[Resilience: In psychology, the ability of an individual to cope with and overcome a traumatic event or period of difficulty.]
In this difficult period in which the presence of the pandemic forces individuals to live in unusual situations, mostly in a state of isolation, the term resilience is often used. It leads us to reflect on our reserves of courage and our ability to face everyday life with a serene perspective despite the restricted spaces we are forced to live in. In the history of humanity, serious events and situations that have made people’s lives difficult are countless: if today it is a virus, at the beginning of the twentieth century it was a world war, followed by a flu epidemic and another even more frightening war. Without forgetting current situations of chronic poverty in some countries… the list is long and really involves everyone, to a greater or lesser extent.
One of the difficult and tragic situations that the term resilience refers to is linked in particular to the world of women, and is reported in newspapers on an almost daily basis. Specifically, it is violence against women, a tragedy that is not diminishing.
The significance of 25 November
In many countries of the world, situations in which women, even within the family, literally have to defend their lives against a violent husband or cohabiting partner are on the increase… if that seems to be just a horror story, it is in fact the dramatic reality.
Some might complain that these are only “isolated cases”, that the role of women in society and in the family is stabilised, that humanity has now found an undeniable balance of civil cohabitation. Such statements, however, deny a reality that has even made it necessary to have a world day against violence against women, which was established in 1999. If we think about it carefully, it is a tragic commemoration, because it implies that a special visibility is needed to guarantee respect, which should instead be innate and not a subject of discussion.
ACTIVITY – Write a blog or an article for the school newspaper where you imagine that violence against women no longer exists and describe to your readers how it was defeated.
Resilience in writing
Instead of talking about the difficult situations women face nowadays, let’s turn our attention to literature which, alongside historical chronicles and documentary sources, has shone a light on the mentality and society of their time, offering a lively and truthful, sometimes almost “cinematic” and detailed insight into the female world.
Let’s look at the resilience of women who changed the world with their words in their own way: they described their society, addressing an audience and inspiring readers. Some have created characters who have become so “classic” and famous that they almost overshadow their creators (think of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, just to name two, but the list could go on).
When it comes to writers, especially among the great classics of literature, a place of honour is given to Jane Austen (1775-1817), a profound connoisseur of the mentality of her era, of the female world and of social roles. In her novels, she describes with liveliness and irony how marriage is the goal to which young women aspire; deprived of their own economic independence and subordinate by birth to their fate in the very organisation of society. Her novels were already enormously successful while Jane was alive, yet when Sense and Sensibility was first published, the author signed herself “A Lady” on the cover, rather than use her name, whereas if she had been a man, she would not even have given it a thought. Jane became famous all the same; even King George IV admired her works.
Yet Jane herself experienced, even painfully, the social limitations of the time, since the papers and the few sources available report that she probably did not marry the young man she had met because it was not a socially suitable match. Moreover, when her father died, her economic situation and that of her mother and sisters forced her to accept her brother’s hospitality because they had no economic independence. But Jane knew how to go beyond social norms, and the intelligence of her protagonists reflects her desire to lead her own destiny, like the proud Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, who stubbornly wants to marry a man she loves, not for convenience or social status.
Speaking of authorship, Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a cultured writer of the Victorian era, decided to choose the path that would at least allow her not to see her works relegated to the sector of novels for “women”, and therefore deemed of little importance according to the custom of the time. And so she wrote under the name George Eliot; the same path was chosen by the French writer Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, who wrote under the name George Sand. Both had to appear to be different people in order to be credible. Being women and pretending to be men was a difficult challenge and at one point George Eliot was forced to reveal her true identity when a man, Joseph Liggins, tried to appropriate the authorship of her novel Adam Bede.
A little later, between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, women were fighting for more rights and especially the right to vote, which they were denied. The writer Virginia Woolf was one of the great voices of the female world and in one of her essays, A room of one’s own, she imagines that Shakespeare’s sister may have had a great talent. What would her prospects have been? This is how she hypothesizes them:
She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.
ACTIVITY – Write a letter to one of these writers explaining why it is important in your opinion to use your real name if you write a novel or a book of poems or an essay.
Resilient from birth: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
But let’s go back again to the early 19th century and to a writer who wrote under her own name and invented a literary genre: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). Daughter of two intellectuals who were out of the ordinary for their time – the philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist voices in contemporary history – she was therefore brought up believing deeply in her ability to deal with any situation and rely on herself, yet what her life had in store would require an almost superhuman strength to overcome. She met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at a very young age. He was considered an eccentric, and was suspected of having caused his first wife’s suicide. She had three children with him, two of whom died shortly after birth, and was widowed at the age of 25 when Shelley drowned during a storm whilst in Italy. A catastrophe. At the age of 19, however, Mary had written a novel, almost as a game, which not only proved to be a great success, but which even gave birth to a new literary genre and invented the most famous monster in literature to this day. With Frankenstein, Mary opened the way to science fiction. From then on, generations of readers have been captivated by this tragic but engaging story and made to reflect on the role of science.
Behind this incredible success there is a woman who had written all her life to support herself and her son (more than to become famous) and who for the last ten years of her life was plagued by disease until she died very young, at the age of 53. Her mind was not only fervent but also prophetic, as with the novel The Last Man (1826), in which she imagines the tragic and disturbing scenario of a pandemic.
ACTIVITY – Send a tweet to someone you know about Mary Shelley’s personality in 120 characters.
The stories of these writers and the stories of their lives show how resilience is a powerful tool for endurance, creativity and inner beauty, which makes it possible to face difficulties, to go through them and overcome them without losing empathy towards others and the ability to listen.
Resilience belongs to everyone, with no exception. However, women’s resilience is still linked to the struggle for their rights, for equal dignity and in too many situations… for their life. The hope is that very soon the 25th of November will only be a memory, to be acknowledged and then forgotten.