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From beauty myth to family jealousy in six steps

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

beauty mythThere is in a clue in the subtitle  “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media.  Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.

The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf  a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.

PygmalionLet’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.

 

 

Nora WebsterPygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.

 

I could link to another work about transformation,  Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life.  I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.

AmericanahSo let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’.  Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.

portrait of a lady

I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….

 

God - of-small-thingsConsequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  has two captivating characters in the form of  Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.

 

Lives of OthersThe family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s  novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The  patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.

 

And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.

 

 

 

The Unsolved Mystery of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw

turn of the screwI’ve struggled to fully appreciate Henry James in the past but some recent discussions about the merits of his work prompted me to give him another go.  I chose The Turn of the Screw simply because I’ve been long intrigued why a work of less than 100 pages has provoked so much debate and argument over the years.

The story originated apparently from a half-remembered anecdote told to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury. James wrote it while staying at a rambling mansion in Sussex where he was liking his wounds following the poor reception to his play Guy Domville. It wasn’t his first – nor would it be his last – ghost story. He was attracted to the ghost story genre though he didn’t care for the stereotypical approach, preferring instead to create figures that were eerie but could still be associated with reality.

For the first few decades after its publication in 1898 there wasn’t any real debate about the nature of this work. Readers viewed A Turn of the Screw purely as a spooky story about the experience of a young governess and Miles and Flora, children in her care who are tormented by two ghosts at an isolated country manor house.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that critics began to question this traditional view of the story and in particular the reliability of the figure of the governess.  Edmund Wilson was one of the first major proponents of the idea that the ghosts existed entirely in her imagination being the products of a delusional mind. Since then debate has continued between those who see the ghosts as supernatural figures and those who view them as hallucinations.

A Ghostly Tale?

To read Turn of the Screw this way requires us to view the governess as a narrator upon whose account we can rely. If we start from that premise,  we believe that the two human figures she sees at Bly manor are the ghosts of two former (now dead) servants, the valet Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel. When she sees them she sees them in a tower of the house or peering in through windows they have the solid appearance of humans. It is only later she learns they died some years previously. The governess is clear in her mind that they are evil: “a horror.” and “fiends” intent on possessing the souls of the two children. She doesn’t seem afraid the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children, more that they will corrupt them in some way. In this interpretation what we’ve faced with is a battle between good and evil with the governess fighting single-handedly and courageously to save Miles and Fora.

Can we believe her? 

James cleverly creates uncertainty about this interpretation however because the story is not told directly by the governess but by an anonymous male guest at a house party. The guest doesn’t have any first hand experience of this story but instead reads from a manuscript supposedly written by the governess. She interprets the children’s story rather than letting them speak for themselves. This  “nested structure,” denies us direct access to some of the key participants and sets up the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity.

A psychological tale of delusion and insanity?

There are a few issues with the ‘ghost story’ interpretation. The biggest alarm bell for me was that the ‘ghosts’ are visible only to the governess. We have multiple sightings of these ghosts in various locations at the lake, in the garden and at the window but at no time when she reports these sightings to the housekeeper Mrs Grose does the housekeeper confirm her own suspicions. Instead we see the older woman’s scepticism. The one time the governess thinks she will be vindicated, when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears before her and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper does not acknowledge anything untoward, merely responding: “What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss! Where on earth do you see anything?”

Another aspect of uncertainty is the governess’ attitude towards Miles. When she first meets the boy, she’s struck by his “fragrance of purity” and his beauty. She changes her mind when she begins to have her supernatural encounters, coming to believe the boy is plotting evil deeds with Quint. Mrs Grose does confirm that Quint was a bad influence on the boy in the past but doesn’t provide any details of the nature of this influence or how it manifested itself. Miles does get up to a bit of mischief (stealing a letter the governess writes to his uncle, her employer) but its hard to see this as ‘evil’ so again we have only the governess’ word for his nature. This is a person who has a talent for fitting events to suit her hypothesis. Once she conceives the idea the apparitions are evil she decides the children are in cohorts with them and using a facade of innocence and beauty as a mask.

James compounds the mystery by giving hints that the governess’ mental state may not be totally stable. It’s clear from the beginning that s has a vivid imagination, proclaiming herself to be inclined to  “write scenarios” and “paint pictures.” On her first tour of Bly house she imagines it as “a castle of romance” and plots a “charming story” of meeting the master as she wanders the grounds. On her arrival at the house she imagines a role for herself as the captain guiding a ship to safety:

..it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!

And then later changes roles to become guardian and protector of the the children:

It was an immense help to me — I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! — that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures.

As a sceptic of all things supernatural I’m more inclined to accept an interpretation of this story as one of psychological complexity, of a figure suffering from delusion bordering on insanity. And I began to wonder whether its not Quint and Jessel who are the disruptive influences in the house – is it really the governess who haunts Bly and the children?

I’m still wrestling with this question. But by reading this I’ve come to appreciate far more how James focused on perception and consciousness in his writing. I might even come to like him.

 

 

 

Daisy Miller and Washington Square

HenryJamesQuite what Daisy Miller and Washington Square are doing together I don’t know and there is no clear indication either from the publishers. Other than the fact they are both popular novellas by James and both feature a female protagonist, I can’t see a very strong connection.

I bought it on the basis of a recommendation from a fellow student on a literature course a few years ago. I had been complaining about one of the set texts — Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady —  whereas she was a huge fan of all his work and was encouraging me to give him another go. She had a point – he was after all one of the major literary figures of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I really didn’t have the enthusiasm for reading one of his other major works like The Ambassadors but thought I’d ease myself in with some of his shorter stories.

Daisy Miller, published 1878

For a novella less than 70 pages in length, Daisy Miller had an extraordinary impact on the career of Henry James. After decades of moderate success, the story published in Cornhill Magazine brought him immediate commercial success and critical acclimation. It made James the most talked-about American writer in England, establishing his credentials as the foremost commentator on the clash between American and European attitudes.

The premise of the story is fairly straightforward: what happens when Daisy, a highly unconventional young American woman on holiday in Europe, meets the cultured American expatriate Mr Winterbourne. James uses Daisy’s story to explore how Europeans and Americans view each other, and to consider the prejudices common in any culture. The themes played well at a time when Americans were beginning to travel far more extensively after the end of the Civil War.

The Miller family is presented as wealthy but unsophisticated; a family that has the trappings of class but few of its standards of conduct. Winterbourne is constantly trying to evaluate Daisy; at times seeing her as a charming American flirt and falling in love with her animated character and yet increasingly disturbed by her behaviour, leading her to be “a young lady whom a gentleman need to longer be at pains to respect.”

Ultimately the difference in attitudes are shown to be irreconcilable with fatal consequences for Daisy.

Washington Square, published 1881

A clash of perspectives is also evident in Washington Square. Unusually for James, the novella is set in his home nation of the United States, a country that he hadn’t yet completely abandoned in favour of his adopted England, but which he rarely visited.

If Daisy Miller is a girl who wants to live life to the full, the main character of Washington Square, Catherine Sloper, is someone whom life is passing by. The only surviving child of a wealthy and esteemed doctor, Catherine is doubly cursed by her plain looks and lack of personality. She seems destined to become an oddly dressed, old-before-her-time spinster until she meets the handsome, and suave Morris Townshend who seems a very enthusiastic suitor.

Dr Sloper, whose attitude to his daughter borders on disdain, refuses to believe Townshend is anything other than a fortune hunter and systematically sets about destroying the romance. Although he finds his suspicions are vindicated, he underestimates the strength of Catherine’s feelings and the machinations of his sister Mrs Penniman who encourages the pair’s relationship for her own misguided reasons. Will Catherine find the hidden depths of resolve to help her forge her own path or will her sense of duty and obligation lead her to follow her father’s desires?

It’s the psychological aspect of Washington Square that, for me, made this a much stronger story than Daisy Miller. James weaves moral and and social observation while exploring the question of whether Catherine can attain her own identity in a patriarchal society without sacrificing her ability to love.

The interactions between Dr Sloper and his daughter make uncomfortable reading. He doesn’t expect much of her other than she be clever in the ‘womanly ways’ of embroidery, and light conversation. When she seems as if she will reject his direction for her to throw over Townshend, he becomes increasingly cold and tyrannical. In one scene where Catherine goes to his study to try and reconcile their differences and appeal for his understanding, he simply accuses her of being ungrateful and cruel.

This was more than the poor girl could bear; her tears overflowed, and she moved towards her grimly consistent parent with a pitiful cry. Her hands were raised in supplication, but he sternly evaded this appeal. instead of letter her sob out her misery on his shoulder, he simply took her by the arm and directed her course across the threshold, closing the door gently but firmly behind her.

This heartless man, so full of confidence and pride In his ability to judge what is right that he has lost his ability to empathise, reminded me of that other monstrous literary father Dickens’ Mr Paul Dombey.  Fortunately both these monsters are proved wrong.

Classics Spin lands on Henry James

The latest spin challenge by the Classics Club landed on number 13 which means I have ended up with Washington Square & Daisy Miller by Henry James.

HenryJamesThis is not exactly welcome news since my last – actually my only – experience with him wasn’t a huge success. I read Portrait of a Lady for a literature course I took about three years ago. It was so S..L..O..W. We had about two pages in which the central character seemed to do nothing other than stand in a doorway and look onto a group of people in a garden. I think there may have been some action in the form of the opening of an umbrella but then, maybe that was just wishful thinking.

To be fair, I read it a second time and warmed to it rather more though I wouldn’t race to do another read. Another person taking the same course raved about James and kept insisting that I should give him another chance. She recommended The Ambassadors as the best example of his later works but I didn’t think I was up to a full blown novel right away so I opted for the novellas Washington Square and Daisy Miller.  

Washington Square, based on a true story, was published originally in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. It’s described as a structurally simple tragicomedy about the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father.

Daisy Miller dates from 1878 and it portrays the courtship of a beautiful American girl called Daisy Miller by Winterbourne, a sophisticated compatriot of hers. His pursuit of her is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates when they meet in Switzerland and Italy.

I’ll either become a fan of James by reading these or will have my feeling confirmed that he’s just not my kind of thing.

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