Posted by: scottishwriters | June 25, 2014

Lesley McDowell

24.06.14_Lesley McDowell-1Thanks to all who came along for a wonderful talk by writer and literary critic, Lesley McDowell. With informative readings, Lesley took us through her novels: Between the Sheets, The Picnic, and Unfashioned Creatures. Afterwards, she elucidated at length her feminist perspective on literature and her progress towards this stance.

Lesley discussed what she saw as the mismarketing of a recent novel: Thirst by Kerry Hudson, a dark novel about rape and sex-trafficking which, for the sake of sales, had been packaged as chic-lit (thereby partronising its audience and author as well as underestimating the capacity and legitimacy of both). This is part of a general patronisation of the reading public, still prevalent among major publishers. Lesley gave us numerous instances of similar issues within the media, regarding the opportunities afforded to women critics (particularly those seeking to review books by men). One leading female editor even recently expressed the view that women are too emotional in their reviews!

The problem seems to be the cultural gatekeepers, not the writers or the audiences, since Lesley was able to report that there is no shortage of women writers and a larger proportion of women buying books than men (in addition to plenty of publishers eager to put out women’s work). Indeed, she went as far as to say that it is currently more difficult for men to get published than women.

Lesley’s PhD was on feminist readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake; she later developed an interest in mother-daughter relationships, and how the stress placed on those during the inter-World War years of the twentieth century was explored in many great novels. A reading list, which Lesley promised to provide for this blog, is as follows:

Radclyffe Hall
Edith Wharton
Molly Keene
Antonia White
May Sinclair
Kate O’Brien
Mary Lavin,
Catherine Carswell
Willa Muir

And generally, further great women writers of the 1920s and 30s are:

Rosamund Lehmann
Willa Cather
Dorothy Richardson
Edith Olivier
E M Delafield
Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth Jenkins
Elizabeth Bowen

Lesley has a particular interest in the Gothic, seeing it as a pre-Freudian genre in which the emotional sex drives are freely expressed without the burden of self-consciousness. Her novel, Unfashioned Creatures, was inspired by her reading of Mary Shelley’s short story, The Fisher’s Cot, which led her to the character of Isabella Baxter Booth (who married her own brother-in-law, a man thirty years her senior who then went slowly mad).

Lesley’s non-fiction book, Between the Sheets, explores the lives of numerous women writers and the impacts their relationships had on their work (too often eclipsed by their men, due to societal insecurities).

We were left feeling our reading piles must become yet larger, with particular note to seek out acclaimed books on similar territory such as Emma Tennant’s Felony (about Clare Clairmont) and Janice Galloway’s Clara (about Clara Schumann).

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