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Reading Between the Lines: Women’s Stories, Women’s Lives by Victoria Best

April 20, 2011

Dr Victoria Best (aka blogger Litlove) is a Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge. She was a lecturer in French at Cambridge for 10 years, and now focuses on study support for the students and on writing. She has published three books of literary criticism: Critical Subjectivities: Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2003) and co-authored with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007), as well as numerous other articles and chapters in books.
Visit her blog Tales from the Reading Room at and email her at litlove1 [at]

“When I was an undergraduate, on the cusp of the nineties, there weren’t that many women in Cambridge and feminism was still big news. There were three men for every woman in my matriculation year, and when I joined my college as a lecturer, I was the ninth woman out of a fellowship of 120 or so. I could feel the change in the tide, the way that women were starting to make inroads into the old institutions, without having altered their fundamental constitution. By my era, feminism was more than a collection of fierce women fuelled by injustice, more than a force for change harnessed to an often flawed but determined game plan. It may have become a piece of political and social history, but it had aims that were still palpable and vital.

One of the more surprising benefits of feminism for me was that it taught me how to read books critically. It had all been a bit hit and miss until I began studying the topic. Sometimes I thought a book spoke to me, sometimes I felt I had some insight into its deeper message, but I spent much of my time confused and disorientated, like a traveller in a foreign land without a map. Once I aligned myself with the cause of the women in the books I read, things began to fall into place. I began to see how literature, in even the most ordinary of ordinary stories, tells us about our lives, our choices, our constraints in a way that crystallises and quietly critiques them. There was Balzac with his huge tomes full of saintly martyred mothers and schemingly shrewd young women, learning instinctually how to exchange their bodies for social advancement or domestic ceasefire. There was poor old Emma Bovary, searching and searching for some adventure, some fun, some vitality beyond her dreary and limited life in the provinces, and finding only humiliating adultery and debt to assuage her tedium. Twenty years later, Emile Zola created Nana, his slovenly, sexy It Girl, the courtesan who rampaged through Parisian society and brought it to its weak, materialistic knees. All of the heroines had to die in the end, as it seemed there was inevitably a price to be exacted for women who challenged the boundaries. A kind of monumental cosmic slap on the wrist, as much to the author for daring to dream them up as to the women for risking their foolish rebellions.

By the time of André Gide and Proust, limp-wristed males fell romantically in love with spiritual, fragile women, pursued them and pestered them, only to turn away from them the better to shape and mould their selfish selves. They claimed to be noble, but the women withered in their shadows and died, just as usual. It was a relief when Colette appeared with a battalion of strong women with good financial heads on their shoulders and a robust appetite for food, for pleasure, for friends. She swapped the roles around, and produced a lot of pretty trinket-like men. Her women fell for them all the same, but at least they had a range of ways to recover when it all went wrong. After that, the disparity of fates at the conclusion began to even out a little. Women still teetered on the brink of emotional or mental disaster, but they held their nerve better, whilst men began to crumble instead. The stories never really stopped proclaiming different trajectories for men and women, but I could see that they did so as much to understand them as to reinforce them; that they reflected back to us a perpetual civil warfare between the genders, fought on the curious battleground of desire and admiration. Love, it seemed, was the great seam that stitched the vast majority of stories together. No matter what else happened, boy met girl, man met woman, and the age-old struggle ensued. What happened to the woman was a delicate and flexible affair, however, that spoke clearly to the deep, disguised heart of a culture’s concerns. The great ideological conflicts of the age seemed always to be played out on the vulnerable, impressionable body of a woman.

That’s why, formally, as a literary critic, and informally, as a blogger, I still keep my eye on what the women are doing in any given book. What it is they want, their horizon of expectations, the demands that are made of them, the opportunities they are permitted. There is no such thing as an innocent story, only a story steeped in an awareness of gender politics that goes beyond what we consciously know.


From → Academic

  1. So articulate as usual, Victoria. It drives me crazy, the women dying in the end thing. Hurray for Colette!

  2. Hehe ‘a lot of pretty trinket-like men’ is delicious use of words.

    This post is fantastic and hurray for yet another post that think of Emma in a sympathetic way. I’ve probably mentioned before that the ending with the coffin weighed down with coverings cuts into my heart every time.

  3. “There is no such thing as an innocent story”

    Love this! So true and well said.

  4. I’ve enjoyed this eloquent and informative piece. It’s ironic that in love that power relations are exposed. I’m eager to read your commentary on our current literary scene in terms of the female protagonists. Have they bounced back from their historically vulnerable state?

  5. Not only does Dr Best have a formidable academic understanding of text, but she is always such a pleasure to read because she expresses her learning so elegantly.

    For me this is the gem among gems here, crucial for any reader – or writer:
    “…literature, in even the most ordinary of ordinary stories, tells us about our lives, our choices, our constraints in a way that crystallises and quietly critiques them.”

  6. So much comes edging into my conscious foreground as I read this. I was impatient with the mainstream French (and wordly) classics, including Camille and was horrified in a certain way by Dangerous Liaisons. But I read it all and then Colette and then zoomed into the contemporaries where I had to master the slang in order to understand the story. You will have me going back to the shelf in minutes to pull down some old dusty beloveds!

    And yet I wonder at our portrayals today, global and provincial. It all bears watching as well as a certain reader activism.

    But this, this telling, summary line of yours : “The great ideological conflicts of the age seemed always to be played out on the vulnerable, impressionable body of a woman.”

    Yes, it’s true. You write engagingly of things that matter…and everything matters.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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