Joining RWA empowered me. It placed me in the company of professional writers and out of the role I acquired in Art School and from Literature professors: the sacrificial writer whose hard work will most likely go into the grave with thirty-three thousand rejection slips and a few small press volumes of my poems. RWA gave hope of a real potential to place my fiction into the hands of a reader -one who isn’t related to me.
It is not an easy move to Romance, it is considered the literary-smirk. But, is it really bad or simply the work of women? Who did not grind their teeth when a recent Nobel Laureate dismissed the writing of all women. Look it up, he doesn’t get publicity here. One wonders, what kind of human responds to receiving the highest honors of his planet for his talents, responds by turning so ungraciously on those whom he considers the weakest of his craft? Doth he protest too much? Has he silenced even one writer standing firm on her two X chromosomes, or has his peg-leg of a Y chromosome left him wobbly and insecure in his footing? Why does he scorn his Muse?
The Muses, these daughters, of Zeus and Mnemosyne, have been wooed and seduced by men for thousands of years: From Homer, in Book I of The Odyssey:
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.”
To Shakespeare, in the opening of the Sestet, when he calls upon his muse:
“Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.”
In World Literature, that spirit-breaking course many of us took in college, the ground is littered with these men and their muses. Their writings range from a handsome lover who uses the beautiful Muse to inspire; the young man on his deer-hunting journey to manhood; to the petulant adolescent who rages at the Muse who won’t go to the Prom with him. In lectures, the Muses were elevated as the divine inspiration of men and in their guise as women, we should be flattered –since their romantic love elevated women to the role of Muse.
But, what of the relation of women writers and these Muses? Where they motherly? sisterly or BFFs? The Nine Muses is a collection of poems written and published by women writers in 1700, a memorial to the Poet Laureate, John Dryden. Contemporary writers saw the work of these six women: Susanna Centlivre, Sarah Fyge Egerton, Delarivier Manley, Sarah Piers, Mary Pix and Catharine Trotter—as a pox on the male realm of poetry. The lofty art of poetry required a classical education and women who were denied entry into the Universities were deemed naturally unqualified to contribute. These strong women, many wealthy daughters and wives who sought out and demanded an education, why were they not included in my studies? They predated Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson by over a century; and yet, many found great contemporary success, albeit by the public, not the critics -sounds familiar? The ‘tenth’ muse Sappho was created later for women, so we could keep our hands of the men’s nine. Sappho for the female poet, setting the gifted-female in a tower –an anomaly. And who were these Pox-Sisters who thrived in the company of men? Let’s meet these women of ink, whose fathers and husbands are included to show the relationship of status to education and artistic freedom:
Susanna Centlivre, was a playwrite whose plays were popular and were great financial successes but these same popular works were reviewed by condescending critics who felt their valuable time wasted reviewing with this woman’s work.
Sarah Fyge Egerton in the dedication of her book, Poems on Several Occasions, (1703) she states that her poems by far are read only by other women poets: “They [her poems] never were abroad before, nor e’er seen but by my own sex, some of which have favour’d me with their compliments.”
Delarivier Manley stands out as an exception most likey due to her elevated social standing. Her life was at times heroic and scandalous, but her voice was heard by her contemporaries. Her tomb is engraved: “Here lieth the body of Mrs. Delarivier Manley, Daughter of Sir Roger Manley, Knight, who, suitable to her birth and education, was acquainted with several Parts of Knowledge, and with the most polite writers, both in the French and English tongue. This accomplishment, together with a greater Natural Stock of Wit, made her Conversation agreeable to all who knew Her, and her Writings to be universally Read with Pleasure. She died July 11th, 1724.” Sarah Piers is described as a literary patron, political commentator and poet. She was the wife of an Army Captain who was also Clerk of the Privy Seal. She was a great friend and patron of Catherine Trotter and both were satirized by Manley as members of a “cabal” of women who carried their friendships “beyond withNature design’d”
Mary Pix the daughter of the headmaster of the Royal Latin School she was apparently a unique young woman who was courted first by her late father’s successor. This man left soon after a mysterious fire that was rumored to the result of energetic lovemaking with then Mary Griffith, upsetting a lit candle. She was summarized as “foolish and openhearted” (From The Female Wits, Morgan, 1981: 392) Rather than writing about politics or the role of women, she seemed to embrace reality as a vital component of her plots.
Catharine Trotter was mostly self-taught and orphaned by the plague. She is described as having modest success and qualified admiration by the critics of the time. But, she keenly understood the limitations her sex placed on her and in the dedication of Fatal Friendship (1698) states that “when a Woman appears in the World under any distinguishing Character, she must expect to be the mark of ill Nature,” specifically when “what the other Sex think their peculiar Prerogative.” An amazing insight since she was admired by the other sex and, in fact, Thomas Birch published a 2 volume of her writings posthumously: The Works of Mrs. Catharine Cockburn, Theological, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical in 1751. Her successes are now attributed to her nonfiction writings of philosophy. Oddly, philosophers did not seem to mind a woman’s footstep in their realm like the male authors and critics of poetry and fiction.
So, regardless of how many find a woman’s efforts substandard, our comedy crass or romance novels unworthy, we still seem to carry on. And romance has been crushing the competition online. I find it amusing that women’s writing has been derided as silly or unworthy. Yes, we write of what we know and much revolves around the strong, familial forces in our lives. But, while men have proven themselves manly in their heroic pursuits and skilled at the kill; we risk our very lives bringing them kicking and screaming naked into the world. After all, creativity is our inate nature. We are not merely muses in an ethereal sense, we are true Muses of creativity. I hope you enjoyed my small tribute to a few of these these forgotten sisters who banded together for strength. They came before us and paved the way for us.