Women and the canon

6. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began. (5)

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by her partner, Gertrude Stein) recounts the couple’s lives in early twentieth-century Paris among painters, writers, and composers—and, during the First World War, soldiers. Chris and Suzanne explore what the book says about how painting is like writing, about wives, and about America—and they talk about other pieces by Stein that they love.

Show Notes.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (or on Project Gutenberg).

Other works by Stein: Three Lives. Tender Buttons. The Making of Americans. How to Write.

Gertrude Stein reads If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.

Alice B. Toklas in her own words.

Picasso’s Trois femmes (1908), a portrait, “in a sort of red brown, of three women, square and posturing, all of it rather frightening”.

Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Sonia Delaunay’s magnificent book collaboration with poet Blaise Cendrars, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, an exhibit that was at the National Portrait Gallery several years ago with a webpage full of images of Stein.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, a series of lectures hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Next time: Dante’s Inferno (translated by Mark Musa or Charles Singleton or Ciaran Carson or whomever you’d like).

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5. Little Women.

‘In spite of the curly crop, I don’t see the ‘son Jo’ whom I left a year ago,’ said Mr. March. ‘I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety, but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl, but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied. I don’t know whether the shearing sobered our black sheep, but I do know that in all Washington I couldn’t find anything beautiful enough to be bought with the five-and-twenty dollars which my good girl sent me.’ (ch. 22)

Little Women has Suzanne and Chris tackling new territory: a novel, a children’s book, and something written within the last two hundred years. They discuss this tale of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), the possibilities it offers young women (but eventually takes from them), its complex exploration of gender, and its fascination with death.

Show Notes.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (also on Project Gutenberg).

Avidly, on the Los Angeles Review of Books, had a great cluster of articles about each of the sisters.

How Little Women Got Big” at the New Yorker, which draws upon a recent book about Little Women, Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.

Next episode: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.

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4b. Bonus: Timothy Perry on The Book of Peace.

We met up with Timothy Perry, medieval manuscript and early book librarian at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. The Fisher is excited to announce the acquisition of a rare and lavish medieval manuscript of The Book of Peace, written by Christine de Pizan (whose classic The Book of the City of Ladies we discussed in our last episode). Tim was kind enough to show the newly acquired book to us and tell us about its many charms.

Show Notes.

A detailed description of the manuscript (with images!) from the Fisher Rare Book Library.

An article about the acquisition in U of T News.

The Book of Peace, translated by Karen Green, Constance Mews, and Janice Pinder. (Open access!)

An article about Pierre Bergé, a previous owner of the manuscript.

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4. The Book of the City of Ladies.

When the evil Julian heard this voice, he reproached the torturers for not having removed enough of Christine’s tongue, telling them to cut it so close that she would be unable to converse with her lord Jesus. They cut off the whole of her tongue, right down to the root, but she spat out these remains in the tyrant’s face and blinded him in one eye. Speaking just as easily as ever, she exclaimed, ‘Tyrant, what was the point of your removing my tongue so that I couldn’t praise God when my spirit will praise Him for evermore whilst yours is damned for all eternity? It’s only fitting that my tongue should have blinded you, since you didn’t believe my words in the first place.’ (3.10, pp. 222–23)

The Book of the City of Ladies begins with its author, Christine de Pizan, working in her study, and suddenly overwhelmed by the misogyny of so many of the great books surrounding her. She is visited by three women—personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her to build a city, and offer her biographies of all the illustrious women who will live in (and therefore be) the city. Suzanne and Chris explore this classic medieval anthology: the ways in which women have made themselves heard; the physical effort of creating both cities and manuscripts; and the echoes Christine’s book has both with other great books and with our own experiences today.

Show notes.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, as translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant.

More info (and images!) about the manuscript of The Book of the City of Ladies that Christine supervised herself.

“In the fifteenth century, men read Christine de Pizan…”

A banner, unfurled at Columbia University during a protest in 1989, included Christine as one of seven great female authors that should be part of the canon.

Next episode: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

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