Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

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Read 17/07/2019-02/08/2019

Rating 3 stars

Read as part of the 20 Books of Summer readathon.

I accidentally started Women in Translation month early with this collection of short stories. I should have known that Angela Carter would include a few women whose first language isn’t English. After all, being a woman who doesn’t conform to the artificial notion of femininity isn’t an exclusively Anglophone thing.

Carter introduces her selections as being about women who aren’t really wicked or wayward, at least not all of them. They are only defined as such by the unequal application of a moral code that suggests men who are self-assured and ruthless in their pursuit of their life goals are bold and strong. If women behave in the same way, they are manipulative and predatory. Among other things. The collection attempts to provide a different angle, with stories that exhort women to refuse to be limited by society’s expectations and taboos.

The compendium was published in 1986. I would have been somewhere between 15 and 16 years old at the time. Around then, my mum started to encourage me to read more empowering literature, starting with another Angela Carter edited anthology, The Virago Book of Modern Fairy Tales. Wayward Girls and Wicked Women is very much of the same ilk.

Many of the stories deal with a woman’s position in society, including that weird social construct that is femininity and our treatment at the hands of men that results from the weird social construct that is masculinity. Women are trammelled by what society expects of them and their frustrations boil over in sometimes inventive, sometimes tragic ways. Most of the stories are from the first half of the twentieth century and, while a lot has changed for the better in terms of societal equality, the domestic sexual politics are all too familiar. There’s a story about a woman who marries to secure the future of her child and ends up being diminished by her husband’s attitude towards her and one about the inhabitants of an Egyptian village rising up against the blessing of a holy man that threatens to bring more children into a place already struggling to feed its population, the expectation being that the blessed woman will be happy to have more children.

Although set in Australia, the opening story, The Last Crop by Elizabeth Jolley, reminded me of the Southern Gothic writing of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. It’s a story grounded in place and talks as much about how landscape and built environment can change how a person feels about themselves and the world as it does about how women survive when they are raising a family on their own. The mother finds inventive ways to give her children and her neighbours the joy that she feels their lives are lacking because of their economic situation.

In an extract from The Gloria Stories, Rocky Gámez explores transgender politics in a way that, although humorous, seems old fashioned now. Written in the early 1980s, the tale selected for this anthology would have been groundbreaking at the time, as evidenced internally by the reaction of the nurse who reads aloud Gloria’s letter to the narrator. It’s a letter that details Gloria’s life as a butch lesbian, living as a man in her relationship with her ‘wife’ Rosita. Despite the continued opposition to equality for Trans people that is littered across social media, it feels like we’ve made progress over the last four decades in accepting that the socially normalised concept of womanhood isn’t the truth for everyone.

The eponymous story of Life, a young Botswanan woman forced to leave her comfortable life in Johannesburg and return to her home village following Botswana’s independence from South Africa, is an example of the double standards applied to men and women. Life lives up to her name. She is full of energy, in control of how she lives her life, independent and resourceful, but she is described as hysterical and out of kilter with the village’s social structure. She makes her living from prostitution. It isn’t her promiscuity that unsettles the village. Promiscuity is a part of everyday life. It’s the fact that Life expects payment and the men of the village comply that shocks the rest of the community. It’s fine for men to leech off women financially in exchange for sex, and it’s fine for men to be unfaithful, but Life’s independent way of living on similar terms to the men has serious consequences.

The story by Colette was by far my favourite in the entire collection. It was my first encounter with her writing and left me wanting to read more. An older woman becomes intrigued by a young wife who is living in the narrator’s old apartment. The young wife has separated from her husband and the narrator, remembering her own unhappy love affair that led her to hide away in the same apartment, tries to understand this sulky adolescent in relation to herself. Of course, she can’t, because the young woman is a completely different creature to her, of a different generation. It’s elegantly written and a beautiful example of the short story form.

Ama Ata Aidoo’s story about a Ghanaian student living and working in Europe was the most interesting to read. Structurally, it moves from narrative prose to modern poetry to tell the story of white European attitudes towards immigrants from post-colonial nations. The student, Sissie, bites her tongue in the prose sections so hard that it was occasionally painful to read, and reveals the truth of her feelings in the poetic interludes.

Oke of Okehampton was another favourite. It’s a story about a mismatched couple, the bored wife finding perverse amusement in tormenting her plodding husband. Told from the perspective of an artist commissioned to paint the couple’s portraits, it has a similar supernatural bent to the stories of Wilkie Collins. In fact, as I read it, I thought it could have been written by Collins, which made me reflect on how Collins is the better known author and Vernon Lee, the author of this tale, had to hide her gender behind a male pseudonym. It’s a long story that ambles along and then builds the suspense up to the end. It’s an ending that made me gasp out loud.

Carter included one of her own stories in the anthology, about a puppeteer and his relationship with the puppet whose story he brings to life each night. The story has shades of Pygmalion about it, although the animated marionette is less benign than the statue in Ovid’s telling of the Cypriot myth. This is only the third work by Carter that I’ve read. The first was The Magic Toyshop, which also considers the relationship between a puppeteer and his creations in an even more worrying way.

I haven’t felt much impetus for reading during July and it felt as though this anthology dragged in parts. Not all of Carter’s choices hooked me in. I usually enjoy short stories and I can’t quite work out why this was such a patchy collection for me. It was easy to dip in and out of, though, and would make a good beach read.

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