Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

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I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.

Continuing through The Bloody Chamber, we come upon The Tiger’s Bride, a second re-imagining of the Beauty and The Beast fairytale.

Here, we are even further away from the traditional or Disneyfied incarnations of the story and it strikes the reader as a much darker tale than The Courtship of Mr Lyon with which it begs to be compared.

The passage of the young girl from daughter to wife is similar albeit in a first rather than third person narrative. But, here, the transformation is far more clearly a transaction as the opening lines make clear:

“My father lost me to The Beast at cards.”

Unlike Beauty’s father who brings her to the Beast because of his wish to give her a simple gift of a rose, the Bride’s father brings her to La Bestia because of his own avarice and greed. He literally reduces her to a chattel to be traded and gambled.

And, as is the nature of a trade, that attitude is reciprocated: La Bestia treats her as a chattel in his acceptance of her as a gambling stake just as much as her father does in offering her. La Bestia may growl that

“If you are so careless of your treasures, you should expect them to be taken from you”

but that reflects on his more astute ability to value the Bride’s worth rather than any recognition that she is more than a valued “treasure”.

Of course, the objectification of women is a centuries old tradition in which marriage was used to cement alliances and secure fortunes: Juliet is told by her father

“an you are mine, I will give you to my friend,
An you are not, hang, beg, starve in the street”.

Carter here takes this tradition to its most extreme degree: not only is the Bride a piece of property; she is an undervalued piece of property squandered as her father fritters her away in a selfish gamble. Even the Bride accepts that

“my own skin was my sole capital in the world and today I’d make my first investment”

And then we see the most appalling extremity of the objectification of women: the Bride’s “clockwork twin”, the automaton

“soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue rolling eyes… and there is a musical box where her heart should be; she tinkles as she rolls towards me on her tiny wheels.
My maid halted, bowed; from a split seam at the side of her bodice protrudes the handle of a key. She is a marvellous machine, the most delicately balanced system of cords and pulleys in the world.”

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This soubrette echoes the clothing and mask worn by La Bestia: the too perfect too symmetrical mask behind which he hides his true bestial form. In his he is again very similar to the Beast of The Courtship of Mr Lyon whose leonine appearance is offset by his “smoking jacket of dull red brocade”. The similarities between the two – their restraint of their animal natures, their shame at their animal natures – is unsurprising. Shaved, there is no difference at all between a lion and a tiger save that the tiger’s skin is striped as its fur is.

There is something painfully artificial and repulsive in the image of both the mask and the soubrette: imitations of a socially imposed set of rules and appearances. And doesn’t that apply to us all? No one is ever entirely themselves: the identity we present to the world at anyone time is only ever a mask of the most socially acceptable part of ourselves, or of those aspects of our personalities which we believe will be accepted most readily or be most advantageous to ourselves. And that mask in Carter’s tale does not simply include the physical mask of La Bestia but also the clothes, the make up and even the face and flesh of the Bride.

For that reason, my interpretation of the final transformation as La Bestia licks the flesh from his Bride’s true form is not negative. He is not a predatory or domineering male enforcing his image onto his wife; he is allowing her to escape exactly that fate which society would have imposed upon her. The nudity he wishes from her is not the sexual negotiation that she – and the reader – imagine but the honesty of revealing her true nature beneath her skin; her father’s possessions are returned to him; and the final transformation is given readily and voluntarily.

For me, this makes the final transformation a release.

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Beauty and the Beast has to be one of my favourite fairy tales! Ever!

It’s a deliciously evocative tale exploring the male and the female and, even in the Disney film version, Beauty is a strikingly self-assured and confidant woman.

Carter’s version is very pared down: there is very little detail of anything except for the Beast’s castle. There are no sisters, no villagers, no magic ring or mirror. The focus is the Beast, Beauty, and her father and Beauty’s relationship with both those men and herself.

Let’s look at Beauty herself first: she is a “lovely girl” whose

“skin possesses that same, inner light so you would have thought she, too, was made all of snow”

The image of the snow is pervasive in the tale and associated with both Beauty and Beast. Here, the snow has obvious connotations of beauty, innocence and purity which Carter emphasises when she compares the snow to “bolt of bridal satin”. There is a further corollary here though: snow has the capacity to melt and reveal the earth beneath; the bridal dress suggests a future sexuality as much as a past virginity. Both images are a precursor to the fertility and fecundity of the spring time and of marriage. This image suggests that Beauty is on the cusp of adulthood.

As a child still, her father is her only male relationship and his first thought of her is that she is

“his Beauty, his girl-child, his pet”

which reveals much of their relationship. There’s a possessiveness and protectiveness implicit in the tripled third person possessive pronouns. There’s also a tendency to infantilise her as his “girl-child” and perhaps to indulge her as a pet which prefigures Beauty’s later transformation into a “petulant” and “spoiled” child in London, a city that “melts the snow”.

The snow is a crucial image of Beast’s castle too: it is first seen

“behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress”

and

“wreaths of snow now precariously curded the rose trees” from which the father stole Beauty’s rose.

When Beauty belatedly returns to the castle, she finds that “December still possessed his garden” as if time had refused to move on for him and that for Beast the snow represents a frozen quality not dissimilar to that of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Similarly, time’s progression is corrupted in London for Beauty: the

“flowers in the shop window were the same all the year round, nothing in the window could tell her that winter had almost gone.”

It is as if, once separated, neither is able to grow or progress. Beast is frozen whilst Beauty becomes trapoed in an artificial socially constructed version if femininity: she acquires

“instead of beauty, a lacquer of the invincible prettiness that characterises certain pampered, exquisite, expensive cats.”

The comparison of Beauty to a pampered cat recalls Beast who Carter describes as massively leonine, with a “great bulk” and a “quality of being more there than most of us are.” The nature of his bestiality is significant: lions are undoubtedly powerful and vicious but also “more beautiful by far than we are, yet they belong to a different order of beauty”. His bestiality is of an explicitly majestic and beautiful one rather than repulsive or abhorrent.

There is therefore more in common and more shared between Beauty and Beast than the traditional dichotomy – and there are lots of dichotomies here between male and female, city and country, beast and man – between them: there is a hint of the beast in Beauty as there is a touch of dangerous beauty in Beast; a yin and yang echo of each other rather than a diametric opposition. And it is only when they are together that they are able to walk together in the springtime garden. As such, personally, the adoption by Beauty of the name Mrs Lyon in the final sentence does not strike me as an anti-feminist subjugation of the female but a true recognition of the leonine nature that had always resided in Beauty and continues to reside in them both in their shared name as well as the residual leonine echoes in Beast’s appearance.

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