Fear of Flying – and Bridget Jones

As a huge fan of the classic feminist novel Fear of Flying, I was delighted to get the opportunity to reflect upon the book and its impact on me in a blog post for The Big Comfy Bookshop, my local second-hand bookshop.  I was then both amused and slightly intimidated to discover that Fear of Flying author Erica Jong has also reflected on the book’s impact in an article for the New York Times at the weekend.  Jong was writing in the context of the fortieth anniversary of Fear of Flying‘s publication, but recent weeks have seen a number of media commentaries about women’s writing and female characters – prompted, of course, by the much anticipated (and much criticized) third Bridget Jones offering by Helen Fielding.

As Hadley Freeman notes in her astute questioning of the Bridget Jones phenomena in today’s the Guardian, we continue to discuss women characters in terms of likeablility or being relatable in a way that simply don’t with fictional men.  Humbert Humbert is the example that Freeman gives; having a vile paedophile protagonist has not stopped Lolita being a well-regarded best-seller.  Yet the morals and ‘personality’ of fictional women, whether in literature or the media, remain an obsession.  I have encountered this when recommending Fear of Flying to people.  One friend told me that she didn’t like the book because the heroine, Isadora, was ‘a bit whiney’; I guess she assumed that I viewed her as a role model or some kind of inspiration.  I don’t, no more than I would base my life choices upon advice given by Bridget Jones.  There are passages in Fear of Flying where I strongly empathize with Isadora’s feelings and recognise similar situations in my own life; there have also been times when I’ve thought I’m having an ‘Isadora moment’.  But this is about recognition of human emotions, not identifying as her or shaping my behaviour to mimic hers.  Isadora was a 28 year old married writer from New York City; I am now a 31 year old single academic from the Midlands.  These differences between us in no way diminish my strong attachment to Fear of Flying.  Likewise, my age and relationship status do not mean that I am some kind of ‘real life Bridget Jones’.  I eagerly await the arrival of Mad About the Boy on my doormat but I will be reading it as a work of fiction, not a lifestyle guide for when I am in my fifties.

 

My WI Life II

Further to the post below, members of my WI had spied the piece. Those that had seen it were very enthusiastic, even if a bit bemused by my job (a standard reaction). There was even a little write up about it in the branch newsletter, which was kind of them, and a copy was left out for visitors to read. So my fears were misplaced and it seems that this venture into WI outreach may lead to more opportunities for sharing my research with the organisation.

My WI Life

Last week, my first paid writing commission came out in print.  I have to confess that I just keep looking at it.  After years of researching magazines, and a lifetime of reading them, it feels strange to see my own words (and a little headshot of me) actually in one.  Entitled ‘Seen and Heard’, it is a one-page piece about attitudes to glamour in Home and Country, which for many years was the title of the Women’s Institute magazine.  Aptly enough, ‘Seen and Heard’ appears in WI Life, the organisation’s current publication.  It came about after I approached the magazine’s editorial team to get permission to use some images from Home and Country in an academic article that I’ve written (‘“Beauty isn’t all a matter of looking glamorous”: Attitudes to glamour and beauty in 1950s women’s magazines’, which will be published in Women’s History Review in early to mid 2014).  The Editor was interested in the topic and asked me about it for WI Life – and now it is in print, complete with a couple of the images that will feature in the journal article too (cont’d).

Seen and Heard

This assignment has generated a range of emotions.  As well as the flurry of excitement when it landed on my doormat, there was a sense of amazement at the speedy turnaround time; my deadline was mid-July and it has been included in the October issue.  None of the delays that academics get used to with two stage peer review processes and publication backlogs (I am an editor with a history journal and already the words ‘twenty sixteen’ have been uttered in relation to our special issues schedule).  It is of course also flattering to be asked to write something, and reassuring to feel that there is a broader interest in one’s research topics.  At the same time, sharing findings with a much bigger audience brings its own difficulties.  WI Life goes out to every one of the Institute’s 210,000 members.  That is a lot of women to inform and entertain!  There is the challenge of writing for a general audience too.  I had to think very carefully about every single word that I used.  Was I being clear?  Was I using jargon?  Of all the points raised in my 8,000+ word journal article, which ones should I select for this 600 word column?  My style needed to be tighter than ever before if I was to distill the essence of my argument without dumbing it down.  My anxieties about trying to communicate why researching women’s appearance is important were exacerbated when I saw the print copy and realized that my piece is on the page after the brave and remarkable Caroline Criado-Perez talking about the vile abuse that she received on Twitter after the successful women on banknotes campaign.  As Christine Boydell observed in 2004, insecurities ‘continue to be expressed’ in terms of seriousness and justification in studying dress history*; I certainly have moments of feeling such insecurities about researching beauty almost a decade later.

Furthermore, whilst sharing research through mediums such as WI Life is a great form of outreach, it is hard to discern what, if any, ‘impact’ it will have.  I know that one person has read it, but she is the wife of a friend and was looking out for its appearance!  There is no saying how many more of the 209,999 members will read it.  This uncertainty around readership levels is where my biggest anxiety has arisen.  To be specific, will anyone in my WI read it?!  Apart from the two women that I go along with, no-one else in the group knows that I look at the movement and its magazine.  For many years, I said I would not join the organisation because of this research interest, but when a branch opened within walking distance of my home I decided it seemed too much fun to miss out on.  And it is hugely enjoyable – so much so that when I am there, I do not even think about analyzing it.  Afterwards I may see points of comparison, particularly when reading the magazine, but I have largely managed to keep it in a nice, neat, separate non-research box.  Until now, when work and personal identity have come together in one simple sentence: ‘Rachel Ritchie PhD is a member of Purl Jam WI, Warwickshire Federation, an Associate Research Fellow at Brunel University and Editor, European Review of History’.  Tonight I will find out if anyone has recognized that it is me on page 23 of the magazine; but, of course, there is no saying that they will have read it.  Worse still, they might have thought it was boring.

* Christine Boydell, ‘Fashioning Identities: Gender, Class and the Self’, Journal of Contemporary History 39 (2004), 137-146, p. 146.