'The stories we tell ourselves to make ourselves come true': feminist rewriting in the Canongate Myths series
MacMillan, Harriet Mary Mackintosh
In 2005, Canongate, an Edinburgh-based publisher, launched the first volumes in the Canongate Myths series, a project which commissioned renowned authors to retell ancient mythologies for contemporary audiences. Securing novellas from authors including Su Tong, Philip Pullman, A.S. Byatt and thirteen others, the project explores what is understood by myth today and how mythology remains relevant for a twenty-first century audience. It also asked female writers to engage directly with ancient mythologies which have perpetuated misogynistic narratives for millennia, encouraging those writers to self-consciously consider representations of gender contained within their selected source myths. This thesis uses the female-authored Greco-Roman mythologies in the series, from Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith and Salley Vickers, as a unique corpus in which to locate arguments regarding the efficacy and effect of a ‘feminist’ approach to rewriting mythology. Critical opinion has been split regarding whether a ‘feminist rewriting’ is, in fact, attainable, with some detractors asserting that any revision necessarily replicates the language and structure of the original. Yet by looking at the individual retellings and at the project as a whole, this project will argue that when viewed as a collaborative, ongoing process, engagements with ancient mythologies may in time yield results which are beneficial for representations of femininity and may, in turn, help to destabilise the masculinised model of the subject. The thesis contends that mythology can act as a framework through which female authors can evaluate the gendered implications of the personal, public and meta aspects of mythmaking and storytelling more generally, by considering the time and context-bound production of both the source myths - from Homer to Ovid, Sophocles to Freud - as well as the revisions themselves. The Canongate Myths series also serves as a distinct source for considering the character of rewriting within a post-postmodern literary landscape. With all four texts indicating a preoccupation with questions of ‘truth’, ‘reality’, and ‘authenticity’, the Myths series contributes to ongoing critical discussions regarding the shifting critical climate of twenty-first century literature. In particular, the texts selected from the series suggest an ongoing relationship with modernism and its engagements with mythology; the thesis helps to advance current discussions pertaining to contemporary literature’s relationship with its modernist past. These references, and each myth’s presentation of a distinct theoretical perspective, indicates that despite Lyotard’s assertions, we have not yet seen the death of all metanarratives. These self-consciously constructed novellas show that questions around metanarratives of patriarchy and mythology are ongoing and that feminist rewriting continues to have a relevant role to play in their dismantling or recalibration.