Friday, 8 February 2013

From Austen to Beard: Women Writers Fight Back!

         Trawling the online papers recently in that ritual daily effort of supreme procrastination, I stumbled upon the news that this week is, in fact, the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

        Yes, the author that brought you a wet-shirted Colin Firth, an thumb-bitingly irritating Keira Knightley and the ever-lovable Bridget Jones published her seminal work two hundred years ago. That one of the best-known and well-loved authors and her book is still as popular after two hundred years is something very admirable, I thought to myself. But then I thought again.

           Wading through the endless paragraphs of newsprint on the subject of Pride & Prejudice, I was suddenly drawn back to my first tentative steps towards entering the bipolar journalistic world. Picture if you will a crowded conference room of a middle of the road, middle class university, packed with sweaty, nervous Freshers about to embark on their first plunge into the cut throat universe of student journalism.

       A clear voice cuts the air. ‘I want,’ it says, ‘to do a feature on women writers as, you know, Jane Austen is pretty much the only one anyone’s ever heard of.’ Cue vehement outburst from my side of the table. ‘What the hell, what rock are you living under?!’ I yelled, (that bit might have only been in my head…) ‘What about Virginia Woolf? Margaret Atwood? Silvia Plath?! There are like, sooo many awesome female writers!’ Silence. I sensed my burgeoning journalistic career starting to free- fall in a spectacular burst of flames.

         ‘Anyway,’ says overly self-important editor. ‘Sounds great! Four hundred words maybe?’ And with that I slinked away, comforted only by the knowledge that my much-maligned female authors would be supporting me all the way. Maybe.

        So where does all this hilarious reminiscing lead me? Ah yes, to more wonderings: that is, why is it that the agglomeration of all female writing in the past 200 years is summed up by what is essentially a beautifully written, intellectual chick flick? (Don’t hate me Austen-philes, I am one too!)

        These days, the writing world is a hard one for women: with young, female journalists such as Laurie Penny and Cath Elliott, as well as older commentators like Mary Beard, attracting vitriol and horrific online abuse for their writing, it is seemingly harder for a woman to state her opinion these days than it was for Miss Austen, with her proto-feminist, pugnacious female leads.

       Does sharing your political, personal, whatever thoughts as a writer make receiving horrific threats an occupational hazard? Of course not.  So how do we combat the online misogynistic anonymous who practice vehement censorship of female writing whilst crying ‘freedom of speech’? Are cries of ‘do not feed the troll’ adequate or even effective?

        My advice to women writers everywhere would be: write, and keep writing, and don’t stop until the ranks of Woolf, Plath, Atwood and yes, Austen are swelled and prominent enough to keep the trolls at bay. After all, Lizzie Bennett would never have put with it two hundred years ago. 

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