Trollope, crossover and convergence

I’ve just read a fascinating piece by John Pemberton in the London Review of Books, on Anthony Trollope and his attitude to women writers.  I remember my mother being an avid reader of Trollope, but I didn’t pay much attention to him until she pointed out to me that The Way We Live Now had a lot to say about finance capitalism and how the financial sector operated (this was about 20 years ago, after Big Bang but before Big Crash).  The mix of unreliable dealings, systemic instability and prejudice still seems fairly applicable to how the sector works.

Pemberton makes two major points which relate directly to the Paula Principle.  The first is the crossover which Trollope observed as women writers overtook male novel-writers:

“The English novel, forged in the C18 by men (Defoe, Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne) was, as he saw it, being taken over by women.  There were now probably more women than men writing novels, and there was no doubt that more women than men were reading them.”

He cites Mrs Henry Wood and Margaret Oliphant.  Remember them?  No, nor do I, but in the 1860s they outsold not only Trollope but Dickens and Thackeray also.  They were followed by George Eliot, of course, but also by Mrs Humphrey Ward, Marie Corelli and others.  It’s a striking crossover, not of educational but of professional achievement.

That was interesting enough for me.  But Pemberton also points out the pressure on female writers to write like men – to converge on the male pattern of authorship.  This is not about the adoption of male names, as with Eliot and George Sand, but about style.  Virginia Woolf argued that women had to try and write like men, and this accounted in part for their limited success.    In a typically evocative phrase, Woolf refers to their novels as ‘scattered like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand bookshops of London.’

I argue in the PP that too much of the focus in the current debate on women and work has been on how to enable women to become more like men in their attitudes to work: to assert themselves more, to move into male-dominated occupations, to aspire to a full-time career and to seek to move up vertical career ladders.  These are all legitimate goals.  But they place most of the emphasis on women themselves, or, more saliently, on changes in the system which enable women to converge on the  male model.  So I argue that the time has come for us to pay more attention to ‘reverse convergence’ – to enabling more men to adopt what are traditionally seen as female career patterns.

This idea would not have gone down well with Trollope.  Pemberton says Trollope was forever trying to remasculinise the process of fiction-writing.  He

“was even more bothered by men who wrote like women than he was by women who wrote like men.  Disraeli’s fiction was repellent: ‘The wit of hairdressers…the enterprise of mountebanks…stage properties, a smell of hair oil, an aspect of bull, a remembrance of tailors, and that pricking of conscience which must be the general accompaniment of paste diamonds.’ “

You can admire the style and phraseology, without agreeing with the sentiment.  I had not thought of the parallel between novel-writing and work generally, but it stands out very clearly in Trollope’s case.  Maybe this kind of gender divide still operates in today’s literature.   I know that in writing the PP book I had real problems in finding fiction – male or female – which dealt at all with women at work.

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