You know who needs to comment on the role of women? It’s Arnold Bennett! In 1920! Look, obviously nobody is looking for a man’s opinion from nearly a century ago to help with contemporary debate – but I can’t resist this sort of glimpse back into the past. A bit like the Ursula Bloom book I talked about the other day, albeit a different sphere. And so, yes, my relaxing holiday reading started with Arnold B’s chapters on the sex discord. What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?
Bennett proudly labels himself a feminist, which was rather a surprise to me (and a welcome surprise). His definition of ‘feminist’ definitely doesn’t match up to any 21st-century definition, but I daresay none of our definitions will find favour with 22nd-century feminists. We’ll leave some of his more controversial opinions for later…
A positive? He is a big fan of women having jobs. Yes, he does more or less think these should work around their domestic duties, but it’s… something? But he does rail against the current state of things, with women expected never to change their role at all, never earning money and yet having vital places to fill in civilised society. True, his vision of the far future is female pilots (IMAGINE), but he is at least thinking that things could be different from how the world is organised in 1920.
The first chapter is ‘The Perils of Writing about Women’, where he acknowledges potential minefields (and, incidentally, his own complete lack of knowledge of Havelock Ellis). ‘Change in Love’ and ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ follow on next, setting the scene for ways the world may change – and that women should be more appreciated for their contribution to that world. I doubt a 2017 author would throw around ‘slavery’ in the flippant way he does, but he’s doing his best.
Where things get super troubling – and thus, at the same time, super interesting from a reading-for-historical-interest angle – is the chapter ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’. Spoilers: Bennett thinks they are.
Some platitudes must now be uttered. The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (One may be enthusiastic for Jane Austen without putting Pride and Prejudice in the same category with Anna Karenina or The Woodlanders.)
Firstly – who on earth would pick The Woodlanders as their ammunition in favour of Thomas Hardy?? Secondly – this is obviously something I don’t agree with, but when he goes on to ‘can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher’ and so forth, the obvious argument is ‘well, women didn’t get a chance until quite recently’. He tries to rebut this, but pretty unconvincingly… it’s all rather a peculiar position to take, and not very coherently argued, and rather undermines other parts of the book. Still, this all works together to make it an interesting history piece.
At other times, he wrote things that would have been SO useful in my doctoral thesis. It’s a few years too late for me, but I had to highlight this for anybody who might want to write about spinster lit of the 1920s at any point…
I will not attempt to determine at what age an unmarried virgin begins to incur the terrible imputation of spinsterhood; it varies, being dependent on a lot of things, such a colour of hair, litheness of frame, complexion, ankles, chin (the under part), style of talk and of glance. I have spinsters of twenty-five, and young girls of at least forty.
My favourite section of the book is definitely the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is where he stops writing about theories and starts writing fiction – he dramatises the same situation in two chapters, one from the wife’s viewpoint and one from the husband’s. The scenario is pretty simple: an argument about a flower show on the day that their son is coming home from boarding school. I don’t think the scenes are as instructive as Bennett thinks they are, but it shows that he is on much firmer ground – and certainly more fluid and more entertaining – as a writer of fiction than of, well, anything else.
While Bennett’s views are, of course, not today’s – it’s quite impressive that a man in his 50s in 1920, and a man who was very much considered one of the old guard, should even have thought of writing it. And for anybody who wants to know more about the 1920s and issues around gender at the time, this is an interesting (surprising, frustrating, etc.) book. Add it to the list for when you’re feeling particularly able to cope with reading things you don’t agree with, maybe?