Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection
An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”
(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)
I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.
Many of the stories in the collection are very funny, and again, ironically so. In Leonora Carrington’s brief and grisly “The Débutante,” the title character sends a hyena in high heels, gloves, and “mask” to a ball in her place. Others, like Bessie Head’s “Life,” George Egerton’s “Wedlock,” and Andrée Chedid’s “The Long Trial,” are chilling reminders of the arbitrary emotional and physical violence to which women are so easily subjected at the hands of the men who dictate their marriages and behavior. Vernon Lee inverts this in “Oke of Okehurst” by making it amply clear that languid Mrs. Oke, who might be carrying on an affair with a ghost, enjoys every moment that she infuriates her husband, up to and including the point at which he becomes willing to commit murder. Mrs. Oke, of course, enjoys far more privilege than any of the women in the former stories. More straightforwardly admirable is, for example, the way in which the protagonist of “The Long Trial” draws a line in the sand when a patronizing holy man wishes that she might have “seven more children” – despite the fact that she is living in brutally described squalor with her already too-numerous children and oppressive husband.
There’s far too much in this collection to cover in just one review, so I’ll stop myself there. Wayward Girls and Wicked Women is an endlessly fascinating collection of stories, all of them excellently written and in a variety of styles. Whether you’re looking to read about female experience from a variety of historical and cultural perspectives or craving some sharply funny, sharply observed stories about con-women and housemaids who might be witches, I’d highly recommend it.
* Later addition: Looking back on this review, I’m kind of uncomfortable with how simplistically moralizing some of it came out sounding; I think I wrote parts of it too glibly. The idea of female selfishness, for example, is clearly a really loaded one, since it’s so historically contingent on male expectations of female behavior. Something that I was trying to get at in the first and third paragraphs, but didn’t quite get around to expressing, is how vital female self-interest is shown to be in these stories and characters: vital in the senses both of vibrant and necessary.