Thursday, December 20, 2007

Canons II: How Do You Know That They're Loaded?

Continuing from the last post, why had no one heard of Susanna Centlivre when she was in regular repertory throughout the 19th C in England? When David Garrick had given his farewell performance in one of her plays? When she was known (until that time) as the second woman of the English stage?

This point, for those of you who have just tuned in, is certainly arcane. But it is a good example of the ways in which canons are constructed.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf did women writers a great service by writing A Room of One's Own. In it, she created a space that has been broadened yearly for women to be recognized as artists equal to their male equivalents.

Women, Woolf says, require the same independence as men in order to create high art. How can anyone (man or woman) create anything of note if their time is divided among changing diapers and cooking meals -- without peace, quiet, and solitude to think?

All anyone needs, Woolf says, is 50 pounds and a room of one's own.

Not So Fast

If this were all, I'd be right behind Mme. Woolf. However, there is another requirement for women's art to rate. It must be transcendent.

Transcendence in Woolf's terms are really that of TS Eliot -- no everyday sorts of activities unless they are rendered symbolic in some way. That leaves 99% of women in history out of the ball game. Their lives were made up entirely of quotidien responsibilities, behaviors, and results.

In short, "transcendence" is gendered masculine here -- only those with particular educations and public lives could write about life outside the home.

An Example

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a 17thC noblewoman, lived as public a life as was possible at that time. Only Aphra Behn, Restoration playwright and spy for Charles II, had a broader life. However, Behn's life made her notorious and Cavendish remained in society, even if she was considered a bit eccentric for her intellectual pursuits and writing.

Cavendish visited the Royal Society and saw Boyle do his experiments, and she made attempts at philosophy and poetry. However, her crowning achievement was a volume of 20 plays that are more modern than anything before the 20th century.

Cavendish's vision doesn't suit Woolf's. In fact, Woolf dismisses her in A Room of One's Own as the Mad Woman in the Attic.

In this way, Woolf buried Cavendish and her work for 4 and a half centuries. I wrote about her (and many other literary types who also saw the Virago volume) because she belongs in the history of remarkable women writers.

Soon, she'll be back in the canon. Officially. When a book comes out called The Great Book of Women Writers Through History or The Norton Reader of Women Writers -- or another such explicitly authoritative sort of name.

Well, people will say, it's in the book, so it must be true.

That's how canon's are fired.

And there's an even a more explicit example in the next post.

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