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Rediscovering women writers as a female academic

I was always an avid reader, but I can say that I started readings ‘classics’ when I was around fourteen. I started with well-known writers from my country, France, such as Balzac, Zola and de Laclos. I cried in a park, one day when I was seventeen because I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky and fought it was the ultimate masterpiece. I am not the only one to admire those authors. Many say that they write about our humanity, that they find what is universal, common to all of us and transcribe it with words. I believed male authors like Balzac or Dostoevsky were indeed talking directly to me, showing me parts of myself.

Now, I am not so sure anymore.

Helene Schjerfbeck, Mustalaisnainen, 1919, Ateneum, Finnish National Gallery (Helsinki)

I had the chance to study literature (French and German to be precise) at some of the best universities in Europe. The curriculum was overwhelmingly male, white, abled, and heterosexual. But I did not care at that time because I trusted my teachers to make the best choices, to make us read what we ‘should’ read in order to become experts in literature like them. I trusted that the canon, established over hundreds of years was justified, that if people remembered those books, it was because they were worth remembering. Because they were exceptional. If we did not read books by women or people of color, it was because they had no access to education and writing like middle-class European men. And if they had, their works were probably not ‘worthy’ of being read. After all, we should the canon is here for a reason, right?

I gradually discovered the truth. I took some classes on gender, not many. I wrote my dissertation on female characters written by men. I felt it was partial, of course, but those novels touched me so much that I felt they could be described as ‘feminist’ works. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy could be read that way, it is true. Hardy was himself engaged in feminist associations and defended the right to divorce. His novel depicts the destiny of a young woman facing society who blames her for having been raped. But I quickly discovered that Thomas Mann, a German author I wrote on, was far from being a feminist, despite writing a compelling and complex character, as Tony Buddenbrook. Thomas Mann’s case is complicated. Scholars strongly suspect that he was homosexual but had to hide this side of himself because he was born in the wrong century. The problem is that the scholarship on him, while considering him a genius, is as misogynistic as he was and if we don’t interrogate gender dynamics within Mann’s writing, we will continue to think that his point of view is just and worth applying to our own reality.

Portrait of Gabriele Reuter

I am not in favor of censoring authors like Thomas Mann. But what I want is to re discover his contemporaries, women of his time.

I actually discovered Gabriele Reuter when I was reading an article on Mann in which a feminist scholar reminded us that Mann admired Reuter and that his portrait of Tony Buddenbrook is probably inspired from the one given of Agathe, the heroine of Reuter’s novel From A Good Family. I decided to read the novel over the summer, and it was like a revelation. Here was a woman writer that corresponded to the area of my research and that depicted a beautiful heroine with a compassion and an understanding that Thomas Mann never had.

As I was researching other female writers from the end of the nineteenth century, I felt robbed. Here I was, at 23, with an undergrad and master’s degree behind me, finally discovering female writers from a period that is still heavily studied in universities and in schools. I was not only intellectually interested by those women I discovered, I felt recognized by them. They were talking to me about what my ancestors could have gone through, and what I must go through myself because patriarchy is far from dead. A proof that patriarchal values are indeed alive and well, is that I only discover those authors now. As a DPhil student who has the time to research them. And let me tell you, some of them were not easy to find. Even though their novels will probably speak to everyone (as every work of art cannot be to the taste of everyone) but they are great. They were also widely read at the time they were published. If you look at the process of their forgetting, there are many factors that make it illogic. The common factor is often misogyny in the case of women writers. Racism, ableism, homo- and transphobia can be other factors that explain why certain authors are kept away from our libraries, our bookshops, and our classrooms. It is also important to address that the women authors I focus on are middle-class. They were also talking about middle-class women in their fiction. They still brought an honest account of what it meant to be a woman like them in fin-de-siècle Europe. Multiplying the point of views is not only essential to understand a historical period, a philosophical problem, or a book, it is crucial to enrich our understating of ourselves.

Elga Seseman, Self-Portrait, 1945, oil on canvas, Finnish National Galery (Helsinki)

Sometimes, while I read their novels, I feel sad. Angry. Like I lost a great part not only of my degrees by focusing on a very specific scope (and if you look at the diversity of the world, a very small one), but also a part of my identity as a young woman. And what can I do to make to get them know? I can only continue to write, talk about them, with passion and honesty and only encourage you, reader, to read, listen and watch diverse media.

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