Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

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Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.

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Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Rewriting fairytales: the bloody chamber

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These are no children’s bed time stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic and gothic. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

“I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” -Angela Carter

Reading Angela Carter’s collection of opulent short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), is like riding an exhilarating roller coaster. You think you can predict the twists and turns of the ensuing ride, but are instead taken on an electrifying, exotic journey that will stimulate you from beginning to end. The Bloody Chamber injects new energy into traditional tales and motifs by deconstructing and transforming some of the core elements that support such stories. This essay intends to explore how Carter’s text presents us with a complex and original expression of a forceful feminist vision. It dismantles and explodes long-established depictions of women within the fairy tale genre, which “encoded the dark and mysterious elements of the psyche” (Makinen).

By re-shaping these tales, Carter was “deliberately drawing them out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of children’s stories or folk art and into a world of change” (Sage); these are “no children’s bedtime stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic [and] gothic” (Gamble).  This is specifically achieved in the intense and vibrant title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which tells the story of a young woman’s seduction into – and escape from – a deadly marriage. Subsequently, Carter also “attempts to decolonise our habits of thought” (Makinen) by working within and against fairy tale conventions in her bid to expose how Western culture has “shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality” (Bristlow and Broughton).

As a woman who personally and publically identified herself as a feminist, it comes as no surprise that Carter’s stories within The Bloody Chamber are informed and influenced by her feminist principles. Indeed, she has declared:

“It’s been amazingly difficult… trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don’t really know that because I live my life, I don’t examine it” (Carter ‘Notes’).

Indeed, as Alison Easton has noted, it is important that we understand Carter’s explorations of gender and female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber within “the context of the many different, contested positions that feminism has taken over the past thirty years”. Within this continual feminist debate, issues surrounding pornography, sexuality, violence and the representation of women intensified in the late 1970s and 80s which would have significantly influenced Carter’s work and prompted critics to readily respond to The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, which were both published in 1979. While many feminists agreed that pornography “reflected a sort of distilled essence of the entrenched binaries of patriarchal gender relations, the conflict revolved around the extent to which pornographic representations could be appropriated” (Benson 37) to adequately critique it and suggest alternatives. Subsequently, for many feminists who saw pornography purely as the eroticization of male power and female weakness, the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which are permeated by sexual violence, sexual gratification, erotic desire and sadism, were unsuccessful in achieving a feminist objective.

The question of what precisely Carter’s objective was with The Bloody Chamber, has also divided critics. Never occupying a particular or specific feminist position and being continually influenced by contrasting ideas and notions relating to gender and sexuality, Carter was able “to critique phallocentrism with ironic gusto and to develop a wider and more complex representation of femininity” (Makinen). Yet some early critics, such as Robert Clark and Patricia Duncker, saw her wide ranging feminist agenda as too ambiguous, the latter felt she was “rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures” (qtd. in Makinen) and remained unconvinced that Carter was able to completely escape the conservative gender stereotypes often exemplified in traditional tales and motifs. Others stated that she failed to make the old bottles explode in the spectacular way she had hoped and “gets locked into… conservative sexism despite her good intentions” (Makinen). Also, that the strong pornographic nature of her tales and the fairy tale genre itself, could not be appropriated to critique and map alternatives to gender binaries, especially considering the role of fairy tales “in the installation of these very traditions” (Benson).

Nevertheless, such evaluations of Carter’s work can be seen as dangerously missing the powerfully ironic point she puts across in her transformation of traditional tales and motifs. Yes, she uses narrative structures that are based on old-fashioned notions of women and men’s sexual roles; but Carter utilises such story lines as working construction sites in her renovation of such concepts. Carter chose to use elements from fairy tales because those were the stories that developed through oral tradition and she saw them as “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world” (‘Virago Book of Fairy Tales’). Therefore, by tackling such deep rooted customs and concepts, the reader is forced to respond due to familiarity with the old story when faced with the implications of the new one.

Moreover, considering patriarchal distain for the proto-feminist actions of the witty, salon women of the 17th Century, from which fairy tales began to circulate, “it is ironically apropos that Carter, a feminist, should now speak through Perrault’s tales” (M. Roemer and Bacchilega), and cleverly undermine their core principles. Although her intense and colourful writing style may not suit everyone and “the savagery with which she can attack cultural stereotypes [is potentially] disturbing, even alienating” (Makinen), it nonetheless remains brilliantly perceptive and invigorating to read. Makinen also argues that those critics who fail to understand Carter’s subtle ironies do so because they fail to “position themselves outside phallocentric culture”.

Angela CarterFrom the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality

 

Carter’s marvellously gothic title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist re-write based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy tale, ‘Bluebeard’. Her story also heavily draws on the eccentric life of the French aristocrat and sexual libertine, the Marquis De Sade. The Marquis’s chamber is also “that private slaughterhouse of his” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and signifies the dark, fetishized world of Sadeian erotic fantasy. Carter expanded on representations of sexual violence and her interest in the Marquis de Sade in The Sadeian Woman (1979). This too received mixed criticism from feminist critics, and Susan Kappeler condemned her depictions of women as mere objects of male pornography. However, what Carter depicts in The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman is an alternative view of women’s sexuality as entirely unrelated from their reproductive and biological role. Indeed, “during the 1970s, Carter had been re-reading fairy tales and Sade in tandem and bleakly contemplating the fate of good, powerless girls, the Red Riding Hoods and the Sleeping Beauties of the world” (Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale’) .

‘Bluebeard’ is a well-known European folktale which has contrasting characteristics depending on its origin, “in Norway the husband is a troll, in Italy, a devil, and in an ancient Greek version, death itself” (Lokke). However, Carter uses the basic elements from Perrault’s tale, namely the rich and powerful man who marries a series of young wives, gives them the key to a forbidden room but prohibits them from entering it, thus testing their obedience to him. Each woman gives into her curiosity which is revealed by the blood stained key, yet while the previous wives are killed by Bluebeard and locked in the chamber, the cycle is broken when his current wife is rescued just in time and he is then killed.

In comparison to ‘Bluebeard’, then, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is far more sexually violent and pornographically explicit. Carter once said “you mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog dancing” (qtd. in Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy tale’) and that in actual fact, “the latent content of those traditional stories… is violently sexual” (qtd. in Ozum). Indeed, similar to many fairy tale motifs, the ‘Bluebeard’ story is “grotesque in essence” (Lokke), so as readers we are prepared for the evil in the narrative. Carter then cleverly uses these inherent expectations to alter how we view the intensified sexual descriptions and violent images in her tale; subsequently we are forced to question rigid sexual binaries and gender definitions.

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Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. Photo via Spike_dennis via photopin cc

 

In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, though the female protagonist is potentially a victim to male pornography and is an object of male property at first, she is able to surpass this oppression and realise her own potential for independent sexuality. Moreover, the Marquis’s “victimisation of women is overturned and he himself is vanquished by the mother and daughter” (Makinen). The traditionally old, domesticated fairy godmother who solves all the problems in fairy tales such as Cinderella, or the valiant hero or future lover who saves the day is transformed and rewritten in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In true feminist fashion, it is the fearless, Amazonian mother who rides to the rescue, “a wild thing… skirts tucked around her waist… as if she had been Medusa” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). This intervention of the mother is unusual in The Bloody Chamber and in Carter’s other work where mothers are typically absent from the plot. The other stories in the collection contain either a lost mother or no mother at all, similar to her novels such as Wise Children or The Magic Toyshop in which the former skips a generation to focus on grandmothers and the latter deals with mother figures in place of biological mothers.

Unlike in ‘Bluebeard’ where the bride’s brothers come to the rescue, the Marquis is overcome by female autonomy, he is “impotent at last [as the] dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Indeed, “with his removal, the rigid dichotomy of his eroticised power games is shattered and the space he once occupied is recovered and reconfigured” (Gamble), the female protagonist comes to realise that she does not need a rich husband and refuses to be the victim of a “puppet master” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). By contrast, in the original ‘Bluebeard’, the woman immediately marries “an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard” (Perrault) emphasizing her continual reliance on male authority. Therefore, as Lucie Armit argues, it is critics like Duncker “who remains ensnared” in patriarchal narratives, through their inability to recognise the powerful transformation the female protagonist undergoes in this story.

Furthermore, while Perrault’s tale is narrated in third person and we remain relatively distant from the woman in the story, Carter’s story is narrated retrospectively by the woman herself. This shifting focus towards the woman’s physical and mental journey is “foreign to the traditional fairy tale” (Lokke) and provides us with an exuberant reading experience that “actively engages the reader in a feminist deconstruction” (Makinen). We experience the protagonist’s transition from innocence and dependence to maturity and independence. When initially asked by her mother if she is certain she loves the Marquis, she replies, “I’m sure I want to marry him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), thus demonstrating her initial fixation on marriage because it is the next stage in her socially conditioned female role. However, by the end of the story she is happy to give away the inherited money from her dead husband to various charities and runs a school for the blind at the castle. Therefore, the typical fairy tale journey of poverty and unhappiness towards wealth through marriage is here remodelled so that female autonomy rather than wifely subservience is the happily ending.

Moreover, while in Perrault’s tale the woman accepts she “must die”, in Carter’s, she tells the piano tuner “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me” (‘The Bloody Chamber’), she shows a lot more female gumption and is less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. The murderous Marquis also represents all symbolically murderous marriages where the man destroys independent female desire for his own corrupt purposes. Indeed, Carter is redefining the basic associations of women in fairy tales, innocence is inferior to knowledge, sexuality is empowering not degrading and the knight in shining armour may be a “indomitable mother” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) riding to the rescue or even the heroine herself in her conquering of individual fears or social convention. Such deconstruction results in an entirely new collection of stories which convey liberating realities for women, where they can live independently of patriarchal dominance or exist simultaneously through mutual desire, as shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘The Company of Wolves’.

The Red Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ displays confidence and self-assurance. She bursts out laughing and says “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter) in response to the traditional exchange between the wolf and herself over the animals large teeth which are “all the better to eat you with” (Carter 138). By utilizing the older tale and transforming the meaning of such fundamental elements to convey the sexual freedom of the modern Red Riding Hood, we can see how Carter enhances her own feminist narrative by such recognition and transformation. Subsequently, she critiques conservative and limiting depictions of women and gender notions through a complex interplay of old and new.

The Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s tale is described as an innocent, little girl whereas we are told that the girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ had “just started her woman’s bleeding”(Carter), that “her breasts have just begun to swell” and though she is a virgin, “she has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter). Therefore, Carter remaps the stereotypical female victim into a woman who is in control of her “magic space” (‘The Company of Wolves’). In her assertion that she is “nobody’s meat” (‘The Company of Wolves’), she refuses to be the victim or prey, she gives in to her desire “freely” (‘The Company of Wolves’) and therefore embodies independent female desire. Moreover, the female protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is arguably more ignorant and passive at the start of the story, before she has come into contact with sexual violence, however she soon possesses a “dark new-born curiosity” (Carter) about the forbidden chamber after her first sexual experience. E.B.Manley argues that she is “a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story” and this desire for knowledge and truth is empowering. It allows her to eventually recognise her potential for corruption if she remains the female object, she does this by discovering what lies inside “the kingdom of the unimaginable” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and eventually overcoming her husband’s patriarchal power games.

Furthermore, once the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ and the wolf have recognised and fulfilled their mutual desire, when she has “laughed at him full in the face” and “ripped off his shirt for him”, she is able to sleep sweet and sound “between the paws of the tender wolf”. This is because she is not a female victim or object; she is an independent sexual woman who has transcended the traditional, subversive woman commonly depicted in traditional fairy tales and it is clear that “both male and female benefit from the transformation of the old power relations” (Gamble).

Despite Duncker’s opinion that the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ simply sees rape as inevitable, “she wants it really, they all do.” (qtd in Gamble) and that Carter fails to transcend ideology, this particular reading of sexual awakening feels incomplete and limiting. Robert Clark also maintains that though the Red Riding Hood figure embraces her sexuality, she does so at the cost of “accepting patriarchal limits to women’s power” (qtd in Gamble).  However, it is important to remember how “later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions” (Makinen). Indeed, Carter is showing that the women in her tales do have autonomous desire. At the end of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the tiger’s licking of the woman’s skin causes the woman who was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) to expose the female tiger that lies within her as an individual. She is left with a “nascent patina of shining hairs” and sees her new fur as incredibly beautiful, unlike her culturally constructed, innocent skin which she was so “unused to” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’).


So, instead of giving into male desire, Carter is showing how the woman in this tale is satisfying her own polymorphous desire, so it is “not women re-enacting porn for the male gaze, but…woman reappropriating libido” (Makinen) for themselves.


While mirrors are only mentioned briefly in ‘Bluebeard’, they play a vital role in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the female protagonist transitions from female object to female subject, E.B. Manley argues that “the mirror scenes establish the protagonist as oscillating between girlhood and womanhood, between a patriarchal view and her own definition of herself”. Indeed, they force the protagonist to reflect on her innocence and increasing desire as the story progresses. On the night before her wedding, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde, she catches herself in the mirror and sees herself through the eyes of her fiancé who watched her “with the assessing eye of a connoisseur” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), a gaze which suggests his carnal desire to consume and feed off her innocence.

She sees:

“the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood… [and] sensed in [herself] a potentiality for corruption” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

This image also forebodes the Marquis’s wish to decapitate her at the end of the story. However, even at this stage she realises it was “my innocence that captivated him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and it is all part of his plan to corrupt her for his own pleasure. Attraction to innocence and naiveté is perhaps a reflection of mankind as a collective and is a motif which is traditionally represented in many fairy tales. I believe the protagonist is representative of the female collective in the mirrors of her bedroom, indeed, she watches as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber), thus insinuating an entire history of women who have been victims of unhappy marriages or violent abuse and therefore signifying a universal need to alter the way society understands female sexuality.

Recognising the innocent image in the mirror as one that has been socially conditioned to meet the needs of a phallocentric culture which itself desires domination over the female object, along with her increased knowledge of sexuality and violence due to her experience in the chamber, all help to increase her female independence. She almost succeeds in seducing her husband, by using the male desire for innocence against him, “a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors… if he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Faced with the reality of death as a result of female submission, she is no longer naïve.

By contrast, Perrault’s female character “almost fainted with terror” and flings herself at her husband’s feet, “weeping and imploring him to forgive her for having disobeyed him”. Consequently, Carter portrays powerful female sovereignty through the heroine and her brave mother, and therefore reconfigures the traditional motif of female weakness in traditional fairy tales.  Though both women are frightened by their experience, Perrault’s heroine does not progress as a character, unlike Carter’s.

The protagonist of ‘The Blood Chamber’ is extremely isolated in “the faery solitude of the place…cut off from land for half a day” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), whereas in ‘Bluebeard’, the woman is continually surrounded by “amusements…hunting and fishing parties, banquets, dances and suppers” (Perrault) and therefore has less need to soul search. Carter’s protagonist is forced to face internal conflicts and confront the woman in the mirror. Moreover, although we are told that the woman in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes on to live with her mother and the blind piano player, she is not reliant on either of them and is not victimised by the male gaze due to his blindness. Therefore, “the marriage of wealth and power, standard goal for fairy tale heroines, is rejected. She has been allowed through her initiation in the chamber, to understand and survive the deadly peril that kind of marriage holds for her” (Renfroe). By contrast, in Perrault’s tale, the young widow immediately “married an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she has with Bluebeard” (Perrault) conveying the notion that dependence on a man was a traditional motif that Carter wanted to eradicate.

Nevertheless, the end of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has caused some debate among critics. The red heart imprinted on the woman’s forehead due to the blood stained key causes her shame, but shame over what exactly is open to interpretation. It may well be the mark serves as a reminder to all women to never become victims of the bloody chamber, if indeed it represents sexual confinement or dominance by men. Lokke argues that the heart is a “badge of courage” and the shame can therefore be seen to result from her initial subservience to her violent and unemotional husband. The mark is a constant reminder of her knowledge of the human heart and forces her to realise she need not give into marital convention just because it is socially acceptable or economically beneficial. Indeed, even though her innocence becomes “subtly tainted” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), this realisation and knowledge leads to her “recognition of the evil within her” (Lokke), that all men and women have the potential to succumb to, embrace or resist. Coming to terms with her potential for corruption signifies her maturity and “acceptance of responsibility rather than destructive self-depreciation” (Lokke). Therefore, the heroine’s experience of violent and sexual perversion, followed by her ability to recreate the castle into a school for the blind, shows how Carter is metamorphosing traditional images of the heroine marrying the prince charming, into modern projections of female knowledge and independence as the perfect happy ending.

Indeed, Carter takes emotions that have simmered just below the surface of classic fairy tales, of suggested carnal desires and sensuous cravings, of cruelty that is left to the readers imagination, and presenting them to us in rich, juxtaposing ways. We are thus forced to question the depictions of gender, violence and sex in traditional tales and motifs. The grand castle we see in numerous fairy tales is redefined and here becomes the larger container of the bloody chamber itself, it is seductively captivating, yet eerily isolated, it seems to exist “neither on the land nor on the water, [it is] a mysterious, amphibious place” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’ 9), illustrating how Carter re-appropriates core elements of traditional motifs for her own purposes.

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. The awakening of desire is felt from the very first sentence when the protagonist tells us how she “lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, [her] burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow”. She also says how the pounding of her heart mimics “the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train” as she is borne away from Paris, “away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage”.

The protagonist’s experiences in the castle continually transition between the sensual and the violent and the language is extremely perfumed and poignant. As the story goes, our senses become even more heightened to the evocative language on the page, much like the vivid colours of a Disney fairy tale; we are drawn into the this particular story by vivid descriptions and intense images, which combine to produce an unnerving, yet exhilarating effect. The uncanny, sallow descriptions of her inhuman husband’s “waxen face”, which seemed like “a mask”, his resemblance to “one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum, his leather covered, pornographic library with its “rugs…dark panelling…lulling music…flames” and the “ruby necklace that bit into [her] neck”, are all images that heighten our horror and anticipation due to the foreplay of sensual language. The husband’s association with lilies which have phallic and death like associations, and the way he makes the bedroom look like “an embalming parlour” conveys his overall destructive nature and oppressive sexual perversion, in stark contrast to the heroine’s vitality. The protagonist is eventually able to overcome sexual perversion and defeat death and her husband, who is the embodiment of death itself. Lokke argues that by “acknowledging the glamour of sado-masochist self-annihilation as well as its ultimate brutality, ugliness and misogyny”, Carter maps before the reader how imperative it is that both female and male sexual desire is redefined on the grounds that the women is not the objective victim as she is often depicted in traditional tales, she should have control over her own sexual desires rather merely playing the sexual role a man has assigned to her.

In conclusion, by writing stories about fairy tales, which each reader would have previous assumptions and associations, then subverting the original messages, Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality. The fixed gender binaries and stereotypes often depicted in oral and literary tradition are exploded in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the rest of the short stories. While new wine in old bottles was a motivation and underlying principle in all her work, this logic was epitomised in these revolutionary tales which are incandescent throughout. Despite the ethereal quality to her work, Carter once wrote that she was “in the demythologising business” (‘Notes’) and was determined to break down the “lies [which are] designed to make people feel un-free” (Notes). Indeed, by critiquing and transforming traditional tales and motifs, The Bloody Chamber forces us to interrogate conventional narratives and decolonise our ideas surrounding sexual freedom and the depictions of women within the fairy tale genre.

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Conquering Mount To-Be-Read: A New Year Challenge

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Starting the new year with a mountain of books to read? You’re not alone

It’s no doubt advice that you’ve heard time and time again, but it’s good advice – in order to be a better writer, you have to be a great reader. In the quest to read as widely and prolifically as possible, it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up lots of wonderful books. It’s even more inevitable that at least half of them will gather dust on shelves and in piles in bedrooms, living rooms, attics and garages. Alas, the curse of the bibliophile writer (is there any other kind?) is the to-be-read pile of shame.

Your TBR pile grows quicker than you realise – doubly so if you’re an ebook-a-holic like me. A new awards list comes out, so you pick up a few titles – they have to be good, right? A friend reminds you of a series that you’d been meaning to check out in a while, so that’s another set on the shelf. Amazon’s always got a sale on Kindle books, Humble are doing a new bundle of rare and unseen Neil Gaiman texts, and before you know it, you’re drowning in pages with more and more being added to the vast, wordy sea.

This Christmas, my bookcase reached its limit and became a health and safety nightmare, so I decided that something needed to be done. After scouring the web for a solution, I stumbled upon my potential salvation – the Mount TBR reading challenge, created by literary blog My Reader’s Block.

The aim of the game is to try and conquer that toppling to-be-read pile by choosing a target number of books to read throughout the year, with tiers named for mountains of differing heights. In my case, I’ve chosen Mount Blanc, partially because of the Shelley reference, and also because it equates to knocking a conservative 24 books off the list. It doesn’t seem like many, but that’s at least two books a month, and not an easy feat when you read whacking great sci-fi tomes like I do. However, with a bit of careful planning – a hastily scribbled list of all the physical books I have left to read, and a promise to take my Kindle on the bus to work instead of my 3DS – it’s a positively achievable goal.

There aren’t many rules in the Mount TBR challenge, except that the books must be ones you own (and surely that’s the point of doing the challenge), and, if you’re really not feeling a book, you have to give it a chance and get through a good portion of it before you can call it quits and knock it off the list. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always scale your pledge up to conquer even more of the pile of shame. However, in the true spirit of competition, you can’t scale that number down. Come on, it’s meant to be a challenge after all!

As well as alleviating some of my reader’s guilt for leaving books on the shelf for so long, I’m excited by the fact that I’ll be reading loads of new stories. Already, I’ve knocked The Autobiography of James T. Kirk and Paul Cornell’s The Lost Child of Lychford off my list, but I’ve got some Annie Proulx on there that’s been languishing in the pile for several months. On my Kindle, there’s a T.C. Boyle novel that I bought during my MA that remains untouched, and there are even books that I bought in sales six years ago lurking on there. I’m hoping that at least a few of those will make the cut as I attempt to hit my target.

Although climbing the mountain and cutting down the list is its own reward, I’m hoping that the challenge will stretch me even further and encourage my writing output to grow this year. Getting off the computer and going analogue a bit more, diving into new and different worlds, should in theory encourage me to keep on creating my own. So with cup of coffee in hand and blanket in easy reach, I’ve started my ascent up the formidable Mount TBR. What are you waiting for?

About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

In praise of sincerity and emotion in comedy

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Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson – artistes in their own right                     

Everybody who’s spoken to me for more than about ten minutes about comedy and probably anybody who’s seen my act will know I’m a huge Stewart Lee fan. Though he wasn’t the first comedian that I loved – that would be Eddie Izzard – he was the comedian that made me a fan ofstand-up comedy as an art-form.

Stewart Lee views stand-up comedy as art. His is not an unusual view-point, especially amongst the UK alternative. There’s a great bit from Simon Munnery about his annoyance about being reviewed “as the closest comedy gets to art” that perfectly describes the frustration stand-ups feel about how our craft is viewed.

Not all stand-up has to be art, of course. Michael McIntyre isn’t an artist. I doubt he wants to be. That’s not a criticism, if you were to decry everything that doesn’t attempt to be art and isn’t, you’d spend a lot of time walking down the street declaring road signs shit. McIntyre is entertainment, and that’s fine.

In contrast, Stewart Lee views what he does as art and his work should be judged as such.

The entirety of a stand-up comedian’s art is contained within the presentation of their onstage character. The show I consider Stew’s best, 90s Comedian, represents his attempt to present an argument regarding religious censorship of art. There are other themes too, and Stew handily sums up the aims and ideas of the show at the end, so that the audience know that they’ve seen some art.

Though 90s Comedian is based on Stew’s life, the character he presents on stage is relatively distant from his real person. Though, inevitably, the ideas and opinions in the show are all his own, for its success it’s important that the audience understands the figure on stage is an artificial construct. tThey’re meant to doubt him. In much of his later work, such as in the latest series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle where he attacks Graham Norton for winning a Bafta, the joke (and therefore the artistic merit) is found in the gap between Stewart Lee the Comedian and Stewart Lee the actual real person. Of course Stewart Lee isn’t really angry at Graham Norton; his onstage character is. As such the material is a comment on fame and failure; on arrogance. For us to understand the point  he’s making, we need to understand this dissonance, that an artistic comment is being made, otherwise it’s just a badly ageing man airing his own bitterness.

This distance from his own material makes Stew a somewhat cold figure on stage. There’s not a lot of warmth or genuine feeling to be found in his work. Every joke, or story told, is in some way an attempt to further the message of the piece. There’s never really a sense that the audience is being brought into his world sincerely. It’s as if a novel is being presented on stage, a monolithic block of ‘art’.

Recently I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of Daniel Kitson’s shows. I’ve said before that Kitson is the greatest living stand up and my certainty of this has only increased as I’ve delved deeper into his available catalogue.

There’s a lot of reasons I think this is true. Firstly, Kitson is one of the most naturally funny people alive. When he’s onstage there’s always a sense that he could make the entire audience laugh uproariously whenever he wanted to. That any quieter moments are entirely intentional, any time he’s not making an audience laugh must therefore be a moment of great wisdom.

Secondly, he has a fantastically unique and clever way of expressing his ideas. In the last blog I wrote for Nothing in the Rule book I used a quote of his that better expressed the point I was struggling to make over a thousand words, in a few sentences.

Thirdly, I think his shows are some of the best sincere investigation of an artist’s own character that I’ve found anywhere.

(The best place to investigate Kitson’s work is either live (difficult to get tickets) or the full audio recordings he’s posted of a few of his shows on Bandcamp. Many people have watched his three five minute videos on youtube and gone away wondering what all the fuss was about; the equivalent of just looking at the top left corner of Rain, Steam, Speed and declaring that “Turner cannot paint”)

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Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. 

Kitson’s shows are often introspective affairs, evaluations of his own character. His stances on issues. Though of course Kitson is a character on stage – every comedian is, to a degree – there’s never the sense of the remove that we get from Stewart Lee’s work. We become intimately involved with Kitson’s character, we understand him as a man. Kitson discusses big ideas intelligently, but all of the themes of the shows are born from his own character. In After the Beginning, Before the End Kitson presents us with the idea that we can truly understand our own character by telling us about his own life, and how he and others have perceived his personality. The audience thus come away from Kitson’s show with a portrait of a man, rather than of a cold, distant, concept..

I’m being unfair on Stewart Lee here, who does at times give a far better investigation of his own character than I’ve given him credit for and I’m largely using him as a comparison because I believe that he is the only “artistic” comedian that non-comedy nerds will be aware of.

However, I feel that Kitson’s looser more personal approach better uses stand-up comedy’s strengths. Other art forms, including books, paintings, films, and so on, are always presented to the audience with what one might call a remove, be it through the conduit of a page, as in poetry and literature, or actors, in theatre. Even performance poetry could, ultimately, be performed to an empty room to much the same effect. Only stand up, performed live, presents itself as a direct conversation with the audience. While this conversation may not be participatory, with the audience strongly encouraged to remain silent, their laughter is an intrinsic part of the performance. The comedian is directly before them, usually alone on stage with a microphone. Surely there is no better medium to present a truth about oneself?

Kitson understands this better than most. Even in his most reflective shows he often breaks a monologue to talk to a member of the audience, who may be doing something interesting (like eating food out of a tupperware). This makes his performance feel more alive, more involved, compared to Stewart Lee, who’s interaction is largely limited to audience evaluation (you can see this in the below youtube clip), which, while often hilarious and brilliant, feels much more stage managed, with the quieter reactions to jokes clearly deliberately solicited.

Kitson’s sheer natural ability to be funny on demand allows his shows to maintain this personal, sincere feel throughout. Other comedians talk about having to break character, or shift their status, in order to deal with hecklers, but Kitson never really does. Of course, he might need to shift from introspective to brutally insulting, but because he lacks a theatrical remove from the audience, this feels much more natural than with other comedians.

It’s easy to identify with Kitson, not in the observation “don’t we all do this funny thing with our dishwashers” way, but as a person. He’s widely known as a recluse, often discussed as an elusive enigma, but having watched him perform around five times and listened to hours of other recorded material I feel I know him far better than other acts and that’s not just due to familiarly. Kitson’s wide-eyed earnestness, his joyful sentimentality, all come across well in his work.

In other art forms sentimentality often comes across feeling fake and artificial, as if the writer is attempting to make us feel things for their own sake. When Love Actually attempts to tug at my heartstrings I can actively feel myself resisting; it’s trying too hard. The same is true with better films than Love Actually (which is to say most films), there’s just too much artifice for the emotion, the story, to ever feel quite real. With Kitson, and other similar stand-ups, it’s all coming directly from the horses mouth, how can it be artificial if it’s what the person on stage is actually feeling?

A lot of this might feel obvious to more seasoned comedy fans and I’d also like to say that by no means do I believe that Kitson is the only comedian capable of effectively performing in this way, as there are tonnes of comics doing brilliant shows using their own character to say something broader about humanity.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that, while stand-up can say these real, important things and evoke real emotions in the audience, comedians themselves are by no means truthful. I imagine tonnes of Kitson’s shows are chockablock with lies.

It’s just easy to feel that comedy is under-appreciated as an artform, with the lighter entertainment side of the industry over-shining the more sensitive artistic side to the extent that it gets forgotten. There’s room for both; it’s just a shame that in ‘mainstream discourse’, stand-up still does not get the respect it deserves.

About the author of this post

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Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty five year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

 

 

Book Review: The Woman in the Water

 

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This period mystery is set in the mid-eighteenth century; Bath is a fashionable watering place, but hasn’t always been quite as civilized. Beau Nash, master of ceremonies and ‘King of Bath’, the man who made it so, has just died and been buried in a pauper’s grave.

Rich invalids come to sample the curative powers of the hot spring waters, while most of the residents make their living from attending to their needs. Others come to drink, dance, gamble and find themselves a suitable spouse. But beyond the refined balls of the Assembly rooms, there are the poor of Bath, mostly ignored and often exploited, either as servants, labourers quarrying the famous Bath stone, or prostitutes working on grimy Avon Street.

The story follows Lizzie Yeo, a young woman just coming up from being down on her luck, and Jonathan Harding, a clergyman with something of a social conscience. A body is found in the River Avon and both of our leads have their own personal and moral reasons for trying to identify the woman in the water, despite the indifference of the rest of society.

The Amazon description gives a great deal away, including all of Lizzie’s backstory and some events from the last half of the novel. This one is the sort where it helps to be in suspense. Unfortunately, the authors do not always reveal things as dramatically as they might, given you already know them from the Amazon spiel.

The setting is an interesting one, but might have added interest if you have lived in or visited Bath, or perhaps know it from descriptions of it in its Regency pomp. There is no shortage of period detail. The two characters give a dual perspective on the lives of the wealthy and privileged on the one hand and the less fortunate, as well as the double standards that exist for men and woman, rich and poor.  The battle to remain ‘respectable’ is also a feature – even when Harding performs a charitable act for a young woman, rumours begin to circulate about his character. Lizzie has it much worse, as her past misfortunes and the things she has had to do in her poverty are condemned by society. It passes the Bechdel test with ease, as it is a novel where a female protagonist investigates the death of a woman.

However, It is not without weaknesses. The red herrings are disposed of in a summary manner, leaving the last section of the book as a confirmation of the inevitable. Having said that, this is done in an exciting way up until the last page, although the mystery is over. Occasionally the book feels the need to spell things out more than is necessary.

I don’t want to sound too negative about what is an entertaining mystery novel, set in a period that does not get the attention that later periods do. The authors, Will and Sheila Barton, have an obvious knack for writing in this genre, and future novels starring Lizzie and Harding seem probable – if so the series may well hit its stride later.

 

The Woman in the Water is now available on Amazon: 

About the reviewer

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Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Sydney’s Taronga zoo sires first echidnas in 29 years; Billy rejoices

Being an echidna isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; we lead solitary lives, lay eggs and we have nightmarish four-headed penises covered in spines.

But reproduction that would make H.R. Giger blush aside, one must concede we are some of the cutest buggers.

For the first time in 29 years, Sydney’s Taronga Zoo has successfully match-made a couple of echidnas who’ve given birth to three adorable echidlings. As a species, we’re notoriously stubborn when it comes to mating in captivity.

Imagine if someone put you behind several inches of plexiglass with a lady you’ve never met before and peers at you from behind their clipboard expecting the marsupial mamba to happen without even a thimble of XXXX Gold to part the waters. I don’t think so.

The creepy observed love-making paid off at least in the arrival of three ‘puggles’, whose sexes and names have yet to be determined. Might I suggest “Billy II” or, failing that, “Nicole Echidman”… Ok, ok, “Eartha Echid”

 

“Ragnarok”.. now I’m just saying things

 

BtE

Know your Carrie from your Christine?

Do you know your Carrie from your Christine? Do you know better than to visit Jerusalem’s Lot for a malted milk after dark? What’s the actual name for the clown (who’s also a spider and immortal inter-dimensional doomsayer) who promises to give you a balloon if only you’d come a little closer to the storm drain?

We’re more likely to talk about Stephen King’s awkwardly titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft here but this echidna remembers, with a fond hue, evenings spent cradling the bedside lamp, mightily summoning the strength and will to turn yet another page of Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary or The Ten O’Clock People.

We’ve read a handful of King’s writings but are by no means experts so we spent a couple of minutes this afternoon testing our mettle in BBC Radio 4’s Stephen King Quiz.

The quiz marks BBC’s Fright Night, a series of spooky readings and performances including Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall reading Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and a three-part adaptation of King’s The Cookie Jar.

Let us know how you fared in the comments, and don’t forget to check out some of Stephen King’s writing tips and King’s thoughts on the commercialisation of literature.

BtE

Australian literary award split between novelists Wood and Gorton

Experience and enthusiasm combined as a debut Australian novelist and a five-time author shared a prestigious literary award for fiction this week.

The Natural Way of Things, about the hidden tension in one of Australia’s establishment families and The Life of Houses which centres on a group of women kept prisoner in a derelict home, were joint fiction winners of the prime minister’s literary awards.

The $80,000 prize money will be divided between authors Charlotte Wood and Lisa Gorton with some of the fund going to shortlisted authors.

Announcing the winners at the National Library of Australia on Tuesday night, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said winning and shortlisted authors had continued Australia’s rich literary tradition.

The winning entries were selected from a shortlist of 30 books from 425 entries across each of the three categories of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, by the prime minister and a panel of experts.

Read more at The Guardian.

 

Guardian columnist Owen Jones speaks at union publishing event

We spend most of our time at Nothing in the Rulebook telling you all about what’s inside books and the people who put that in there. But what about the people who actually put the books together? So Professor Wu and Billy Echidna can paw through them with great relish!

Bookmachine, a global community for everyone in and around book publishing, are hosting an event this evening in central London exploring pay and conditions in the UK publishing industry.

Guardian columnist and political activist Owen Jones will be keynote speaker at United, We Publish, an evening of workshops at St Bride’s Foundation, Fleet Street.

From the home of Britain’s print trade, Jones will be joined by Simon Dubbins, International Director of Unite the Union and Michelle Stanistreet, the first woman in history to be elected general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

The event will be chaired by Gareth Lowe, chair of Unite’s national publishing and media branch and a publishing programme manager at DK. Speakers will also take questions from the audience.

Laura Summers, co-founder of BookMachine, a community of over 5,000 subscribers, said: “Feedback from last year’s Unite/BookMachine workshop was great. The most popular topic was Pay and conditions. Our role is to listen to this, and facilitate the discussion – it has been a pleasure working with Unite again and we are delighted to have such highly-regarded speakers on the panel discussing this important issue.”

Louisa Bull, Unite’s lead officer for publishing said: “Employers in publishing have different attitudes to pay and reward schemes and Unite are keen to promote the merits of collective pay bargaining for our UK members. Many of the employers we deal with in this sector have different pay systems across Europe and we are keen in this panel debate the understand the merits of them all.”

For more information and to buy tickets, follow the link