Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk, Sissinghurst, Kent (National Trust Photo Library)
Long ago as an Eng Lit undergraduate, I endured a term on 20th Century literature with a tutor who could have come straight out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Bearded, corpulent, booming-voiced, with a bottle of booze constantly at his elbow, he never wasted an opportunity to bully me because I liked Virginia Woolf. Lawrence, he thundered, that was what it was all about! Woolf was effete, privileged – she had servants! What did she know about real life? If I encountered him now I would say at least two things – one that bonking on the rug in front of a roaring fire in the household of a thinly-disguised Ottoline Morrell isn’t exactly social realism, and two that Lawrence had a servant, too. She was called Frieda, she left her husband and kids to service his monumental ego, because a wandering social pariah, and at least the Woolfs paid their domestic help.
I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.
I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I walked past a house that’s presently being renovated, and had to move into the middle of the road because the pavement was fully occupied by a bloke in a white van eating his lunch with the doors both wide open. That’s the thing about toxic (and occasionally non-toxic but thoughtless) masculinity – it is based on the assumption that men take up space and women squeeze around them. The first women to challenge this, and to literally demand their own space, tended to belong to social and/or intellectual elites. Vita Sackville-West, with her glorious book-lined tower writing room at Sissinghurst, comes to mind. As does Woolf herself, with her country retreat at Monks’ House and her accommodating, possibly celibate, marriage.
Elites have a bad press these days, but they have their uses. When privilege is really deeply entrenched, they are in a particularly strong and visible position to challenge it. Yes, I hear you all cry, what did Vita and Virginia ever do for the suffering unemployed? Fair enough, but how many of the people who throw rocks at Virginia know about the devastating series of personal losses she’d experienced by the age of twenty, and her horrendous struggles with severe mental illness before the era of anti-depressants? Let’s be terribly understanding and sympathetic about mental illness, let’s wear the T-shirt and tweet the supportive slogans, but God forbid that we should include someone wealthy in our circle of empathy.
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
I am sure that Virginia, Vita and their circle could be ghastly, self-indulgent snobs. But that is because they were human, not specifically on account of their class or gender. And roistering males who expressed their creativity through titanic bouts of alcoholism and strings of wrecked relationships don’t seem to be exposed to the same scrutiny. Nobody’s social class or gender ought to give the a free pass. But in all fairness, that should apply to everyone, not only those considered to be cool and authentic.
There are an awful lot of people around like my tutor, who broadcast their personal preferences as self-evident truth. They congregate on Twitter, quick to mock Abba and say they got into The Clash. Fine, I’ve no problem with that. But this very quickly turns into bullying, forcing dissenting, more marginal voices into the middle of the road while you eat your lunch. Please, let’s call it out for what it is.
I can imagine the eye-rolling if I get back onto the subject of Dancing Queen. But one of the reactions that saddened me among the flood of tweets was that it was “the saddest song ever written.” It’s all about death, apparently. A sad old person watches a young girl lost in the moment of joyful self-expression, and mourns the loss of their youth. Sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s an interpretation, but mine is different. I see it as someone rejoicing as they observe a young woman’s confidence and freedom, her indifference to what anybody else thinks about her.
It’s quite possible to be older than seventeen but not particularly want to be on the dance floor yourself, to rejoice in the simple pleasure, confidence and freedom of others. Middle age has taught me that. We should probably spend more time watching young people find their joyful space, and cheering them on. It doesn’t matter what they are dancing to. It’s the dance that counts.