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The Word Woman and other related writings

Published by Persea Books, Inc. 2005.
"A Karen and Michael Braziller book"

ISBN 0-89255-184-4 (pbk.) ISBN 0-89255-185-2

From the Introduction

Women are strangers in the country of man.

Laura Riding

Two decades before Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex launched modern feminist theory, a young American writer living in Majorca was actively exploring the idea of woman as "Other" in the man-made world of human culture. A full half-century before Betty Friedan proclaimed the "Second Stage" of feminism, Laura Riding was writing, "Woman has two works to perform: a work of differentiation, of man from herself, and a work of unification, of man with herself ... We, women, are now entering upon our second work".

By the mid-1930s Laura Riding could have been seen as a prototype of the emancipated woman. She had received two scholarships to Cornell University, had been admitted into an all-male fraternity of Southern writers who published a highly acclaimed literary magazine called The Fugitive, had published nineteen books of poetry, criticism, and short fiction, and was the originator and editor of Epilogue, A Critical Summary (1935-1938). She had been married and divorced, and after a period in England had settled in Majorca with another writer, Robert Graves, with whom she collaborated on a number of writing and publishing projects, including the co-founding and operation of the Seizin Press (1927-1939). As a woman who had achieved an extraordinary degree of success in a man's world, Riding was uniquely qualified to look at feminist ideas from a vantage point still denied most women, and with a breadth and sweep all her own. Much of what she discovered, in the decade of the thirties, is now being recognized on a large scale by the women of the nineties.

In preparing the manuscript of The Word "Woman" for publication, we wondered if some of it would seem dated, quaintly anachronistic; and indeed it is not difficult to find what appear to be period touches. But any attentive reading will show, we believe, that such features are superficial. It is not only that, on both sides of the Atlantic, close present-day parallels in women's accounts of themselves can readily be found, but that, more fundamentally, no other thinking of Laura (Riding) Jackson's caliber appears yet to have been done on the transforming possibilities for us all of a necessary reconciliation between accepted woman-man polarities of human nature and outlook. Here as elsewhere, it is the scope of her vision that sets her apart from her contemporaries of any decade of this century.

Laura Riding's The Word "Woman" was never finished. It was left behind in Majorca in early August 1936, when Riding and Graves fled the impending perils of the Spanish Civil War to return to England and later America. Ten years later, in May 1946, Graves returned to their former home (designed by Riding) in Majorca; by 1940 Riding had chosen to settle in America, marrying Schuyler B. Jackson, with whom she wrote a monumental study of language, still unpublished. During and long after their thirteen years together, Graves borrowed heavily from Riding's general themes and ideas, and sometimes made specific - though often distorted - use of her material to support his own idiosyncratic critical theories. A clear example of such a tendentious use is Graves' version of the legend of the origin of Japanese poetry. As Laura Riding tells the story,

The goddess Izanami-no-mikoto, meeting the god Izanagi-no-mikoto, exclaimed at once:

What joy beyond compare

To see a man so fair!

The masculine genius was much displeased, and said:

I am the male! It is but reason that I should speak first.

How should a woman speak before the man? 'Tis not to be thought of.

Thereupon they decided to go in opposite directions round the great central column. So they met again, god and goddess.

This time Izanagi, the male genius, spoke first:

What joy beyond compare

To see a maid so fair!

So these words became the origin of Japanese poetry.

Riding describes this story (pages 41-42) as "a caricature" that is "a close enough picture of the male habit of mind," but when Robert Graves repeats it in The White Goddess (1948), it becomes an encounter between the Moon-goddess and the Sun-god in which the Sun-god takes over the control of poetry from the Muse and pretends that he has originated it. "With that," Graves asserts, "poetry becomes academic and decays until the Muse chooses to reassert her power in what are called Romantic Revivals".

A more obvious extrapolation of the work and thought of Laura Riding by Robert Graves may be seen in the title poem of his book, Man Does, Woman Is, published in 1964. Graves had probably read, on page 59 of the typescript in his possession (pages 68-69), Riding's observation: "When a woman meets another woman she knows what she is, in a way in which she cannot immediately know what any man is, or a man any other man: she knows that the other woman is a woman; whereas with a man the question `What is he? can only be answered by saying what he does, what particular kind of activity he represents".

Feminists sometimes attempted to incorporate Laura (Riding) Jackson's writing into their official canon, but she resisted, assiduously maintaining that women writers should not be seen as constituting a separate professional category, nor should their work be treated as a separate subject of literary or artistic interest. She refused to allow her work to be reprinted in anthologies of women's writing, and where quotations from her work appeared in such collections, they were used without her permission.

It was reported in 1989 that a leader in the women's movement was asked by a successful but disillusioned feminist, "Why didn't you tell us it was going to be like this?" and that she answered "Well, we didn't know". Perhaps if the forgers of the modem feminist movement had been open to Laura (Riding) Jackson's whole-minded thinking on the subject, they would have recognized that women cannot fulfil themselves as women merely by extracting concessions from men which improve their social, their human, standing. They can only be woman fully through an internal realization of their meaning as woman. The standing does not matter, for the standing does not last. The old­fashioned standing assigned to women is as inadequate as the standing sought by feminists. Not a respectable human standing, but an active consciousness of themselves, should be the object of women's endeavour on their own behalf. Justice cannot be done women by men, only by themselves.

The Word "Woman" is likely to encounter critical resistance from - and perhaps even to shock - conventional feminists. But we believe that for very many women its message will come as a clear and welcome substantiation of what they have always known.

The other writings in this collection show both the consistency of the author's thought and its lifelong development - she once suggested that her work in general be viewed as that of a mind "in movement". These pieces culminate in "The Bondage", first published in 1972, the same year that The Telling -a work she identified as her "personal evangel" - appeared in book form in England. It is to The Telling that readers should turn for the most ample statement of Laura (Riding) Jackson's distinctive world­view. However, that view - better called a cosmos-view - is implicit everywhere in the present volume, and thus woman's work of differentiation and reconciliation, spoken of in the title piece, emerges as no arbitrary social aspiration but a necessary, even a functional precondition of fulfillment of "all we as human are". Nor is this "future-facing hope of human good" dependent on unawareness of the sometimes dismal ways of the twentieth­century intellectual world - one such way being, as she notes in The Telling, "that presumptuous familiarity of indulgent contempt of ourselves with which we god-like look down on us from the heavens of common-sense" (page 36).

In these writings on "woman", as in The Telling, her attention is variedly "divided between the ideal, as the realizable, and the un-ideal, as the commonly preferred actual". Here, as there, she tries "to traverse the gap between the two, to show it to be traversable in reality - and with increase in safety, and sanity" (page 71). It is to the realization of such difficult safety, such saving sanity, that we dedicate this book.

Elizabeth Friedmann
Alan J. Clark

Elizabeth Friedmann is co-editor of a number of books by Laura (Riding) Jackson, including First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding, and she is the author of the definitive biography A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson. Friedmann lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Alan J. Clark is Laura (Riding) Jackson's authorised bibliographer and co-editor of several books, including First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding and Under The Mind's Watch with John Nolan. The latest version of his bibliography may be found in Chelsea 69.

Cover photos: Laura Riding, 1927, from the Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson Collection, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library; Laura (Riding) Jackson , 1970s, from the collection of Elizabeth Friedmann, used by permission.

 

 
Laura (Riding) Jackson

The Person I Am
A Mannered Grace
The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language
Anarchism Is Not Enough
Essays from Epilogue
First Awakenings
Four Unposted Letters To Catherine
Progress of Stories
Rational Meaning
The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader
The Poems of Laura Riding
A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding
The Telling
The Word Woman
Under The Mind's Watch
Sample Letters of Laura (Riding) Jackson
Essays
Web Page updated February 2018

 

 

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