Reviewed: Fifty Shades of Feminism

Woman’s hour.

Fifty Shades of Feminism
Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach
Virago, 336pp, £12.99

In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment. In the west, the dreaded “30 per cent problem” is looming: because some gains have been made, there are fewer stark, staring injustices to stir the troops to action. (It’s named after the idea that once female representation in a particular area reaches a third, many people feel that that’s fair – or even that there are too many women around.) In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, meanwhile, there is a struggle to articulate a women’s rights movement with its own identity, one that cannot be dismissed as an imperialist import. And for God’s sake don’t even mention pornography or prostitution: ask three feminists for their views on those and you’ll get four opinions.

On to this battlefield strides Fifty Shades of Feminism, a book that is resolutely unembarrassed about taking its name from an oldfashioned romance novel, albeit one with lashings of BDSM and terrible dance-based metaphors. I should say that I love the idea of this book and I love that it got published. It feels as though there’s a greater energy to the feminist movement now than I’ve experienced before in my adult life; there’s a critical mass of women who just won’t shut up about the things they care about.

That said, there are a few, perhaps inevitable, problems with a collection of this kind. First, there are several references to how quickly it was pulled together and the book seems to have lost count of its contributors somewhere along the way. Instead of 50 shades, the back cover lists 56 names and there’s a further essay by a young, feminist prizewinner tucked away at the back. Hey, who cares? Maths is for dudes, anyway. (This is a feminist JOKE. Don’t write me letters.)

The bulging list of contributors suggests that the editors might have had to cope with some high-level ego-management; and, because of the format, there are some crunchy gear changes. (Try going from Camila Batmanghelidjh ending a piece with “I’m a drunken whore with alternative boobs!” to Bidisha’s stern list of woman-hating behaviour such as “belittling and victimblaming” for a taste of the varying tones of contemporary feminist discourse.)

There are also occasional chapters that a harsher editor would have rejected: Shami Chakrabarti’s disjointed list of heroines and Liz Kelly’s technical, footnote-heavy description of the cases of Jimmy Savile and Julian Assange are the most obvious. That Kathy Lette has been enlisted to provide the “funny bit” also tells its own story.

But enough carping. Where this book excels is where its contributors approach the topic from an oblique angle: where they show, rather than tell. In this vein, Meera Syal’s reflections on playing Beatrice in a Bollywood-inspired Much Ado About Nothing are exquisite. The Chinese author Xinran’s chapter, showing the sexist assumptions behind the construction of five Mandarin written characters, is revelatory. Ahdaf Soueif’s bittersweet story of her Sri Lankan housekeeper’s return home undermines the easy narrative of the developing world’s aspiration to be more like the west. I also loved the novelist and video games writer Naomi Alderman’s comparison of the unabashed male domination of the tech world with the subtle sexism of publishing – but then it could have been written specifically for me.

It is intriguing that although the book is filled with quotations and illustrations, there is relatively little formal experimentation in the texts. A rare example comes from Jeanette Winterson, who juxtaposes her misgivings about porn with quotations from X-rated websites. The other surprising experimental highlight was the long free verse by Laurie Penny, of this parish.

Previously, I would have said that a feminist poem sounded about as appealing as a Vogon one but Penny’s scalpel-sharp observation is here complemented by some rhetorical fireworks: “There are more of us than you think, kicking off our high-heeled shoes to run and being told not so fast . . . who dared to dance until dawn and were drugged and raped by men in clean T-shirts and woke up scared and sore to be told it was our fault . . . who were told all our lives that we were too loud too risky too fat too ugly too scruffy too selfish too much . . .” It could have been excruciating; instead, it’s intoxicating.

Overall, the three editors of Fifty Shades – Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach – have made a conscious effort to keep their feminist church broad and their contributors are a diverse bunch in terms of age, race, sexuality and nationality. (Although, given their inclusiveness, the absence of a transgender writer does seem pointed.)

What does this book tell us about modern feminism? That it can be angry and warm and witty and wise; that there are more feminists than you might think and they care about an astonishingly broad range of topics; and that, as all women know, there aren’t enough bloody hours in the day.

Meera Syal’s reflections on playing Beatrice in a Bollywood-inspired Much Ado About Nothing are exquisite. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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