Comic, Sad and Indefinite

Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes; drawing by David Levine

You might expect the presiding genius for a collection of essays about exceptional women to be someone like Joan of Arc, or Cleopatra, or Hillary Clinton. But for Rosemary Dinnage it’s Miss Havisham, that frightening cross between revengeful spinster, broken-hearted victim, and manipulative patroness, forever locked in time and waiting to be consumed by the fire of her own implacable resentment, half witch and half bag lady. Not an attractive or heroic presence to find shadowing Dinnage’s choice of “outsider women,” but a fitting ghost to haunt these somewhat melancholy proceedings. “If it’s about misery, send it to Dinnage,” she imagines her literary editors saying.

It is not public achievement or inspirational heroinism that mainly interest her. Educated in the late 1940s, a prolific, steadfast, and respected literary freelance writer for most of her life (much of it for The New York Review of Books), Dinnage deliberately sets herself outside the culture of women’s studies or literary feminism—or, for that matter, of academic trends or market fashions. Where high-achieving or heroic icons get into her book—Simone Weil, or Marie Stopes, or Olive Schreiner—they are treated with quizzical, critical realism. Dinnage divides her “outsider women” into Solitaries, Partners and Muses, Seers, Exotics, Reinventors, and the “Trapped.” But it’s the solitaries who set the tone. The title quote is taken from one of Alice James’s more eerily Jamesian moments of inner desolation, writing of “the ‘Alone, Alone!’ that echoed through the house, rustled down the stairs, whispered from the walls, and confronted me, like a material presence.”

In spite of Alice James (whom Dinnage typically refuses to sanctify, finding this “gallant and intelligent” woman also “spiteful, bitter, and very easily dislikable”), this is a very English book. Its main characters—Gwen John, Barbara Pym, Ottoline Morrell, Dora Russell, Annie Besant, Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton, Marie Stopes, Rebecca West, Margaret Oliphant, Clementine Churchill (what is she doing here?)—seem to be chosen as much for their Britishness as their aloneness. Her groups of outsiders—a witches’ enclave of the Azande on the Hornsey Rise, the English Collective of Prostitutes—are mainly London-based. Where she does pick foreigners—Simone Weil, Mrs. Verdi, Janacek’s Kamila Stosslova, Mme. Blavatsky—she treats them with an English commonsensical resistance to prima-donnaish excesses.

The virtues of Rosemary Dinnage’s approach—humaneness, humor, pity, stoicism—come with a liking for patchwork, a tolerance for mild eccentricity, a respect for privacy and stiff upper lips, and an affectionate interest in “ordinary living” and human confusion. “Comic and sad and indefinite” sums up Barbara Pym, she thinks, “as it does all our lives.”

Perhaps it is a handicap, in writing about the relationship between men and women, to be conclusive. To be aghast and muddled and fascinated is at least a good start.

This Anglo-Saxon preference for muddle and inconclusiveness leads her to dislike fanatics, absolutism, theorists, gurus, and fantasists. She likes people who “cope,” describing this, indeed, as a…

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