The wardrobe portal to Narnia in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t a literary fiction; it really exists inside my head every time I re-read this novel. A similar yet different wardrobe also opens in my mind whenever I sit down to write.
As an author, I’m continuously delving into this closet to find out what might lie hidden at the back and then put on those clothes. (This is both practical and a personal indulgence, as writing allows me to become hundreds of different people far more cheaply than a new haircut or high street shopping spree!) I approach this here as a writer, but actually producing a different ‘me’ for different settings, in different company and playing different roles feels very much part of contemporary life, a modern type of shape-shifting. Like a method actor, I often partly become the characters I’m portraying in my work, in my imagination at least. Because my fictions need to merge to some extent with my real-life experiences, family and relationships often provide lots to dress up in, particularly if I can impose a new pattern on old material.
Look closely at many myths or fairy tales and they’re full of family dynamics. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, we’re given Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, waiting faithfully for his return. Move from Greek myth to Roman goddesses, as in Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Venus is mother of the Romans through her son, Aeneas, who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. Meanwhile, fairy tales have the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood, the sisters Snow-White and Rose-Red, the evil stepmother and fairy godmother in Cinderella, and…
At first glance, listed like this, it might seem that female relationships haven’t been neglected historically by storytellers. Except, of course, that even these examples focus on the heroines’ supporting role to male characters or ultimately being saved by a man, be it a woodcutter, bear-prince or Prince Charming.
The shadows & distortions of `template’ female characters and relationships.
I’m far from the first person to notice or write about such things. Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own is just one earlier example that explores the gaps, historically, in writing about and by women. Perspective – or slant as Emily Dickinson puts it when referring to poetry’s role in telling “all the truth” – is everything. (i) This is as true in prose as poetry. The trouble is partial or slanted truths are exactly that, tinted by the eyes viewing them and the lips telling them. This also extends to the presentation of any gender-related argument about the gaps in history or literature. As Woolf states: “when a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.” (ii)
I’m also not the first writer to use myths and fairy tales (historical, urban or newly invented by me as the writer) to explore more contemporary dilemmas. A non-personal narrative structure can bring objective distance, in much the same way as I might sometimes adopt a third person character for fictionalising incidents closer to real life. At a personal level, re-writing personal family experiences in such a way might be a form of self-denial, trying to change people’s personalities and pretend the reality is different to how it is. But it can be a means too of seeing the same incidents through other family members’ eyes and a step towards any acceptance, forgiving and healing that may be necessary.
However, re-imaging or re-writing myth and family relationships is potentially more powerful and wider-ranging in its effects than just re-structuring families. Arguably, home life and living with family is the place where we first experience hierarchical structure and the power play between people. Re-envisaging and re-imagining these relationships, then, may change the roles and behaviour adopted within wider society. In other words, they’re at the root and heart of all power structures and hierarchies.
The power of family ties is already exploited by wider society. One thing that often hurts us more than being hurt personally is when someone hurts someone we love. Love of others can be a strong motivator. Through advertising, we may be persuaded to buy products for the good of other family members when we wouldn’t buy them for ourselves. On a more dramatic and life-endangering scale, real-life kidnap and war situations often use threats to family and loved ones to coerce, control or subdue would-be enemies.
It’s unsurprising that legend as well as history has similar tales of vengeance and power. The River Severn, for example, is said to be named after Sabre or Sabrina. Her mother Estrildis was the mistress of English ruler Locrine. After Locrine’s death, his jilted wife Gwendolen took on governing, and had Estrildis and her innocent daughter drowned. Gwendolen also ordered that the river be named after Sabre, so that people would remember Sabrina’s father’s ‘bad deeds’. (iii)
Re-shaping female characters with multi-layered roles, personalities & scenarios.
These thoughts were a few of many in my mind when I was writing my poems for Vindication, an Arachne Press anthology of six women poets.
The daughter in my ‘Model Child’ is mothered – and mithered – by the fashion industry’s glossy mag distortions, film-star gazing, the beauty of cosmetics and apparent need not just for perfection, but a perfection that insists on thinness, whatever the price paid. For the model child, “Everything other-suited; her tastes muted…”
Meanwhile ‘Ye Olde Tavern’ borrows from myth’s mermaids, the historical practice of recruiting men into the Navy through the King’s shilling and the contemporary experience of a barmaid working in an un-salubrious bar. As so often in real life sink or swim scenarios, the siren in this tail/tale turns her demeaning situation into an unlikely position of female power:
“No need to waste our voices on song. We slip
magic into his booze and know he’ll lose himself.”
‘Only Child’ is in the voice of a daughter whose mom was about to leave her father, until she found out that she was pregnant. Knowing this, the daughter reinterprets her own existence – that her mom calls fate – as a mistake, perhaps brought about by her father’s desperation to stop his wife leaving. Reducing her existence to mistake or ‘fate’, as might be laid out in tarot cards, leaves the daughter with nothing but symbols to build her life around. But how much of this is the parents’ fault and how much simply the daughter’s overactive imagination due to low self-esteem?
“Perhaps this is how it went:
a haggard night / a deck of tarot
& desperation as a guest”
Personality & gender politics: many strands plaited & re-plaiting
Christianity has its own family hierarchies and gender politics – from Mary, Mother of God to Eve fashioned from Adam’s ribs. It’s something that I’ve borrowed from and played with in a number of poems, including ‘Waking Woman’, where:
“My self-portrait is a blur:
an ageing face unsettled
by a misted mirror.”
As these opening lines suggests, this poem was initially a personal reflection. But it soon became subtitled ‘Eve’s great-great-great granddaughter speaks…’, as it examines how much, or how little, things may have changed when it comes to what is expected from women and how they are portrayed.
‘Tracing My Origins’ also started as a personal piece before becoming a wider look at the fluidity of what being a woman may have to become when faced by multiple myths, role models and often conflicting ideas about ‘femininity’. Adaptable is the positive side of this. Shape-shifting also offers possibilities. The downside may be a sense of something never quite right, of never quite belonging:
“No deep-chanelled ocean song
or settled lake, my voice is a whisper
in small drops, always distant;
At the heart of ‘The First Step Afterwards is Simple…’ is self-mothering. I have two sons. This poem of advice to a daughter after a relationship break-up is the kind of advice I wish I’d been able to give myself when I was younger:
“Despite once matched pulses,
following dance moves in his absence
is like tracing water across the floor…”
Hindsight is hindsight though. The words wouldn’t have helped the pain then, any more than a mother can actually ever take on their child’s heart-break in their place. My own experience as a parent is suffering with or for my boys rather than instead of them.
There are as many types of birth as there are individuals in the world. Both labour and parenting bring different trials and tribulations for different people. ‘The Chimera and Her Son’ focuses on the strangeness of new parenthood, particularly when coupled with something like post-natal depression and urban myths of motherhood. When the supposedly natural experiences of childbirth and breast-feeding don’t come as naturally as imagined, it’s easy to feel a failure as a mother and identify as something as unnatural and monstrous as a Chimera. This isn’t helped if it’s reinforced by others’ judgemental opinions:
“her taut muscles couldn’t curve a crib;
his otter body sloshed against her ribs
like spilt milk sharp with splinters;”
‘Like Fur’ was the hardest of these eight poems to write. It melds the Little Red Riding Hood tale with some of the stereotypical excuses that rapists use – about clothes, demeanour, behaviour – to try to justify their actions.
“The sounds the wind carried
from her coat that day
were not a wolf’s howls…”
The final two stanzas of the poem about what might have saved this woman (or not!) are phrased as questions because they are ones that I believe still need answering satisfactorily by, to and for society as a whole.
It’s said that ‘blood is thicker than water’ but also ‘you can choose your friends but not your family’. These may be clichés but they do get at the core of some of the emotional power invested in both types of relationship. Again, friendship can be another testing ground for power relationships that may play out on a bigger scale in work, society and world structure. It’s also probably the second type of relationship that most humans make after the family bonds they’re born into.
I grew up with the joke that in the film world two women were never seen together chatting on screen for longer than something like seven seconds because any more might bore male viewers. I use the word ‘joke’ loosely here. Researching the anecdote, Google immediately gives me ‘The Bechdel Test’ from Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic, Dykes to Watch Out For. In the comic strip, ‘The Rule’ states that a movie should have three things: two female characters (preferably named), who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Look at this closely, and it’s quite a low-level pass line when it comes to gender bias (yet still films and fictions that would fail it) as pointed out by Anna Waletzko in her HuffPost article ‘Why the Bechdel Test Fails Feminism’. (iv)
Virginia Woolf’s A Room on One’s Own observation on Antony and Cleopatra also highlights: (v) “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. There are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…”
The world generally and the world of writing and publishing have changed since Austen and Woolf’s times. As a female writer now, it feels unrealistic to believe many female characters would or could ever have existed without friends. Female friendship features strongly therefore alongside women-to-women family pulls in my stories for the Arachne Press anthology Five by Five.
Best mates can be as close or closer than siblings, but it’s also possible to invest too much significance in friendships that have passed their natural duration, or where family ties do turn out to be more controlling than friendship. In ‘The Trouble With Honey’, Kim’s idea of friendship changes as she accepts that people grow in different ways, and directions, with different comfort zones and life-aims. Kim’s hopes of saving her friend Lizzie turns out to be as idealised and mythically founded as her friend’s fears:
“It’s been a long time,” I venture.
“Yeah.” Lizzie looks around again, still perched on the seat-edge. Her smile deflates almost as quickly as it curved upwards – like a trace of sunshine glinting on metal: a flash, then gone.
Sweetness & danger: two of many forces at play in human dynamics
Apparent weakness and strength are the two main forces at play in ‘Our Skinny Dragon’, which focuses on a different kind of mother-daughter relationship – a more positive and fiery one:
The name ‘skinny dragon’ comes from Paul’s first words of surprise at her fluttering shape on the ultrasound screen, like flames and wings. Somehow, it fits better than the real names we discuss, then reject.
Meanwhile, the family dynamics are all distorted in ‘Not Running’, where Mel worries for her friend Cath:
Fifteen minutes into our usual route, it starts to snow. Small cold kisses at first, but ten minutes later the path is layered white. Distant trees become pastel lines then disappear into sky.
We turn back. Our pace slows from jaunty jog to dragging slog. My face is numb. Even Cath stops talking. She brushes a hair from her eyes. Her sleeve falls down, revealing new bruises.
A very different kind of abusive relationship is brought to a long overdue but empowered end in ‘Out Of The Box’, with a twist that the male master magician definitely didn’t see coming:
Jess exhaled softly, hoping Carl had reached the spot where he’d see through the doorway to his reflection in the bedroom mirror, and his favourite suit freshly dry-cleaned, a love note pinned to the collar. With its ‘My great Majestico…’ and the promise of a night of passion, surely, he wouldn’t resist.
Men feature in all four of the flashes above. But the women in these stories are saving themselves, or each other. Of my five stories in Five by Five, ‘The Last Red Cherry’ is the one that most hints at the possibilities of such family/friendship power dynamics extended into wider society. This eco-lit or cli-fi tale imagines a female protagonist in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth has been destroyed. Kis’s hopes aren’t just for her but the whole of humankind. Central to this is love for her great-great-great-grandma, Granchy, along with the wisdom and knowledge that Granchy has passed on to Kis.
When she was younger and healthier, Kis’s great-great-great-grandma used to joke that, from this distance, her home planet was the size of an Earth cherry…
Sometimes Granchy would stop there. Other times, she’d talk about the farm where she grew up, with cornfields, grass and orchards. Every summer, she’d scrump fruits from her nan’s trees: plums, pears, apples, and cherries. Cherries sweeter than Saturn honey, redder than Mars, the colour of pure, fully oxygenated blood, the last rare forbidden fruit. Kis’s mouth waters at the thought of this wonderful thing that she’ll never get to taste. Only one such tree left in the solar system, its precise location lost.
I first started writing this article about fairy tale family trees powered by a belief that a big part of establishing my own personal identity as a woman (and writer) was down to a societal tendency to describe and measure people – women in particular – through their roles, a partial lens. Writing this piece, I’ve come to realise that actually all human value is mostly in people’s relationships to others. The difficulty for me isn’t actually the portraying of women in terms of such roles but double standards applied to women and men in which relationships and roles are used and how.
Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own speaks in favour of writing as a woman (not imitating a man) but “as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman”. (vi) However, one of the fictional writers that Woolf imagines is Shakespeare’s sister and she also notes that “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers”. (vii)
Family (and friendship) settings are a big part of where we learn or form our values about life and society. But it’s important to me to show both male and female characters realistically in such roles – the bad slants as well as the good ones. Then, building from this, the power and possibility of redefining family relationships fairly and presenting women outside of the home, as well as within it.
As for me as a person, a woman and a writer? I may be a daughter, sister, mother, wife and friend, but I’m also: a writer, editor and publisher; a cyclist, swimmer and climber; and a maker of family, business and societal bonds. Any one aspect taken alone is simply a myth. The truth of my identity, like the characters portrayed in fiction, poetry and wider society, is multi-layered and one that’s continuously being re-slanted, re-shaped and re-written.
For the Readers’ Dressing-up Box:
Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (first published by Geoffrey Bles, 1950)
Potts, Cherry (ed.), Five by Five (Arachne Press: London, 2018)
Potts, Cherry (ed.), Vindication (Arachne Press: London, 2018)
- Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, with introduction and notes by Sally Minogue (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012)
For the Writers’ Dressing-up Box:
- A Starting Point: ‘How to Create a Character Profile’, The Internet Writing Journal <https://www.writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/how-to-create-a-character-profile-6986>
- Possible personality types: ‘List of Character Traits’, Fiction Writer’s Mentor<http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/list-of-character-traits/>
- More detailed psychology resources: ‘Character Traits’, Writers Write <https://www.writerswrite.com/fiction/characters/charactertraits/>
(ii) Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, with introduction and notes by Sally Minogue (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012) pp. 29-30.
(iv) 27 April 2015 <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/anna-waletzko/why-the-bechdel-test-fails-feminism_b_7139510.html>
(v) Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, with introduction and notes by Sally Minogue (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012) p. 86.
(vi) Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, with introduction and notes by Sally Minogue (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012) p. 93.
(vii) Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, with introduction and notes by Sally Minogue (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012) p. 96.
S.A. Leavesley (she/her) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, who fits life around words and words around life. Author of four poetry collections, two pamphlets, a touring poetry-play and two novellas, she was also longlisted for the New Welsh Writing Awards memoir prize in 2017 and the essay collection prize in 2018. Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015, her poems have been published by the Financial Times, the Guardian, The Forward Book of Poetry 2016, on Worcestershire buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations, while her flash fiction publications include a Best Small Fictions nomination. An avid reader and editor, she runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Latest poetry books: How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015). Novellas: Kaleidoscope and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2017/2018).