Essay

Women Writers and Self-Isolation

By: Sultana Raza

Part 1

Most artists and writers keep their inner space sacred and inviolate. The core from where their creativity springs. Some keep their inner world more private than others. They don’t need a quarantine imposed by the authorities to retreat in their shells in order to weave and spin the web of their creations. While plenty of male writers have suffered from, or prefer isolation, this text will focus on female writers. The de-confinement period can be an advantage for women writers as their extra-curricular activities may have slowed down. Seeking solitude doesn’t make a writer anti-social. Perhaps the quarantine has made it easier for writers to carve out specific periods of time where they can work in blissful solitude. A brief look at past major women writers shows that seeking sequestration is not such a crazy thing to do, after all.

***

For example, though Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) had a portable desk on which she would scratch away with her quill, it was hidden from most visitors to her home. Even if Jane had shared her juvenile writings with her family, when it came to novels, the act of creating them was a private affair. Except for her sister Cassandra, most of her family were unaware of the contents of her novels while she was penning them in a secluded corner of her childhood home at Steventon.

After losing the love of her life, and having subsequently rejected a potential husband because she didn’t care for him (like her most famous character, Elizabeth Bennet) Jane must have experienced not just emotional loneliness, but possibly an intellectual one as well. Though her family were quite well-educated, perhaps she lacked the stimulus that mingling with other writers, in London, for example, might have sparked her bright mind. Except for the fact that there were few women writers in those days, anyway.

There weren’t any other brains around as sharp as hers with whom she could have shared her keen observations on society, even if she’d wanted to. Her main confidante was her sister Cassandra, (who burnt most of Jane’s letters after the latter’s death). Reduced to genteel poverty after her father retired, Jane couldn’t write in Bath in houses that kept getting increasingly smaller, and dingy, as they had to move around a lot. Both Jane and Cassandra had to cope with all attendant problems that come from descending the economic ladder, whilst trying to keep up appearances of social gentility. How many novels were lost in the years when Jane couldn’t find that safe secure unmoving shell where she could retreat in order to produce her warm characters whose brilliant wit continues to delight readers even today?

Though her desk was portable, (gifted by her father), perhaps she needed that still, silent point where she could find her centre, and from where she could start exploring the minutiae and intricate web of her characters, and the complex social rules that they had to follow. Her pen started flying again when her oldest brother Edward finally bestowed a cottage at Chawton to his mother and unmarried sisters, and where they could settle down without having fears of moving yet again due to financial constraints. However, Jane wouldn’t let the hinges of the door to her room be greased, because whenever anyone entered it, the sound alerted her to that fact, and she could quickly hide her manuscript from prying eyes.

Though the (mainly male) literary stars of the day generally ignored her work, Austen’s novels are often compared to those of the Brontë sisters (1816–1855), toiling away at their oeuvres in relative secrecy in Haworth, in the West Riding area of Yorkshire in England.

Though their cooperative ventures in childhood produced the Empire of Angria, and Gondal along with minute maps, sketches and schemes, they grew increasingly apart even in the cramped quarters of the Parish house at Haworth.

***

The eldest Charlotte Brontë was the first to venture in the bold world of publishing, under the pen name of Currer Bell, but her younger sister Emily wanted to keep her identity a secret for as long as she possibly could. The most reclusive one, Emily is the most mysterious one as well. Ironically, she sought seclusion in the open moors near Haworth where she found solace far away from the confines of the tightly-knit, family web with its tangled and complicated emotional life. Her dog, Keeper, was perhaps her closest companion. 

In modern times, perhaps the Brontë sisters would be called word nerds, and social misfits. Aware of the fact that they were different from the ordinary folks surrounding them, possibly they suffered from emotional and increasingly intellectual loneliness as they grew more competitive with age. In Charlotte Brontë’s most well-known novel, Jane Eyre the mad woman in the attic, Bertha Mason could personify one part of the author’s own psyche which could have become increasingly complex after her unrequited love affair with Mr Héger in Brussels (where she taught at his school) ended with bitterness on her part.

***

In her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) speculates as to who this mad woman, Bertha Mason, might have been. As it turns out, Antionette Cosway, a Creole heiress from West Indies (another misfit because of her mixed race genes) was gradually driven into insanity by the excesses of her British husband due to his negligence, cruelty, displacement, and racism towards her. She wasn’t just socially isolated, but physically, emotionally and spiritually as well. Was Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre Charlotte’s shadow double (as a Jungian analyst would have surmised)?

***

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was an extreme case, the epitome of the solitary, but brilliant poet, as she spent nearly the last two decades of her short life as a recluse in her own home. Not only that, but only around eleven of her poems (out of about 1800) were published in her lifetime. Even if women authors weren’t exactly encouraged in those days, she deliberately kept hundreds of poems hidden even from her own family until these gems were discovered after her early death. It’s impossible to know why Emily Dickinson kept her work so secret, though usually artists tend to be much more sensitive than the ordinary (wo)man on the street, and therefore, any kind of criticism can be taken too much to heart. Perhaps her writings didn’t fall on ears that were appreciative enough. Or perhaps writing these poems were an intensely personal experience, which couldn’t be shared by others. Emily would be called a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) now, and perhaps her life and work should be examined by this lens. In fact, all the authors mentioned here were HSPs to varying degrees.

***

Dickinson was already living Virginia Woolf’s famous lines, and concept that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Apart from the feminist slant given to Woolf’s well-known statement, perhaps a woman didn’t need just independence, but also a degree of privacy in which to create. Despite belonging to the Bloomsbury Group, and living a relatively social life, some of Woolf’s inner aloneness may have bled onto the page, and found an echo in Clarissa Dalloway’s inner despondent landscape.

Woolf (1882 – 1941), best known for taking the stream of conscious style of writing to exquisite heights, held onto the idea of keeping a part of her inner core inviolate, as a writer can’t possibly share all her thoughts with the public, or even with those who are close to her. Though she had mental problems, possibly due to dealing with her mother’s death, and childhood trauma (induced by her step-brother), or chemical imbalances, perhaps her bipolar disorder got augmented because of her overly sensitive nature. One sign of her insanity was that she said birds were talking to her in ancient Greek. If only she’d been able to note down whatever it was that they’d said. Existential issues (inherent to the human condition) could have started looming like huge grey clouds. Her increasing emotional and spiritual loneliness, could have pushed her to commit suicide.

***

Unlike the other writers mentioned here, Colette (1873 – 1954) who had an outgoing, and exuberant personality, delighted in swirling through the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris, when her much older husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars or Willy brought her there in 1893.

The couple lived together from 1893 to 1906. Colette had to be literally locked in by her husband, Willy in order to compel her to write texts that he could sell. If anything, this proves that writing tends to be a solitary exercise. Unless a duo or a team is doing the writing, which could be the case for screen-writers for example.

For many years, Willy passed the Claudine novels off as having been written by himself. In the end, he took credit and royalties for these books that Colette had written originally. However, after she left him, due to her straitened circumstances, Colette must have finally learned to resist the temptation of the stage and bright lights, and write, as she produced quite a number of major works, with Cheri and The Last of Cheri being the most well-known.

***

The solitary female has traditionally been stigmatized as being either problematic, or as undesirable. Perhaps that’s the reason female writers struggle with loneliness more. However, the quarantine may have liberated some from the need to socialize to fit better into society.

***

Part 2

Since writers are a part of society, they have to keep a foot in it. However, if they’re going to depict humanity and associated social structures in all their myriad forms in their work, authors have to be somewhat removed from them. Not just in order to be able to observe society, but also to comment on it via their creative endeavours. So, is the unconscious act of self-isolation a necessary part of the creative process? Not to mention that not many ‘normal’ people have trouble understanding writers and artists, and where they’re coming from in the first place. These kinds of solitary activities may even arouse some sort of suspicion in their entourage.

***

Was Agatha Christie’s (1890 – 1976) need for privacy so great that on 26 August she disappeared for about ten days, leading to a nationwide hunt, and furore in the press. Perhaps Christie wasn’t expecting that. But she didn’t step forward. Instead, she was discovered at a hotel in Harrogate. Perhaps she was growing so lonely in her marriage due to her husband’s affair that she preferred to run away. It’s not clear whether it was to punish him, take some personal time off, or if she’d staged her own disappearance to humiliate her spouse, or for publicity, or if she’d genuinely lost her memory. In any case, sequestration was preferable for her at that period of her life. She then took refuge in her sister’s house, and early next year went to the Canary Isles to recuperate. She’d find fodder for her books during her travels in subsequent years. She would remain single till 1930, when she met her second husband.

***

Known for being reclusive and even frosty Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989), was supposedly quite cold towards her two daughters, but warmer towards her son. Perhaps her complicated relationships, which may have led to a double life, and accusations of plagiarisms may not have been conducive to being gregarious. Given the balancing act that her emotional and professional lives may have been, du Maurier must have preferred that some equations of her life remain unsolved like the character of Rachel in My Cousin Rachel.

***

Though PL Travers (1899-1966) maintained she didn’t know how Mary Poppins had popped onto her pages, at least she knew where these stories had evolved. In 1934, since she was suffering from pleurisy, she retreated to a cottage in Sussex to recover. Since she started making up a story to entertain two visiting children during this period of semi-confinement, she ended up with the first book of Mary Poppins. For most of her life, PL Travers kept her personal life under wraps, as in her youth, many of her acquaintances in London didn’t even know she was Australian. Though she adopted a son, Camillus Hone, at age forty, that relationship didn’t go well. Was her solitude alleviated somewhat because of this relationship? While only PL Travers might know the answer to that question, she drew a lot of flak for her adopted son’s subsequent problems with alcoholism.

The TV documentary, The Secret Life of Mary Poppins: A Culture Show Special touches upon her turbulent relationship with Camillus. On the one hand, she’s been justifiably criticized for not telling him that he had a twin brother, until he found it out when his twin tracked him down. On the other hand, the Hone family has not been held responsible for allowing her to adopt just one twin, and for leaving Camillus in her supposedly incompetent hands, despite his many problems. Just because she wrote about a magical nanny, Mary Poppins, does that mean she should’ve had those excellent child-rearing skills herself? For example, Jane Austen may have created Darcy, but she hasn’t been identified with her male characters. Writing can be exhausting and draining for some writers, as it can be an emotionally demanding, and soul-searching activity. It leaves little room for a ‘normal’ family life. While most male writers can conveniently leave the rearing of their off-springs to their spouses, or other female relatives, women writers are held more accountable for how they bring up their children. Which is not an easy job at the best of times.

***

Perhaps one of the most notorious, suicides is one of Sylvia Plath’s at the age of 31. Plath’s (1932 – 1963) inner malaise and sense of alienation is well-documented in The Bell Jar. But these feelings didn’t evaporate simply because they’d been pinned down on paper by the painful nib of past hurts. Her emotional turmoil only increased after her marriage to the attention-seeking Ted Hughes. Plath had always felt like an outsider. Was she an intellectually inclined model, or an air-head type dancing wildly at Oxford parties where she met Hughes for the first time? He married her, then expected her to type up his poems, and to send them off, which she did like a prim and proper wife, since he supposed his own were much more important (for a world impatiently waiting for them) than hers could ever be. But then he dumped her in the quiet countryside, expecting her to docilely bring up their brood, while he went prancing in pursuit of several women at a time.

Was he isolating her not just physically, socially, intellectually, but also emotionally as well. However, she did manage to get herself along with the kids till London at least. But taking care of them all alone, doing all the household chores, and trying to break into the market proved to be too much for her, as she was already suffering from mental disorders. Most of the successful writers tended to be male, and didn’t have to do these boring domestic tasks, or they were well off, and could afford help at home. However, with so many poems wriggling to be born, or pushing up like mushrooms out of the fertile soil of her imagination, she must have felt very frustrated at having to devote so much of her time on tasks that could have been done by others, had she received any help from anyone. Polishing her poems, typing them up, and sending them off by mail must have consumed a lot of her time. Getting up very early to devote herself to her writing, with all the responsibility of raising two small children all on her own soon began to take its toll.

Perhaps she should have gone back across the pond, where she might have gotten some sort of family support. However, her special brand of mental illness may have lit up portions of her brain so that she produced incandescent poetry, but it didn’t help her out with practical matters such as living and surviving in a cold, alien place as a foreign woman who had bagged an extrovert young poet, and then been shunned by him.

Did she feel emotionally betrayed, and also intellectually trod upon by her vain partner who didn’t consider her poetic output to be on the same par as his own? Her death was as much a statement, as it was an act. Perhaps she was saying she couldn’t cope with being left as a single mum of two small children, because she wasn’t an ordinary woman? Or that she couldn’t live, if she didn’t have the wherewithal and the personal freedom and space to write her own words. Here are your children. Why don’t you take care of them instead? But of course, in those days, children were fended off to the nearest available female relative, so Ted didn’t actually take care of them. He had other happier, and more interesting pursuits to follow.

Possibly Sylvia may have survived in her battle with mental illness for a longer time if she hadn’t been handed all the emotional baggage by her family, which got exacerbated with her husband’s careless behaviour, involving literal social distancing, neglect, and emotional abuse. The suicide of Ted’s second wife, Assia Wevill (along with her daughter) in exactly the same way as Sylvia, further raised questions about his behaviour towards them.

Perhaps Sylvia wanted to create a life as perfect as her poems, but had to cut it short when it became clear it would be far from perfect. She didn’t have the strength of mind to plod onto the next stanza, which could have been a fresh beginning, as the world changed a lot in the sixties.

***

Conclusion

On the one hand, since it is done by just one person, the act of writing is necessarily a solitary one. On the other, if the artist is to portray, or critique, or comment on a society through their work, they would necessarily have to move away from it, in order to observe the main social phenomena of their era in order to recreate a version of it in their texts. Therefore, a State imposed quarantine just gives more space and time for authors to indulge in their favourite work. Some of us prefer to live in seclusion, or tend to lead semi-quarantined lives anyway.

However, according to Barbara Sher (1935-2020), author of Refuse to Choose, ‘isolation is the dream-killer, not your attitude.’ So it’s a question of creating a balancing act in order to succeed as a writer. Though many extrovert writers do well in their lifetimes as they are good at net-working, and building up their images, it’s the quality of the work that ensures it long shelf-life. Though Robert Lowell was considered to be a more serious poet than Elizabeth Bishop, her reputation has outsoared his after their deaths. Another famous example is that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

***

The quarantine can be a blessing in disguise for many artists, as it’s given them additional time to create, write, edit, or to submit their works for publication. Yet, it’s difficult to keep one’s sanity through the many uncertainties that have arisen due to the pandemic and the recent race riots in the US. At the same time, every major change in the social, economic, and political climate can provide fuel for the writer’s engine, which they have to crank themselves to keep it up and running.

-The End-

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Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s creative non-fiction has appeared in countercurrents.org, Litro, impspired, pendemic.ie, Gnarled Oak, Kashmir Times, and A Beautiful Space. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien & GRR Martin) in international conferences.

Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Columbia Journal, and The New Verse News, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, spillwords, Poetry24, Dissident Voice, and The Peacock Journal. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review (USA), and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, apertura, Entropy, and  ensemble (in French). She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the US, and at CoNZealand,

Categories: Essay, Non-Fiction

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