Historically, women in literature have been divided into the ‘hag’ or the ‘heroine’. It’s in the classics, but it’s still seen in more modern texts. That’s why reclamation of women’s tales is so important.
Individualised self-expression in women is seen as a trait of excess, and thus holds a very low place in the Canon. Even iconic feminist texts, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, fall prey to this dichotomy, encouraging the trope of the ‘mad woman in the attic’. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, broke away from this trope into a daring exploration of womanhood. Written as a prequel to Jane Eyre, it’s interesting to see the place alternative literature has in reclaiming women’s narratives. Carol Ann Duffy, in her anthology The World’s Wife, introspects into the femininity of women shunned by history, due to the larger figures of acclaimed men in their lives. Featuring the witch Circe from Greek mythology, to the supposed character of ‘Mrs Sisyphus’, the anthology characterises women as multifaceted individuals, often unjustly punished for their excesses of sexuality or perceived amorality.
The revision of women and their claim to their own narratives has also amassed a global outreach. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revisits Draupadi from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, in her book The Palace of Illusions. Like the fire she arose from, Divakaruni’s Draupadi is a woman of multiple passions. American novelist Madeline Miller furthered the story of Circe in the eponymous book. Born of gods who abandon her, and mortals who desire only her godliness, Circe makes a home for herself away from those who have wronged her. The witch who practices transfiguration takes on the role of a protagonist surviving against the odds dealt to her. Anne Hathaway, known to the world as Shakespeare’s wife, finds her individuality in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. The story of a grieving mother, she is not reduced to the role and instead takes on the role of a woman of the wilderness, misunderstood by some but with a sagacity to surpass it all.
The question then remains, is alternative literature the way for women, lost in the annals of history, to reclaim their status? Is fiction the way out for women whose narratives have been belittled, forgotten, or otherwise demonised?