Women, especially strong women, are used to being hit with an assortment of epithets, none of them flattering. Witch, virago, fury, termagant, harpy, hussy, shrew, dragon… the list is a long one. A man may be a boss, and an insufferable one at that, but “bossy” is a pejorative that is attributed only to women. Or, as Sandi Toksvig says in the introduction to Furies, a remarkable collection of short stories to commemorate 50 years of the feminist press Virago, “a man can swell with pride at being called an ‘old dog’ while a woman is supposed to cower at being called ‘a bitch’”.
Furies: Stories of the Wicked, Wild and Untamed
Fifty years ago, when the second wave of feminism was sweeping through the Western world, the late Carmen Callil set up a publishing house for books where women’s voices would be heard. She called it Virago, as if to resoundingly declare that it would embrace women in all their ferocity and wildness and difference; it would embrace women as they were and not as the world wanted or expected them to be. Furies is an apt tribute to that landmark event in publishing history, bringing together as it does 15 short stories with names like “Siren”, “Termagant”, “Hussy”, “Wench”, “Churail”, “Tygress”, “Dragon”, and so on, names that are coded with misogyny and contempt for women.
And yet, beneath the reductive, obscuring stereotype of their titles, each of these stories is an exploration of women in their infinite variety, whether psychological, sexual, or social. Empowered or struggling, triumphant or beaten, young or old, straight or gay, the protagonists give us glimpses into the lives and minds of women.
The book kicks off with a story called “Siren”, a surreal tour de force by Margaret Atwood. Written in the form of a monologue by a siren, a “liminal being” who addresses others of her underwater ilk such as mermaids, sea nymphs, dryads, sea serpents, vampires, and so on, it is a delicious satire built on the idea that women defy definitions. And that their power, no matter how compelling, is often despised by society, which denies them their rightful place: not in the shadows of betwixt and between but out in the blaze of light. Atwood also pokes fun at the relentless wokeism of our times, a wokeism that perhaps overtakes the issues one must really fight for.
“Tygress” by Claire Konda is another allegory, one where an Asian immigrant mother turns into a tigress after her brilliant young son, hated by his classmates for his academic excellence, is continually taunted and told that he has a “tiger mom”. She becomes the embodiment of all those Asian mothers who are sneakily reviled as something inhuman and bestial merely because they have brought up exceptional children who outclass their peers in their immigrant homeland. Scattered with lines from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” (“What the hammer? What the chain/In what furnace was thy brain?”), the story suggests that perhaps there are times when women have to assume fierceness simply because they have been forced into that mould.
Many of the stories in Furies are retellings of events in history or religion where women had the starring role. “Fury” by Rachel Seiffert is based on the impromptu uprising by Jewish women in the town of Lubliniec in Poland in 1942 against some Nazis who came and ordered the Jews in the area to line up and take off their clothes, apparently because the garments were needed by the German army. Suddenly, the naked women fought back. They threw stones at their tormentors and bit and scratched them. The Nazis, who were armed with whips and sticks, ran away that day.
“One way or another, most of the stories in Furies are odes to women who challenge the imperfect, limiting and degrading ways in which patriarchal culture tries to frame them.”
Similarly, “Warrior”, written by Chibundu Onuzo, is a fictionalisation of the Old Testament tale of the prophetess Deborah, who rode into war against the Canaanites, and Jael, who killed the general Sisera by driving a tent peg through his forehead while he was asleep.
Another fascinating true story is “Termagant” by Emma Donoghue, where the brainy, energetic, and uncompromising Kathlyn Oliver, who founded the Domestic Workers’ Union in London in 1909, chafes at her job as a servant. The story captures a pivotal moment in Oliver’s life, when she is on the verge of quitting her job as a maid and also breaks off her engagement with a man because she recognises that it is only a woman who can make her happy.
The collection has such gems as Susie Boyt’s “Muckraker”, which portrays the inner life of Nina, a woman who seeks out widowers because she likes to listen to them talk about their dead wives. She finds them much more interesting than their husbands—the men she is with. She identifies with them and is faintly outraged if she thinks that the men are beginning to forget their departed wives. “God, she was brave,” says one. “Did she have any choice?” Nina wonders silently. “The way these women almost killed themselves to make it all right for everyone. To soften the blow. Did men who were dying have to do that?”
But it is not just in its feminist insights, subtle and illuminating as they are—“Muckraker” also delivers a poignant twist at the end and is undoubtedly one of the best stories in the book.
- This is a remarkable collection of short stories to commemorate 50 years of the feminist press Virago
- Many of the stories in Furies are retellings of events in history or religion where women had the starring role
- Most of the stories in Furies are odes to women who challenge the imperfect, limiting, and degrading ways in which patriarchal culture tries to frame them
Odes to women
One way or another, most of the stories in Furies are odes to women who challenge the imperfect, limiting, and degrading ways in which patriarchal culture tries to frame them. There is Linda Grant’s “Harridan”, a moving story about an old woman who wears cowboy boots and lives on cigarettes and the charity of a former lover. She dreams of writing her memoir and spilling the beans on the riotous times of her youth when she was lovely and coveted by many men. Even when she faces penury and homelessness, she is unbowed, and one can picture her wasting away and becoming at one with the elements that drive the formidable force of her nature.
Then there is Kamila Shamsie’s “Churail”, where the protagonist’s father, an odious wannabe, leaves Pakistan and settles in London with her because he is haunted by the fear that his dead wife has become a churail, a malevolent she-ghost, who wants to suck his life blood away. There is Caroline O’Donoghue’s “Hussy”, a delightful story about an ageing porn star trying to reinvent herself. And there is “Dragon”, by Stella Duffy, about a gay woman going through menopause—with the hot flushes and the night sweats—and grappling with the terrifying notion (dictated by society) that this is the beginning of the end of her life as a woman and a sexual being. The text is interspersed with notes on the medical studies of menopause through history, which perhaps take something away from the aesthetic of the story.
Nevertheless, “Dragon” is a powerful piece of writing. “I no longer sought goodness and a culture that preferred good to true,” says the protagonist, and you know that she has cast off the specious narratives that seek to control women and has emerged into the light.
Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.