Books: The Bloody Chamber & The Fault in Our Stars

One of the amazing things about being an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) is that according to my contract I’m supposed to work a maximum of 26 hours a week. Because I’m not as busy as I might otherwise be, I’ve decided to try and use my year in Norway to develop good habits that will (hopefully) carry over next year when I start working full time.

As of right now, project gym has had a rough time getting started, but I’ve had a lot more success when it comes to reading for fun. Right now my goal is to either read for an hour every day or to read a chapter a day. I’ve always had a long book list, and it’s great to finally have time to dedicate to it.

Getting the books themselves has also been pretty easy. Thanks to technology, I can easily borrow and read books on my Kindle. The Overdrive system also allows me to borrow e-books from my home library in the US. If I want a physical book, the Norwegian library system is easy to use and has a very good selection of books in English. Trondheim’s central library is an easy thirty minute walk away and if I want something more convenient, there is a public library right inside the entrance of Byåsen. If neither of these libraries has the book I’m looking for, they can request the book from any of Norway’s other public libraries.

As of right now, I’ve finished Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

The first I’d heard of Angela Carter was when I took an undergraduate class on children’s literature. One of the questions that the class had been asked to explore was whether or not fairy tales could be rewritten. We’d read through several iterations of some of the more classic fairy tales, “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” etc., and seen how they had changed over time. Although these fairy tales had plainly been adapted, it had always seemed to me that many of these changes were more superficial. Morals were added or taken away, stories had slightly different details, different themes were emphasized, but at the end of the day the crux of the story remained the same. In other words, I believed that these class tales were not really being rewritten.

Towards the middle of the course, we were assigned chapters from the Bloody Chamber in order to see a more modern take on the fairy tale. Although I’d only been assigned “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Lady of the House of Love,” these two chapters were enough to make me believe that fairy tales could be rewritten and to make me a Carter fan. While I didn’t have enough time to read the rest of The Bloody Chamber at school, I made sure to keep it towards the top of my book list. So, when I discovered that Byåsen actually had a copy of The Bloody Chamber I rushed to check it out.

Each of the book’s chapters is a separate short story, so The Bloody Chamber a very quick and easy read. Carter retells: “Bluebeard,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” as well as a few other classic tales. While I was nervous that the other chapters in the book might not live up to “The Tiger’s Bride” or “The Lady of the House of Love,” I enjoyed almost every chapter. Overall I would wholeheartedly recommend the book. Carter has absolutely gorgeous prose that is well worth reading, even if fairy tales aren’t your typical cup of tea.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was badgered into reading The Fault in Our Stars, but it’s not too far off the mark. Before I actually read the novel, all I knew was pretty much everything you can gather from the movie trailer. I knew that it was some sort of love story centered around two teens that have cancer. That and watching the movie or reading the book was apparently supposed to make me dissolve into a puddle of tears.

So, having been enthusiastically encouraged to read this book for months, I finally bit the bullet and checked it out of the library. Yes, I went into the book skeptical. This was not helped by the fact that it’s told from a teenager’s perspective, something that John Green conveys by excessively using the words “like” and “whatever.” Things were looking grim and I did not think that I would be able to make it past the first few chapters. But the book picks up, as does the writing. While the two teens, Hazel and Augustus, bond over a variety of things, the one thing that they bond over most is the book An Imperial Affliction. I have to hand it to Green, he does have some really nice writing when his characters quote from An Imperial Affliction and analyze it. The characters eventually come across as witty and sincere, especially when they attempt to grapple with some of life’s harder questions, such as “What happens when you die?” “Is it worth loving someone when you know that you have an incredibly limited life span?” “Why does cancer affect the people it does in the ways that it does?” At the end of the day, it was a quick read and a good one. Green strikes a good balance between trying to talk about a serious subject while also giving both the characters and the reader funny and uplifting moments.

James Bond

Holly Goodhead: “Good afternoon. Can I help you?”
James Bond: “My names is Bond. James Bond. I’m looking for Dr Goodhead.”
Holly Goodhead: “You just found her.”
James Bond: “…A woman.”
Holly Goodhead: “Your powers of observation do you credit Mr Bond.”

This is a quote taken from Ian Fleming’s 1979 film Moonraker, and if you’d like to see the actual scene you can watch it here (I promise it’s pretty sassy).

As far back as I can remember, I have always been a James Bond fan. I loved watching the Bond movies as a kid, and was drawn to how exciting and formulaic the movies were. Bond was always attractive, always manage to survive seemingly impossible scenarios, and would always have the best cars, gadgets, and yes, women. Growing up I didn’t really mind how women were portrayed in the Bond movies. Their lack of depth and speaking parts never bothered me, but then again it was never too far off the Disney movies I’d graduated from in the 90s. While I loved watching movies like The Little MermaidCinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, similar to the Bond girls, most of these standard Disney princesses lacked complex personalities and were almost always rescued by their prince charmings. This is not to say that all Disney princesses or Bond girls are two dimensional, you only need to watch Frozen or Casino Royale to know that is not the case, but it did mean that seeing a fiesty and strong Bond girl, such as Holly Goodhead above, was a wonderful thing for me as a teen. This also means that when I had the chance to teach a British history lesson at Byåsen, I leapt at the opportunity to teach my students about James Bond and its relationship to the feminist movement in Britain.

First things first, I was actually shocked by by how difficult it was to prepare for this lesson. Very early on in my lesson planning I realized that there are pretty much no good resources available on the feminist movement in Britain. While some websites do a great overview of women’s suffrage, I have yet to see a well written article that covers feminism’s historical presence in Britain. It was saddening to realize that the history of the women’s movement in Britain is so poorly documented. Trust me, even the YouTube videos on it were soporific.

So dear reader, in an effort to change this, you now get to read through a brief history of feminism in Britain:

18th Century

Around the start of the Industrial Revolution (1760s) working class women began to work full time. This gave women their first opportunities to regularly meet and discuss political and social issues.

Early 1900s

While women had been meeting informally since the 18th century, it isn’t until 1866 that organized women’s suffrage starts to appear. At this point in time women’s suffrage had not gained much traction with the public, so when MP John Stuart Mill proposed an amendment to give women the same voting rights as men in 1867, it was voted down 194 to 73 in Parliament.

The first major suffragist organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS),was organized in 1897 under Milicent Fawcett. The NUWSS was committed to using peaceful tactics, such as non-violent demonstrations. Originally it only wanted the vote for middle class property-owning women, but it quickly realized that it needed to expand to include the vote for working class women.

The suffragettes (notice the spelling change) emerged in 1903 with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and was an active organization whose members mostly consisted of young working class women. In contrast to the NUWSS, they were not a law abiding organization. Their slogan was “Deeds Not Words” and they were known to use violent tactics such as arson. When many suffragettes were arrested, they would often go on hunger strikes to keep up the attention on women’s suffrage. One of the WSPU’s most famous members is Emily Davison. Davison famously wore the WSPU colors before running in front of the King’s horse when it was racing at Epsom. It was previously believed that it was a deliberate act of suicide, although now it is believed that she was trying to attach a WSPU scarf to the horse’s bridle. She died from injuries suffered in the collision, and when she was buried the words on her tombstone were “Deeds Not Words.”

World War I

When Britain decided to enter World War I, women’s groups decided to suspend their suffrage activities (which also helped make them seem more reasonable). Although women did not actively campaign for suffrage, that does not mean that they were not a driving force in Britain’s domestic landscape. Because so many men were sent to the front, women were called upon to take up jobs that were previously dominated by men. While this may seem like a big step for women, it was mostly a change for middle and upper class women (working class women had been working since the 19th century). If you watch Downton Abbey, this is why Sybil’s decision to become a nurse was considered a big deal.

The Interwar Years

After World War I, women’s contributions to the war could not be ignored and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed. This gave women over the age of 30 the right to vote. In contrast to this, men could vote at the age of 21. You might be wondering why there was a nine year difference in voting ages, and the answer is that it would ensure that men were still the majority vote. Because so many men had been killed during World War I, the voting difference was made to guarantee that men would not be overrun by the women’s vote.

Things do improve, and in 1928 women are finally given the same voting rights as men in the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. This concludes what is called first wave feminism, or women’s campaign for equal voting rights.

World War II & the Postwar

After women won equal voting rights, women’s membership in feminist groups declined. Overall not too much happens, but in 1944 the Education Act is passed and establishes free education for all primary and secondary students, male and female. However, there is a catch. Once students reached age 11 many schools installed quotas on the number of female students that they would accept. During this time period studies showed that female students frequently outperformed their male counterparts and schools did not want to be overrun with girls. These quotas remained legal until the 1980s. 

1960s

The Swinging Sixties helped welcome in the sexual revolution. The Pill arrived in Britain in 1961, but it wasn’t widely available to all women until 1974. The 60s also see the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act.

One of the most important events in the 1960s was the 1968 Ford plant strike. Women who worked at Ford’s Dagenham factory asked their managers to raise their wages to that of some of their male counterparts. The managers turned them down and the women went on strike until their wages were raised. The strike helped highlight workplace inequality and The Observer noted that “at least four million women [were] used virtually as slave labour.” Documents also show us that half of Britain’s working women were earning less than five shillings an hour (which pretty much meant they were working for pennies/pence).

1970s

The Ford strike helped galvanize efforts to grant women equal pay, and in 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed. In reality, the law didn’t do much to actually help women, and their wages were still 54.8% of men’s. Women struggled to get paid the same as men and also struggled to get equal treatment from banks. If a woman wanted to get higher credit from a bank she would often need a signature from her father or husband.

In 1970 the Miss World was famously protested against, mostly by the Women’s Liberation Movement. At the time, Miss World was an event that was widely watched in Britain and protesters interrupted proceedings with whistles, flour bombs, and stink bombs. They famously shouted “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry.” Most of the protesters were not angry at the contestants, rather they were angry at the ways in which these women were objectified and portrayed. They also had issues with statements made by the host, Bob Hope. Hope frequently made derogatory remarks towards women and referred to the competition as a cattle market.

The 1970s also saw a resurgence in feminist groups. In 1975, The Times reported that there were more than 1,500 groups of women around the country meeting fairly regularly.

Lastly, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of Britain. Although Thatcher was not an active participant in the feminist movement, her appointment was considered a huge step for women.

Overall it is important to note that women’s movements in Britain were grassroots movements. Because there weren’t many women in positions of power (even in the 1970s only 4.6% of the members of Parliament were female) any sort of push for change needed to come from below.

 So how does James Bond fit into all of this? Well, Ian Fleming started to write the Bond books in the 1950s, and by looking at how Fleming changes his portrayal of women we can see how much of an impact feminism had. When Fleming first started to write in the 1950s, he was constantly critiqued for his portrayal of women. One news article in The Times was so outraged with Fleming that it bitingly said “The woman is not really a woman at all. She is just a rather pleasantly scented plaything to be used for an hour or two in a context of violence that borders on sadism. And that is accepted. There, in my judgment, is the measure of our contemporary standard of morality.”

To be frank the critique of Fleming’s books is largely spot on, especially for his early work. Women do not play a central role in the Bond books, in fact Bond famously says “These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.” The Times was also accurate when it said that Bond often uses the women who waltz through the pages as though they were “pleasantly scented plaything[s].”

But things are forced to change. As Fleming began to reach a broader audience, and his books began to spawn a multi-million dollar movie franchise, Fleming’s portrayal of women had to adapt. In the books, Bond eventually marries. His wife is a relatively strong woman, whose death provides a devastating blow to Bond. In fact, you could argue that it is one that he never fully recovers from.

The movies also start to change. You can see this with characters like Moonraker‘s Holly Goodhead. Holly Goodhead is more than just a pretty face, as Bond himself points out. She’s a fully qualified NASA scientist, astronaut, and a CIA agent. I wouldn’t say that representations of women in the Bond films is perfect, it is still far from so, but I hoped that by showing my students Moonraker they would be able to remember at least a small portion of my lecture, as well as have a greater understanding of how much women had to fight to even get a character like Dr Goodhead on the silver screen.