Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing Women Back into History

Bonjour. It's been weeks since I was a regular contributor to this site, but I think I've reached the moment where I am going to take it up again as part of my writing process. I have several things on my mind this evening. Let me begin by saying that my silence on this blog has been balanced by intense activity writing fiction. I have written about eighty-five pages since coming home from Paris and designed a way forward that takes me from the beginning of The Appassionata to its end.

The pages I'm writing now precede the writing that I had completed before I traveled to Paris. I expect to reconnect with that part of the book in another thirty or forty pages. When I do, I'll have about two thirds of the book sketched out in prose, maybe 350 pages written. I'm actually hoping to have a complete draft of the book by the end of May.

So. Part of the reason I haven't been here, on my blog, is I've been too busy in the fiction. Another thing to say about my work is that, indeed, Madame Lenormand (the fortune teller) is the narrator, and discovering and sustaining her voice is quite challenging. Sometimes it's much closer than others. I'm learning a great deal, trying to keep pace with her presence.

What's brought me here tonight is the reading
I've been doing this afternoon about the participation of women in the French Revolution. Madame Lenormand was born in 1772, which would make her seventeen when the Bastile was stormed in 1789. Women of her generation rose up and took to the streets demanding equality.

When I think of French history in vague terms, I always think of French women as being out in front of the push for equality, and there's truth in that belief, though, the truth is much more complicated and depressing than the romanticized version I have held all these years.

Before I launch in that direction, however, I want to say more about what has me looking into women's history this evening. I am going to receive an award during Women's History Month (March) for my efforts to write women back into history. The award is being given to me by the National Women's Political Caucus of Mendocino County here in California. I'm thrilled to be receiving the recognition because, in fact, that's exactly what I was attempting to do when I wrote my first novel, Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein.

When I started researching the life of Mary Shelley, she and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft were conflated into one person in Books in Print and in the card catalog in UC Berkeley's library. The books were shelved together. Mary Shelley was known as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and there seemed to be either a confusion about the difference between the two women, or an attitude that distinction was unnecessary. Though I've never checked to see if this has changed, I know the distinction is much clearer in the culture today than it was in 1990, which is when I began my research.

It's because of the award actually, and also because I've been more or less at sea for a few days, not able to move the prose forward, that I started reading about women in the French Revolution. I am about to introduce Louise Farrenc's godmother, her aunt, Anne-Elisabeth Cécile Soria, who was an accomplished pianist and student of Clementi. Louise was two years old when Madame Soria began teaching her piano. Madame Soria is even more obscure than Louise, but I do know she was a woman of the Revolutionary era.

My sense is that Cécila Soria both encouraged and expressed concern over Louise's ambition—she worried that Louise would be harmed if she strayed too far from convention. Cécila Soria witnessed what happened to the women who stepped onto the "masculine" stage during the Revolution and I believe she grew more timid in the face of it. She most likely had Royalist leanings to begin with as Louise's whole family came from Royalist roots. They were artists of The Academy, though they were part of the group of artists that were invited to live in the Louvre once it was confiscated from the King.

In any event, the women who fought in the Revolution were essentially crushed by it. Feminism disappeared in France after the Revolution, or at least went underground. The women who took to the streets were dead or in prison or in insane asylums. They had formed political clubs and organizations; they had written political tracts; they had spoken out, demanding equality and citizenship. To sum it up simply—without the benefit of detail—these women sided with more radical Jacobins in the struggle for power, believing the Jacobins would be allies.

Once the Jacobins consolidated their position, they turned on the very women who had helped them obtain it. And, in fact, women may have made the difference between the Jacobins and the more moderate Girondins taking control. The Jacobins were ruthless, the purveyors of The Terror. The women were betrayed. Everything they'd fought for and hoped for was lost.

Their leaders were arrested. Olympe de Gouge was guillotined. Olympe had penned the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, possibly the best known tract on the rights of women from the period. Among other things, these women sought suffrage and the right to be elected; they sought equal rights in marriage, the right to divorce, property rights, rights over their minor children, and the right to be educated. In fact, in the backlash, all of these rights were delayed and women did not get the vote in France until 1944.

So in 1824, when Louise Farrenc published her first piece of piano music, there were rules to be followed. Women could compose for the salon: small pieces, usually vocal compositions, songs. Composing instrumental music was, for whatever reason, considered the dominion of men. Women were not supposed to have enough intellectual capacity, or creative strength I suppose, to compose musique sérieuse—sonatas, concertos, instrumental music for chamber orchestra. These were too demanding, beyond the feminine canon, too Teutonic in character.

Louise was not allowed to study at the Conservatory because she was a female. The fact that she composed three symphonies in her life time was really very radical. It was just not done, and certainly she was never allowed to conduct those symphonies (as did her male counterparts) and consequently it was extremely difficult to get any of them performed.

All this has to be understood for my story to make sense. The reader has to be made aware that it was not as easy for women in Paris at the turn of the 19th century as they suppose. Women's rights were losing ground in popular opinion too, perhaps the way a woman's right to choose is losing ground today, because of Tea Party politics and Christian fundamentalists, because of women like Sarah Palin having unlimited access to a platform, while women on the other side do not. There is a certain similarity that I'd like to somehow get across. I believe Madame Lenormand is the key; she knows the history and has the insight to be able to share it, to put Louise's struggle in context. That's the piece I need to write next and writing this, tonight was beginning of writing that. The painting is by Constance Charpentier, 1801. It's called Melancholy.