century woman and literature hasn’t taught me anything about what that means.
If I weren’t studying English and stuck firmly within the canon, I might have explored more contemporary fiction by now. I might have found strong female heroines in a 21st century context and men that didn’t just want to marry soft, voiceless, feminine beauty, but then again, I might not. If I didn’t encounter them in my teenage years, unencumbered by reading lists, then what does it say about their visibility? Why didn’t I actively seek out something different then?
Literature is an art form obviously behind the times, in which we continually revisit the older, revered texts, imposing modern viewpoints, but perpetuating their importance. In a subject for which university courses are filled by women, women who will spend their formative years seeking out books to prepare them for university, something must be done to prevent the over-consumption of literature whose ideals are only going to lead to an obscured world-view.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is. We cannot reissue Jane Eyre emblazoned with the warning ‘Danger: Contains overtones of patriarchy’, but we can increase the visibility of contemporary novels about strong healthy women who don’t gnaw down trees. We can recommend them to younger siblings, we can buy them ourselves, and we can admire healthy debate created by online communities such as ‘BookTube’.
I’m not asking that we tear down the canon. I just wish I hadn’t read so much of it.
Photograph: Transformer18 via Flickr