Where dangerous women swim

Victoria Leslie’s debut novel, Bodies of Water, which focuses on water and femininity, is due out from Salt Publishing later this year. Her short story collection, Skein and Bone was published last year by Undertow Books and her stories have also appeared in a range of publications, including Black Static, Interzone and Shadows and Tall Trees, as well as in a range of ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. In 2013, she won the International Lightship First Chapter Prize and was recently a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award in the category of novelette. Victoria is currently working on her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester.

Women and Fiction

“When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant,” so begins Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, Cambridge.

Woolf considers the idea that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, her path to literary success would have been barred on account of her gender. Historically, women were denied the same access to education as men and were unable to support themselves independently. Had Shakespeare’s imaginary sister somehow managed to overcome these hurdles, she would then have had to contend with getting her voice heard. Society was not receptive to women participating in this male-dominated field and from the early instances of women writing, we can see a complex array of devices and justifications used to validate the female voice. From professing to be the vehicle of God, apologising on behalf on the entire female sex for Eve’s transgression, to relinquishing authorship entirely and adopting male pseudonyms, women writers have had to negotiate their right to speak.

When Woolf wrote, A Room of One’s Own in 1929, times were changing. Nine years previous, women in England had been given the vote and education and employment opportunities were opening up. Yet the anecdotal instances given in the process of writing the lectures, of being turned away first from the grass (the place for Fellows and Scholars) and then from the library (for lack of a male escort) reveal that the path to intellectual freedom was still, very literally, off limits for women. It is by the river where Woolf eventually settles to contemplate the weighty matter of “women and fiction” and it is the water that is of particularly interest to me, as a metaphorical space for female creative and intellectual autonomy.

Women and Water

The water has always been associated with the feminine. It is life-giving and nurturing, as Simon Schama puts it in Landscape and Memory, reminiscent of, “our first watery experience in the womb”. In folklore and myth it is a space predominantly inhabited by female creatures, like sirens, nymphs and mermaids. While many early stories speak of these entities as benevolent creatures, transferring water to the land, the enduring image, across many cultures, is of water women intent on luring unwitting victims to their doom. From hideous hags to beautiful enchantresses, these dangerous women mean harm for those who venture too close to the edge.

It’s a dangerous woman of a different kind that is drawn to the water in nineteenth century literature, a period that contributed considerably to changes in gender politics, that filtered into Woolf’s lifetime. Characters such as Dahlia in George Meredith’s Rhoda Fleming, Eustacia Vye in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening are similar in that they either drown or contemplate drowning as the result of being compromised by men. The term ‘fallen woman’ came to denote a woman who had strayed from respectable society, a woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage. Of the characters listed above, most had ‘fallen’ or were on the verge, demonstrating a real concern of the times with ideas about female virtue. The sad fact was that a watery grave awaited many women in the real world who found themselves similarly compromised, as can be seen from the number of women who were pulled from the Thames in this period. A woman who overstepped moral boundaries was the most dangerous kind of woman, one who deserved to be cast adrift by society.

Against the current

The water then, is the haunt for dangerous women, from those with dangerous intentions to those considered dangerous by society. But what defines their perilous nature is inextricably linked to their sexuality. The mythical water woman in her many guises represents unbridled sexuality, desiring to lure and seduce men with unnatural powers of enchantment. This figure is wild and untamed and became a popular subject in nineteenth century art and literature, arguably as a response to the constricting and stifling notion of, what was then, the feminine ideal, the virtuous and domestic ‘angel in the house’. Likewise, the fallen woman with her possession of sexual knowledge (whether she gained such knowledge willingly or not) was a departure from this feminine paradigm and therefore a threat to the status quo. Having forfeited her place within the Victorian home and as a member of respectable society, she had nowhere else to go, save for the workhouse or the streets. The water, with its symbolic capacity to wash away sin, had its obvious appeal.

Water Babies

Though only a generation later, attitudes concerning female sexuality were changing. In her short story ‘A Society’ Woolf demonstrates, in humorous simplicity, the age-old state of affairs concerning gender roles. While women are burdened with the task of childbirth, men are in charge of enlightening and cultivating the world:

While we have borne children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilised it. But now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results?

The more the group of female protagonists discover of man’s accomplishments, the more they find them wanting. They decide to set up a society governed on the principle that, “the task of life is to produce good books and good people” and until they are able to bow down to man’s intellectual superiority, they will not bear a single child.

Of course, the inevitable happens when one of the Society’s members, Castalia, returns from Oxbridge, pregnant. The Society has to decide whether they will spurn her from the group for being unchaste (as a patriarchal society would) or, as one member suggests, make her their President – with the caveat that from now on, only unchaste women will be admitted into the Society. This marks a real contrast to the situation of the nineteenth century fallen woman, who would have been shamed and ostracized for her condition, not held in high esteem. The idea that chastity keeps women ignorant, that sexual experience promotes knowledge is at the heart of the debate. Wisely the group decide that polarising women into these two categories is unhelpful. “It is unfair to brand women with chastity as with unchastity” one member declares, drawing attention to the fact that the prevailing ideology of women being either virgins or whores is no longer adequate. Embodying this conflict is Castalia herself, whose name ironically means ‘fountain of purity’. Woolf’s message seems to be that femininity cannot be limited to these two extremes, a woman’s purpose not reduced merely to her sexual function. In discarding such categories, women are free to swim into new currents.

Water Mothers

In creating an all-female society, Woolf provides a figurative space to consider the patriarchal structures that exist around us. The need for a feminine space, away from the world of men can be seen in one of Woolf’s letters, detailing her preference for female company: “Men are all in the light always: with women you swim at once into the silent dusk.” While men take the limelight, women converge in the “dusk”, which like the water has liminal associations. The word “swim” similarly generates water connotations and draws us back to the feminine water worlds of myth and folklore.

For me, the water is a symbolic space to rival the manmade ones that have governed society for centuries, a space that accommodates the kind of femininity that couldn’t exist in the real world. When we think back to the abundance of witch trials in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (about the same time Shakespeare’s imaginary sister would have found herself thwarted at every turn) it was water that determined innocence or guilt. Women who were old or deformed, who knew too much or spoke up too much, were branded dangerous women because they were different. Only if they drowned were they seen as innocent of sin.

Perhaps it was all those echoes that resounded off the water as Woolf sat on the banks to consider the history of women’s writing. For, “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers” and the history of our mothers is loud with oppression, subjugation and violence. Perhaps Woolf felt the weight of this water, even before she took her own life wading out into the River Ouse. One of the last fragments she wrote before her death was of “The woman who lives in this room” who “inhabits a fluctuating water world…constantly tossed up and down like a piece of sea weed.” The water in this piece hints at a lack of control, of being caught in too strong a current. Though impossible to know Woolf’s intentions or state of mind, it seems to me symptomatic of the position of women throughout the ages, of the continuous struggle against the flow of history.

It is in Woolf’s fiction that she provides us with hope. In ‘A Society’, having inherited the lessons of her mothers, the task of leading the society of the future falls to Castalia’s daughter. Similarly, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf envisions a future where Shakespeare’s sister can be born again “if we work for her”.

By making space and listening to the voices that refused to be drowned out, we can alter the course.

Further Reading

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf
Margaret Reynolds, Fallen Women and the Great Social Evil in Victorian Literature and Culture
Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory