Virgina Woolf lives on in strange ways. She and Leonard Woolf startedHogarth Press in 1917 to publish themselves as well as their colleagues in the Bloomsbury group. Woolf published some of her most radical and explicitly feminist titles, including Mrs. Dalloway, under this aegis. By the 1940s, however, the press was defunct. And now, Lazarus-like, Hogarth has returned, thanks to Chatto & Windus in the UK and Random House in the US. So will this new incarnation, with such a loaded name and history, be able to shine a light on contemporary gender issues the way Virginia Woolf did almost a century ago?
I decided to read the first two books published by the new Hogarth to find out. And, as a male reader, I was surprised by the different ways Anouk Markovits’s I Am Forbidden and Stephanie Reents’s The Kissing List illuminated the experience of being female in our time.
I Am Forbidden is the story of two sisters within one of the most deeply Orthodox sects of Hasidic Judaism, Satmar. In this world, religion dictates which books they may read, which men are qualified to marry them, when they are permitted to have intercourse. As one sister decides to leave the fold, I waited for the author to take sides. But Markovits does not choose; she simply tells the story of both sisters, focusing on the complications and strains of each path. How can a barren Satmar woman ever hope to bear children if her husband is not permitted to spill seed outside her body, even for the medical tests that could determine the cause of their infertility? Somehow, Markovits is able to show how each character’s outlook prevents her from accepting the facile solutions I might have offered as an uninformed outsider. If fiction is about helping us understand other people, Markovits has succeeded brilliantly.
The Kissing List, on the other hand, is wholly urbane, following a group of four girls through years and cities in a set of linked stories. Like a Sex and the City for twentysomethings fresh out of college, the stories circle around failed relationships, imperfect jobs, and the enduring value of friendship. In each story Reents adopts a different style, from straight first-person narration to email memos and multiple-choice questions. Virginia Woolf would have applauded both their sexual freedom and Reents's stylistic liberties, but I finished the book confused by how these women couldn’t solve their own problems. They were self-made, yes, but they hadn’t found a stance to champion. "Is this what it’s like to be a female today?" I asked a few of my girl friends. I hoped my befuddlement wasn't just due to differences in plumbing. Sadly, they all nodded.
In A Room of One's Own, Woolf discusses androgyny in the mind of the author: “it transmits emotion without impediment...it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” I may have seen that incandescence more clearly in I Am Forbidden than in The Kissing List, but the fact that these books breathe new life into these questions makes me optimistic for the future of Hogarth Press.
image credits, L to R: modernlitclub.blogspot.com; goodreads.com; goodreads.com