This month, the Writers Ask Writers group is hosting a huge book giveaway! We have each chosen one book which inspired one of our works, and we will be giving away both that and the book we wrote. That means a massive twelve book stash is up for grabs, worth around $300. You can enter in up to fifteen different ways: like our pages on Facebook and Twitter, tweet about the giveaway, or subscribe to a newsletter. Click here to find out more and enter.
I first encountered The Yellow Wallpaper in my third year at university. I had been allocated a course called ‘Women Writers of the Early Twentieth Century’. I had previously avoided any women’s literature courses. Deep down, I think I was afraid to engage with anything which might be considered feminist: a term I associated with burning bras, aggressiveness and man hating.
In the very first class, the tutor introduced herself.
“I want to ask you all something,” she asked to a room of ten women and one man, “Raise your hand if you consider yourself a feminist.”
This was what I had been afraid of. I felt I didn’t know enough about what it meant to be a feminist to answer that question. I didn’t raise my hand, and neither did anyone else, except for one girl and the only male student amongst us. This was 2007.
The girl who raised her hand was one of my closest friends at university. The tutor didn’t dwell on the question, moving on to tell us about the themes and texts we would be considering. But I could feel a visceral astonishment coming from my friend, and when the class ended, I could tell she was bursting to say something.
“How could none of those girls say they’re feminists?” she said, as soon as we were out of the room.
I knew she was really asking me. “I don’t know,” I mumbled.
During the course, book after book opened me up and changed the way I thought about women’s issues. The Awakening, House of Mirth, the poetry of Emily Dickinson: each one made me think differently about what women’s fiction was and how for women writers at that time, it was almost impossible to separate your gender from your identity. I came to recognise the battles the women were fighting, what was expected of them, and how unhappy it made them. And what was most surprising to me, a revelation really, was that even though these books had been written a hundred years ago, and things were meant to have changed, I identified with all of them.
Two years later, when I was studying for my Masters in Creative Writing in London, I took the opportunity to delve further into twentieth century women writers, in an attempt to fill in yet more gaps in my knowledge. This time, I focused on writings from the fifties to the seventies and eighties, covering the lead up to and literature of second wave feminism. The Feminine Mystique, The Bell Jar, The Female Eunuch, Fear of Flying, amongst many more. I also explored the social context for women throughout this century.
I was compulsively interested, in a way that you only can be when the subject matter has a direct bearing on your own life. And that’s how I felt: I was trying to position my experiences within this framework. How far had we really come? If I still felt the pressures of society to fulfill certain obligations, surely the problems were still present, even if they had changed their focus? It is easy to do what I had been doing throughout the first half of my degree: to ignore that these issues still exist.
Although I was partially unaware of it at the time of writing, this exploration resulted in my first novel, How To Be A Good Wife. It was an working through of my own fears: if I got married, did it automatically mean that my aims and desires were secondary? What did it mean to be a wife and mother? I think because of this, the book raises more questions than it answers. But I believe they are important questions, which still need to be asked today.
I am immensely grateful that I was allocated that course at university. It forced me to come up against myself, and to explore things that previously it had been easier to be ignorant of. I learned that being a feminist doesn’t mean that you hate all men: it means that you believe that every person, every individual, should be able to fulfill their unique potential. This is why it is considered a political standpoint, because it is about taking away restrictions which prevent this from happening. Perhaps we need a different word for it: a new word without connotations, one which suggests the potential of every individual, rather than blind equality. Each person must be judged on their own merits, and given the chance to succeed.
I have chosen The Yellow Wallpaper as it is the text which most closely resonates with the themes of How To Be A Good Wife: those of a woman trapped and limited by societal expectations. It is a beautiful, short text, which says an astonishing amount. I could have equally chosen any of the others I have mentioned. To any young (or older) women who are avoiding facing these kind of topics, I would advice, not to waste any more time: I certainly wish I hadn’t.
(Update: I was thrilled that The Guardian likened How To Be A Good Wife to The Yellow Wallpaper in their review of the novel! You can read this and about other books How To Be A Good Wife has been compared to here.)
Enter the competition here, or visit the other writers’ pages to find out more about their inspiration: