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Bridge of Birds and The Haunting of Hill House: Two Novels Enter, One Leaves

Having read two “classic” books recently, I was struck by the sheer quality of both of them, but also by where they drastically differed–their relationship to their female characters.

People have been telling me to read Bridge of Birds for years. Extolling its virtues, singing its praises, going so far as to lend me a copy. And it is a very good book, delightful and funny and it even involves one of my favorite Japanese festivals/folktales in its Chinese iteration. But no one, in telling me how much I’d love this book said: just try to overlook the gender issues. It was written twenty-five years ago. No one even brought it up.

See, the whole time I was nodding along and thinking, wow, this is really pretty great, I was also waiting. Waiting for a female character who was not a horrendous villain or a perfect, virtuous ghost. A non-grotesque, non-dead woman with any agency at all. A girl or woman allowed to speak for herself or act on her own behalf. I thought, toward the end, that a certain princess might be it, but no, she’s really not much more than a McGuffin, and waits around for the very clever boys to rescue her, while having been presented throughout the book as really pretty awful, just like all the other living women.

I mean, at one point, “Henpecked Ho” (charming) is roundly praised for brutally murdering his wife and “seven fat sisters” with an axe. We never saw the wife or sisters or heard their side of anything, only that some of them were fat and Henpecked Ho didn’t like them. He apparently did well by chopping them all to pieces. He then murders another (this time villainous) woman with the same axe and the mess of her entrails are played for comedy. Wow. Go team? And then there’s the scene where our hero is locked in a room with a concubine and told to have sex with her–her desires are not in question. But it’s ok because even though she starts out terrified of the guy whose nickname is Number Ten Ox looming over her, by the end she likes it! Yay!

I can’t help it. This bothers me. And one might say well, ancient China yes? Not so many actualized women back then. Totes fair to ignore them unless you want to faceplant your hero in some titties (actual scene). Not only is this not true, (and a sad thing people somehow keep saying about every single historical period even though I am hard pressed to think of one entirely unpeopled by powerful women, not to mention just women, living their lives, having brains and thoughts and struggles of their own–history seems to be a place where writers feel “safe” perpetuating the worst misogyny) but seeing as it’s a “Novel of a China that Never Was” I fail to see why that favorite bit of social history has to be set in stone. All the women in the story–and there are several–are relegated to beautiful tragic robots (ghosts behave remarkably like robots in this setup) or monsters of the first kind. And even the monsters don’t get any real personality. She’s awful and greedy. That’s enough. Miser Shen joins the party for awhile and is totally redeemed–can you imagine the Ancestress or Fainting Maid allowed to do the same? I can’t. Why could not the handmaidens or Bright Star or Lotus Cloud not be given some stake, some point of view, some voice? They are classic NPCs, but I guess they don’t end up on the business end of an axe.

It’s a good book, as I said. It really is. It’s just awfully tough for me to give it the adulation so many of my friends do. I kept waiting, and in the end, I was served the same dish of women don’t have stories, they are setpieces for men’s stories, also they are terrible that I so often get plopped on my table. And I just don’t want to eat that shit anymore. And 1984 really isn’t so long ago that I can say it’s of its time, on account of the book I read right afterward.

Which was The Haunting of Hill House.

Holy crap! This book is so good! I know this is all I Should Have Read It By Now territory, but I hadn’t read it before and it is just so very awesome.

And lo! It has a female lead! With an internal life and thoughts and difficulties! She is not a kickass heroine, nor is she perfect or fabulous, she cares a little about shoes but in a very human way, and she has no superpowers. But look! She has a mind! She wants things! She takes action to make her life less shitty! And in less than 50 pages I loved her and felt sorry for her and wanted nothing bad to happen to her, which is of course the kiss of death in a horror book, but lo once more! Is her death played for laughs? Is it gratuitous and full of nudity and sexualized violence? Does it happen merely to further a male character’s arc? Nay, I tell you! None of these things! (That long scene of her driving to Hill House is just masterful character writing. Wow. I cared so much about her. It really blew me away. Horror films and books on this very famous template seem to so often skip the part about a fleshed out character we care deeply about.)

Now, hold on. I am going to blow your mind.


Who is a lesbian! (I’m not crazy, right? Theo’s totally a lesbian? That whole “friend” she shares an apartment with thing? Boy nickname?) A lesbian who doesn’t murder anyone or molest anyone or go crazy from her lesbian-being! Just a girl in the fifties who happens to be a lesbian which is a rough fucking gig, and she isn’t always perfectly nice but you know, the house is haunted and shit gets pretty real, you’d be snappish too. And these women! They have a conversation! About their lives and wants and minds! A couple of them actually! And they become friends! FRIENDS. Subtle currents of desire that you couldn’t even entirely say are there or not there, yes, but friends. And they do not immediately vanish when the dudes come on the scene.There is even a THIRD female character, who is admittedly awful. But she is allowed to know things and take action, even if they are stupid things and stupid actions, because when women are treated as people they sometimes are idiots, just like men.

And this was written in 1959. That’s pre-Mad Men, for those of you playing along at home. A period where folks feel totally safe sidelining women of all kinds. (I think part–and only part–of where the recent filming went wrong was in updating the time period, as the narrative really needs the subtext of everything going on genderwise in 1959, that even wearing pants feels like rebellion to Eleanor, the relationship between a woman and a house, the free-radical carcinogen of a woman when she does not have a house to contain her, the repetition of home as both promise and threat, all of it. Without that it’s just a horror flick template.)

So yeah, no, I can’t give 1984 much of a pass. And I know, I know. Cat, it’s just a fun romp of a book! Why does everything have to be all srs bsns?

Well, because fun romps are where you see what people really think. What they think is funny, who they think is a good butt for a joke, which broad stereotypes they think are valid and which they think should be subverted, what they create when they think it’s just for fun, not for literature. It doesn’t escape me that one of these was written by a man and one by a woman, but I don’t really chalk much up to that. I don’t know Hughart and I sure didn’t know Jackson, and some great books that do not offend were written by men.

But Hill House was like a drink of fresh water after a long glass of wine slightly gone to vinegar. Sigh.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

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(I’m not crazy, right? Theo’s totally a lesbian? That whole “friend” she shares an apartment with thing? Boy nickname?)

Theo is, in fact, a lesbian.

Yay! I was hoping this was not just my modern code-reading sensibilities, given the era of the novel.

(And it was your comment about the book that made me grab it, so thank you!)

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Which is especially bizarre, since Eleanor of Acquitane and Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe and Empress Theodora and Joan of Fucking Arc are just some of the people who actually lived and wrote books and had power in the actual era, and the Romance of Silence is a 13th century romance about a girl warrior in boy's clothes, and women, in fact, did all kinds of things in that era other than get raped and die.

About Shirley Jackson and HOHH - yes, this. This a million times. Which is why I adore Shirley Jackson, and that book, so much. (If you haven't read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, please do, it's so fantastic and not enough people have.) Her people are so real, her women doubly so, and we care about them. Even in the short stories, but in the novels even more so.

Oh, I've been meaning to read The Haunting of Hill House for ages and yet, somehow, it always gets pushed down the TBR list. Thanks for discussing it here ~ will put it at the top.

Funnily enough, I decided quite literally this week that my education was incomplete without reading The Haunting of Hill House.

I kind of want to have a run on haunted houses where I read that, The Shining, House of Leaves, and Hell House, and The Amityville Horror, all in the same run

If you do that, Shirley Jackson will win hands down, and Richard Matheson will get a nice Miss Congeniality (though I don't remember if Hell House has any women or not). And The Shining is a fine book, despite the magical Negro (and it does have women--or at least a woman--with agency). And then there's The Amityville Horror, which I suppose will have the advantage of making a foursome. In bridge, it would be the dummy.

Ditto to the ton of "Yah Hill House" posts you're gonna probably get. Such a quietly unnerving little book. Back in the undergrad days, I was really interested in psychologically manifested ghosts—narratives like this or Turn of the Screw in which the ghosts may be real but could also very likely be manifestations of a psychotic break in an unstable or unreliable narrator or main character. Hill House was one of my big go-to texts to this end.

The 1962 (?) made-for-TV movie version, The Haunting," is worth a watch, too. It managed to stay pretty true to the novel and retain a lot of its feel.

I feel you. I get SO tired of the women being sidelined and treated like cardboard cutouts. I just do not want to read it, watch it, whatever.

I can't believe people would honestly think that a book being written in 1984 - not 1884, not 1934, but 1984 - would somehow give it a free pass on gender issues. 1984 was not that long ago! Feminism had been around for at least a decade and a half. Universities had women's studies departments (I was in one, as a matter of fact) and courses on the anthropology of women, women in history, women in literature, etc. It was not the Dark Ages.

And I am really starting to feel old...

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1984 was actually published in 1949. Orwell finished it in 1948, and just swapped the two last letters around.

You know, I think the old boy was onto something.

Never read Bridge of Birds; a Chinese friend warned me off of it decades ago because he was so annoyed by the appropriation issues.

Barry Hughart vs. Shirley Jackson? That's a matchup I can sink my teeth into. Next, let's see a cage match between (say) David Feintuch and Virginia Woolf. I wonder who will win that one?

When Bridge of Birds was first published and was the darling of practically everyone ("so original"! "so much fun"! "delightful"), I was working with Dave Nee at The Other Change of Hobbit. I think I read it before he did. I was far less aware of cultural appropriation issues then, and far less sensitized to certain kinds of racism, but the entire book made me insane because the whole premise is about the stupidity/innocense/naivete of the main character, and I just couldn't get away from my sense that he was somehow not just innocent/naive/stupid and Chinese, but that it read that he was i/n/s in a way that was intrinsically related to his being Chinese.

I passed the book to Dave without comment (or he passed it to me without comment if he read it first). He felt exactly the same way.

In the intervening decades, the book continues to be the darling of all kinds of (otherwise?) racism-sensitive people. I have to say I never thought about the gender issues, because I was so caught in the race ones.

As for Shirley Jackson, she walks on water. And her female characters have almost all the agency.

*looking around* Whoa, there ARE two parallel discussions of these books going on...

Anyway, I picked up Bridge of Birds just because Gaiman said he loved it so much, and I've been so disappointed in my stupidity because I could hardly slog through the first ten pages. It's been sitting there making me feel guilty ever since (I'm like the polar opposite of Cool whereas Mr. Gaiman is its polestar, whatever that means, heh) anyway now I will trade it in at the used bookstore without a qualm. Its sounds dreadful, actually. At my age I don't spend any more minutes putting up with that sexist shit.

If you disliked Bridge of Birds, please, please never read any of Stephen Donaldson's books. The misogyny is those books is sooooo nasty. Only in two stories of his can I think of a strong female character Daughter of regals and the main character in The Mirror of her dreams duology. And both of those go through near rape experiences.

Is Stephen Donaldson the one who wrote Thomas Covenant? Ah, yes, a quick DuckDuckGo informs me this is the case.

I tried that, since it's a Pillar Of Fantasy and my parents owned a copy. Struggled through the first few pages of Thomas being Deeply Unpleasant, got to the bit where he goes back in time and decides to rape a girl for no good reason, put the book down & walked away. Eugh. And this unpleasantness was (IIRC) within the first 50–100 pages.

Sorry: need to fix the mistake. Mirror of her dreams is the first books, A Man rides through is the second, and the whole series is called Mordant's need.

Good librarians check their facts first. Bad librarian!

Don't touch The Gap series under any circumstances - a full biohazard suit is needed for that one.

If you want good strong female characters in Ancient China, may I recommend Jeanne Larson's three books: Manchu Palaces, Bronze Mirror, and Silk Road?

Also women's poetry from Ancient (and indeed modern) China, quite wonderful. The best anthology I know is The Orchid Boat: women poets of China ISBN 0070737444 (Available second hand). Actually it was Hughart who sent me looking for women poets. He has one in the sequels.

Have you ever watched THE HAUNTING (1963)? It's the movie adapted from The Haunting of Hill House and it's really good.

Ditto this. It will convince you that old black-and-white show-no-gore horror has power. But don't hold hands. And don't see the 1990s remake (or so I'm told).

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