Discrediting Women and Fiction: Eleanor Catton and Francesca da Rimini


Plenty of us will have seen, by now, Kate Saunders’ comments on Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton. Saunders described Catton as ‘a new kind of role model’ for ‘bookish girls’, ‘a slight, pale (unassisted) blonde woman’, ‘quietly spoken’ and ‘dazed’ in front of her eminent judges, stepping into the limelight ‘nervously’.

“She’s an unashamed nerd … with a pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness; just the sort that’s fashionable among clever teenage girls who don’t aspire to be Katie Price.”

(Seriously, could Saunders cram any more allusions to genre fiction into that line? If she wrote her novels with such economy, Night Shall Overtake Us wouldn’t make such a popular doorstop in Oxfam shops.)

About Catton’s writing, Saunders has the supremely patronizing statement (and trust me, after the last sentence, I do know whereof I speak):

“She’s a chick, but nobody could mistake her work for any kind of chick-lit; this young woman has been recognised for being a genuine artist …”

Saunders also finds time to comment on Catton’s proposed researchs subjects for another novel. These are time travel and systematised magic, if you’re interested – subjects covered, respectively, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and de Bernières’ trilogy of South American novels. Saunders declared:

“These are not serious subjects outside fiction for children.”

I could get steamed up about these comments in about ten different ways, but fortunately, I don’t have to because all my social networks were buzzing with eloquently angry posts. So instead I will consider the history of how the stereotypes Saunders is drawing on came to have so much power within our culture.

This unpleasant mixture of undermining comments – from the focus on Catton’s looks to the implication of her childishness and lack of adult and/or masculine stature and attitude – is pretty much your standard woman-hating 101 recipe. The strategy – praising one woman by telling her you’ve written off all the rest – is probably familiar to most of us. Its association with fiction also has a very long history. My research project looks as medieval romances, the ancestors of the modern novel, and here we find the same old tangle of attitudes.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the earliest circles of hell imprisons the spirits of Paolo and his lover Francesca, a noblewoman who had lived in Dante’s own time. She tells Dante how she is punished in hell for the sin of adultery, falling in love with a man who was not her husband:

“We read one day for pastime of Lancelot, how love constrained him. We were alone and had no misgiving. Many times that reading drew our eyes together and changed the colour in our faces, but one point alone it was that mastered us; when we read that the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, he who never shall be parted from me – all trembling – kissed my mouth. A Galeotto [the go-between in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere] was that book, and he that wrote it, and that day we read no farther.”

(from Inferno, Canto V).

The seductive power of romance fiction sets in motion the chain of events that lead to Francesca and her lover’s violent deaths at the hands of her jealous husband.

The similarities between Dante’s imagined version of Francesca, and the picture Saunders paints of Catton, are disconcerting.

Where Catton is ‘slight’, Dante’s Francesca moves ‘lightly’; where Catton is ‘pretty’, Francesca talks of the ‘fair form’ she had in life. Where Catton is ‘quietly spoken’, Francesca ‘sighs’. Where Catton’s proposed new novel topics are ‘not serious’, Francesca’s romances are part of a fictional world that leads her to forget the dangers of reality.

In the deeply misogynistic worlds of medieval England and Italy, we might not be surprised to find that women are particularly susceptible to criticisms that focus on their reading of fiction. It fits in with the obtrusive cultural associations of women with other forms of untruth, and with the presumptions of female deceit we saw at work in medieval rape law. What is more shocking is that we have inherited these conflated attitudes, tangled up together, to interpret the combination of female beauty and fiction – especially romantic, non-‘serious’ fiction and ‘chick-lit’ – as suggestive of low artistic merit. Kate Saunders’ comments perpetuate the negative connotations of writing marketed to women, and simultaneously, and slyly, perpetuate the idea that if a woman seems ‘feminine’ and ‘attractive’ – and young – it’s very surprising to find she’s a good writer.

Even though, technically, Saunders’ version of Catton gets off more lightly than Dante’s Francesca in that she is only metaphorically damned with faint praise, I find it really difficult not to dislike Saunders’ descriptions more than Dante’s. Dante the character, who travels to Hell, redeems himself by his pity for Francesca. We think of a society that venerated femininity, even while it was uneasy with real women. Dante the author is more subtle: after Francesca’s sighing narrative, he puts the surprisingly powerful and harsh conclusion in her mouth, referring to her husband and murderer:

“Caina [the lowest level of Hell] waits for him who quenched our life.”

It has the ring of vengeful prophecy.


While I was idly googling Kate Saunders, as you do, I was unfeasibly amused to find that she’s quoted amongst a long line of gushing reviewer quotations for a certain John the Revelator, by one Peter Murphy (no doubt a very nice bloke; I’ve never heard of him). Saunders praises the ‘unsentimental’ and ‘powerful’ quality of the writing, while a fellow journalist goes one step further down the macho line with ‘ballsy’.

I rest my case.

On a less gleefully righteous note, I came across this thought-provoking article last year. It’s written by author Meg Wolitzer, and discusses how ‘women’s fiction’ works (or doesn’t work) as a category. Well worth a read.


A friend of mine has just alerted me to this interview, which contains Catton’s own, very thoughtful and dignified response to gendered criticisms of female authors. As a medievalist, I am really excited by her explanation of her novel’s complex, astrological structure:

“The paradox is … the relationship between, on the one hand, the characters being the masters of their fates, and on the other hand that being predetermined. … One of the most baffling things is when people assume that when something is structurally ornate it is less human than something that is not structurally ornate … That puzzles me – I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities. The ability of humans to read meaning into patterns is the most defining characteristic we have.”

Beautifully put, and I for one couldn’t help thinking of Troilus and Criseyde.