5.2.20 This Woman’s Work
‘Who labour tillage and the furrowed field’.
Image of a woodcut illustrating book 1, line 240, of Virgil’s Georgics, from John Dryden’s English translation, 3rd edition (London, 1709).
Sometimes a book, poem, novel, film, or work of art which takes inspiration from a Latin text can help us to reimagine that text in instructive ways. These new works can raise questions about how we perceive old Roman originals in the ways we do, what we miss, what we have forgotten. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Virgil’s Georgics is a poem about land and the people who farm it, giving advice to you, the reader, on how to sow your crops, manage a vineyard, keep bees, and many other things besides. It’s a famous and much-loved poem in many quarters, but it’s not without its blind-spots. Almost all of the labourers featured in its lines are men, and when women at work do appear, they are inside, doing what women tend to be doing in these poems, weaving by night. So while the poem describes plenty of goddesses, nymphs, and female animals, real-life women are kept in indoors and out of the frame. And this is something that, as Eleanor Scott writes, is part of a much broader trend in Roman writing about agriculture: male writers write about the countryside in ways which render women and their contribution marginal if not invisible. Suddenly we’ve happened upon a very persistent and everyday trend in many societies: the undervaluation of women’s work, whether agricultural, emotional, domestic, or reproductive. Adrienne Rich writes:
Across the curve of the earth, there are women getting up before dawn, in the blackness before the point of light, in the twilight before sunrise; there are women rising earlier than men and children to break the ice, to start the stove, to put up the pap, the coffee, the rice, to iron the pants, to braid the hair, to pull the day’s water up from the well, to boil water for tea, to wash the children for school, to pull the vegetables and start the walk to market, to run to catch the bus for the work that is paid. I don’t know when most women sleep.
As a teacher I think that one of the jobs of reading literature in an educational setting is to raise such issues, using the creativity of that literature to talk about the here and now as much as ancient Rome; I don’t mean for you to throw away your copy of Virgil. My focus here is on a novel called My Ántonia, written by the American writer Willa Cather (1873–1947) and first published in 1918. It’s a book about a family of Bohemian immigrants making their life in the nineteenth-century American West, and it follows one of the daughters, Ántonia, from girlhood to adulthood. As the novel progresses her story is contrasted with that of her friend Jim, who, as a middle-class American, has a considerably easier time of it as he makes his way in the world. Cather’s My Ántonia takes inspiration directly from Virgil’s Georgics, using a line from the poem in Latin as its epigraph, and having Jim study the poem in college; in this way its themes of rural life and its hardships are amplified by a backward glance to Virgil.
But Cather can help us read the Georgics too. Here’s a paragraph which reminded me, at any rate, that women have always been out in the fields alongside the men and the children, and that Virgil’s countryside is not the countryside,but rather a particular vision of it. Notice also how it neatly illustrates the differing and gendered expectations that surround Jim and Ántonia as their paths in life diverge.
After supper I rode home through the sad, soft spring twilight. Since winter I had seen very little of Ántonia. She was out in the fields from sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her when she was ploughing, she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me. On Sundays she helped her mother make garden or sewed all day. Grandfather was pleased with Ántonia. When we complained of her, he only smiled and said, ‘She will help some fellow get ahead in the world.’
Note: You can read Eleanor Scott’s article, ‘Harvesting Women’s Work’, on her website, here; the Adrienne Rich quotation is from p. 80 of her Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (New York: Norton). I’ve taken my title for this post from Kate Bush’s song of the same name.