Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Winner of the 2009 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, The Mistress of Nothing is a fictionalized first person account of the real-life Miss Sally Naldrett, lady's maid to the actual Lady Lucie Duff Gordon.  It is 1862, and Sally is in England, and preparing to travel to Egypt in search of relief or cure for her ladyship's lung disease:
I work hard but my Lady is a most rewarding employer; everything I do for her is exactly right, or so she would have me believe.  On my day off - one per month, when we're at home, unless my Lady is too unwell for me to leave her - I put on my bonnet and take the train up to London: my Lady always says that a woman my age has a right to travel up to London by herself and I couldn't agree more.  The train up to London, a walk through the city - just saying those words makes me smile with pleasure - the noise, the smells, the people.  Up the steps of the Museum in Bloomsbury, through the exhibition rooms, the corridors lined with glass cases, past the giraffe whose neck is so long you injure your own neck looking up at it, past the knives and coins and cups and urns in their crowded display cases, until I reach the room that is my destination: the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.  I take a seat and close my eyes before I've seen too much - I don't want to spoil my anticipation by seeing it all too quickly.  I've come all this way to look and yet, once I'm there, I can hardly bear to see.  I open my eyes and there they are: the Pharaohs, their gods, and the hieroglyphs - the secrets of that ancient land encrypted in stone.

I have my favourite.  The first time I saw his shapely long face I thought he was a woman.  But no, he's a man, a colossal Pharaoh.  Almond eyes, kohl-rimmed like a cat's; I would run my hand along his cheek if I could reach that high, over his lips, down to his great chin, feeling the stone bones beneath the smooth cool stone skin.  I stare at him, and he stares back at me.  I laugh at myself: he's the man of my dreams.
Lady Duffy Gordon and Sally arrive at the Alexandrian home of Mrs. Ross, the grown daughter of her ladyship.  The extroverted lady becomes subdued and melancholic with lack of society.  The women have trouble adapting to life in a foreign city.
 There was no real sightseeing to be done, as Alexandria's historical monuments consist of mere rumour and conjecture - phantom monuments, as my Lady said, no more, no less - this might have been where Alexander the Great's tomb lay; Pharos lighthouse, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, probably stood here; but there was nothing to see.  Instead there was the wildest mix of cultures imaginable, all attempting to see something - a slick Italian barber next door to a Syrian baker with a mud oven, a gorgeous French patisserie with a gaggle of peasant women buying and selling oranges right outside its polished glass doors.
Their transition is eased with the help of two gentlemen who suggest to them a dragoman, or guide, who reminds Sally of the sculpture in the Egyptian gallery in London.  Mr. Omar Abu Halaweh, the Father of the Sweets teaches Sally to speak Egyptian, makes their food purchases and takes care of both of the women.  Sally, Omar and her ladyship form a trio - a pyramid of sorts with the Lady Duff Gordon at the peak.

Initially I saw a great number of similarities to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, and even A Room with a View, but this is in no way derivative.  A period novel about two women, of different age and wealth, travelling in a foreign land, and an ensuing entanglement is bound to provoke this literary connection.  The theme of travel as self-revelation is explored in each of these novels as well:
What happens when you leave everything behind?  When you leave everything familiar, not just houses and streets and wet windy winter-time, but husbands, children, friends?  For me: the train into London on my day off; the arriving back home again.  The branch of the oak tree that knocks against the roof of the stable.  The postman who comes down the lane.  None of these things have followed me to Egypt.  Does this mean I am no longer the same person?  Does this mean that I too have changed?
Lady Duff Gordon is also transformed by her life in Egypt; her acceptance and rejection of the European mores and conventions set the tone for what is acceptable in her household.  She discards the outerwear of the European lady of status and adopts the more practical and comfortable attire of the Egyptian man, yet she rigidly holds firm to the code of conduct she uses to define an acceptable woman.  Omar becomes a study in contrasts: a virile, yet emasculated man, and a further exploration of gender, status and ambition. And watching Sally transform through the novel is exciting.  She develops from a model of servitude to a fully-realized woman.

Although the book retained my attention right to the end, I did have some issues with the author being too oblique with some of the actions and motivations of the characters.  There were many elements that felt unresolved and missed opportunities for more cohesion.  I am somewhat surprised that it won the GG, but it was still a very enjoyable read.

Here is a link to an excerpt from Kate Pullinger's website.

Kate Pullinger
 author image from here

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power by Louisa May Alcott

Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power

Into the peaceful and affluent household of the Coventry family comes a nineteen-year old governess to oversee the education of the sixteen-year old daughter Bella.  Jean Muir is a poor, pale, black-cloaked little Jane Eyre without friend or family.  She ingratiates herself into the family by her gentle manner, her kindness, her gift for entertaining and performing with music and story, and through her humble servitude.  Although there are some hints that all may not be exactly as it seems, it is not until she retires to the privacy of her own room that we see the full extent of her deception.
Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least.  The metamorphosis was wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than in any art of costume or false adornment.  Now she was alone, and her mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard, bitter.  She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender; but nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened all her life.  For an hour she sat so, sometimes playing absently with the scanty locks that hung about her face, sometimes lifting the glass to her lips as if the fiery draught warmed her cold blood; and once she half uncovered her breast to eye with a terrible glance the scar of a newly healed wound. 1.
The comparisons with Charlotte Bronte's creation are striking, and go far beyond the protagonists themselves.  Jean Muir is adept at playing the part of Jane Eyre, for she is a consummate actress with an eye on the prize... Mr. Rochester!  While Jane Eyre ("air") is ethereal and spiritual, Jean Muir ("moor") is earthy and practical in her worldliness.  Jean Muir has both feet firmly planted in the here and now, and unlike Jane Eyre who strives only to do the right thing without thought of personal gain, Jean Muir is the living embodiment of ruthless ambition.

Louisa May Alcott, as the author, never judges Jean Muir's actions and the conclusion of the story lends support to the argument that her actions were justified because society offered so few solutions to women to live independently.  The choices available to Jean Muir were marriage, servitude and poverty, or death.  She uses all her powers, and embraces her inner "Madwoman in the Attic," clothes her in the appearance of an "Angel in the House" and serves tea with humility and grace, soothes the agitation of each family member, entertains and knows her place as governess while at the same time scheming a diabolical plan to capture status and wealth using only her quick wit and cunning.  As the madwoman, she goes after what she wants with a single-minded passion.  She is a witch who casts her spell on all the men she encounters.

The full text of the novella can be found at the University of Virginia's site here.
A full guide to Louisa May Alcott research can be found here.

I found "Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power" in these editions from my shelves:

1.  I remember my father singing a little ditty when I was a girl - a parody of an old song called "After the Ball" in which Katie (here, Jenny) is déshabillé in the same manner as the protagonist of the story.

After the Ball (Dismantled Bride)

After the ball was over
Jenny took out her glass eye.
Stood her false leg in the corner,
Corked up her bottle of dye.
Put her false teeth in the tumbler;
Hung her false hair on the wall.
All the rest went to the bye-bye,
After the ball.

This is the original version of the song "After the Ball," sung by the writer, Charles K. Harris, here.
and the parody here.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I know that, along with Mansfield Park, it is probably the least appreciated of Jane Austen's novels, but Northanger Abbey is so charming and funny that I love it.  It seems that whichever Austen novel I am reading is my favourite.

As much as I aspire to Elizabeth Bennet's quick wit and vivaciousness, and Elinor Dashwood's steady, practical stoicism, I have to admit that Catherine Morland is probably the Austen heroine I most resemble.  Or, did resemble when I was a teenager.  Jane Austen perfectly captures the wide-eyed wonder of a girl of seventeen who has lived her life in the comfortable confines of an intimate village, and is now introduced to the fast-paced life in society.

On one level, the story is a few months in the life of Catherine Morland, the fourth of ten children of a country clergyman and his wife, and the eldest daughter of the family, who is invited to Bath by a neighbouring, childless couple, the Allens.  In Bath she is exposed to more fashionable society than has been usual for her.  There she meets a young man and his sister who, along with their father invite Catherine to spend time with them at their home, Northanger Abbey.

But on another level, this is an exploration of novel reading.  Several of the main characters in Northanger Abbey, including Catherine, are fascinated by the thrilling novels of the period, especially those by Ann Radcliffe such as The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Jane Austen defends the reading of novels and asserts that in them you will find that "the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."  Yet, while defending novel-reading as a means of understanding human nature, she presents us with a heroine who appears not to have absorbed any of the lessons therein.  For Catherine is blind in her naïveté to the foibles and faults of others. She continues to interpret the behaviour of everyone else through the lens of her own good nature, attributing to their bad behaviour invented redeeming justifications.

And now I feel that I really must read some Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole!

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

I was introduced to the "unknown thrillers" of Louisa May Alcott during a women writers course in university, and was captivated by the "blood and thunder tales" written by this author who was revered for her gentle, moral tales such as Little Women and Eight Cousins, and was known as "The Children's Friend."  She produced these "potboilers" anonymously, and pseudonymously as A. M. Barnard, out of economic necessity: at times her family struggled with poverty, and like Jo Marsh wrote to sustain her family. She wrote these dark, lurid Gothic tales of deceit, violence and revenge with a subtle feminist twist, and although less likely than her sweet tales to engender devoted fans, these thrillers have shed light on the complex life of the writer.


I found this quote from the Introduction of Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Madeleine Stern, editor) fascinating:
I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style.  I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public... How should I dare to interfere with the proper grayness of old Concord?  The dear old town has never known a startling hue since the redcoats were there.  Far be it from me to inject an inharmonious color into the neutral tint.  And my favourite characters!  Suppose they went to cavorting at their own sweet will, to the infinite horror of dear Mr. Emerson, who never imagined a Concord person as walking off a plumb line stretched between two pearly clouds in the empyrean.  To have had Mr. Emerson for an intellectual god all one's life is to be invested with a chain armour of propriety...  And what would my own good father think of me...  if I set folks to doing the things that I have a longing to see my people do?  No, my dear, I shall always be a wretched victim to the respectable traditions of Concord.


The introductory segment of the documentary "Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women" can be found here.  (Did you know that Louisa May Alcott was a runner?  She ran up to 20 miles at a time!  Without wicking fibres and seamless socks).


I have decided to work my way through the three volumes of stories I have on my shelf; I plan to read a new story every couple of weeks.  I believe there have been at least thirty stories now discovered to have been anonymously or pseudonymously published.  I have access to twelve of these, some more aptly described as novellas.  I would love to have some company reading these if you are interested to see this darker side of Louisa May Alcott's writing.

The collections I have are:

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine Stern, Morrow, 1975.
  • Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power e-text
  • Pauline's Passion and Punishment e-text
  • The Mysterious Key and What It Opened e-text
  • The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation e-text

Modern Magic: Five Stories by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine Stern, Modern Library, 1995.
  • A Pair of Eyes; or, Modern Magic
  • The Fate of the Forrests
  • Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power
  • Perilous Play
  • My Mysterious Mademoiselle

A Marble Woman: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine Stern, Avon, 1976
  • V. V.: or, Plots and Counterplots
  • A Marble Woman: or, The Mysterious Model
  • The Skeleton in the Closet
  • A Whisper in the Dark
  • Perilous Play

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

The first thing you notice about Earth and Ashes is that it is written in the second person present and you say to yourself, "It is a clever writer who can make this point of view work well!"  You see that the book is only eighty-one pages so you tell yourself that even if it fails it's a short book.

But you are very quickly drawn into the story: you become an old man sitting by a bridge in Afganistan with your deaf grandson trying to keep the dust from the apple he eats.  You wait for a car to take you and your grandson to the Karkar coal mine where your son Murad works.  You confirm with the guard in the hut that there have been no cars past but he is iritable and does not ease your loneliness.

So far, you think, this book is promising.  It has a clearly imagined setting.  You can see the dust on that apple, feel the heat from the sun, and see the greyness of the dry landscape.  You are curious to learn more about the old man and the boy.

You keep reading.

Then you begin to wonder, "Where is this going?"  Oh, no!  The book has suddenly gone all surreal with erupting mountains and rivers of flowing fire.  And then with a sigh of relief you see that the old man has just dozed off from exhaustion and had a nightmare.  You can see that he has a challenging life, that he struggles with loneliness, but is reluctant to discuss his experiences, and the destruction he has seen as a result of the war with the Russians.

You notice there are no women in this story.

You read this sentence:
You know, father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that, one day, will explode and destroy you,
and you think, "Oh, that poor, sad man!"

You wonder what a jujube is, and you google it.  (Turns out it's not just a candy, but an apple-like fruit that when mature resembles a date, and has a stone like an olive, and the wonderful botanical name of Ziziphus zizyphus).  You marvel at the ability of children to make toys out of what surrounds them, even jujube fruit stones.

You wonder if Atiq Rahimi has ever read Waiting for Godot because the old man and his grandson sure are having to wait a long time at the side of that road.

But you learn more about the old man (including hat his name is Dastaguir) and you feel that he has indeed suffered great loss in this war.  You see that he is on a quest to find his son, and you worry about what he will find when he arrives at the mine.

You have to come care for this dusty old man from Afganistan and you can hardly believe the sorrow that he has had to bear.  But you wonder, "Will this sorrow turn to tears, a sword, or a bomb?"  You come to the end of the book and you breath out.  So much heart-break so skilfully rendered.  You think, "Atiq Rahimi, you rock the second person present."

Atiq Rahimi
On location filming "Earth and Ashes"
Fall 2003, Afghanistan
Author image from here (along with an interview with Atiqu Rahimi)

From the book jacket:

[Born in Kabul in 1962 Atiq Rahimi was 17 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afganistan.  He left the country during the war, eventually obtaining political asylum in France.  Rahimi now lives in Paris where he makes documentary films.]

Friday, 1 February 2013