Feminine Gospels and the Idea of Feminine Englishness

We’ve heard it said by Robert Burden in his essay “Englishness and Spatial Practices” that in considering the criteria for determining Englishness, one cannot exclude England’s history. The same can be said for the method of determining Feminine Englishness, one cannot exclude the history of women in English society. Furthermore, Englishness is defined as “idiosyncratic cultural norms of England and the English people” so Feminine Englishness differs simply by singularly assessing the norms of English women. Feminine Gospels, by Carol Ann Duffy, provides a spectrum of traditional roles women played through her poetry as well as poems that show the breaking of tradition and social constraints.

The Long Queen, the very first poem in Duffy’s collection, is written in such a way that made me feel like the subject matter was far from contemporary, but from perhaps medieval times. Thus, Duffy’s collection starts with some history. This poem seems to comes from the perspective of the queen herself, who is reflecting on and questioning the power of her title. “What was she queen of? Women, girls, / spinsters and hags, matrons, wet-nurses / witches, widows, wives, mothers of all these”. The queen sees herself as having power only over other women. The next question, to which there are four answers, is: “What are her laws?” The first law is Childhood, the second is Blood (menstruation), Tears, and finally Childbirth. She is not describing in each case laws that she has created, but laws that she must abide under, as must the women and girls she has power over. In regards to this poem, it seems to me as though Duffy has set up a framework that states the basic facts of life for women. The subsequent poems either elaborate on these facts, or begin the process of dismantling the framework.

The next few poems (Beautiful/The Diet/The Woman Who Shopped) elaborate on the societal constraints and culture norms that women are both subjected to and subject themselves to. Soon though, after Duffy goes into detail about the superficial aspects of women’s culture, she writes a poem called ‘Work’ that illustrates the immense importance of women to the survival and progress of society. “For a thousand more, she built streets, / for double that, high-rise flats. Cities grew, / her brood doubled, peopled skyscrapers, trebled… Mother to millions now. / she flogged TVs, / designed PCs, ripped CDs, burned DVDs… She fed / the world”. This poem suggests that even just considering a woman’s most basic defining function, childbirth and mothering, by extension makes her also a mother of invention, creation, and progress.

The poem ‘Loud’ shows us a woman who has discovered she can talk, she can shout and contradict, she can even be heard. “Before, she’d been easily led, / one of the crowd… Not any more. Now / she could roar.” This simply shows progress that heightens the role of women.

In the poem ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls High’ we are shown an extensive cast of female characters that struggle with the roles they are expected to play in society. Most of these women and girls end up breaking free from the culture norms and creating new, often scandalous lifestyles. This poem includes several lesbians, a tomboy who wants to go on dangerous adventures rather than become a woman of high society, and a middle aged woman who is finished pretending she is happy with her restrictive marriage and simply walks away.

Englishness is defined as “idiosyncratic cultural norms of England and the English people” so Feminine Englishness differs simply by singularly assessing the norms of English women. I think through this collection of poetry, considering structure and subject, we are given a very good idea of feminine history, which in turn translates into an understanding of the idea of Feminine Englishness.

-Julia

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One thought on “Feminine Gospels and the Idea of Feminine Englishness

  1. Julia, this post got me really excited! I think you summed up everything I felt while reading this collection of poems but couldn’t put into words. You talk about the “breaking of tradition and social constraints” in her writing and I think she did just that through accounting the everyday tasks and achievements of women. You say that, “the subsequent poems either elaborate on these facts, or begin the process of dismantling the framework.” I like that you address that through her poems she slowly but surely ‘dismantles’ what it means to be a woman and confined to the constructs of society. One other thing you said really struck me, “the poem suggests that even just considering a woman’s most basic defining function, childbirth and mothering, by extension makes her also a mother of invention, creation, and progress.” This is a beautiful idea and I think it rings true. It is important to never put aside the power of the woman and what her body can do. You suggest that through the acknowledgement of this power and ability peoples thoughts might begin to see the endless possibilities that are within reach of women! Good job, Julia!

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