The Testament of Mary

The shortest novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the crucifixion story from the perspective of a mother (His mother) has, unsurprisingly, caused some controversy and even been branded as blasphemy. Tóibín has received death threats (which he said that he printed out and saved so future generations would know how some people still behaved in 2013). As well as the obvious challenge to Christianity, the novel also presents a more subtle, perhaps unintended, critique of patriarchy and casts doubt on the value of any narrative.

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-maryOriginally a dramatic monologue (and now a play as well as a novel) The Testament of Mary is a single (female) voice speaking out of turn; Mary tells her story as simply and as honestly as possible but the anger, grief and guilt are inescapable. Her descriptions of her son as a child are moving because we know how the story will end, and her version of the crucifixion itself is made harrowing through mundane details that focus the reader’s attention on the physical suffering rather than the spiritual significance. This is a mother who watched her son grow up and grow away from her, then watched him tortured and left to die slowly. She is told it was necessary to redeem the world and she responds as a mother: “It was not worth it.”

She talks of her protectors (Christ’s disciples) who come to write down her account of events but grow frustrated when she doesn’t say what they want or expect. She explains how they alter details that undermine the bigger story and how they come to believe their own versions. She recalls things very differently but she also admits that she is constantly tempted to replace unpalatable reality with fond memories and comforting dreams:

“it will not be long before that dream, so close to me now and so real, will fill the air and will make its way backwards into time and thus become what happened, or what must have happened, what happened, what I know happened, what I saw.”

The novel questions the reliability of written history (religious or secular) and it also reminds us of how female voices (and therefore female stories and experiences) have been lost, suppressed or simply shouted down over the centuries. As Mary says “They will thrive and prevails and I will die.” Mary knows that telling the truth won’t change anything but she speaks “simply because [she] can”. Her struggle suggests that perhaps all narrators and all narratives are unreliable, particularly when they try to tell the truth.

Gender [and] Politics

Magaret Thatcher died yesterday, provoking a lot of tweets and status updates jubilantly proclaiming “Ding Dong the witch is dead!” (or less polite words to that effect). I’m not a fan of Maggie* but I find this reaction disturbing on two levels.

Firstly, the festivity is distasteful and somewhat disproportionate. Whatever you think of her policies or her political legacy, she was an old lady – a mother and a grandmother – who died of a stroke. I’ve seen several justifications comparing this reaction to the response in Libya when Gaddafi died (or similar situations). Maggie made some very unpopular decisions but she was an elected leader in a democratic country, and she lost that position over 20 years ago. Comparing her to an incumbent dictator is frankly ridiculous and seems like an attempt to obscure a less palatable motive for the venom.

Misogyny, sexism, patriarchy. Whatever label you choose, there’s an awful lot of it about at the moment. Strong women always provoke more vitriolic reactions than strong men, even (perhaps especially) from other women. The clue is in the language: witch, bitch, cow, hag and far worse. Margaret Thatcher was the first female British Prime Minister. To date, every other PM has been white, male, able-bodied and (as far as we know) straight. Had a black, disabled or gay male PM done what she did I doubt very much we’d be seeing tweets celebrating the death of the ‘capitalist cripple’ or ‘cruel-hearted queer’. People who consider themselves to be liberal and reasonable wouldn’t start throwing around the n-word (which I’m not going to use because I don’t want this post to become about whether it’s acceptable even in the context of a discussion about language), so why are words that are offensive to women suddenly acceptable?

Feel free to hate what she did; hate what she stood for; hate the current reforms and the fact that we’re paying for her funeral, but be wary of personalising it. Margaret Thatcher was not a nice person, but neither are the the misogynists dancing on her grave.

English: Commemorative plaque, The house where...
Commemorative plaque at the house where Margaret Thatcher was born, Grantham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

* For the record – not that my political views are relevant to this issue – I have voted Labour or Lib Dem at every election since I was 18. I would describe myself as a ‘liberal capitalist’ who believes that those who work hard should ‘do better’ (whatever that means) than those who don’t but there should be a system in place to help the vulnerable and/or unfortunate. I support gay marriage, am broadly pro-Europe and believe that the Welfare State does need reforming but some of the current cuts and changes are too extreme. I also think a 50% tax rate is counterproductive and that benefit claimants and bankers should be judged as individuals rather than being labelled as lazy or evil.

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The [Jane] Eyre Affair & Wide Sargasso Sea

I haven’t posted about book group for a while as the last two books we’ve read are connected and I wanted to write about them together. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite classics, though not one that I’ve reread frequently, so reading two books that owe their existence to Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel was a real treat. (SPOILER ALERT – I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you know what happens in Jane Eyre, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you don’t know you should either read it or watch this adaptation as soon as possible.)

The main excuse reason for the delay in posting my thoughts is the fact that I decided to reread Jane Eyre as well. I’d forgotten how long the novel is, particularly the section recounting Jane’s time away from Rochester, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked all the male characters, even the ‘goodies’ like St. John Rivers, even (sometimes) Rochester himself. Considering how important the novel has become in feminist theory and criticism, perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. More interestingly, I didn’t care much for the female characters either, including (sometimes) Jane herself. The first time I read the book, I was younger than the protagonist and found both her love for Rochester and her refusal to be his mistress incomprehensible, but I admired her bravery in running away. Reading it as an adult, Rochester’s appeal and the necessity of ensuring a formal commitment are clear, but the melodramatic disappearance with no plan, no money and no hope seems rather silly. That said, I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Jane’s world and worldview. It’s essentially a great love story (quality chick-lit) and given the first person narration, I still find it astounding that anyone ever believed that Currer Bell was a man!

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair – The first novel in Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series is set in an alternate reality where the Crimean War is still going on, time-travel is not only possible, it’s heavily regulated and there are frequent brawls over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The great thing about this world is that people REALLY care about literature and reading… so much so, that there are cracks in the wall between the real and fictional worlds. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective who follows her own advice – time travel – to move to Swindon and buy a new car. The villain is Acheron Hades, who is impervious to bullets and can disguise himself as a sweet old lady. Ostensibly less evil, but far more detestable is Jack Schitt, who works for the shady Goliath Cooperation. And of course, at the end of Jane Eyre, Jane accompanies St. John Rivers to India as his companion – arguably a stronger feminist ending than the real one – but this changes once Thursday and Hades make Thornfield Hall the site of their showdown…

This is an incredibly clever book but hard to describe – it’s satire, fantasy, sci-fi, romance and a thriller, with a few other genres thrown in for luck. It also makes the reader feel clever because although you could enjoy it without even knowing Jane Eyre, there are so many literary puns and references that most readers will recognise some. (When I suggested the book, I told my book group that Miss Havisham makes an appearance as Thursday’s mentor – this actually happens in the sequel, which is also well worth reading.) My favourite moment is either the Rocky Horror style performance of Richard III or the revelation that nobody wrote Shakespeare’s plays (though Thursday’s dad threw in a few of the best lines).

rhysWide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre is a classic in it’s own right and an ‘important text’ in feminist and postcolonial writing. It tells the story of the Bertha Mason/Rochester before she became the madwoman in the attic, when she was just Antoinette Cosway. How you react to the disparity in the name may well shape how you react to the book as a whole. There was a strong feeling at our book group meeting that this novel could (and perhaps should) stand in it’s own right. The story of Antoinette’s slide into madness (if she is ever really mad) doesn’t need to be grafted onto Jane Eyre. The last section, set in Thornfield Hall during the time-frame of Jane Eyre, is certainly jarring. On the other hand, your name represents your identity, represents your self. In my opinion, the cruellest thing Rochester does is insistently refer to his new wife as Bertha: she laments “I don’t know what I am like now…who am I?” as she searches for the ghost of a woman rumoured to haunt Thornfield.

The book is short, practically a novella, but the shifting narrative perspective means it’s not an easy read. The switches between the two narrators come without warning or marker, leaving the reader feeling lost, alienated and ‘Other’, like the two protagonists. Pleasingly the first and last words belong to Antoinette/Bertha, giving her the voice she never has in Jane Eyre. This is also the voice that Jane (a pale reflection of her predecessor) herself learnt to suppress to get her happy ending…

Two very different books, both great in their own way. If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, read at least one of them. I wonder which Charlotte Bronte would prefer – any thoughts?

Quarantine!

quarantine
You have been warned…

The Jam has chicken pox. More accurately, he is recovering from chicken pox and we should be able to rejoin the world tomorrow after a very long six days at home. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to have been very poorly or had much of a temperature, which is a relief for us as a fever does not combine well with his medication. (He’s only on a low dose of aspirin, but the reason it isn’t usually prescribed to children under 16 is that there seems to be a correlation in children between aspirin, viral fevers and Reyes Syndrome.) The poor little man is covered in spots and very bored at home, as am I!

Here’s our guide to the five worst things about chicken pox (even if you don’t feel unwell):

The spots – they’re unsightly and the Jam gets quite upset when we want to check them: “No see my spots Mummy!”

The itchiness – he’s actually been really good about scratching so I haven’t had to worry too much about infected spots, but they obviously bother him.

The lack of sleep – whether it’s the itchiness making him uncomfortable or the fact that when he isn’t playing he notices that he doesn’t feel 100%, none of us have slept well this week.

The cabin fever – both of us are desperate to get out of the house and see somebody other than DH (and my Dad on FaceTime).

peppapigThe Peppa Pig overdose – not an obvious symptom, but being stuck at home with a tired toddler results in limited entertainment options. I even found myself considering a blog post on Miss Rabbit as a feminist icon, but there’s already this

Wetlands

WARNING – If you are easily offended (i.e. you found the sexual content of Fifty Shades more upsetting than the quality of the writing), stop reading now!

I’m not sure I should write this – my family read this blog – but it doesn’t seem right to skip commenting on a book I’ve read and enjoyed. Wetlands is a very rude book. It’s not the crudest I’ve ever read (that honour probably goes to Trainspotting) or the kinkiest (The Fermata) or even the most shocking (American Psycho). It’s also not the sexiest – I’d prefer a roll in the hay with Rupert Campbell-Black – but it is the most relentlessly biologically explicit.

The narrator, Helen, chronicles her sexual and family history as she recuperates in hospital following an intimate operation. Some anecdotes are funny, some sad and some thought-provoking as they challenge accepted notions of what is ladylike and/or what is feminine. The author, Charlotte Roche, clearly has a feminist agenda and its a great thing that a book like this can be written, published and even widely translated. (I initially thought it was American novel and would be keen to read a more Anglo-English translation from the original German.)

The subplot involves Helen hoping that her hospital stay will magically reunite her divorced parents and goes to great lengths to prolong it, resulting in arguably the most disturbing scene of the novel. It quickly becomes clear that rather than celebrating the less palatable aspects of female sexuality, Roche actually portrays Helen’s lack of inhibitions as a desperate cry for attention. She is damaged, unreliable and feels compelled to tell these stories (to the reader and to the male nurse caring for her). In some ways this makes both Helen and the novel more interesting, but it does rather undermine the claim that it’s a taboo-busting challenge to conventional notions of femininity. I enjoyed the book but I feel a little cheated. Helen (a female, European, 21st-century Holden Caulfield) provokes sympathy rather than admiration, and I don’t think that’s because I’m a prude…

Standing up for what you believe?

I don’t normally get involved in discussions about religion or politics (particularly religious politics) but I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of women bishops this week. I’m a feminist – no, that does not contradict my decision to be a full-time mother – and an agnostic, so my initial reaction to the rejection of the legislation that would finally allow women to become bishops in the Church of England was anger. After reading the blog post of a somewhat troubled Christian friend (who is certainly not a misogynist) on the subject, I felt I should attempt a more reasoned response myself.

I accept the point that equality does not have to mean homogeny. It’s one I have frequently made myself in relation to educational provision for the least and most able students. I also agree that this is more than simply an ‘equality at work’ debate. There is clearly a theological argument to be made; I don’t know enough to make the counter-argument and I’m not arrogant or disrespectful enough to think that twenty minutes on the internet would equip me to do so. However, it’s also clear that many Christians are in favour of the prospect of female bishops. The women who hope to become bishops and the men (and other women) who support them presumably have a sound theological basis for their position too. If we dismiss issue of ‘equality at work’ because this is not merely a job, does that mean that these women are being prevented from fulfilling their calling?

It’s thorny ground, as is the exemption of the Church from equality laws. As someone who believes strongly in the separation of Church and State – history demonstrates all too well how religion can be misused by bad leaders – this worries me. It would be easy to see it as the top of a slippery slope to discrimination. I wonder would the reaction would be if the debate was about black bishops or disabled bishops… However, speculation isn’t sound argument and given the public comments made by the current and incoming Archbishop of Canturbury, I think this is not the real issue.

What does concern me, more than the actual outcome of the vote, is that apparently several members of the synod have openly admitted voting against the current legislation despite being in favour of allowing women bishops. (There’s a issue regarding ‘safeguards’ for parishes who won’t accept a female bishop, which perhaps merits a separate discussion.) These people voted to protect the unity of the Church rather than for what they believed to be right, and if Christians won’t stand up for what they believe, who will?

And they all lived happily ever after…

Towards the end of Year 12, my weary students would often ask “Can we read something with a happy ending next year?” The answer was generally “Probably not.” as a happy endings is a rare event in the literary canon (aka ‘good’ books).

What’s more common is a happyish ending, but there’s a always a ‘but’. Without any serious consideration or note-taking (I might come back to this in a later post), these seem to fall into two main categories:

1. The happy – as it could possibly be given the circumstances – ending

This tends to be the case in more modern fiction such as The Night Circus and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (both discussed in previous posts). These endings are bittersweet and satisfying for the reader who has come to care for the characters, but would feel a deus ex machina miracle twist was cheating on the author’s part. I’d also be tempted to include Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles in this category. Constrained by the plot of The Iliad (not one to mess with!), she constructs a closing episode that the reader feels would bring Patroclus and Achilles peaceful contentment.

2. The happy – if you don’t think about it very much – ending

In classic novels, happy endings tend to fit this model, the final chapter often closing on a wedding. The romantic reunion of Jane and Rochester at the end of Jane Eyre masks a rather worrying situation. Even if we overlook the fact that Rochester has been blinded and his home has burnt to the ground (not exactly ‘happy ever after’ territory), it’s hard to ignore the way he treated his first wife. Perhaps only a maimed Rochester is a safe equal for Jane, or do we assume that she has learnt control (suppress?) herself enough to avoid becoming the next madwoman in the attic?

Spot the phallic symbol…

Dracula is another interesting example – Mina and Jonathan Harker marry and name their son after a friend lost in the battle with the vampire. However, even the vaguest feminist, post-colonial or psychoanalytical reading of the novel raises spectres that this image of a happy family cannot dispel. The ending of Dracula is a celebration of the reassertion of the patriarchal order. The exotic, bestial and yet strangely feminine foreigners have been repelled from English soil (where they were usurping the white male protagonists claims to English women and land) and those terrifyingly sexual women have been put back in their pace with a good group staking.

Of course there are lots novels with happy endings and there are probably many other types of qualified happy ending in literature, but what I’d like to find is a really good book, with a really happy ending. Any suggestions…?

Nights at the [Night] Circus

I’ve now almost finished our last BAGLADIES* selection, only a week and a bit after the meeting.  In my defence, we had two books to read over the summer – Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.  In the early days of BAGLADIES we always read two books and often found a range of unusual ways to link them – my favourite combination was Frankenstein and We Need to Talk About Kevin, but that’s another post.  These days, as many of us have husbands, kids and/or demanding jobs we stick to one and make an exception for the summer, as we don’t meet in August.  I’m pleased to report that the latest novels generated a lot of discussion and had more in common than the very similar titles.

The Night Circus – two friends recommended this to me in the same week I bought a copy, and before we chose it for BAGLADIES.  I loved it, to the point where I want to go to the Night Circus and explore for myself.  (There is an online experience, but I haven’t had a proper look yet.)  The slightly fleeting characterisation was intriguing, if occasionally infuriating as they slipped through your fingers, and fitted the tale (for it is definitely a tale) well.  The ultimate union of the two timelines was satisfying, even if the ending itself felt a little uncertain.  I found the two types of magic intriguing, as it seemed to fit the old patriarchal model of male magic (science and books) versus female magic (instinct and bodies) that goes back to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and probably much further. Oh, and it’s a really sweet love story…

Nights at the Circus – This was my suggestion, as I was sure I’d read it years ago and thought it would be an interesting comparison. I found an old copy at home, but on picking it up everything seemed brand new – a mark of a great novel or a clue that I didn’t read it the first time?  The feminist symbolism has perhaps dated a little – the significance of a large woman with wings and sword feels somewhat heavy-handed in post-third-wave, post-post-feminism 2012, but the metaphors were innovative for 1984 and the magic realism means they still work without distracting from the story (or tale, again).  Also a love story, amongst other things, this reminded me why I like Carter and made me want to read more of her weightier novels, though her collection of short stories (The Bloody Chamber) remains my favourite.

* Blackheath And Greenwich Literature And Drinking In the Evening Society