For Tuesday, January 26, 2016:
“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”
“Originality is the best form of rebellion.”
Mike Sasso – BEING HUMAN: EVERYTHING you didn’t want to know about life (sic)
The child in me is glad Beatrix Potter wasn’t sent to school, too, if that meant her stories and illustrations would have been different – or, worse yet, even nonexistent. Some of my most treasured memories are reading her books, and they still delight me. My niece has it now, but I kept my little stuffed plushie of Squirrel Nutkin for years, and I’m sure that’s one reason I love red squirrels to this day, pest though they might be to some people.
If I remember correctly, her father believed girls shouldn’t get the same education boys should. No doubt Beatrix was restricted to the more feminine studies of needlework, cooking, and how to manage a household in preparation as someone’s wife. The latent teacher in me cringes at the thought of the education Potter missed out on, but the adult learner in me celebrates the fact that she rebelled against her father and she taught herself in secret. Among other things, she went out into the fields around her English home and observed and drew the flora and fauna that were later depicted in her books.
Beatrix Potter’s story reminds me of a seminal book I was given by my writing mentor: Silences, by Tillie Olsen. In my humble opinion, every writer – especially women who are creative in any way – should read this book.
The writing itself, to be honest, is not that great. The book is a compilation of some of Olsen’s lectures as a college professor and presentations to various groups, so we’re basically reading her notes to herself.
What is important is the context, that women’s creativity has been stifled, even silenced, over the centuries precisely because they were women. (And some women of those times whose work we read now were not published until after their deaths.) It’s still going on today in some ways – witness the wage disparities, and the dearth of women represented in literary anthologies, for only two examples. Some male writers and artists did, and do, experience the same issues, and Olsen included them as well.
The more I read in Silences, the more I was amazed that we have any books by women from centuries or decades past. A lot of Olsen’s examples point to situations like Potter’s – bright young women who wanted to learn but couldn’t because of societal expectations – but others show that even those few women who were allowed (sometimes even encouraged) to write were held back because of lack of funds or space or time from such things as childbearing and -rearing (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin are two I remember). It’s such instances as these that caused Virginia Woolf to opine that women must have a room of their own and enough money in order to write.
We are all, women and men, luckier today, and thank goodness. There are, though, still ways some of us are silenced or stifled. I hope those of us who are can take Beatrix Potter’s example to heart and find ways to let our voices be heard. I know I won’t write anything that will be beloved centuries later, but hopefully you will. I do know I’d rather have a book with my name on it, not in it.