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Feminine Features: Taking a Look at Creative Women in Light of International Women’s Day.

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"Men's opposition to women's emancipation is perhaps more interesting than the history of this emancipation itself"- Virginia Woolf.

“Men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is perhaps more interesting than the history of this emancipation itself”- creative feminist writer Virginia Woolf.

Please note the time of going to press: February 2012.

The Brontës- a sisterhood of gothic writers.  

The daughters of a solemn Irish reverend, the three sisters grew up at the family home based in Haworth, Yorkshire, although the extended family remained on the Emerald Isle. The Brontës wrote in a time before women could vote and many worked as scullery maids who would be fortunate to earn £6 a year. The educated trio of sisters attended a school for the children of less wealthy clergy members and their love and ability for writing began as a childhood game.

Charlotte Brontë, best known for her novel Jane Eyre, suffered the terrible sexism typical of the Brontë’s day when she submitted a collection of her poems to the then poet laureate, Robert Southey. He vigorously rejected her efforts and shared the popular view that the literary scene was no place for female creativity. The eldest Brontë sister refused to be defeated. She discovered that Emily too enjoyed writing poetry and convinced Anne to follow suit. The three sisters’ poetry project had begun. Struggling against the grain of the patriarchy and the prejudices of the day, Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë adopted the male pseudonyms Ellis Bell, Currer Bell and Acton Bell respectively -thus retaining their genuine initials- to improve their chances of becoming published. They took a measure of moral support for one another in their literary pursuits; not only did they chose pen names that meant they were still known as three siblings, the three sisters also made group submissions to publishing houses. By May 1846, a collection entitled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell had been published. Charlotte’s aim to defeat the patriarchal view of women in literature had been realised, but this was only the beginning. By 1846, the Brontë sisters had written and together submitted their first novels; Emily’s Wuthering Heights in its original form of two volumes, Charlotte’s The Professor and Anne’s Agnes Grey, which was originally intended as the third volume of Wuthering Heights. In July of this year, a parcel encasing the manuscripts of these works by an assumed literary brotherhood was peripatetically traversing London, being considered in one publishing house at a time. 1847 was a landmark year for the sisters: A year after submitting their prose to publishers, all three had their first novels published.

Their novels are not only a faithful reflection on the difficult times in which they lived and grew up, but each is also constructed of a highly autobiographical ‘collage’ of their own personal life experiences; working as governesses, living in a rural setting, desire not to leave home, hereditary family illnesses, unrequited love, mindfulness of nature and tempestuousness in the home to name but a few. These experiences formed the Brontë’s minds, selves and world outlook that they channelled into their works.

Wuthering Lives Before Writing.

While Anne and Charlotte left for Belgium to study German and music, Emily was determined not to leave home. Documented as an intense character with a stubborn nature, she possessed a tempestuous and impulsive humour that we see reflected in the Wuthering Heights protagonist Cathy Earnshaw. Her predicament of being a waged spinster, unusual for the day, is reflected in Nelly (Ellen) Dean, who narrates the novel. An intense affection for her beloved northern England initially thwarted her travelling, but in 1842, Emily did embark on a study visit to Brussels with Charlotte. The two attended a boarding school where they were tutored in foreign languages and music. Both women quickly learned to write with an excellent command of French. Emily was shamefully rebellious and insolent to her tutors, but displayed a natural aptitude for piano. When the study programme had been completed, the sisters were invited to remain at the school, free of charge but on the condition that they taught some lessons. Emily’s pupils did not ender towards her and Charlotte fell deeply in unrequited love, causing her to return home to Haworth. It is rumoured that Emily had an affair with to Anne’s husband and buried the resulting baby on the Yorkshire moors. It was these adventures and misadventures, coupled with those of their upbringing and its very era and location that provided the inspiration for the plot, intensity, Romanticism and passion we see documented in their novels. It is impossible to imagine the outcry that the gothic nature of (especially) Emily’s writing would have caused, had the public known it came from the pen of not only a woman but also a vicar’s daughter.

Kate Bush- Art rock.

It was Emily Brontë’s gothic novel Wuthering Heights (Wuthering is an adjective particular to the north of England meaning tempestuous) that provided the inspiration for Kate Bush’s 1978 hit song of the same name. At the age of 20, it was her first single and went straight to number one. The daughter of a folk singer and a scientist, this Anglo-Irish gem was raised in Kent.

The lyrics to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights are taken from the third chapter of Brontë’s novel, when Cathy’s ghost returns to Wuthering Heights (the name of her childhood house), rattling at her beloved Heathcliff’s window, longing to be reunited with him. It is the first time the reader is made aware of Heathcliff’s strong and passionate affection for this woman.

It might be because I know more about the Brontë sisters than is probably healthy (if you haven’t fallen asleep yet, you probably guessed that), but I do see genuine similarities between Emily Brontë and Ms Bush: Both of Irish ancestry, each educated in non-secular establishments and each gifted pianists from an early age. More relevantly, they are both famed for their zany and eccentric artistic style; Brontë wrote with a vivacious, impulsive, sometimes even frantic and volatile energy similar to that intense and mesmerising energy with which Bush performs and sings.

She (Bush) was recently awarded The Southbank prize, has also partaken in duets and was one of the first women to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. She has had single hits in the 1970s, ‘80s, (the glorious) ‘90s, 2000s and the….ones we’re in now.

Janis Joplin- The White Rose of Texas Blues.

Born in Texas in 1943, this unabashedly rebellious and nonconformist female singer is deemed to have the best white blues voice in musical history. A disruptive pupil, she was a self-confessed misfit at school and cited these experiences as her motivation to become a singer. At times she was very overweight and her skin suffered, at others her size was described as “emaciated”. She certainly channelled her experiences of battling against the grain of a world in which she felt so isolated into her music and lyrics, and this in turn was her source of strength. She enjoyed success with the albums Cheap Thrills (1968), I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama (1969) and her trademark and posthumous collection, Pearl (1971). Although her success was rooted in her albums, she is also famous for her covers of Piece of my Heart and Me and Bobby McGee, in which Joplin changed the gender of the title character from female to male. Her best-known individual track is undoubtedly the a cappella Mercedes Benz, one of her last-ever recordings, made in 1970. In 1969, Janis Joplin recorded a song with Welsh singer Tom Jones entitled Raise Your Hand. In the same year, she was a headlining act at the weekend-long Woodstock music festival in New York. While Jimi Hendrix insisted on being the final act to take to the stage, this rose of Texas performed with her trademark energetic moves- she seldom kept still whilst singing- literally until the Saturday turned into Sunday. She is quoted as saying “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got”, but this optimism was likely in part a cover up for the unhappiness and insecurity she still felt in her adulthood. She descended into a very low state of regular drug use and alcohol abuse; she regularly consumed heroin and immodest amounts of Southern Comfort, her partiality for which she was famed, and there exists an iconic photograph of her holding a bottle. She was found dead, overdosed on what is believed to be a concoction of abnormally strong heroin and alcohol in 1970, aged 27. Although her life was a troubled one, her distinctive music and lyrics spurred her on to produce some of the tracks that defined the 1970s music scene.

Poly Styrene – Punk

On April 25th last year, the London punk scene mourned the loss of a most individualistic gem. Poly Styrene, real name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, lost a battle to cancer and passed away aged just 53. Luckily, she was able to give her fans one last gift before she left us. Less than a month before her death, her final and highly critically acclaimed album, Generation Indigo, was released.

Raised in Brixton, the half British and half Somali singer found fame as the lead singer of a London punk band, The X-Ray Spex. They enjoyed success with hits such as Germfree Adolescents (1978), The Day The World Turned Day-Glo (1978) and Oh Bondage Up Yours (1977), which is Poly’s attack on misogyny armed with her higher range and a saxophone solo. This vehement feminist- whose views may well have been formed from an upbringing by a single mother- decided to embark on a punk career after attending a Sex Pistols concert. Her fans will always fondly remember her ability to speak her mind, to sing powerfully yet tunefully and for her eccentric, theatrical dress sense.

Amy Winehouse –Jazz

Last summer wasn’t the best of times for North London. In the world of sport, Tottenham Hotspur and rivals Arsenal got thrashed by northern teams Manchester United and Manchester City in a collective huge defeat over one weekend. Politically, the riots began in Tottenham and in the music world, Amy Winehouse passed away on July 23rd. Like Joplin, she was only 27 at the time of her death. Her passing was definitely felt strongly in North London; I never text if I know the recipient is somewhere in which mobiles are unwelcome but even I unhesitatingly delivered the sad news via text to my mother who was in the theatre.

Like Janis Joplin, she was disruptive and volatile in the classroom. Due to being expelled and an inability to settle, she attended various different schools, including the same performing school as Katie Melua. Unlike Joplin, Winehouse’s songs held a mirror up to the gritty and real-life experiences she (Winehouse) was experiencing; writing music was far more of an escaping and distraction technique for Ms Joplin.

Winehouse was born into a Jewish family in Southgate, North London. She was the daughter of a taxi driver and a pharmacist, a marriage that failed when she was nine. The granddaughter of a singer, she was exposed to jazz at a young age, began to play guitar at 13 and in childhood even appeared in an episode of The Fast Show! She never imagined how successful she could really be, nor had any realistic foresight as to the true extend of her imminent success. In an interview before she hit the big time, her phrase was “I want to sing a bit, be a waitress.” (!)

When her first album, Frank, hit the shelves back in 2004, a fuller-figured Ms Winehouse was a picture of health. With the release of Back to Black a mere two years later, the cracks in her wellbeing were becoming increasingly apparent and concerning. The album was autobiographical and the issues that formed the song topics- alcohol addiction, narcotic use, family issues, tempestuous relationships and difficulties thereof and then some- had become as famous as the tracks themselves. Amy’s music was a confrontational window thereon, unlike the aforementioned distraction and self-comfort that Joplin’s own tracks provided her. Notwithstanding her personal problems and lifestyle issues, Winehouse still enjoyed phenomenal success: In 2008, she won five of the six Grammys for which she had been nominated. In the same year, she gave a memorable performance of Heard it Through the Grapevine with Paul Weller on Later With Jools Holland. She openly and vehemently opposed the mainstream commercialisation of music that is the X Factor, claiming that “Jazz is real”. This phrase of hers certainly sums up the highly honest and autobiographical nature of her work.  Since her death, Back to Black is the bestselling album of the 21st century in the UK to date. Amy Winehouse, we “cry for you on the kitchen floors” of North London and beyond.

 

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