By Caitlin Moran in The Times, 9 November 2019
Last week, I took a pleasant trot around the British Library’s Permanent Treasures exhibition. I don’t want to spoiler it for those who like to be viscerally, borderline dangerously surprised by literary displays, but there’s a lot of Bibles in it – printed, scribed, lavishly illuminated; in English, Hebrew and German. It’s superBible-y.
And no wonder – for it is, obviously, the most successful work of art of all time. Its greatest hits are now absolutely entwined with our idea of how to be an acceptable human being. Thou shalt not kill! Feed the hungry! Help the sick and lame! The love of money is the root of all evil! Suppress lust! Turn the other cheek! Be of service to others! Be humble!
Once I was full of Bibles – which took a while: I am bibulous – I wandered around the rest of the exhibition. Poems about Persian kings; Shakespearean folios; King John’s Magna Carta. Finally, among the Blakes, I found two manuscripts by Charlotte and Emily Brontë. They were powerful items – for both sisters wrote, in brown ink, in an impossibly tiny hand.
The note beside the books explained that the Brontës wrote in this tiny hand so that “adults” would not read what they wrote. To be a writer was not a career for a young woman, in that age or any previous – as we know, the sisters had to take male pseudonyms to get Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre into print.
The Brontës’ manuscripts were the first things I had seen all morning that were written by, or about, women. And, as I stared at them, the various elements of the day collided in my head. This room full of Christian culture – and then these two tiny, potent time capsules by two sisters, which they wrote, in letters so small as to be almost invisible, in the fragments of time around housework and taking care of their elderly father and alcoholic brother. Take care of the sick and elderly. Be humble.
And I suddenly thought: what if … the Bible is not for women? What if they were never intended to be its audience? For the things the Bible presumes its reader struggles with – the things it provides counsel for – are generally the struggles of men, not women. How could women care for the sick, young and elderly more? How could, over the centuries, women – who could not own property, who could not vote, who could not deny their husbands sex, who were given away by fathers to husbands – be any more humble? We are almost entirely absent in history books and historical records – noted only as “Mrs John Cook” or “Mrs Alfred Wheeler”. Even the Brontës didn’t get their own names on their works of genius. If women, through history, had been any more humble, they would have been on the floor. They would not have existed at all.
Women do not, by and large, need the specific advices of the Bible. “Thou shalt not kill” is a powerful rule for men – men join armies; men are pressurised into gangs. Men are dragged into fights with other men, even when they are still boys. But for women? Statistically, killing is something women so rarely need to be cautioned against, that for it to be one of their Ten Commandments is absurd. Similarly, being warned against “a love of money” is an extraordinarily pointless rule for a sex who, even now, by the World Bank’s calculations, own only 1 per cent of the world’s wealth. “Turning the other cheek” isn’t a moral decision for women – it is, by and large, their survival tactic. Who can retaliate in a world where most of those in power are simply, physically, bigger than you?
So then I started to wonder: what would a Bible written for women look like? For, let us not pretend that this all means women are without flaws. Women are just as awful and just as in need of betterment as men – it’s just that their flaws are different, and invisible to the Bible. Women, for instance, police each other to the point of mania. Women are prone to a sighing, damp martyrdom that rots everyone around them with guilt. Women can become fatally bitter about the way their lives have turned out. Women self-harm, starve and purge – an ultimately futile and awful solution to their problems that cries out for spiritual instruction and advice just as urgently, surely, as coveting a neighbour’s ass.
When you write them down, you see how fundamentally different women’s problems are from men’s. Their roots grow in different earth. The Biblical teachings, aimed towards men, are about, by and large, not abusing your power and being kind to others. Were we to write a women’s Bible, we can see it would need, by way of contrast, to be about stepping into your power, and being kind to yourself – for the consequences of not can be just as damaging and destructive to those around you as stealing, greed or lust. That this concept feels off-kilter and bizarre shows how much biblical betterment is still soaked into our culture.
But, as the British Library reminds us, new books get written all the time.