Island Fourteen – Isle of

Suffragettes and Creative
Couples
(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative
Imagination)
[Dedication: This chapter is dedicated to the memory of my Great-Grandmother ‘Granny
Irvine’ who was both a Scottish feminist, socialist and social activist in the early part of
the 20th century.]

Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are
acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ under international
copyright law.
Images: Tristan and Isolde, Edmund Leighton, 1902 this image is from Wikipedia and is in the public
domain internationally. 2nd image, ‘Votes for Women’ 19th century image freely available on the web (public
domain), unknown source.
Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn
from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul:
Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.

Island Fourteen – Isle of Suffragettes and Creative Couples
It is accurate to say that feminism was the great revolution—in the West anyway—of the latter
part of the 20th century. On the whole it has been a positive force in recent world history. By that
I mean that as a system of thought, and a method of critique, it has consistently had the
promotion of basic human rights at its core. Whenever I hear simplistic critiques of feminism and
feminists I usually smell the rat of patriarchal authoritarianism—and I’m usually right.
In my third year of study at La Trobe I came across Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s
Own. The book’s sheer humanness, and, I guess its thematics—the stifling of female creativity
and intellectual endeavour by powerful male-dominated institutions— transcended the teaching
milieu and spoke directly to something that I understood, even identified with from personal
experience: i.e. the unfairness of many of the ‘givens’ of society. Coming out of a childhood
where I’d felt that class had been one of the ‘givens’ working to keep me (and my father) down,
the book led to certain insights that, strangely enough, left me feeling creatively liberated
(perhaps books that question any form of oppression make readers more aware of their own
experiences).
After meeting Sue I no longer mysticised and idealised women in unrealistic ways. I
think my previous alienated state had made me see some women (especially the abnormally
beautiful and perfect model/celebrity types young men are taught to desire through the mass
media) as impervious, all-powerful—almost trans-human. The subtlety of my change in outlook
is difficult to record but the short of it was that all women became more real to me as human
beings. Studying the French realist classic Madame Bovary around the same time (in one of
Harry Oldmeadow’s literature tutorial groups) accelerated this change in perspective—though
beautiful and desirable Emma Bovary is also tormented and ill-at-ease in her own skin.
My only regret is that I couldn’t have reached such a space earlier in my life. The
objectification of women was rife across male sporting cultures in early 1980s New Zealand.
Some of the professional cricketers I knew, for example, left their wives ‘at home with the kids’,
whilst they dabbled with the many female sports groupies that followed teams around (let’s call
it the Shane Warne syndrome given public revelations concerning his many extra-marital
encounters). As a young man the hypocrisy seemed stunning—and I was not a puritan by any
means. I knew one cricketer who was nothing short of predatory (almost vampiric) in his
compulsive seduction of women—he bragged constantly about his conquests, declaring ‘I never
go back to the same pussy twice’. The unwritten rule, however, seemed to be that as one of the
guys you kept your mouth shut about such matters whenever wives or girlfriends were around.
One night, whilst returning to the team hotel after a visit to the nightclubs of nearby
Gisborne (on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island), an aging hardened professional
decided to educate me about how things really were in relation to women and cricketers. There
were five of us in the car and we were tired after a long day in the field. He whispered, ‘All this
can be yours’—he was referring to the whole experience of being an elite sportsman, but also
specifically to the freedom of constant travel, always being in the media’s eye, having loyal
mates you celebrated everything with, and of course the reality of willing ladies in many of the
towns you visited. The problem was he sounded infinitely tired and sad. I actually pitied him. I
understood in that moment that in some strange way it was all immensely empty to him—almost
nightmarish. In retrospect he’d unintentionally given me a strange gift—it was as though through
some weird psychology of melancholy I’d been taught, unintentionally, a life lesson.
A slightly different discussion occurred 6 months later in a Worcester pub (it was the

summer of 1984 and I was playing County Seconds matches across England). I was in the pub—
also after a long day in the field—sharing a drink with a thirty-five year old cricketer who was
struggling, by that stage in his career, to get games with the County. He was venting about his
life—how he didn’t really know anything but cricket, how his relationships had all busted up due
to the constant travel and ‘temptation’, how he was broke due to his attempts over the years to
make it in the sport. etc. He seemed both hopeless and frustrated as he aggressively pummelled
the pinball machine in front of him—all orange and red flashing lights. He also scratched his
groin constantly between plays and told me he’d contracted ‘Yit an’o’er bout of t’ crabs ...’ as he
put it, due to some random encounter a week earlier. ‘Bit’er git it seen to’ he continued, after a
particularly long and satisfying scratch, ‘or it’ll rot and fall off!’ Needless to say, I declined an
offer to match him in a pinball game!
It strikes me now that between 1982 and 1992 I was working through unresolved gender
stuff implicit to British society in the 60s and exacerbated by the kind of routine sexism implicit
to Australian and New Zealand masculine cultures in the 70s and 80s. Coming of age in the
middle of the cultural hurricane that was gender politics at that time meant that it was almost
inevitable that I, like many other young men of the era, would mess things up big time in terms
of male-female relationships—it was a confusing time, to say the least, to be a young man.
Sexism, like other forms of oppression, is most dangerous when it is systematised—i.e.
when it is a socio-cultural (rather than an individual) phenomenon. Those of us whose parents
had missed out on the middle class moral revolutions of the sixties had to navigate them on our
own later—often after the idealism had vanished. It wasn’t easy. Our psychosexual identities
were at stake and at vulnerable stages of the life-cycle—late adolescence. Many young men were
ill-prepared for the new age of changing gender roles—and at least some in the feminist
movement were, understandably, taking no prisoners.
Between 1992 and 1994 Sue got deeper into her undergraduate degree, she also began
performing live poetry, began writing songs and was thinking about taking up fiction writing. It
was soon clear that there were two writers in the relationship. I was delighted because it meant a
shared future together living a creative life. I wouldn’t be battling with Sue over the time and
space to write—also over the financial sacrifices involved. Many arts people warn against such
an alliance. For us, however, it was all good news. We never did anything that didn’t take into
account our joint need to live a creative life—including having children too early in the
relationship (recall we were already having part care of my two children by the previous
relationship).
It’s worth discussing, however, what the experts list as the main dangers of this kind of
relationship. Topping the list of possible ‘issues’ are economic hardship, clashes of ego due to
unequal levels of success and mental health issues. In terms of financial conflict, there may be no
practical money earner on hand in such a relationship to relieve money stresses. Similarly, in
terms of the other two issues, writers and poets addicted to stereotypical (clichéd) models of the
creative life—i.e. that it necessarily involves substance abuse, sexual experimentation of a
destructive nature, highly individualistic achievement oriented notions of ‘success/celebrity’ and
idealisation (or worse ‘denial’) of mental health problems—are, I believe, doomed to ruin their
relationships with a creative partner (and perhaps any other partner as well!).
Perhaps the main task of the modern creative couple is to avoid the kind of tragedy of
circumstances that afflicted two famous Celtic bards of the Irish Dark Ages —Liadain and
Cuirithir. As Robert Graves tells the story (originally recorded in the 9th century Comrac Liadain

ocus Chuirithir, i.e. The Meeting of Liadain and Cuirithir) Liadain was a highborn ollavepoetess. Her ‘circuit’ with her twenty-four pupils took her all over the country and eventually she
met up with the poet Cuirithir, with whom she fell in love. The traditionally problematic
situation of two master poets in the one household thus threatens, and true to form things do not
go smoothly for the pair!
According to Graves’ interpretation of the ancient manuscript, Liadain takes offence at
her lover’s tendency to see their possible union in terms of famous offspring. She also detects an
impulse in him to prize his own poetic gifts above hers—and is suspicious that should they marry
he will condemn her to a sterile domesticity. Nevertheless, she is deeply in love with him. Upon
completion of her bardic rounds among the great houses of Connaught she takes a religious vow
of chastity, mostly as a means to maintain the poetic bond between her and Cuirithir, her
somewhat insensitive lover. Here the tragedy accelerates.
When Cuirithir comes to see her after her travels he is understandably upset—and
perhaps a little frustrated—and decides to take similar vows—perhaps to please Liadain? Next
the two lovers give St. Cummine control over their lives, and not surprisingly things go from
strange to farcical. According to the old manuscript Liadain pleads to be allowed to cohabit with
Cuirithir, the saint however permits them only one night together in the same bed—and there has
to be a boy between them. Another feature of St. Cummine’s severity is the choice he forces
Cuirithir to make:
Cummine gave Cuirithir the choice of seeing Liadain without speaking to her, or
speaking to her without seeing her. As a poet he chose speech.1
Given the two were poets such a situation would hardly be maintained for long and the Saint
eventually banishes Cuirithir from the monastic settlement altogether forcing him to become a
monk and go on a very long pilgrimage. Liadain, by now in despair, resolves to see Cuirithir
illegally, but is rebuffed when to escape her he ‘sails across the sea in a coracle’. This is too
much for this once great poetess and she collapses at the site of their former meetings, refuses to
eat and eventually dies of a broken heart.
We moderns might suggest that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for the lovers to hand
over their sex life to an ascetic Saint! Such an insight misses the point regarding the ancient
jealousies potentially unleashed by the coming together of two extrovert, creative types intent on
pursuing their respective individual careers in the arts. If anything the heightened ‘individualism’
of the poet/writer in our period may work to intensify such problems. When, however, Graves
describes the necessity of being periodically inspired (in order to write poetry) as ‘the poet’s love
problem’ he’s looking at the situation from within the prism of ‘poet as modern (Western)
individual’. He also writes: ‘The White Goddess is anti-domestic; she is the perpetual other
woman.’
Although a legitimate enough warning against a model of domesticity that sees long term
love as mere habituation, such a stance sets us looking in the wrong direction for the sense of
aliveness that is undoubtedly a precondition for poetry and other forms of art. Acceptance by
each lover of a degree of personal responsibility for remaining an individual whilst staying
mutually engaged in the great mysteries of existence might serve as another possible approach to
the ‘problem’—given the only other options are either loneliness or serial love affairs such as
Anais Nin promoted in her ‘journals’. Anais, however, always had a wealthy, puppy-dog
1

Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 441.

husband to fall back on no matter what she did. Unfortunately, for most mere mortals the reality
of such experimentation would be a deep sense of hurt and betrayed trust leading inevitably to a
broken relationship and, if there are children involved, a life-long legacy of hurt passed on to the
next generation. Rather than making our lovers completely responsible for our ‘creativity’ and
‘happiness’ (as in nuclear family hyper-capitalism) perhaps a personal search for the ‘elan vitale’
might be a better place to begin—and the children may hopefully sleep less anxiously.
Conclusion: Why Writers Should Engage with Feminism
The idea of an alternative women’s tradition is obviously attractive since it offers a way out of the
poetic (and critical) dilemma faced by women of inheriting conventions and definitions which deny
us authority.2

Every modern writer—male or female—should think
about a crash course in the many ‘feminisms’ of the
postmodern period. If in particular male writers, such as
myself, believe that art and literature is in part about
opening up to the deepest experiences, truths and so on
of the ‘others’ we share the world with—human and
non-human beings who are different to us—then surely
one of the first places to start is to explore the world
views of the women we share our lives with. The
exploration may end up being both personally and
creatively liberating. The patriarchal ‘mono-myths’ that
dominated Western (and other cultures) for so many
centuries, were structured into religious and social
institutions (for example, the economy, the education
system, etc.) and thus helped engineer profound
collective distortions to the human spirit. They
represented a cultural closing off to ‘non-male’ ways of
being, and contributed to a social rigidity and
inflexibility of response that perhaps even made the art
and literature produced by such cultures ‘limited, ‘incomplete’ and ‘one dimensional’ in
fundamental ways. Masculine constructions of ‘creativity’ also worked to undervalue women’s
creative achievements and aspirations and thus acted to rob many women of an important means
of making sense of other aspects of their lives. They helped breed repression (in individuals),
and profoundly oppressive systems (in the social sense), thus they contributed to dehumanising
trends in whole nations.
For female writers then the study of the various feminisms might be seen as fundamental
to their development as creative individuals. Over the past forty years, in particular, Feminist
scholars have worked long and hard to retrieve the creative output of women from past eras.
Likewise they’ve reappraised canonical standards that worked to exclude female writers and
artists on male created aesthetic grounds. They’ve also asked questions about the
repressive/oppressive tendencies built in, as it were, to phallo-centric sign systems (e.g.
languages). Some have asked is there a language, a way of writing, more representative of the
2

Jan Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, p.57. Pandora, 1994.

experiences of female writers and readers? Just as importantly many feminists have shown
themselves to be open to dialogue with other oppressed minorities and have increasingly
welcomed informed critique of their scholarship—indeed it could be argued that the recent
‘intersectionist’ model of oppression, which acknowledges and seeks to tackle multiple forms of
‘oppression’, came about, in part, due to a global feminist dialogue conducted between first
world feminists and other groups experiencing different types of oppression e.g. because of
sexuality, race/ethnicity, disability, class, etc. In this sense writers who engage with feminism
are uniquely placed to help contribute to a range of global human rights debates in constructive,
progressive ways. The alienated, individualist, all-conquering (most often male) ‘writer genius’
archetype of the post-Renaissance Western canon is also challenged by many recent feminist
literary critics and I have no doubt that the various avant garde movements of the 20th century
would have been all the poorer without female and feminist input.
Due in part to the incisiveness and reach of late 20th century feminist cultural critiques it
seems that a new, more humane, inter-relational model for the creation and reception of art and
literature is close—the question is: Will the new paradigm arrive—and be adopted by enough of
the world’s population—to reverse the profound, species-wide crisis, we are now witnessing—a
crisis perhaps first set in motion by the mythological revolutions of the 2nd millennium BCE.
For many male writers, then, the task is to perhaps purge themselves of all culturally
inherited ‘Marduk’ tendencies—and thereby enact in their lives and in their art more nurturing
forms of masculinity. For women writers the task is perhaps to fully resurrect Tiamat in all her
archaic life-enhancing glory—both in their art and in their relationships with self and other.

Author Bio (as at May 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist,
writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in
publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish
Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia)
and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number of Australian
national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005
(Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005.
He is the author of three books and co-editor of three
journals and currently teaches in the Professional Writing
and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as
the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and
social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative,
normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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