Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Q&A with Anna Beer




Anna Beer is the author of the new book Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature. Her other books include Sounds and Sweet Airs. She is a visiting fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford.


Q: What inspired you to write Eve Bites Back?


A: Eve is the natural outcome of both my working life, as writer and educator, and my reading life, which started early – in fact, a cousin just sent me a faded picture of little (very little) Anna, head buried in a large (very large) book!


On an intellectual level, writing Eve allowed me to bring together a lot of strands in my thinking. I like to explore how and why books are created, how they get out into the world; I’ve always been intrigued by what people choose to read, what they value in and get from literature; and I am fascinated by authors themselves, particularly how individuals produced their works of genius, often against incredible odds.


On a personal, emotional level it’s a bit more messy. I just felt that I’d got to a point in my life and career in which I didn’t want to pull my punches about something that really matters – the silencing of the women.


I actually started off wanting to tell the remarkable story of Aemelia Lanyer, Shakespeare’s contemporary. She’s an amazing, ground-breaking, inspiring poet but my wonderful agent and publisher encouraged me to be more ambitious – so Lanyer now has seven companions!


“Go large” they said, and they were right because although each woman I write about has a remarkable, inspiring, highly individual story that is all her own, when you put their lives and works together then you can see so clearly some powerful truths about the mechanics of patriarchy both in the past and right here, right now.


On one level, of course, I was crazy to take on such a big project (500 years of literary history), but then I’d read or hear about another example of sexism and misogyny in our world now – and I’d get back to work, energised. What is so shocking and disappointing is that the ideas used to attack women 500, 300, 100 years ago are still so ingrained in our culture.


In the end, though, it’s the authors and their work that inspired me (and kept me company through the Covid years). To focus on just one, Mary Elizabeth Braddon: she is the perfect example of a writer who, plain and simple, has disappeared because of sexism.


She is a woman with a profoundly fascinating life story, an author who reflected intelligently and wittily on her own writing practice. She has a kind of energy and honesty about her which I love. In other words, she should be part of our history. Therefore: Eve Bites Back: an Alternative History of English Literature!


Q: How was the book's title chosen?


A: Honestly? It just came to me and stuck! Maybe I was thinking about a powerful passage in one of Aemelia Lanyer’s poems, which is titled “Eve’s Apology.” This is Lanyer’s rewrite of the Book of Genesis and Christ’s Passion. There is nothing apologetic about Lanyer’s take, however. She bites back, on behalf of a misunderstood Eve and all subjugated women.


Q: How did you choose the women you focus on in the book?


A: My first two requirements were that the author was one of the greats in some way – a game-changer, ground-breaker or simply brilliant in their chosen genre – and that she had a powerful story: an interesting woman with an interesting life living in interesting times.


Then I wanted to celebrate and explore difference: in form (there’s drama and poetry, novels and travel writing and more); in lived experience (have I mentioned I cover over 500 years…); and in place. Geographically, England is important, but there are many Englands – and the book travels to the edge of Asia and to the Americas.


I did not choose my eight authors because they are “exceptional” – for reasons I explain in the book itself. Moreover, and this may surprise some readers, I did not choose them because they are somehow “feminist” (again, you’ll need to read the book to understand my take on this).


Q: The historian Yasmin Khan said of the book, “...this is both a very entertaining and very important book about the many obstacles that women have overcome to be writers, and the long struggles even the most gifted and well-connected women authors have encountered in order to be taken seriously.” What do you think of this description?


A: I’m delighted that the early feedback from readers suggests that the book is entertaining – and funny. I hope that this means I’ll reach more people with what is, in the end, quite a serious message about exclusion and prejudice.


As for the struggles and obstacles faced by women over the centuries, I was determined to focus on the positive where I could do so. I have a particular appreciation for professionalism, for just keeping going. Having said that, don’t underestimate the courage and determination required to do so, but without looking too courageous or determined (aka remaining ladylike…).


I get what Professor Khan means when she writes about the struggle to be taken seriously – absolutely true – but I don’t want to lose sight of other goals these writers might have had: to make money, to achieve religious insight, to gain fame, or above all to entertain.


Q: How did you research the book?


A: I’ve been a literary detective (aka scholar and teacher of English literature) for decades, which meant I had a wealth of archival material to draw upon. This was fortunate since I was writing the book during the worst months/years of the pandemic and much of my research relied on access to online resources.


Thankfully, there is so much available now and I got (almost) everything I wanted that way. But I do remember clearly the first day I was able to get back into the Bodleian library here in Oxford (masked, sanitised, distanced – and having to book a two-hour slot). It was so emotional, being able to touch and read actual books again!


With my other books, I’ve often “footstepped” my subjects – after all, why not spend a couple of months in Venice seeing how John Milton or Barbara Strozzi lived? This time, because of the pandemic, I had to do (most of) the journeys in my mind although I did make a wonderful visit to the village of Chawton last summer. As the world opens up, I hope to set off again on my literary travels.


Q: What did you learn that especially fascinated you?


A: I hope the reader can tell that I had an absolute ball researching and writing this book! Pretty much everything was fascinating to me. So I’ll just pick out a couple of things that were special.


I have been reading, studying, teaching (and loving) Jane Austen’s novels since I was a young girl – and yet my understanding of her as a writer and a woman was transformed while doing the research for this book.


Something else new in the researching and writing of Eve was that I began to pay proper attention to the debates around what we now call “race.” This is still only a small strand to the book, and my primary concern remains gender, but I can’t now see myself writing anything without thinking of the connection between different kinds of exclusion and prejudice.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Lots of interesting things – including acting as script consultant to a historical TV drama, which is a whole new world for me – but I am keeping very quiet about my next book. Wait and see!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If anyone, at any stage of their own writing journey, is interested, I am available as a life-writing mentor through a collaboration between Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and Words by Design - Words by Design.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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