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Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tiny, barely adequate tribute

Trying not to be sexist The Guardian, my daily newspaper, has done away with "actress" - thus Helen Mirren and Benedict Cumberbatch are both actors on its pages. A small arguable matter.

Plodding behind I'd like to do away with "heroine" and talk about a hero, P, my French teacher. P is a woman.

Heroism is frequently seen on a grand scale but needn't be. Nor need it involve wars. It does involve courage but not necessarily in the face of physical danger; spouses who continue to love their "other" through Alzheimer's are courageous, thus heroes. Without losing myself in arid definitions my heroes are, by consensus, admirable as well as being devoted, sympathetic, skilled, generous, egalitarian and selfless.

On Friday mornings B, another woman, and I sit down in P's dining room, read alternate pages of our set book (presently Rien Ne S'oppose à la Nuit by Delphine de Vigan), then translate as accurately as we can. I've been doing this for about fifteen years, B for much longer. There is no pressure except from our own consciences. Wellbeing resides in how well we've prepared our translations.

When I err P corrects me with: "Not quite." P presides quietly (she is a Quaker) but with authority. She does this out of a love of the French language at £5 a pop. Her default state is to encourage, her patience is endless and she rides over raunchy passages briskly and with laughter.

The class is tiny yet her influence - for good - is indisputable. All three of us are of an age but it is P who best shows there can be benefits in growing older. P is one of a tiny band I call my heroes; unassailable in virtue but witty with it.


  1. Funny, I despise the outmoded 'authoress' and 'poetess', yet can't quite go with 'actor' for male and female, and stay more happily with 'actress'. Hero for a woman is fine when describing qualities as you are here, but the positive female protagonist of a novel, especially a classic one, can surely only really be a heroine? The much derided and apologised for tweet by the FA, about the England women's football team, about them going back to being mothers, daughters, partners but now also heroes or some such, shows a typical confusion. I suppose the gripe was more with the 'going back to' than the epithets. My own dissent was mostly with the 'heroes' bit: kicking a ball about for and hour or so and proving that they can be as much a bunch of sneaky, fouling, temperamental, histrionic, cry-baby prima donnas as their male counterparts, only on a bit less money, does not constitute heroism, IMO.

    However, any quiet, patient, cheerful doing of a needful job which might often be tedious, uncomfortable or thankless (chimney sweeps and dustmen often hearten and impress me), or continuing generosity with one's time, skills and kindness as you describe in your friend and teacher, certainly does qualify.

    (Speaking of French, the feminist tendency here is to feminise rather than neutralise words to make the point. Heather D used to grind her teeth at the use of 'écrivaine' amongst the literata who used to sometimes make the mistake of inviting her along on to their colloquia on occasions such as International Women's Day, the doing with which she could not be!)

  2. Lucy: I acknowledge that "heroine" carries more information than "hero" used for for both genders. Thus it is useful. But the question arises is this: is it absolutely necessary to make the distinction? And, following on, do our expectations of the qualities of a "heroine" differ from those of a "hero". If so, I'd like to see "heroine" done away with.

    We don't find the need to devise a feminine version of plumber or driver because these are (or should be) simply neutral labels. But hero/heroine are qualitative, hence the invidious distinction.

    I realise there is some awkwardness here but that's because I'm going up against centuries of tradition. But it seems a smallish price to pay and I'm prepared to grind my teeth sympathetically on behalf of Heather D.

    Ironically I came up against this in a slightly different form during my final editorship. As house style I standardised on the surname when subsequently identifying an interviewee. Thus: "I spoke to Joe Doak about this... Doak told me..." Yet when Joe Doak turned out to be a woman I was strangely reluctant to refer to her by her surname. I'm trying to make up for lost ground.

  3. You'll be applying for membership of L'Académie Française in your next post?

  4. Sir Hugh: In fact my weekly French lessons go back much further; they started in the mid-eighties when we lived in Kingston.

    Back then, although I also did set books, the emphasis was mainly on spoken French. You might think by now I would be fluent but you'd be wrong. In conversation, face to face, I can make myself understood and can understand the person I am speaking to; owning the house in Drefféac meant I had to. But my French remains non-idiomatic, more or less a translation from English which isn't the same thing at all.

    Many French people have complimented me on my French but they were all in error. What they appreciated was that I strove to make what I said interesting. My main aim was to see whether I could make them laugh. A typical session occurred in a supermarket queue this last holiday. There was a notice that contained a coarse double-entendre and I pointed this out to a Frenchman behind in the queue. He laughed. Then he opened his newspaper, showed me a photograph of someone's arse and reinforced the joke - proof we were both on the same coarse wavelength. Those are the sort of minor triumphs I pursue. Doctors and people who work in pharmacies are a particularly fruitful area of exploration.

  5. So what exactly is the translation for 'arse' in French? It must be more exciting than 'derriere'!

    I get quite annoyed at the dislike of 'actress' etc. It implies (in my Blonde head) that being a woman is somehow 'less-than'. Whereas, in truth, it is just different; not better, not worse, but a compliment to the masculine. The same, is of course true in reverse.

  6. Blonde Two: Arse is cul, pronounced cyuh or thereabouts.

    I must say I don't care for the suffix -ess. Particularly horrible when "negro" was more widely used and still horrible when added to Jew. In English it is also inconsistent: we don't say solicitoress or teacheress. If gender distinction is an issue then words with separate roots are better, as with king and queen. Nurse is one of the few professions which has gone the other way; our tendency is to imagine it being attached to a woman. Male nurses are, I think, a comparatively recent invention. No one thought it necessary to come up with nurser.