Stories are as universal a language as they are unique. While everyone is guaranteed to fall in love with a story throughout their lifetime, even if it’s just a single story, it takes a certain kind of soul to craft that tale from start to finish.
Often, the act of writing is severely romanticized – the aesthetic of ink-smeared fingers, scattered papers stained with delicate handwriting, encased in a darkened library or bedroom, alone with nothing but a faint candle flame flickering and a window to let you know that the night is nearly at an end. It’s a beautiful image, really, but one constructed from partial truths. Yes, perhaps, in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Europe, the notion of being an author may have been a little more glamorous, but only for me. Their female counterparts didn’t experience such a lifestyle. Rather, they were forced to lock their dreams, their pens, and their words away as it was regarded improper and nightfall or early morning was one of the only times they could write without fear of disturbance or judgment. Who would want to read a woman’s stories? What could they possibly know? They don’t have the capabilities to produce poetry or manuscripts or even evoke feelings that stir inside us like a storm. So, as beautiful as writing can be, for the latter sex, it’s often a struggle. A process of hiding their work and fighting for validation and acceptance – both from publishers, readers, their families, and themselves.
Over the years, while such portrayals aren’t typically common on the big screen, films that centre around women writers can be found if you look hard enough. And yes, while each of these pieces incorporates that iconic writing-by-candlelight scene, and a montage of the moment when they’re overtaken by inspiration and the words just spill out of them (a phenomenon of which is actually true), they also portray the horrors one must face on the path to becoming an author in their own right. Prolific or not, writing is much more than being able to string words together in a seductive manner. Women writers especially must manipulate language as much as their own demons seek to manipulate them. As sad as it can be, without such horrors planted deep, something beautiful cannot grow.
Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2017 piece Mary Shelley portrays such trials extremely well. Elle Fanning portrays the renowned author, and her struggle to live up to her mother’s reputation while following her heart and becoming an author is showcased delicately and wonderfully. Frankenstein is already a dark story, and academics have read between the lines, extracting its secrets and themes for years, but it’s easy to miss or gloss over the simplest truth: the demons of the author are what breathes life into this gothic tale. Because, without Shelley going through what she did, this masterpiece wouldn’t have been made. al-Mansour’s film is filled with emotional turmoil, soft tones, and even softer hearts. Fanning does a remarkable job capturing Shelley’s innocence as well as her complexity; she’s naïve in the ways of the world yet wise when she’s submerged in imagination and when it comes to realizing her place, her potential, and her dreams. Mary Shelley is very much an underappreciated film regarding cinematic artistry and artistry on the page.
But horrors do not always come in the form we expect. Whereas Mary Shelley focuses on tragedy, Apple TV’s series Dickinson and Greta Gerwig’s academy award-winning remake of Little Women both show that sometimes it’s the demons that we harbour within ourselves that can give birth to something special and rare.
Apple TV’s three-season series tells the story of American poet Emily Dickinson. The project is a coming-of-age take on Emily’s life and, while often light-hearted and very charismatic overall, a dark thread is woven below the surface of the show. It’s known that Dickinson herself was a unique character. She transformed the nature of poetry into something more anachronistic and tender as opposed to allowing this form of writing to remain rigid and traditional by pushing the boundaries of style and language – a habit she practised in her personal life as well. The series shows Emily being shunned over and over again because she is infatuated with death and because of her “unconventional love” for her best friend Sue. Most, if not all of Emily’s poems are shaped by these so-called demons that lurk inside her. She’s clearly not like others – her mind is different, though many in her time would say strange, even damaged; her interests are “unbefitting for a lady”, and her heart is tainted with the poison of naturalness.
Even though Emily is frequently seen to be bold and defiant, those scenes are broken by others that are far more sensitive. Say whatever you want about Emily Dickinson, but she was still just a young girl trying to accept herself, her quirks, and her passions. Personal demons, after all, are some of the most terrifying things because they never fully leave us. They’re a part of us, deeply ingrained into our bones. And female writers had, and have to, face such battles every day – even if they end up winning the war and becoming published, the smaller battles themselves, inside their minds and bodies, raged on.
In comparison, Gerwig’s Little Women, while it does portray internal hardship, it isn’t to the same degree as Dickinson. Jo March is also a vibrant young woman, but the biggest hurdle that’s holding her back is her self-doubt. She’s sensitive to critique and feels that what she creates isn’t good enough – that is, when she even has a subject to write about in the first place. Jo March is confident in most areas of her life except for her writing, which is what matters the most to her. Gerwig uses this truth and creates a deeply relatable experience. Writers are always fending off self-doubt and hesitancy, but for women, it often seems to manifest into a much more crippling affliction. Women have always had something to prove and in most instances–proving to yourself that you’ve got what it takes and that you’re not just another misguided, stupid dreamer, is the most challenging thing of all. Both Dickinson and Little Women address this in a stylized, touching way, so much so that one cannot help but to realize that a part of Jo and Emily lay within their own souls.
Lastly, one of the most commonly experienced horrors that female writers face is societal expectations – although restrictions is arguably a more accurate term. Hollywood filmmakers never shy away from including this particular facet, which is understandable. Our world has always been male-dominated and the oppression that this structure establishes remains at the forefront of the literary and the rest of the artistic world. For a long time, literature was deemed a gentleman’s game – one needed to be distinguished and properly educated to be able to comment, and therefore, write, on cultural and political, even domestic events. A woman’s place was in the home sewing, cooking, and cleaning. Even though this perspective was prominent in nearly every city for decades, it’s typically associated with the Regency period in Europe.
The 2007 biographical film Becoming Jane, which sees Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, one of the most beloved classic writers, illustrates this time as one filled with conditional and prudent romance. Deviating from convention, be it with your marriage prospects, how you dressed, what you wanted to become, brought about shame. Women had no business taking up the pen and creating novels – such an escape, a way to express themselves and experience freedom, was not proper nor was it necessary. But if Austen hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have some of the loveliest (and funniest) stories on love and 1700/1800s England. A slice of history would be missing. As for the film, while it is indeed heavily influenced by young Jane’s first and only love (a love that didn’t work out), her growth as a writer takes precedence, as she’s able to do so because of such unfortunate circumstances and rules. These two aspects of life impact one another constantly. After all, the demons that society creates and are unwilling to acknowledge, seep into one’s life deeply.
Women writers both on the silver screen and in real life are creatures like no other. It’s important to tell their stories so that their contemporaries understand that shared history, as well as the importance of perseverance. We need these stories because they inspire. Even today, the act of writing is a long, isolated road that many are fearful to traverse, nor will they comprehend its necessity. It still isn’t glamorous, what with certain subject matters or public perception still favouring men. Women writers will be submerged in horror, so it’s essential for them to know that they aren’t alone. Hollywood as an industry has infinite reach, and it’s their duty to tell such stories so that women understand that a whole lineage of other women is there to support and guide them, however ghostly and however distant that connection may be.
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95