Thursday, June 14, 2007

feminism, femininity, and turn-of-the-century canada

I have been silent lo this last week because, frankly, I haven't been getting work done. But I have, however, been having a really good time -- which in the end is possibly more important for now. I'll have to get the lead out this weekend, but until then I'm enjoying having family in town and also reading two books, both of which I highly recommend to all known readers of this blog (and which local readers can borrow from me at will). One book is Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Lamb tells the tale of Biff, Christ's childhood pal, and the 'lost years' of Christ's life in the bible (birth to 30? 6 to 36? something like that) and attempts to humourously document where Christ's teachings had emerged from by the time Christ reappears in the bible. Moore sends Christ and Biff on a quest to find the three wise men, and in the process learn about Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and possibly more faith systems but this is as far as I am in the book. It's sort of a beautiful idea of religious devotion through synthesis -- and it's freaking hilarious -- and if you liked Life of Pi you will fall for Lamb.

The other book that has me enamoured right now is
Cracked, by the amazing Dr. Drew Pinsky. Dr. Drew is a board-certified physician and addiction medicine specialist (Loveline listeners, are you playing the home game?) and in this book he talks about not only the difficult and sometimes thankless work of treating addicts in a major psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles, but also his own battles with his emotional and psychological health. Pinsky wants to save everyone, and struggles not to take on the pain of his patients himself. The book explores the societal causes and ramifications of addiction, and deals heavily with examinations of childhood traumas and family patterns of addiction that lead to this sort of cyclical reexamination of the trauma. I don't buy into everything Drew is selling here -- it would be hard to come out of Carleton believing as strongly as he does in psychoanalytic therapy -- but the exploration is truly fascinating to read, and it examines a population many of us will never know or understand in real life. Pinsky discusses the failures of addiction medicine as much as the successes, and the difficulty in treating addicts is enlightening.

But now, it's back to the Confederation period, with a text that can only be described as incredible...

Sister Woman

by J. G. Sime

"You women don't know what you want," he said.

"Perhaps not," I said, "but you be sure we won't be happy till we get it."

He laughed.

"Be articulate then," he said.

"Did you ever try," I said to him, "to be articulate? It's not so easy as it sounds."

"You talk plenty, anyway," said he, "you women."

"Yes," I said, "that's the way we're learning to be articulate."

"It's a wearing way," he said, "for other people."

"Granted," said I. "But it's the only way. You have to talk to find out what you think, when you're a woman. Besides that, if we didn't tell you men, and keep on telling you, you'd never find out anything was wrong with us."

He sat and puffed.

"Don't think," I said apologetically, "I'm complaining. I'm not. I think you men are patient -- wonderfully, extraordinarily patient -- with us. But--"

"Now," he said, "for the grievance!"

And we both laughed.

"Suppose," he said, after a bit, "suppose you try and be articulate yourself. For me -- just for my benefit. I hate to have you women discontented -- it makes a world that's not worth living in. And more than that, I hate to see you with a private grievance of your own -- oh, yes, you have one sometimes! Stop being antagonistic. Be articulate and tell me. Perhaps it's something I can fix. Perhaps," he said hopefully, "it's something I would like to fix..."

"Perhaps," he said, "it's yours already, only you don't know it."

"You're very nice," I answered him. "You really are." And then I said: "It's not so easy!"

Then I said, "Shall I try?"

"Do," he said.

He puffed, and I sat looking at him.

"Well," I said, after a long pause for consideration, "I'll -- I'll skirt the question if you like."

"The Woman's Question?" he inquired.

"The woman's and the man's," I said. "It's the same thing. There's no difference."

... and that is the prologue to Sister Woman, a short story cycle written in Montreal at the turn of the twentieth century. Sister Woman is primarily about working class women during the first world war -- these are stories of girls employed in munitions factories, and as maids and cooks, seamstresses... and prostitutes. J.G. Sime shies away from no dark corners of the world of poor, primarily immigrant, women in Canada during the war. And that is what is so startling about this text; every few pages, I found myself checking and rechecking the publication date. In 1919, it would have been ballsy enough to write about working women period. Their stories simply wouldn't have been considered interesting beyond the purpose of war effort propaganda. It's radical enough to read about women earning independent wages in the factories. Add to that the fact that Sime explores the personal lives of these characters and exposes women who are working in the sex trade, who are contemplating abortion, who choose to be single parents rather than put a child up for adoption, who are carrying on affairs -- Sime writes frankly about the sexual and emotional lives of these women, and does so so overtly that you have to keep telling yourself, "No, this is not a Carol Shields book!"

Sime herself was a magnificent figure. A British immigrant, she had been employed by an ob/gyn in the UK as a receptionist, where she met a young medical student. She fell in love with him and followed him to Canada to work for him. He was married and a major figure of the Montreal establishment, but together they carried on what Sime calls an "irregular union" -- she was his mistress, but not in the traditional sense of the word, because Sime was a strong woman earning her own pay cheque and maintaining her own place of residence. She didn't rely on him for financial support. For 1907, it can only have been described as a modern relationship. In Sister Woman, Sime draws on this interest in "irregular unions" and explores the changing face of sexuality and relationships. She explores a psuedo-common-law set up, lots of mistresses, and many many women who choose to remain single rather than seek out a partner. All of these would have been surprising portrayals in 1919,when the book was published, and show just how forward-thinking Sime was.

Interestingly, though Sime explores working class women in factory and wage slave environments (especially the retail workers who are earning $7 / week and paying $10 / month to rent a squalid room from their employers), she doesn't condemn the experiences of these people. There's a sense that this is simply the way it has to be, and Sime is an observer rather than a critic. This can be a sticking point for a contemporary reader. There's no doubt that Sime sees the situation as negative -- she paints a picture in one story of a shop girl who has aged out of her position and now cannot even stretch her pay cheque to cover her expenses. But though there is injustice, there is no impetus to change.

Also, although these stories are all passionately and obsessively gynocentric -- there are very few men in the stories at all, and those who do appear tend to be hidden and shadowy figures rather than people who dominate the situations -- there is a question of whether these women can sustain society alone. Many of these stories were penned during wartime, when women really were the backbone of the economy in Canada. Sime seems unclear as to whether or not there is any chance for women to sustain this way of life. There is a crushing loneliness in this book -- the women in "irregular unions" know they can never have the stability of marriage, nor can they ever have children, and the freedom becomes less important than the loneliness as time goes by. Sime thinks women are strong enough to lead the economy, but seems concerned about the emotional and psychological cost of these choices in the long run. There is a maternal feminist bent to the period, and the childless Sime seems plagued by the question of whether or not a woman without children can possibly be living up to her full potential. One woman in the text feels this so keenly that she buys a child -- such is the desperation of the mothering instinct.

In this end, this book is important because it documents the lives of the invisible, but more importantly because it is really damn good. If you haven't read Sister Woman -- and I dare say few of us have -- you're missing out on a brilliant work of feminist and Canadian literature from a time period many of us would not think was fertile ground for such work.

4 comments:

Joe said...

Her writing style is very unique - what with the way she punctuates her characters' speech patterns. Is that a formal style of the period, or is it something unique to her book?

Brenna said...

That is a really good question, and one I will have to look into further. I have a a feeling it's a convention of the period -- but in a lot of these books, there's almost no dialogue, which makes it hard to say.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't know the story "An Irregular Union" was from her life.

Sarah Keller Murray said...

Thanks for sharing about Sime's life. I couldn't find anything else about her. I'm reading the "The Child" chapter of the book, for a Canadian lit course at Universite Laval, but after reading it and your review, I'll have to read the whole thing...it sounds wonderful.