Dubious Joys

Yesterday, in an incident that I have been telling my friends was a "flurry of post-gastroenteritic activity" (I am mostly well, but still get dizzy and nauseated when I eat anything, go up and down stairs, read editorials about the State of the Union, or sometimes when I stand up, so this leaves lots of time for reading novels), I flew through the last halves of "The Joys of Motherhood" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall." And to tell you the truth, the feminist within did not feel greatly cheered. So, an expanded version of my book group notes:

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"The Joys of Motherhood" by Buchi Emecheta

After finishing this tale of Nnu Ego, the daughter of a powerful Ibo leader in colonial Nigeria of the 30s and 40s, and her quest for self-completion through motherhood, I complained to my book group that 'One thing I found curious, and in fact totally alienating in a number of senses, was the various strategies the author had for situating the reader as an outsider to Nigeria, the historical period, and Ibo culture. Rather than developing a sense of sympathy in the reader for various characters (including the protagonist, Nnu Ego) by inhabiting their point of view fully, the narrative often flits from one point of view to another, or features (unnecessary) contextualizing statements that begin "In her culture,..." or "At that time,...." The effect is rather didactic and even a little bit anthropological in a way that made me slightly uncomfortable.' One of my fellow members responded with the excellent possibility that these distancing strategies are perhaps a narrative strategy that has a long tradition in Nigerian literature. I am intrigued by this, but don't know quite where to go to research it. Suggestions, or authoritative answers, are welcome. Particularly jarring (but natural, perhaps, and even interesting in a novel written in a later period, from London, and in English - a language both nationalized and colonial in Nigeria) were contextualizing moments in which Nnu Ego thought (I paraphrase) : "I wonder if someday women will actually be free to make their own choices, to define themselves as more than mothers" before she goes back to telling her daughters that they must sacrifices their wishes for those of those of their brothers and fathers. The events of the novel tell a story more complex this abrupt and historically knowing sort of moralizing, I think.

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"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte

This is a book for which spoilers may indeed spoil, so I will be minimal in my discussion of the plot: the unbearably immature and impulsive Gilbert Markham becomes intrigue by a beautiful young widow who moves, with her son, into the dilapidated Wildfell Hall. As the town urges itself claustrophobically into her past and her mores, questions are raised regarding her virtue when she receives surreptitious visits from a coveted local bachelor. This summary covers roughly the first hundred pages of this five hundred pager, with the rest mostly consumed by her explanation to Markham. It is my first Chunkster of the year (triumph!), but it is a Chunkster that needn't have been: a mere wisp of a novella hiding inside an elephant suit. The plot creaks under Bronte's attempt to wring every last moment of pathos and didactic purpose out of the theme of alchoholism (of which she had painful first hand experience thanks to her brother Branwell). Bronte does excellent work populating her fictional world with a cast of flawed characters with whom it is almost impossible to feel any sympathy; it may be that her motivation was less a grotesquely (and thus, to my mind, interestingly) misanthropic worldview and more of a desire to highlight the incredible self-abnegating virtue required to be a loving Christian in such a world. Too bad. The result is a novel which is gripping, but rather dispiriting to read. The novel did provide me with a favorite moment, however, when woman of none-too-strict morals speaks to her acquaintance (and rival) about the latter's amorously meandering husband: ""At any rate, you can console yourself with the assurance that you are worthy of all the love he gives to you." Best backhanded compliment of the week.

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"The Joys of Motherhood" (UK/Nigeria 1979)
Buchi Emecheta

"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (UK 1848)
Anne Bronte

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