Antoinette before Bertha

I’ve been thinking more about Me Before You and ableism, and I think I’ve finally managed to pin down what disturbs me about the book. Spoilers, as before, for that book, and also for Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and for my Speak Its Name. As ever, there’s a picture first so that you have a chance to click away.

always another way of looking at the world
always another way of looking at the world

Another story from another book club

My current book club has a practice of actually discussing the book, which was a bit of a culture shock, but, you know, I’m getting used to it. There was an interesting discussion last time around about Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ reply to Jane Eyre. One member of the group had found the book dissatisfying. The bookseller had described it to them as a ‘feminist work’, and they were disappointed that the main character, Antoinette, retained very little agency and ended up thoroughly subjugated – in fact, in the same attic in which Brontë’s Rochester had incarcerated her over a century before.

I felt, and argued, strongly that Wide Sargasso Sea is indeed a feminist work. I don’t think that the fact that Jane Eyre still happens, that Rochester’s wife still ends up in the attic, stops it being feminist. I don’t believe that a book has to end ‘and they smashed the patriarchy and lived happily ever after’ for it to be feminist. I believe that feminist literature has as much of a responsibility to present the problems inherent in the world in which we’re currently living, and the consequent detriment to women, as it does to offer a glimpse of a world beyond that. If not, Virago’s output for most of the seventies, eighties and nineties was a huge waste of time. There has to be a place for books that portray the unpleasant aspects of the world we live in.

I put some things into Speak Its Name that I don’t agree with. Religiously-motivated abuse, homophobia, one-true-wayism. In fact, I put them in because I don’t agree with them. I think they’re absolutely awful. But they happen. I don’t think they should happen. I don’t think they have to happen. If my writing Speak Its Name (and generally being loudly queer and Christian) can contribute in even a minuscule fashion to a world where they stop happening, then I’ll be delighted. Besides, a novel where nothing controversial ever happens and all the characters agree with the author’s worldview is not going to be a very good book*.

So why am I still so suspicious of Me Before You?

After all, I’ve just said that it’s not anti-feminist to point out that it wasn’t much fun being a woman in a westernised culture in the early nineteenth century.

It’s not homophobic to point out that it’s not much fun being a lesbian in a socially/religiously conservative milieu.

It doesn’t have to be ableist to point out that it’s not much fun being disabled in early twenty-first century Britain.

The problem for Moyes is, I think, that she hasn’t quite picked up how much of the unpleasantness is contextual.There are moments where she almost gets it – the scene at the racecourse, with its accessibility nightmare topped off by the revelation that Will doesn’t like horseracing anyway, which would probably have emerged earlier had Lou not gone into ‘able saviour’ mode, is a lovely satirical demonstration of the social model of disability at work. But Moyes and her hero Will both seem to have bought into the idea that this is how things are always going to be. Disabled parking spaces will never be in an appropriate place, ramps will always be too steep, well-meaning non-disabled people will never stop to ask what a disabled person actually wants or needs… This is always going to be a world, says Me Before You, that a disabled person literally would not want to live in. And it never stops to ask whether that might be something to do with the world as opposed to the person.

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that’s the way that the world has to be. Sadly, I don’t believe that Me Before You‘s lazy assumptions about what being disabled is actually like have contributed to changing it.


*There were originally three speeches in Speak Its Name that express my pure opinions, which I would have happily claimed for myself regardless of who was saying them or what the context was. Two of them I gave to Peter. One of those was the rant about bus preservation, which isn’t particularly relevant to this post and got deleted anyway. The other comes a couple of paragraphs before the end of the Summer chapter, where he tells Lydia that God always welcomes her, and that anyone in the Church who doesn’t has got it’s wrong. That’s all me. Well, my High Church reader pointed out that Peter would say ‘the Church here on earth’, but apart from that it’s me.

And the third was Abby’s point, very near the end, about the hidden bisexuals. At the time I wrote it, that was my own experience. Not any more – but that’s another story.

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