Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

April 8, 2009

Robertson Davies and Formidable Women

Let me start this with a disclaimer.

I am unashamedly a huge, dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool Robertson Davies fanatic.  He is second in my heart only to dear Alexandre Dumas, with whom, now that I think about it, he has a lot in common, though that probably ought to be a post of its own some day in the future.  In Val Ross’s new biography, just as in previous ones, Davies has been held up to the light on such diverse defects of character as racism, misogyny, snobbery and dishonesty.  I like to think I Get him and can deflect these criticisms.  I certainly don’t buy any one of them (except maybe the snobbery, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing) and the existence of these claims don’t shed a moment’s doubt on my total love of every word he has ever written.

What I want to talk about now, though, is women in literature.

Robertson Davies (or “RD” as he is called throughout Ross’s biography), despite having been married to a strong, accomplished woman to whom he deferred on many things, despite having raised three brilliant, accomplished daughters, despite Hulda Schnakenburg and Monica Gall and Liesl; has been labeled a misogynist in some corners.  Ross goes into why and acquits him, I think, to some degree.  His detractors wanted from him a kind of modern attitude that all people are genderless and equal, something his dedication to roles and archetypes would never have allowed to sit well with him.  Nevertheless he has a different, older form of respect for women that, in my opinion, beats the hell out of the new kind: he was terrified of them.

When writing themselves, women in contemporary literature present to us complex, nuanced, whole people who, nevertheless, tend (in my experience) to be fraught with self-doubt, victimized and rather over-sensitive.  A convincing, “true” portrait of a woman is of one riddled with weaknesses to be overcome.  That’s all very well, and a hallmark of modern protagonists of both genders.  But the world of Robertson Davies is populated by people of a different sort, people who are both at once flamboyant and down-to-earth, people who make decisions and take actions and get involved in incidents.  His characters do not moon about (for very long) gazing at their navels, stymied by doubt and deep emotional damage and I don’t think he would have found that portrayal of women very accurate or acceptable.  I doubt he would have respected it very much.  One of Ross’s interviewees (Arlene Perly Rae, in fact) comments that she felt Davies saw women as the “…Muse and we were the truly creative ones”.  But even that observation ignores Davies’s earlier experiences with women and the impressions it made on him.

Davies felt so oppressed by his mother that when she died he stayed up all night genuinely afraid that he was going to die too – that she would kill him and take him with her.  Of his maternal grandmother, RD says, “She was spared to a great old age, and as generals have horses shot under them in battle, she outwore two old-maid daughters.”  While more modern writers (*coff* D.H. Lawrence) might have wrung this into a Freudian passage of manhood, I think Davies understood this grip as a balancing of power rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

Davies had a good understanding of Power, how it is gotten and how it is used.  He clearly respects the power a woman can wield.There is a tradition of young literary men being tormented and smothered by their mothers, mothers who are perceived as having power over life, love, freedom and death.  This power over them is not limited, either, to just the mother: grandmothers, ferocious aunts, teachers and in-laws have been depicted similarly.  The Formidable Woman is a literary cornerstone, a foil on which the lives of many a young hero turn.

And yet when evaluating the treatment of women in literature, we don’t give any credit to these women and their creators.  The softer women, the victims and stumblers of, for example, Fall on Your Knees, Cat’s Eye or Lullabies For Little Criminals are lauded and excused from accusations of misogyny despite, in my opinion, being unflattering portraits of weakness.  Stronger, more powerful women populate the novels of Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and yet are ignored or worse, faulted because the depiction of a woman as the Beast of the Hero’s Journey is considered to be a bad thing.

Maggie Smith as Miss Betsy Trotwood.

I want to beg reconsideration for this position.  The power to terrify, to take control and to assert oneself is a wonderful aim for women!  One of my favourite women in literature is David Copperfield’s Miss Betsy Trotwood, the (initially) man-hating galleon of no-nonsense wit who has taken her life back and installed herself as the independent master of her own domain.  She might not be the hero of the book, and she isn’t rewarded by the author with True Love or Children or any other such sentimental tripe, but she represents what more women should aspire to instead: strength, character and independence.  Furthermore, as we later find out Miss Betsy has been victimized in her life – but she does not assume the role of a victim.  She steps up to the plate and bulls through.  I won’t comment on how hard it was to write that sentence without invoking gendered language (“man up”, “took it like a man”), by the way; suffice to say there’s no reason in literature that it should have been.

Betsy Trotwood is the unfair example – one of the most protagonistic Formidable Woman in literature.  But what side of the pro/an tagonist pitch a character falls on should not detract from the respect the author has shown her.  Strong, proud women range from Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables to Balram’s old granny in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and they share the unappreciated role of being able to get their own way and scare the bejesus out of everyone they come across in the meantime.

Robertson Davies was encyclopedic in his knowledge of Victorian literature and dedicated in his defense of it and was surely more than familiar with the Formidable Woman and her place (which is, by the way, at the top of the heap).  His description of his rancorous old grandmother as an “old General” is reverent and if he seemed to resist movements towards a change in womens’ roles I don’t think it was from lack of respect.  I suggest he saw these shifts as trivial in the balance of real power.

Maybe it’s just me, but I would rather be seen as an “old General” than a “complicated woman”.  Right now I’m more of a Lieutenant Junior Grade, but I’m growing; and I hope some day to become the sort of woman who will haunt men long after I have died – and not because they idealized me.  Call me power-mad, but if I were a man that kind of lasting impression would be considered kingly.

3 thoughts on “Robertson Davies and Formidable Women”

  1. Susan says:

    Ha ha, “Lieutenant Junior Grade”, great line. But are there formidable characters out there that get their own way, slog through the complications, and not have to ‘scare the bejesus out of everyone’ like a domineering male?

    1. Charlotte says:

      I don’t doubt that there are, but I am having a troubling hard time coming up with many. I’m certainly open to suggestions!

      Though I should add that I don’t mean to imply that “formidable” is the only way a woman should be, but just that of the many ways we’re depicted, it’s an undervalued one.

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