The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb

The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb

The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb

The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb

Excerpt

It is the fate of many figures of historical importance to be made the subject of myth, and prominent women in particular seem to have suffered from the distorting powers of time, memory and popular prejudice. The very prominence of these women--their power, fame or achievement, their appearance in places where men 'ought' to be--is itself apparently an anomaly to be explained by some freak of personality or circumstance. Because such women depart from expected behaviour by seeming to act like men, their sexual identity is often called into question, caricatured or twisted in historical legend. There is something wrong, so the common wisdom goes, with their femaleness: they are aberrant either in their sexual relationships or in the characteristics of their personalities habitually associated with gender. They are too much like men, or they have no sexuality at all, or they are excessively libidinous.

There are a number of variations on this theme of the reputed abnormality of famous women, and, depending on the culture, the epoch and the specific circumstances of the individual woman, different kinds of distortions crop up in our collective memories. Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains for us the virgin languishing on her couch, the disembodied poetess writing ethereal sonnets and love-letters, not the prodigious translator of Aeschylus and not the woman who left her father's house and lived as wife and mother. George Sand is mythologized in one of two apparently contradictory ways: she was a 'man' or she was a whore; she was 'masculine', dressed in male attire and smoked cigars, or she was the lover of virtually every great male artist in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Left out of the myth are her astounding energy and productivity as a professional novelist. It is not, as Ellen Moers has remarked, 'the management of Sand's sex life that is baffling but the management of her working life'. Queen . . .

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