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Archive for the tag “feminist literature”

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.

The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.

I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.

I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.

I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was an odd book, and offered a fascinating and vivid alternate history which begged for re-exploration. Happily, Susanna Clarke does exactly that, with The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which contains a few stories most certainly set within the ‘Jonathan Strange’ universe, and a few which may not be. I’ll take a quick look at each individual story.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

The title story of this collection is highly tied into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, featuring the titular characters themselves and actually embellishing upon an incident only obliquely referred to in the main novel. ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ follows the friendship of three young women in Gloucestershire and their dabbling in magic, something considered to be only within the realm of men. Women didn’t really play much of a role in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as Clarke herself stated that to preserve the authenticity of the work women had to be kept in the ‘domestic sphere.’ ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ makes up for this though, with a gloriously feminist tale about women gaining a potent and natural power over men. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the collection.

On Lickerish Hill

This is one of the more forgettable stories of the collection, a variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story, telling the story of a young woman in the 17th century, who is compelled by her husband to spin an impossible amount of flax. She makes a deal with a fairy, who weaves the flax but threatens to take her away if she cannot guess his name after a month. The antiquarian spelling of this work offers some interest, but otherwise there’s not really much else to this story to distinguish it from other fairy tales.

Mrs. Mabb

This was a great improvement over the last story, and follows Venetia Moore, a young women whose fiancé, the dashing Captain Fox, has left her for the mysterious Mrs. Mabb. Venetia investigates this new woman, trying to find the secrets which she conceals. I liked this story a lot; the feminist statements of this collection are usually fairly bold, but here it’s quite subtle. Venetia is frequently characterised by her peers as hysterical, but actually has a better grasp of the situation than those around her.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse

It’s never nice when a story fails to live up to its own name, but that’s what we have here. This story borrows the setting of Wall from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but doesn’t use it in any particularly interesting way. The pompous and arrogant Duke of Wellington angers the proud folk of Wall during a visit and finds that they have let his horse free. The Duke goes forth to find his horse and finds a mysterious woman weaving the tapestry of his fate. I didn’t really understand what this story contributed to the collection; a lot of short story collections have a story like this, a lightweight one which falls in the middle between the more significant entries. It’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Wall, but the setting is completely underutilised.

Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower

This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, told from the diaries of Alessandro Simonelli, a pompous and arrogant cad who’s sent from Cambridge to be the rector of a small village. There he encounters a strange house filled with even stranger inhabitants, and is involuntarily drawn into the mystery of this house, as well as his own lineage. Simonelli is a nasty piece of work, but a lot of fun to read about, with his conceited attitude providing a lot of laughs. There’s an interesting unreliable narrator element here too, and we have to wonder how much Simonelli is twisting events to present himself as a hero.

Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby

This was another story I thoroughly enjoyed; at its core it focuses upon the unlikely friendship between the fairy Tom Brightwind and the Jewish doctor David Montefiore. The relationship and banter between these two is delightful, and more than any other story in the collection I felt that there was a lot more I’d like to see from these characters. Tom and David are journeying to Lincoln, and along the way come to the village of Thoresby, which has fallen on hard times due to a series of misfortunes. Tom decides to intervene, in an unsurprisingly convoluted and bizarre fashion. This story was a lot of fun, and certainly stands as one of my favourites.

Antickes and Frets

Like the earlier story about the Duke of Wellington, the protagonist of this story is a real historical figure, in this case Mary, Queen of Scots. This story tells of her detention by the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her attempts to use dark magic to curse Queen Elizabeth and assist her political plotting. This is definitely a better story than ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse’, but it’s still not really a standout. Mary’s palpable vindictive fury is the highlight of this story, but there isn’t otherwise much else to recommend it.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner

The final story of the collection concerns itself with a figure absolutely key to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Uskglass, the Raven King who ruled Northern England for centuries. This story is presented as a folk tale concerning a time where Uskglass was defeated by a lowly charcoal burner, and an entertaining story it is too. Although written in a much plainer style than the rest o the stories, it has a lot of depth to it, particularly in regard to religion and class. It doesn’t necessarily seem like much at first, but I ended up thinking of this story as one of the most interesting in the collection; more stories about the enigmatic Raven King would be fine with me!


It’s a rare short story collection which is all hits and no misses, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories has its fair share of misses. That said, those misses tend to the shorter stories, so this is definitely a collection worth giving a go, especially if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There’s a lot of fantasy with women in it, but not much about women, so The Ladies of Grace Adieu at least offers something which feels fresh. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Susanna Clarke goes next!logabktitlepgblog

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