"One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."
— Jane Austen, Emma
A large percentage of my favorite authors (not to mention people) happen to be women. Whether this is a comment about the nature of imaginative writing or about my own nature I have yet to work out. Of course it is no surprise that men can be just as sensitive as women and that women can be just as bloodthirsty as men, but how exactly does this translate to the fictional universe? Are there certain gender-based qualities which color the writing of one sex as opposed to another? If you didn’t know in advance, would you be able to guess from the tone and temper of the prose if the author was a man or a woman?
This is a question which has long troubled English majors and creative-writing students. Would a man have created stern, craggy Mr. Rochester in exactly the same way? Would a woman have tossed Anna Karenina onto the train tracks? No matter how compellingly an author might impersonate the consciousness of the opposite gender, are there clues which give the game away? (Similarly, can a white author successfully create an African-American character, a straight author a gay character, a Christian author a Muslim character — or the other way around? Those are questions for another day.) The answer must lie somewhere in the alchemy that transforms one writer’s sensibility into a number of characters with very different sensibilities who lead their independent lives on the page.
But literary transvestism is still a slippery slope. To see how well we fare in sorting this out, I propose a quiz. I will provide a number of obscure passages from fictional sources, all concerning various types of relationships between men and women, and you will have to guess if the author is male or female. How will you do this? Personal pronouns won’t always work, since authors can be tricky in that regard. You will have to judge from the wording, the narrative voice, or the context what the sex of the author might be.
And you’ll have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.
- ...there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite, and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells, rippling up and up to a culmination.
- "I don’t believe in lovely husbands." Said Mrs. Almond; "I only believe in good ones. If he marries her, and she comes into Austin’s money, they may get on. He will be an idle, amiable, selfish, and doubtless tolerably good-natured fellow. But if she doesn’t get the money and he finds himself tied to her, Heaven have mercy on her! He will have none. He will hate her for his disappointment, and take his revenge; he will be pitiless and cruel. Woe betide poor Catherine! I recommend you talk a little with his sister; it’s a pity Catherine can’t marry her!"
- The redeemed Captive had not altogether so much of the human-angelic Species; she seemed to be, at least, of the middle Age, nor had her Face much Appearance of Beauty; but her Cloaths being torn from all the upper Part of her Body, her Breasts, which were well formed, and extremely white, attracted the Eyes of her Deliverer...
- He shaded his eyes so that he might see only a little of her face at a time, first the chin, then the nose, then the forehead, in case it were deformed, or had some terrible mark on it. But no, there she was, perfectly natural, sewing, with the pursed lips that women have, the set, the melancholy expression, when sewing.
- Tom hated her. He suddenly remembered her bra hanging over the windowsill in Mongibello. Her underwear would be draped over his chairs tonight, if he invited her to stay here. The idea repelled him. He deliberately hurled a smile across the table at her. "I hope you’ll honor me by accepting a bed for the night. Not mine," he added, laughing, "but I’ve got two rooms upstairs and you’re welcome to one of them."
- She was such a pathetic darling that, as they proceeded to leave the grill, he could not help, for sensuality is the best breeding broth of fatal error, caressing her glassy young shoulder so as to fit for an instant, the happiest of her life, its ideal convexity bilboquet-wise within the hollow of his palm.
- But Rosa soon made the discovery that Miss Twinkleton didn't read fairly. She cut the love-scenes, interpolated passages in praise of female celibacy, and was guilty of other glaring pious frauds.
- When women are the advisers, the lords of creation don't take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole.
- In this growing inner twilight she even mistook her recoil from her husband for an aspiration toward her lover, the searing waves of hatred for a rekindling of love. But the storm kept raging, her passion burned itself to ashes, no help was forthcoming, no new sun rose on the horizon. Night closed in completely around her, and she was left alone in a horrible void of piercing cold.
- But Robin had had her opportunity. She had gone away to train to be a nurse, which should have given her a fresh start. Girls who trained to be nurses got a chance at doctors. There too she had failed. She didn’t realize it at the time. She was too serious, maybe that was the problem. Too serious about something like King Lear and not making use of dances and tennis games. A certain kind of seriousness in a girl could cancel out looks, but it was hard to think of a single case in which she envied any other girl the man he had got. In fact she couldn’t think of anybody she wished she had married.
- There had been many moments of happiness. But that first breakfast by the sea had a simplicity and an intensity which it would be hard to match. It was just perfect communion and rest and the kind of joy which comes when the beloved and one’s own soul become so mingled with the external world that there is a place made for once upon the planet where stones and tufts of grass and transparent water and the quiet sound of the wind can really be.
- He didn’t follow her at once. Actually he didn’t intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn’t walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid.
- He had married on the rebound from the rotten time he had in college, and Frances took him on the rebound from his discovery that he had not been everything to his first wife. He was not in love yet but he realized that he was an attractive quantity to women, and that the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle.
- The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on; that sweetness which makes so essential a part of every woman's worth in the judgment of man, that though he sometimes loves where it is not, he can never believe it absent.
- "When will you marry me Ethel he uttered you must be my wife it has come to that I love you so that if you say no I shall perforce dash my body to the brink of yon muddy river he panted wildly."
- D. H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
- Henry James. Washington Square.
- Henry Fielding. Tom Jones.
- Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway.
- Patricia Highsmith. The Talented Mr. Ripley.
- Vladimir Nabokov. Ada.
- Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
- Louisa May Alcott. Little Women.
- Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary.
- Alice Munro. "Tricks," a short story from the collection Runaway.
- Iris Murdoch. The Black Prince.
- Dorothy Hughes. In a Lonely Place.
- Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
- Jane Austen. Mansfield Park.
- Daisy Ashford [age 9]. The Young Visiters. (See post from May 26, 2009.)