Review: ‘Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers’- essays by Lorna Sage

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Lorna Sage

Blurb from Amazon:

Accessible, jargon-free, and with her characteristic clear intelligence, Lorna Sage looks at the ways in which pre-war women writers, some famous, some less well known, invented themselves as authors in the face of the rigid conceptions of feminine creativity which prevailed at the time.

Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Djuna Barnes, Violet Trefusis, Jane Bowles, Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Brooke-Rose, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter.

‘Moments of Truth’ demonstrates Lorna Sage’s characteristic clear intelligence and sheer versatility as a writer, bringing together introductions to much-loved 20th-century classics, fiercely intelligent essays and insightful, free-thinking journalism. A mixture of close reading with a breathtaking sensitivity to nuances, and fascinating biographical exploration, ‘Moments of Truth’ sends you back to discover or rediscover these twelve writers.

Review:

I know I have already mentioned the work of Angela Carter and Djuna Barnes in my recent review of a short story collection edited by Carter, but when I saw this book on my local library catalogue I KNEW I had to read it and review it. If you’re not already aware, Sage was a noted academic, writer and journalist, known for her work on Angela Carter (whom she also interviewed.) Sadly, she died in 2001 from emphysema. ‘Moments of Truth’ is a collection of her essays on twelve well-known and highly influential women writers of the 20th century- including, of course, Angela Carter, as well as Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf (author of feminist classic ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and my own favourite, ‘Orlando’) Iris Murdoch and Simone de Beauvoir amongst others.

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Angela Carter

Sage’s essay on Woolf I found poetic, elegant, thought-provoking and nuanced- carefully analyzing a writer whose work can often be (in my opinon) complex, dynamic, cerebral and difficult to pin down. I also enjoyed her essay on Katherine Mansfield, which delved into her fraught relationship with Woolf herself. However, it was her essays on Carter and Barnes that I found most memorable. For a start, Sage‘s knowledge of Carter’s diverse range of work is apparent, and I was really struck by her comparison of Carter’s writing with the Marquis De Sade. Any Carterian devotee will likely know that Carter was influenced by De Sade through Carter’s ‘The Sadeian Woman,’ yet it had never quite struck me how similar some of her characters are to those of Sade’s ‘Justine.’ For instance, pitiful, passive, ever-suffering Tristessa in ‘The Passion of New Eve’* could be seen as a version of masochist Justine, whereas the unnamed vampire lady of ‘The Lady of the House of Love‘ could be the gleefully sexual, sadistic Juliette. Reading this kind of commentary really reminded me of the chapter on De Sade in Camille Paglia’s seminal work ‘Sexual Personae.’** (Tip- DON’T read this chapter whilst eating, or late at night!!)

Another of Sage‘s points to do with the recurring theme of wedding dresses within Carter’s work- also gave me an ‘aha’ moment (to quote Oprah!) because YES, OF COURSE, the Lady in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ wears that bridal-like dress of thin white silk that makes her look like ‘a ghost in the machine’, and Melanie wears her mother’s wedding dress at the beginning of Carter’s ‘The Magic Toyshop‘! I was also pleasantly surprised and intrigued by how Sage analyzes Carter’s work in relation to the ‘fairy painter’ Richard Dadd– one of my favourite and most thought-provoking Victorian artists-and explains how his work was another influence on Carter’s writing. I would never have guessed this, and yet it fits in neatly with work such as Carter’s short-story version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’- ‘Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘- with its references to sex, Orientalism, exoticism and whimsy. I also like Sage‘s references to (the amazing) Marina Warner– author of ‘From The Beast To The Blonde‘ and Jack Zipes. However, I do think it odd that the essay begins with such an in-depth look at the work of Italian folklorist Italo Calvino, especially as the focus is meant to be on Carter. It’s a shame, also, that Sage doesn’t hone in on well-known Carter stories such as ‘Wolf-Alice‘ (another favourite) from Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ or the cult-classic film version of ‘The Company of Wolves.‘ I was really taken with the idea of Carter’s ‘Bloody Chamber’ itself not being a metaphor for a vagina/womb but actually a heart.

Whilst all the essays in this collection are sophisticated and profound, the other essay I really enjoyed was, of course, the one on Djuna Barnes and her seminal novel, ‘Nightwood.’ I loved little references to the notorious Barnes and her unique appearance- e.g. her ‘lipstick sneer’, but I do wish there had been more obvious references to her sense of joie de vivre and her caustic wit (she was by all accounts as much of a noted wit as Dorothy Parker, and was known in all the Bohemian/lesbian circles of Paris.)

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Djuna Barnes

I liked how the essay delved into her broken childhood (Barnes could have been a survivor of of incest, rape and other abuse) and how this influenced her writing (her last play, ‘The Antiphon’ savaged her dysfunctional family and patriarchal father,) and her love you-hate-you relationship with the sculptor Thelma Wood, but wished it could have focused more on Barnes’s treatment of sexuality and identity (both personally, as well as in her writing.) The essay makes it clear, however, that Barnes was as much of an enigma as Greta Garbo- as well as just as beautiful- and that she lived her last years not in the Bohemian, decadent Paris she loved, but in Greenwich Village in New York, where she lived largely in isolation. She rarely wrote at all after the heady days (and nights) of the 1920s. A bittersweet, poignant end to someone who seemed to love life so fully. All in all, I found this a compelling and thoughtful essay- I just wished it had captured a little more of Barnes’s spirit.

Overall rating: 8 out of 10

Read if you enjoyed: ‘Burning Your Boats‘ by Angela Carter

*Carter’s ‘The Passion of New Eve’ is a zany, rambling acid-trip of a novel- it was too complex for me to to follow- and yet it is likely to be interesting for anyone interested in issues surrounding gender and anxiety, as characters such as Evelyn and Zero change gender seemingly at the drop of a hat.

**I love Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’ so much that one of my characters in ‘The Breathing Ghosts Series,’the feminist academic Camille Whittaker, changes her name from Claire to Camille in honour of her.

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