Monday, May 24, 2021

CS Lewis and Sexism - Jane Studdock

We certainly like her better than her husband, don't we?  Start to finish? We also understand her better, as Lewis spends a good deal of the novel telling us the story from her point of view, not only in what she observes, but what she feels about it. Lewis is not generalising about all young academic women.  she is a full character.  It is we who expect that any young academic female in fiction represents all of them. It is required that she stand in for all of them.

I recall when I first read That Hideous Strength that much of what Lewis was saying about Jane was not going to go down well.  It seemed very much an old-fashioned sexism by a man who just didn't get it. You're not supposed to make fun of women for being able to discuss codpieces in professional discussions of literature but feel timid about considering the marriage bed. You aren't supposed to regard a woman who is determined to keep her freedom and resist obligations and expectations as wrong in any way.  And you certainly aren't supposed to suggest at the end that she has done something wrong by not having a baby. 

It just seemed wrong-footed, that someone who seemed in other places to understand the human character so well should bungle this so badly. Yet because of my own prejudices and stereotypes, I just chalked it up to his having written in the 1940s, a benighted era in which men were chauvinists, even more than they were in the late 70s. It was further surprising when I learned that he treated female colleagues and students remarkably well and had decades of correspondence with women from whom he sought advice and criticism. He was noted for it, and sometimes chided about it, enough that he called himself The Old Woman of Oxford. He was aware of feminine parts of himself and expected that most women would have some masculine aspects.

I did not think to question further, because I had my stereotypes in place.  

I don't think I changed my mind about this gradually, though there may have been thoughts in the background. My impression is that one day a few years ago I thought "Maybe Lewis actually understood what was supposed to be said and intentionally wrote something else instead.  What if he understands us quite well and it is we who don't understand him?" A lot of dominoes fall pretty quickly.  Jane Studdock is not an archetypal or representative young female academic or professional.  She's Jane Studdock.  If anything, it's her husband Mark who is a bit stock or two-dimensional. Lewis knows very well what he is expected to say, but chooses to say something deeper instead.  He does not so much argue for an opposite as attempt to transcend the debate. I hear you clearly.  I just think you are wrong.  I think there's something deeper you're not looking at here. Let me make a case for that.


David Foster said...

Not sure how important a point this is, but Jane Studdock isn't really an Academic Woman...she is not pursuing an advanced degree or doing any serious research or writing, but rather, thinking that she will do these things someday...but an Academically-Inclined Woman.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I missed that on every reading. Thanks.

Earl Wajenberg said...

I suppose that what gripes more modern readers most about Jane is the way she gets seduced by the idea of obedience—almost literally, with the idea as an active agent (though I suspect it's really the Perelandra wraith that haunts St. Anne's):

"What would you—what would the people you are talking of—say about a case like that?"
"I will tell you if you really want to know," said the Director.
"Please," said Jane reluctantly.
"They would say," he answered, "that you do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience."
Something in Jane that would normally have reacted to such a remark with anger or laughter was banished to a remote distance (where she could still, but only just, hear its voice) by the fact that the word Obedience—but certainly not obedience to Mark—came over her, in that room and in that presence, like a strange oriental perfume, perilous, seductive, and ambiguous . . .
"Stop it!" said the Director, sharply.
Jane stared at him, open mouthed. There were a few moments of silence during which the exotic fragrance faded away.

Two things:

I think that here it is "certainly not obedience to Mark." It is, rather, obedience to one's wedding vows. But Lewis doesn't make this clear.

The other thing, which he certainly does make clear, is the reciprocal change in Mark. In his last appearance in the book, he gets completely swept up in Frauendienst, "lady-service," the suitor as servant of his lady, a staple of medieval romance. He sees himself as utterly unworthy of Jane, whom he sees as both pure and sophisticated.

And even before that, he is so repelled by the idea of bringing the hellish Belbury crowd in contact with Jane that he risks his precious ambitions to keep them apart.

The change in Jane can't be considered without the reciprocal change in Mark.

David Foster said...

A couple of Jane-descriptive passages which I cited in my review of the book:

"To avoid entanglements and interferences had long been one of her first principles. Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought “but I must keep my own life” had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind. Some resentment against love itself, and therefore against Mark, for thus invading her life, remained…this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child–or not for a long time yet."

Also, Mark notes that whenever Jane is temporarily loses “a certain indefinable defensiveness,” as she does after one of her terrifying dreams, the next day there are always “inexplicable quarrels.” It seems likely that when she admits her need of comfort, and allows Mark to comfort her, she perceives that as a loss of the independence that she so values.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I just read that Jane was what we would call a PhD candidate? If so, she is in a grey area in terms of being an academic, but I would lean toward accepting that as a fair description. She is clearly giving something up at the end. Dr. Monika Hilder suggests that she goes from being a classical hero - worldly, conquering, active - to becoming a spiritual hero - adaptive, generous, receptive. Because the modern world considers the former as the only real version, they consider Lewis - an academic of the first water - assigning Jane Studdock a role where she abandons that to support her husband's career to be patting her on the head and saying "There, there. This is the best that girls can do. Be content with it." Yet he may mean something more. Mark Studdock gets the respectable but shallower life in the university. She gets the deeper and ultimately richer life. Because remember, she also not only has visions but deeper insights and has become embedded in the community of St Anne's. She is now the real warrior on a cosmic level while he is messing around in a purely academic world that Lewis had decidedly mixed feelings about.

WE see through worldly eyes and consider that a lesser role. Lewis 1923 and maybe even 1933 would agree. Lewis 1943 was aspiring to a greater vision, and by 1953 I have little doubt he saw Jane's role as much more meaningful.

Texan99 said...

Lewis is very generous to Camilla Denniston, even her tomboy aspects. She's even pregnant, but not sidelined except in the purely physical sense that she shouldn't drag an infant into combat. She isn't warned off of combat because it would be unfeminine. Jane admires her passionately.

When I first encountered Jane I was a teenager, and resented the condescending attitude toward her ambition, but to be fair, her ambition is largely imaginary. She keeps putting off the stale analysis of some aspect or another of Donne because she doesn't really care about it. She gets something much more invigorating to care about in the course of the story, and even has to submit to considerable danger and squalor because of the extraordinary psychic ability she develops. She really has forfeited happiness by so rigidly determining to keep herself independent: she has to learn a kind of independence that doesn't depend on sterile isolation but on courage and engagement.

It was a preoccupation of Lewis's: a heroic sense of the individual soul combined with a conviction that human freedom is inseparable from abased submission to God and each other. No submission to God, love, or duty was too extreme, but no cowardly bowing to fear, social ambition, or love of ease was excusable. Though he obviously knew a thing or two about the eroticism of submission, still, as usual, he cautioned against letting the earthly shadow blind us to the higher form. I'd say Jane gets confused about submission in part because her culture had some sick ideas about what submission in women should mean, but she makes a mistake by concluding that the cure is to root out all submission in life. For his part, Mark has some of the complacency knocked out of him as well when he realizes he doesn't own his wife like a car.

Texan99 said...

I identify uncomfortably with Mark Studdock. Belbury was very much like my law firm.