I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
When I was writing my biography of Leila Khaled for Pluto Press, my fabulous editor, David Castle, pointed something very valuable out to me. This is the fact that writers talking about men generally refer to them by their surname (‘Churchill’, ‘Cameron’), whilst women get called by their first names. It’s not 100% true, but go and look at most ‘serious’ or semi-serious books or journalism and you’ll see the trend. Women, it seems, even important historical or political figures, lack a certain gravitas conferred on men by the fact of having chromosome rot* and inherently funny-looking genitalia.
If you’re writing a biography, though, you tend to use your central subject’s name so often that you become desperate for a bit of variety. So what to do? For the Leila Khaled one, I tended to use ‘Khaled’ most of the time, breaking it up with her full name in key places and with ‘Leila’ at points which were more personal and intimate. It worked OK, I think (hope).
So far this spring, I’ve had two manuscripts to read as one of the editors of Pluto Press’ ‘Revolutionary Lives‘ biographical series, and so the subject has come back to haunt me. Writing about Salvador Allende, Victor Figueroa-Clark probably didn’t even think about the issue. One is writing about a man; one uses the surname (and I’m absolutely not blaming Figueroa-Clark for this – my point is that he didn’t need to think about it). For Paula Bartley, though, writing on Ellen Wilkinson, it became a question to ponder long and hard, and to engage in email discussions with myself and David over.
On the one hand, as an experienced historian of the British women’s movement, Bartley absolutely got the point. On the other, she felt that Ellen Wilkinson, as a woman who delighted in challenging formality and pomposity – especially of the male variety – would perhaps have preferred to be ‘Ellen’, and that the tone she was trying to set in her biography suited that better. Again, in the end, we reached a compromise that seems to satisfy everyone.
For another of the forthcoming Revolutionary Lives biographies, the issue takes on a slightly different slant. Katherine Connelly has written on Sylvia Pankhurst and, of course, there are rather a lot of Pankhurst women to mention in that life story. So Sylvia stays ‘Sylvia’ to differentiate her from Christabel, Emmeline et al, not to diminish her status as a political figure.
I do wonder, sometimes, though, if there is a cultural/gendered attitudinal difference here. It’s a small sample, but I couldn’t help feeling that Paula Bartley and I seemed to have a different feeling towards our subjects than the male authors in the series. We seemed to feel a closeness to them that I haven’t picked up from the men – not that we weren’t equally, if not more, able to criticise or critique when necessary, but a sense of the human-ness of the figures that we were writing about. Maybe it’s that my subject, at least, is still alive and I conducted lengthy interviews with her for the book. Or perhaps it’s that I come from a less conventional academic background that the authors of the male biographies in the series have so far tended to do, and therefore have a different writing style and perhaps a slightly different attitude toward what I’m writing about. I look forward to reading Connelly’s work to see if that kind of sense comes through in her Pankhurst biography, too.
* Yes, I know (now) that the actual idea of chromosome rot has been debunked. I didn’t even know it had been a serious scientific theory until I was trying to find the genius Jacky Fleming postcard on the subject online. Sadly I couldn’t…