Source: Anthology submissions
The sense of place in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night is constructed right at the beginning when Harriet Vane returns to her old college at Oxford: Shrewsbury.
The preface to the 1975 edition contains an apology to Oxford for tarnishing its reputation by giving it a new college: Shrewsbury, and by placing it in the setting of a conspiracy, and disorder. The most striking thing about this apology is the reference to giving it over 150 pupils, as though this in itself were the ultimate transgression. This is interesting. The fact that Dorothy L. Sayers apologises at all is interesting in itself – but for the number of pupils—? This suggests that she is reinforcing the subject within the book of class difference and inequality. The message here seems to be that this kind of education is the privilege of the few and that the masses, can never truly represent the selective status of Oxford.
The subject of sex and the idea of the objectification of women is one which is also addressed early on with the invention of the college, Shrewsbury. The prefix shrew suggests reference to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a play which has been criticised for its misogyny. Harriet Vane is returning to Shrewsbury College. It is as though she has not learnt enough in the real world and has to return to her old school to learn more truths, more lessons. The shrew here has not yet been tamed, and it is striking the way in which this is played out throughout the denouement of Sayers’s detective novel. Harriet Vane is pursued by Peter Death Bredon Wimsy: an eligible bachelor, educated at Balliol Oxford and the son of a duke. A man with manners and patience, a man with work with which he occupies himself; not a clingy man, which a woman of letters might find suffocating, (Harriet has been described as writing a book). And yet Harriet manages to evade Peter’s references to marriage, and to live in sin with him, or so it seems. This book is very much progressive, it seems in its treatment of Harriet who is incredibly free in one sense, sexually, because with her very respectable status comes the implication that she will not commit the transgression of sex outside marriage, which in 1935, when the book was published, was still very much frowned upon. The character appears to have agency, and choice here in the denouement; she is free to spend time with Peter. And yet Harriet comments at one point that if she were carrying on with a man in secret that she would not be foolish enough to do it at Oxford.
Athough Harriet is embarking on a life in which she is free to chose her freinds and to use her time as she wishes, Harriet is treated very much as a child on arrival at Oxford. The Dean calls her a ‘good girl’ because she has labelled her gown. The women are described as forgetful and weak-minded, disorganised beings. Everything about the acts of transgression—the papers which are strewn about the college unseen, the ransacked library, the broken chess set, suggest resistance to the age-old tradition of Oxford; suggest an underlying problem with the façade of respectability. The chess set vandalism being a metaphor for the ultimate attack on a methodical mind, mirrors Harriet Vane’s oscillation between her heart and her head, between romance and the pull of the seriousness of Oxford.
The rubbish dump at Somerville Christ Church, which Sayers does not apologise for and says it is real, suggests that there is some truth here which demands our scrutiny as readers. Sayers (an Oxford graduate herself), describes a distinct lack of privacy as Harriet Vane dresses for the evening, and has to withdraw into the shadows when her roommate appears. This seems positively primitive and is incongruent with the chaste attitude she is supposed to exude as a single woman.
Jung’s animus is at work here in the aggressive attitude of Anne Robinson, formerly Anne Wilson whose husband was deprived of his MA by Miss. De Vine and who subsequently committed suicide, widowing Anne and compelling her to take up domestic service to keep her children out of the poor house.
Anne Robinson’s crimes are hysterical crimes, crimes against the intellect, crimes, as she herself suggests, designed to confuse and make a mockery of the academic women at Shrewsbury; women, she believes, should love their men no matter what. And she derides Peter and Harriet for not being capable of sustaining–what she views as–a committed (married) relationship. Peter, she says, father’s other men’s children rather than sustaining a loving marriage, which demands sacrifice and commitment, and Harriet is a fool for stringing him along.
The whole book (thinly disguised as detective fiction, or deliberately breaking the bounds of the clue-puzzle genre), is a look at the freedom of academic life and the sacrifices it seems to demand.
I read this work for the first time in my final year at The University of Winchester. I had always loved detective fiction and crime fiction, decades previously, particularly Agatha Christie and the creation of Sherlock Holmes, and Raymond Chandler’s prose, although at the time I had no idea that this genre was considered literature and no concept of the theory on the subject. The module was very enlightening and enjoyable, and introduced me to Dorothy L. Sayers and a great deal of theory on the subject.
On Beauty and Identity
For many years I have enjoyed, if that is the right word, good looks. I am sceptical about whether or not it is possible to enjoy being beautiful since my experience of this has been largely a negative one.
I was inspired to write this partly by listening to Will Self begin a podcast, for radio 4’s programme entitled A Point of View, with a negative suggestion about beauty; I suspect that Will Self would have gone on to oppose this negative view, since with most lectures, which we were taught as undergraduates, the speaker provides the thesis and then the antithesis, which is usually the opposite of his original stance at the beginning of his lecture, which is the point of lectures, or good essays; they are exploratory. I will make no specific reference to Will Self’s lecture here because I didn’t listen to it…
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The New Jerusalem Bible, ( London, Eyre and Spottiswoode) Genesis 2, p. 6. Homans, Margaret Bearing the Word, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 20. All other references to this t…
The way in which this story was written was interesting and novel, because there few full stops; just one at the end of every chapter. The problem was that the full stops were needed in the areas where there was tension. In reality tension creates pauses, sometimes so profound that you actually stop living a full life; this is why the full stops are such an essential part of prose; for me it is thus in the sentences in Ernest Hemmingway’s work or, for example with the beginning of Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills.” This sentence has stayed with me since I first read it aged about 20 years. It is incredibly powerful. The sentences that follow it are equally so; I’ll leave them for you to find. It is perhaps unfair of me to juxtapose one book against another just because of the punctuation; and yet I have come to understand how important punctuation is as you write; and since Nassar must be making a point by excluding punctuation, it is this aspect of the writing that the reader tends to notice. For the first few chapters, and particularly the erotic ones, the lack of punctuation was exciting and enhancing and drove the prose forward, adding to its eroticism. This was not the case for every chapter, and I would have liked the writer to have used the full stops to show the pauses that anger and aggression place in us. Somebody said that we are often the person we were when something monumental happens in our lives, a loss, a divorce, that sort of thing; when this happens it is as if the world stops; of course for everyone else it carries on; I wanted stops, pauses, in the places in this story where there was tension and jealousy and anger.
I googled the opening sentence from Out of Africa because the first page of my book is missing; I think probably because I kept returning to it. I stumbled upon this wonderful page which adds to the discussion about sentences, and thought I’d include the link here for you:
On reflection, having read Christine’s blog, I think that it is worth reading A Cup of Rage as an exercise in learning what punctuation can add to story…
INT. CAFÉ – DAY.
A middle-aged man (of around 50), Sits on a two-seater sofa in Costa, facing a young woman. The table contains her handbag and a carrier bag of food and presents.
I just wanted to eat you; it had been so long since I saw you; all those days you were with him; he just appeared; took over; your new daddy; the handsome, strong woodcutter in the forest, always on hand to rescue you; I couldn’t get a word in; I couldn’t get near you; you understand me don’t you? I wanted you inside here; right beside me. Would you like a cup of coffee? You can’t just sit here and not drink coffee. Ok. I’ll be back in a minute.
Father moves towards the bar and till, and disappears for a while in a queue.
Do you like sugar?
I’ll get it. Would you like some?
Daughter moves over to a small area adjacent to their table, which contains sugars, its proximity enables them to continue the conversation.
Me? Yeah. I like 8. Give me 8. That stuff is undrinkable without it. It’s vile. All these people. They just want to judge you. You’d think they’d never had a dirty thought in their lives.
Daughter moves back to the sofa and hands the sugar to her father.
(slurping coffee – burst into tears)
I am glad he was there though. It was a good thing he was there to get you out. Hey Bertha. He’s a good man isn’t he? I’m sorry Bertha. I can’t control myself sometimes. I don’t want to see you because I have to prepare you know. It takes me days sometimes.
Are your eyes ok? They look odd. Let’s go dad – back to your flat.
INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT.
There. Take your shoes off. Leave them by the door. Would you like some biscuits? They’re custard creams. There. Take two. I’m sorry it’s so small here. I don’t sleep on that bed. It’s Sue’s bed. I don’t sleep with her. She just likes me to be here, you know. There’s that bell again. It’s so loud. You can’t turn it off you see, it serves all the flats. You were such an ugly baby you know. Your mother was beautiful, and when I took you to see your aunt (she lived on the other side of the forest in that chocolate-box cottage), she said you would be a great beauty. So you’ve got a boyfriend hey. Do you have a sexual relationship with him? Don’t answer that. I’m going to give you a chance to talk in a moment.
INT. BEDSIT – NIGHT
Father moves into a small living room. There is a bed pushed against one wall, and a sofa and kitchenette.
There’s humpty dumpty. Look at him. He’s been with me for years. I used to have more photographs. I had to get rid of them when I moved. You can’t keep things. How’s your mother? How are your sisters? Kara, Samantha, Sarah? Let me see, and Beth? She’s alright is she? And Tony, and little Gertrude? She must have grown so much. Little Gerti.
They’re all fine. Kara has moved out. She lives in The New Forest. There’s a lovely brook that runs through it, and wild horses.
She’s all right is she? Funny girl, Pum Pum. That’ll be Sue. She rings me up every hour. She’s probably on the bus. Yes, hello. Hello Sue. Yes. Right. You’re on the bus. Right. Yes. Bye Sue. Bye.
How is your hearing? It seems better than I remembered it. I thought you had a hearing aid. I wanted to ask you dad, where did grandad live?
Grandad? What do you want to know about him for? My mother was a wonderful woman. She never understood me. I was so horrible to her. I never got the chance to tell her I loved her. She died you see. It’s time for supper. That’s what she said, ‘It’s time for supper,’ and then she died. That’s the door. Just wait there would you Bertha?
Father moves towards the hallway, and opens the front door.
Hello Sue. Take your shoes off would you? Leave them there. I expect you’re hungry. It’s time for supper.
Daddy? Your teeth are bigger than I remember them.
My Friend Alien
By Hermione Laake
I’ve got a friend and he’s an alien. He takes me out every night.
Where? To his planet of course; where did you think, the North Pole?
If you think I’m going to tell you where his planet is you’ve got another thing coming. I’m not. Why? Well because we don’t want his planet invaded by a lot of Eartians. Yes you, you’re the Eartians.
Let’s just say it’s a long way away; a very, long, way away. I know this isn’t 1969 and you expect a little more information. That’s what I told Freddie. Now don’t laugh. That’s his name. Well why shouldn’t he have a name like that? Because aliens don’t have names like
Freddie they have names like Megaranthian. Well, when I told Freddie that he burst out laughing. Then he asked me my name. I told him it was James. He looked very puzzled.
Ok, Ok, so you want to know exactly how many millions of miles away Freddie’s planet is. I’ll tell you. It’s four times as far away as Pluto is from the sun. That makes it 23, 656 million kilometres away. Well roughly. That’s what Freddie tells me anyway.
Is Freddie a friendly alien? Well let’s just say very. The last time he came to earth he saw a couple French kissing and he decided to try it out on me. No warning or anything. That was it. Suddenly my jaw was locked on to his. Now I know what it feels like to be a cement mixer. Yuk. I hope it’s not that bad when I eventually pluck up the courage to kiss a girl.
It all started one night when I couldn’t sleep. I went over to the window and stared up at the night sky trying to focus and find Orion’s Belt. Orion’s Belt is always the easiest constellation to find in the sky, because of the three stars that run in a straight line so perfectly through it. But I digress. I was staring and there was this red dot in the sky. I hardly noticed it at first. Then it got bigger and bigger and it was coming straight at me. I shut my eyes and tried to refocus. By that time it was coming at me so fast it was frightening. It was like when you look through a magnifying glass at something and try and touch it at the same time. The glass plays tricks with your eyes.
All of a sudden this weird boy climbs out of thin air. No space ship or anything. He just appeared in front of me and said, ‘can I visit?’ I couldn’t exactly refuse. I’ve read about how we’ve sent peace messages into space in case there is intelligent life out there. That thought was going through my head, including the thought that it was better than looking at Orion’s Belt, and what would the alien do to me if I said no? That and a hundred and one other pictures flashed through my head, including the one of me and several presidents at a summit meeting. They were all shaking their heads and saying something. I smiled diplomatically
until my translator told me what it was, ‘you just shouldn’t have said no to the alien.’ I was about to reply, when they all rushed over to the window. We were in a space ship, orbiting Earth. Whatever they were looking at, it looked good. Huge boulders flew at the ship, reds, blues and oranges shot out of a round, black mass. But his was not alien fireworks display. This was my last vision of my planet; Planet Earth—exploding.
I decided to be friendly. I smiled. The next thing I knew he was sitting on the window ledge next to me, his feet hanging over the edge. I didn’t like to remind him that there was a 20 foot drop, besides anyone who can just appear like that from nowhere must be able to handle almost anything.
I mumbled, ‘hello.’ He smiled a strange slow smile. His face seemed uncomfortable with it. Of course mum picked that very moment to burst into my room. She doesn’t always remember to knock. I almost fell out the window.
Mum walked straight over to the window, yanked me in with one hand and slammed the window shut with the other. When mum had finished walking around my room picking things up, and telling me my room was a tip she left. I dashed to the window. For one awful moment I thought I was going to see green alien blood on the patio. I threw the window up and peered downwards. An icy hand grabbed the back of my neck and tweaked it. It was the alien. ‘You like that don’t you?’
Creepy. I quickly made the huge mental leap required to decipher that he was referring to mum tweaking my neck before she left the room, if that is, he is a he, I thought. I was just wondering whether to tell him that mum had given me a more friendly tweak than that, a sort of, I remember when I used to change your nappies and crawl around the floor on all fours with you, kind of tweak, and that she was ever so slightly less of an alien than he was, when my neck began to seize up. The alien was staring at it with a peculiar horrified expression on
his face. ‘I will have to make some, ah alterations,’ he said. He held his hand over my neck for a few moments and then released it. My hands, automatically, reached up for my neck. I couldn’t feel it. I began to panic. Well wouldn’t you? I raced over to the mirror. What was all this rubbish about being nice to aliens? I didn’t have a neck anymore and I didn’t have any weapons. Well, apart from that huge shield dad and I had spent half the holiday making. I wished it was metal.
‘You’re wishing that shield was metal. But you don’t need any defence. Your neck will be back to normal in a few minutes. I have just performed a, what do you call it?—a ration, I think.’
‘A what—?’ I opened the cupboard door and looked in the mirror. My neck was still there but it was shrouded in green light, a perfect match for the colour my face was turning. Somehow I didn’t have much faith in an alien boy turned surgeon who didn’t even know the correct word for operation. I ran in to the toilet and locked the door.
That was our first meeting. My neck returned to normal quite quickly as the alien had promised. But it took me a long time to come out of that toilet.
After that Freddie just kept turning up. He didn’t even wait for me to open my window and look out. I suppose he thought he’d got past that barrier. He would just turn up in my room whenever he felt like it. I soon got used to having him around.
The first time I took Freddie to school I said he was my cousin. Well I couldn’t very well tell them he was from Galaxiana, could I? That would start a mini revolution. Somehow I didn’t think I’d get much history done if I said anything about there being other planets with living beings on them in the cosmos. Or perhaps it was the thought that I might have to do overtime re-learning history.
I could feel Jeremy’s eyes boring through the back of my neck all through maths. He cornered me as soon as we went out onto the field.
‘Your friend’s got weird ears, Boden,’ he said. (He always calls me by my surname because he thinks it annoys me.)
I’d warned Freddie about him already, and he was ready. He walked straight up to Jeremy. I think everyone thought he was going to hit him. But he didn’t. He just put his arm round his
shoulder. ‘I like you Jeremy. You’re quite cool. I hear you’re a wicked goalie. Why don’t you show me a few tricks?’
There was a deathly silence while everyone waited to see what would happen. Then the two of them marched off towards the football pitch. Jeremy had this really self-satisfied look on his face, but it faded a bit when Freddie tuned and threw me the football. ‘Aim a few goals at us James, will you?’
Freddie was really good. He didn’t show off at all. He let Jeremy show off his talent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jeremy smile, except when he was being sarcastic. I stood back a bit and let him enjoy Freddie’s company. I can see Freddie whenever I like.
Jeremy isn’t very good at saying sorry. On the way out of school, he shouted after me. Freddie was nowhere to be seen. He’s got this habit of disappearing. My heart was in my mouth again. But it was all right, just his way of apologising. ‘Your cousin is Ok.’
I felt quite good after that, as though I wouldn’t have to worry about Jeremy being on my back all the time anymore.
When I got home Freddie was lying on the sofa reading a book. He has to travel home by means other than a bus, otherwise I’d have to give up my pocket money for his fare. He was eating this huge glittery chew. I dived on him. ‘You’ve got a slinar again. Come on share it.’
Of course I knew that I didn’t have a hope of making Freddie do anything he didn’t want to. He just put up an invisible force field between us and sat there savouring every mouthful.
‘What else did you get?’ I asked changing the subject. ‘Did your dad give you any of those comics?’
He threw me a pile of comics. Of course he’d already read them all. I lay on the bed for a whole hour totally engrossed. When my ears finally switched on I realised that mum must have been calling me and she was already at the top of the stairs. Freddie zapped the magazines from under my nose and turned himself into a poster. My mouth was wide open. I didn’t know he could do that. Mum opened the door. ‘Have you been playing with those caps again James, it stinks in here? Come on I’ve been calling you for ten minutes. You must be on another planet.’
That made Freddie laugh. He could see the funny side of that joke. Laughing has an odd effect on him when he’s transformed. I ran and stood in front of the poster. But mum had already whizzed out of the room.
‘You could have told me Freddie,’ I whispered through gritted teeth. Freddie could be very unhelpful at times. He enjoyed having a laugh at my expense. Now I would have to eat cold dinner. ‘And you could have come on the bus too, if I’d known you could do that—incognito.’
‘I don’t like it. It’s quite uncomfortable, you know.’
It’s difficult to go to school sometimes when Freddie is in my bedroom messing about with my pin ball machine. It’s a good thing that I can turn the sound down. If I can get near it that is. Freddie has this habit of suspending it in mid-air, and holding on to it like a steering wheel. He says it gives him better control. When I get home my room will be a complete tip and he’ll be nowhere to be found. Then I’ll have to start on my homework. It’s not as though Freddie can help me with it either. He is completely puzzled by maths and he can’t read a word of English. He just mimics my voice.
I took him on holiday to France last year. That is I took my poster with me. Mum couldn’t understand it. But she couldn’t argue, as it didn’t take up much space.
It was great having Freddie around on holiday. Sometimes I feel like going out and being adventurous. Mum and dad don’t mind if I venture out along the beaten track but it is great to have some company.
We were staying on a small farm and the roads were really quiet. We’d been for a drive to the next village the day before, so I knew the way. But on foot it seemed to take forever. A man came out of his house and gave us some strawberries. Then we got to the top of the hill.
‘It would be nice to look down from here,’ Freddie said.
‘Yes, but there isn’t a high spot.’
Freddie pointed to a place over our heads. It just looked like blue sky to me. ‘Now there is.’
I could just make out a thin silver line that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Freddie grabbed my hand and jumped. My feet lifted off the ground. Just as I felt a tug, which would have been when I started to fall back to earth—(you know the gravity thing), my arm became taught and Freddie’s grip tightened around my hand. I was pulled up into the air and onto a virtually invisible platform. It was incredible, better than standing on top of a tall building because there was nothing blocking our view anywhere. Freddie was always saving up these tricks. He probably didn’t do it deliberately. There were just so many things he could do that I couldn’t. They would just happen. Then he would look at the excitement on my face and say, ‘you can’t do this.’ On the way home we passed the bakers. Freddie just marched in and asked for something in perfect French. ‘Merci Beaucoup. Mes parents habitant a Clermont Dessou. Au revoir.’
My concentration drifted. Soon we were on our way again and munching on croissants.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said we were staying in the holiday farm and could she send croissants over next weekend as well.’
‘Freddie! What am I going to tell mum and dad?’
‘Just tell them you got hungry and you thought they might like some croissants at the weekend. They won’t mind. They’ll be pleased that your French has improved. You’re on holiday.’
Freddie was right as usual. Mum and dad didn’t mind. After they had looked at each other in amazement, they actually said, ‘well done.’
One night I was woken at about 3: am by a strange tickling sensation on my eyes. I woke trying to push the feather away but there was no feather, only Freddie looking down at me. ‘I’m scared,’ he said.
I sat up. He’d got my attention. ‘You’re scared!’ I said in disbelief. ‘Yes. This strange shadow keeps following me.’
‘I just left base and started walking and there it was there ahead of me again. I can’t quite make out what it is.’
Before I was properly dressed Freddie had handed me a small black box. ‘This is for you. It will get you to Galaxiana and home again. You’re going to help me, right?’
That was how Freddie got me to go to Galaxiana without even thinking about the consequences. I was just worried about this alien ghost that kept following him around.
Before I even realised it I was sitting on my window ledge in the middle of the night and then I was, sort of, skiing though space. We started off really fast, shooting up and leaving our globe behind, then we were approaching another similar globe, slowly.
Galaxiana is very much like our world in some ways, only they think they’re more advanced, most of those of them that believe that there is another planet out there are not really interested. They think we’re vastly inferior to them.
What happened about the ghost? Oh the ghost. Well it was a bit like that story where Winnie the Pooh—or is it Piglet?—goes round and round a tree following dubious footsteps. They turn out to be his own, or their own. We walked round and round his house. My neck was getting little goose bumps on the back. I was sure there was something in front of us.
I discovered that Freddie had a ghost. Not a shadow, but a ghost, a sort of extra body darting about in front of him. It was something to do with him visiting earth. His doctor zapped it away. I wonder where all the stuff they zap goes. Freddie tells me it vaporises. I started wondering about all the things I’d like to zap away. But Freddie says only doctors have the power.
Response to Mark Hudson’s arts review in The Telegraph, 15/06/2016, of The Tate Modern’s Art Exhibition, “Tate’s Global Spin Distorts the Story of Art” or Why I wrote Bertha’s Journal:
I have read Art history, albeit only to A level standard, but I know enough about it to know that there is a received narrative about all history; this person began the pointillism movement, those artists the en plein air movement, and the point of the movement, for example, when we look at something we do not necessarily see the object we may see, for example with a sea of poppies, the colour, more than the form, etc. However, Hudson’s point about the juxtaposition of two paintings, one by Malangatana Ngwenta and the other a Roy Lichtenstein, being the “nadir”—although I greatly appreciate the artistry of Lichtenstein, I was at Tate Modern’s Lichtenstein exhibition in 2013—is surely all about perception and viewpoint. Were there any words at the exhibition that helped make sense of Ngwenta’s work? He was, after all, a poet. I found that when I was appreciating the work of, for example, Mel Bochner it was much easier to understand the work as a piece with the colour and the subtlety juxtaposed against the words with the narrative behind his work, also surely the whole point is that whilst one civilisation goes through a period of growth and thought processes, this is reflected in the art which comes out of that growth, which is why we should value the art that comes out of a period and attempt to make sense of it, not read it without any understanding of the history or place from which it evolved. This is probably why the two paintings were incongruent when seen side by side, because they represent different thought processes, positions, and perspectives. Hudson seems to be biased. Reading his review in the paper this morning provoked me into writing the following paragraph about why I wrote my debut sequel to Jane Eyre, Bertha’s Journal: as a reluctant historian, I know this is futile, but I’m going to publish it anyway.
I wrote Bertha’s Journal as an ironic text because I was angry about being force fed the narrative that the west was the best in my own language; and, what was worse: with my accent and my diction; the narrative that we did everything first and better than everyone else; hello, has no one ever read anything about perception and relativity? Is seeing someone doing something the same as interpreting what they are doing? A question has much more power than a statement, as Walt Disney showed us when he produced a wonderful cartoon with a battle between an exclamation mark and a question mark; the question mark had more power, because it had a little hook on the end and was able to save itself; I am perfectly conversant with the theory of the death of the author; nevertheless, to misread and misinterpret my work is worse than ironic. Wake up people, read and understand your history; we live in an interdependent world—increasingly without borders, where the touch of a button connects us with the rest of the world; we cannot keep our view of history and cradle it as if our lives depend upon it. We must embrace our future and take an active role in it; shutting ourselves off in our small white towns, and putting up ridiculous signs saying “We want our country back” does not demonstrate an understanding of history and will this exclusivity help us to better understand the world we live in?
Just a note to say
Since an essay writer like my essay tweet today
My essays are all my own work
The fun is in the research and finding out
That is what life is all about-
As Aristotle said
“The unexamined life is not worth living”
And finding out makes you more forgiving
This is why I wouldn’t want an essay writer to write my essay
- The New Jerusalem Bible, ( London, Eyre and Spottiswoode) Genesis 2, p. 6.
- Homans, Margaret Bearing the Word, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 20. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.
(accessed 12:54 pm, 17/05/2016).
- Gilbert, M, Sandra & Gubar, Susan, The Mad Woman in the Attic (London, Yale University), p. 6.
- Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, (Penguin, London, 1847), p.93.
- The Prisoner, 1967-1968.
- Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (Routledge, London and New York, 2000), p. 27. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.
- Auden, W. H, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ Harpers, 1948, p. 406-412,http:www.harpers.org/archive/1948/05/0033206 accessed 29th January 2012
- The Telegraph, Lazarus Trial to take first step in ‘bringing humans back from the dead.’ Knapton, Sarah, p. 9, May 3rd 2016.
- McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers (London, Vintage Books, 1981) P, 41-42.
‘In the Beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God….’ (1).
It has long been argued that women writers make their pen names ambiguous to attract a differently gendered reader to their work, or to enable their work to be taken seriously, thus disabling a gendered carrying of the Word, or, suggesting a male carrier:
Their feeling that to write is necessarily to be, or to impersonate, a man is suggested most obviously by, for example, Mary Ann Evan’s choice to write under the pseudonym George Elliot.(2.)
Since we are told that God made man in his image: from the earth, this preoccupation with language in the creation story and women as writers who may not write, creates the perception that man and not woman is inextricably linked to genus; the received narrative is that God places man in the creation story within The Garden of Eden, a womb of sustenance, and gives him the dominion over all.
Until quite recently in our western literary history writers were revered as God-like creators, as powerful; it was common to find the word genius with reference to great writers when describing them in our not too distant history. I have strong memories of this from childhood. This led me to look up the etymology of the word genius. The word genius has in its etymology: “prophetic skill”, “spirit” and “incarnation”, and is from root “gene- “to produce, give birth, beget (3). (a biblical word). Books have been referred to as babies, and a process of letting go of your work has been discussed in books about the art of writing. However, without the written word the writer would not have agency.
This suggests power lies in the Word, or text, as authors of The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar suggest:
Though many…writers use the metaphor of literary paternity in different ways and for different purposes, all seem overwhelmingly to agree that a literary text is not only speech quite literally embodied but also power mysteriously made manifest, made flesh (4).
Yet writers of both sexes have, for centuries, disrupted their gender by changing their names or adopting a nom de plume which is ambiguous; think George Elliot, Harper Lee, Ellis Bell, Currer Bell, J. K. Rowling; Robert Galbraith, J. D. Robb, P. D. James, to name but a few woman. Of course C. S. Lewis, E. B. White, J. D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, J. R .R. Tolkien and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few men, used initials, which arguably render them too of ambiguous gender, which gives rise to the notion that the gender of the carrier of the word is of interest or of significance to the reader.
This brings us to the idea of storytelling as a self conscious act. The metafictional, surfictional aspect of storytelling; the self-conscious awareness that as creators of fiction we bring to our work as creators. Charles Morgan and Bronte and indeed Doris Lessing all add elements of self-consciousness to their work, which brings them out of it to hover as if in transcendence objectively outside the text; in Jane Eyre, Bronte uses the simple address, “Reader”(5) several times to achieve this; by addressing the reader, the author disrupts her authorial authority; addressing the reader invites another perspective in and draws attention to the fact that this is story being told through the facility of language which the reader must translate. The construct of The Golden Notebook; the way Lessing has created several books in one novel, and the way this creates a pause whenever Anna Wulf picks up a notebook and begins writing, draws attention to the conscious act of writing.
Freud’s in depth analysis of what literature does; his close examination of literature as a self-psychoanalysis, or as a window into the self has also had an effect upon the way we read, not only texts but one another post Freud and post Lacan; “In the Lacanian myth, language and gender are connected in such a way as to privilege implicitly the masculine and the figurative” (Homans, p. 6) writes Margaret Homans. In the previous quote Homans notes the way in which the phallus became a signifier for loss through psychoanalytic theory at a specific period in history, which has stayed with us until today. My poetry tutor could not read poetry without finding phallic references throughout the text; I found this phallocentric approach annoying; arguably there were multiple possible ways to read the language of the poetry, and indeed prose, and yet it was a gendered reading that seemed the most readily available in spite of voices like Roland Barthes that sought to disrupt and challenge the status quo of a binary, gendered reading, suggesting structural and iconic intervention; from the Eifel Tower to the peculiar language of wrestling, Barthes finds comedy, tragedy, morality and art in the spectacle of wrestling in his work Mythologies intervenes in the reading of texts; Barthes relentlessly challenges our perceptions about texts in the most unlikely of places, creating texts within texts. Barthes’s paradigm taken to its extreme: the presence of the chime of Big Ben in an episode of the iconic television show The Prisoner is enough to convince a captive of that strange world, where all is not what it seems, that he is in London; it is just this signifying sound of a famous clock bell that convinces him of this fact; and yet the sound came to him via a tape in a closed off, curtained room. (6). This calls into question whether or not it is possible for any text, or indeed person, since a text has a creator, to be under the influence of an overarching theory, whether that be a biblical theory of creation, or a Freudian theory of the preconscious made conscious and if so, to what extent?
Homans writes about a writing back to other literature and texts, which is an idea suggested by Barthes’s work and drawn together later by Graham Allen in the theory of intertextuality where he examines in close detail the minutiae of the text and finds that, “Burns’s poem… stages the social tension within his native Scotland between an official society keen to classify (others would say Englishify) Scottish literary tradition and a growing interest in local dialects and literary traditions pitted precisely against both English cultural and linguistic domination and any notion of a homogenous, monologic culture…”(7). Allen finds Bakhtin’s paradigm of the author as visible in the text despite “the death of the Author (Roland Barthes’s paradigm of the way in which as text is read it becomes the thoughts of the reader reading the text, explored in his essay, The Death of the Author and originating from his work SZ Sarrasine, which is an altogether more complex and deeply compelling work in which, significantly, both text and gender are disrupted), For Bakhtin “the author…still stands behind his or her novel, but s/he does not enter into it as a guiding authoritative voice” (Allen, p.24), this Allen describes as a “polyphonic” ( Allen, p.29) mix of various voices with their own individual perspective. With a specific look at Ulysses Allen finds that Bloom’s thoughts “comprise .. utterances, texts and cultural commonplaces.”(Allen, p, 25) There are many examples of texts that offer this multiple and multi-layered perspective, such as Doris Lessing’s, Golden Notebook, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. However, there are others that offer individual characters as vessels for particular perspectives; for example: Bronte’s wild uncontrollable Bertha juxtaposed against the self-controlled Jane Eyre, and the godly St John juxtaposed against the worldly Rochester.
Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews demonstrates with unswerving focus how one character can be reconstructed completely by the thoughts of the other.
Then again it is possible to focus solely on elements of denouement and plot. The relationship between biblical and literary heritage illuminated by a theory of the detective and crime novel as a guilty return to the fall, an idea expressed in W. H. Auden’s essay, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’(8). (an essay which I shall return to in the future) gives expression to the assertion that all writing writes back to the Bible, at least in western literary history.
Many writers by the very act of writing with reference to fairy tales or their plots draw attention to the parallels between the narratives of these tomes and the denouement of their own works ; take Charles Morgan who refers to Little Red Riding Hood in his work Sparkenbroke, and then goes on to explore this idea of the woman lost in the wood and the wolf’s attempt to seduce her and possess her; to metaphorically devour her; except Morgan shows how this is possible in reality, placing a reference to Little Red Riding Hood early on in the story for the reader to find, as though it were an essential element of the story. Morgan then goes on, in his denouement, to arrange a meeting in the woods between both male protagonists and the heroine. The two main characters are men; the men are very good friends, which enables the reader to compare the way their love of the same woman differs, and psychologically, the way in which they possess her; one who disables her desire, who turns her into a good little housewife, and the other who provokes her desire; so arguably the two are equally bad wolves; or, which might be a more interesting question, how do we define the wolf? Is the man with the desire who provokes desire the wolf or the man who appears to either lack desire or to subdue and supress it? Jane Eyre—(which predates Sparkenbroke by 89 years) a story based around the plot of Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, an idea I have not read anywhere as being a theme, and yet one which when you arrive at the end of the story and note the blinded Rochester, you cannot help but go back and see the echoes of Rapunzel, the girl trapped in a tower and controlled by a women and then a man—too juxtaposes two men of different character against one another: St John and Rochester; a passionate man and a religious man; one who would pervert an innocent young woman, and another who would, it appears, take care of her and facilitate her service to god. In this way Bronte offers her readers two opposing choices or perspectives. Yet the woman of passion in Bronte’s work is significantly, locked up.
Because biblical story is perhaps the first story that many nineteenth century children would have read, arguably this would impact on beliefs which would then transfer to, be implicit in, language and ultimately in the text of that period; since one text gives birth to another (see Intertextuality) it follows that this biblical legend would be ingrained in text. To test this it would be common to find references to the Bible in text and literature.
Bronte ends her famous novel, Jane Eyre with the epitaph, “Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!” (Jane Eyre, p. 521). During the denouement there are references to the Bible throughout the text; Bronte’s heroine Jane Eyre is told off for admitting to a dislike of the psalms. Of course this book was published over one hundred and sixty years ago, as I write. Surely with the numbers falling in church attendance we are not still under the influence of a biblical narrative?
The proof that biblical legend is still ingrained in text came to me today, because I was thinking about the problem in order to develop this essay further, in the form of an evocation of the story of Lazarus in The Daily Telegraph which was available in most coffee shops across the country; the prevalence of the paper suggests it would exert an influence upon culture, and that it acts as a cultural reference point, at least now (not perhaps in the near future) arguably for a reasonably large number of people in the west and elsewhere.
The writer of the headline used the biblical name “Lazarus”,(9) a signifier which has the effect of promoting the idea of something incredible, which the story is, or was; the journalist was writing about the ability or the wish towards the ability of surgeons to work on the brains of people who are clinically dead, to attempt to bring back life, and the fact that they had been given ‘ethical’ permission to do this. In order to write something which appealed to many people, which would be the remit of a journalist, the writer evoked an old story which is instantly recognisable by the use of one word, Lazarus in the headline; with this word comes the whole biblical back story. There is no need to explain it; it is there in the memory as soon as the name Lazarus is invoked, visually, in the same way that a song title brings with it a host of lyrics, and memories; in this case bringing forth instantly a collective literary reference point for the idea of the ability to bring back to life from the dead; arguably this is a specific literary compass point, yet one which has colonised and spread its literary heritage to other compass points. I would suggest therefore, that the story of Lazarus is one in our collective consciousness. Famously Lazarus was brought back to life. He was already dead and yet Jesus was able to bring him back from the dead; to resurrect him.
The text of the Bible is not necessarily literal; it may be read as metaphorical. Taken as metaphor the creation story would be interesting to unpick; as a literal idea man has conceived a woman since she is taken from his rib and produced from him; she is a part of him and this tends to nullify her position as a creator. Without that essence, perhaps in the biological sense—the sperm; without this the woman cannot create. Woman is subordinate in that God created the man first and the woman as a companion for the man in this story:
Yahweh God said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’ So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven….But no helpmate suitable for the man was found for him. So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in the flesh. Yahweh God Built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed:
‘This at last is bone from my bones,
And flesh from my flesh!
This is to be called woman,
For this was taken from man. (Genesis, 2, P. 6)
In this story woman is not written as essential to maintaining the human race as creator or a factor in creation. The woman appears as subservient to the man and can be read as born from him and as unequal to him. Homans writes that the woman is conceived as an object:
Jane Eyre presents the fear of the objectification of the self in a variety of ways that make particularly explicit the connection between femininity and objectification. Jane fears that Rochester objectifies her when he wants to dress her in jewels and silks that correspond…to his abstract idea of Mrs. Edward Fairfax Rochester. (Homans, p. 85)
Genesis is written, ‘Let us make man in our own image’(Genesis, Ch. 1, p.6), and the first to be made is a man and from that man is made a woman. Thus the woman cannot be read as anything other than subject to a man or God-like figure who is predominantly represented as masculine both in inherited art and as Word— ( Men is interchangeable with women, and man can mean mankind. ‘He’ was interchangeable with ‘She’ prior to it being outlawed as a pronoun capable of referring to either sex in our recent textual history; growing up I was privy to the knowledge that ‘he’ signified both ‘he’ and ‘she’ and I accepted that he referred to me when reading the Bible regularly on Sundays; however, this fact was not capable of rendering the narrative of the privileging of the male in our society impotent in the creation story, which might suggest a reason for the transformation of “he” as a weak signifier in our more recent literary history and revolution in expression through text or, which paradoxically reinforces the story as a story of male hegemony, a subversive necessity to remove the ambiguity; the irony and dangerousness of this is that it reinforces the pronoun “he” as a signifier for man as opposed to woman in biblical translations apprehended into narrative. This suggests that it is not man (or male dominance) that subordinates women, but the existence of God or a creation story, and that it is translated as one which bypasses the woman, or produces a theory of creation as an act of God, and the image of a male god is thus etched into our consciousness through the facility and agency of an overarching narrative: the dominant discourse of God as male, or in this case of man as a creator through God. This problem brings the argument full circle: since in the act of writing we create histories, theories, stories, truths, assertions, arguments, gender, and ultimately God, this begs the question, who created God? Or to be more emphatic, whose word created God? Was it a masculine Word or a feminine Word? Which now brings us to another question: which came first language or God?
The privileging of the Bible as a primary historical text in which we presume the male to be dominant may therefore be responsible for creating a hegemonic society which favours a narrative of male dominance or a symptom of a hegemonic society. If the woman wrote she took up names such as Currer Bell (which is loosely an anagram for both cur and rebel and might be read as such), a rebellion.
Homans tells us that “Christine Froula has…argued that in Genesis and in Paradise Lost, it is the repression of actual maternity in the original scene of creation that enables the myth of a paternal god’s monopoly in creation,” (Homans p. 2) In fact the creation story is a story in which the creation story is always ambiguous. Adam removes a rib, a body part and creates a woman; Mary carries and conceives a child without sexual intercourse. Man in this story is impotent; it is the male in the story, and not the female, that lacks the ability of the phallus to create. Freud writes this as a lack in women which perpetually asserts itself; yet it comes across as a lack in the creation story itself.
As metaphor the creation story has more power than when taken literally; this is because therein lies ambiguity of the sexes; therein lies the idea that one sex may contain another; if it is possible to extract a part of the man to create the woman, then it is equally possible to extract another part and exchange it; this suggests a melding of the two sexes, and interchangeability, a subsuming of one into another and a bypassing of the sexual act.
Equally Bronte’s chosen pen name might disrupt identity as the duality of Bertha and Jane Eyre disrupts identity; in a structural reading the name Currer might morph into any number of translations; cur might be derived from cure, suggesting a cure or exorcism in writing, something which Freud suggested writers instinctively did, thus inventing the talking cure through their own writing; cur meaning courage in Latin; c[oe]ur meaning heart in French. The heart of a woman’s existence was in the home at this time it is argued; and yet Charlotte Bronte burnt the house to the ground in Jane Eyre, and translated the story of the trapped Rapunzel into a dark theme running through this gothic novel; Bronte’s heroine was trapped between the mother figure (the mother never has an ambiguous sex; she is always female, complexly, as though her ability to procreate enables her sexual identity) who crushes her in Jane Eyre, or cuts off her hair in Rapunzel, and the flawed ambiguous sex of her suitor, Rochester, who cross dresses in order to interrogate Jane incognito through which, it could be argued, is a direct literary line right to Ian McEwan’s sexually disrupted male, in The Comfort of Strangers:
‘You look so lovely.’ She pulled his curls free of the frilled collar, and felt for his body beneath the fabric. ‘You look like a god. I think I’ll have to take you to bed.’ She tugged at his arm, but Colin pulled away. ‘It’s not a dressing-gown anyway,’ he said, ‘it’s a nightie.’ He pointed to a cluster of flowers embroidered across his chest…(10).
Homans finds that Woolf mocks the idea “that the death or absence of the mother sorrowfully but fortunately makes possible the construction of language and culture.”(Homan’s p.2); death and absence of the mother is a theme running right through Jane Eyre, since both Jane and Adele are motherless. Yet in subduing the feminine aspect of creation and not allowing femaleness in maleness we diminish and disinherit the feminine. As we persist in holding onto our clearly defined and delineated assertions about the two sexes, and a narrative of subordination, so we diminish the possibility of duality and equality.
SPOILER ALERT For Bronte in order for Rochester to converse with Jane on equal terms it was necessary for him to become a woman. In order for her heroine Jane to achieve equality in a man’s world Rochester must first be diminished: maimed and blinded. This suggests that for a man to live in a man’s world is dangerous to his survival.
SPOILER ALERT: Mc’Ewan’s The Comfort of Strangers has a similar denouement and fate for its male protagonist Colin; Colin is seduced and disrupted, weakened first by his refusal to conform to the bisexual homoerotic scenes which he encounters when on holiday with his wife, and then half drowned by his own inability to swim (a metaphor for the repeated inability for McEwan’s protagonist Colin to settle into his maleness completely) thinking that it is his wife who is in trouble the whole time, when in fact it is him who flounders; then tricked by a couple who seem intent on Colin’s complete annihilation. The impending doom for Colin is set up in the early chapters when his wife remarks, ‘Thank God I’m not a man,…’ (McEwan, p.17)
SPOILER: Both denouements (134 years apart) suggest a sinister subduing and suffocating of the masculine. Bronte’s heroine marries one male but not when he is at the height of his powers, when he is maimed and blinded, and kills off the religious other at the end of her novel. McEwan’s narrative gradually undermines and erodes the masculinity of his character Colin; this tends to signify the slipperiness of Colin as a stable gender. Through the use of language and a deeply visual depiction of gendered characters, McEwan illuminates the question of identity as gendered, disrupts and destabilizes the reader; this is not a story about male power; in fact it is just the opposite…
It is as though mankind has unwittingly misread the message of the Bible; translating it literally as a story about male power when in fact it is a story about storytelling:
“In the Beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,…” (The Bible, John, 1, V, 1-3).
What the previous quote tells us is that without language or Word there would be nothing—because it is language that articulates the world; it is language that brings the world into being; it is language that articulates that there is a God:
The Word was the true light
That enlightens all men [women] see the notes; (the Bible, John, 1, V, 9-10)
One of the ideas I presented in the text of Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immleman Turn, which is a story about storytelling and power, was the idea of the Internet as a substitute for god, in that it is an omniscient information carrier, or a Word carrier. Yesterday I was struck by a radio 4 interview in which the interviewer repeatedly pressed the interviewee for an author of some content on a new newspaper site that he was advocating; the interviewee was extremely reluctant to reveal the author. It seems likely that when all the overarching carriers of the word are extinguished or side-lined—newspapers, governments, hierarchies—that there will be only one carrier of the Word that is universal to all, and that will be a virtual, sexless carrier; an omniscient, omnipotent machine. This will obliviate the need to discover the sex of the carrier of the Word, and in many senses this already obviates the necessity of a sexless carrier of the Word.
Written and edited by Hermione Laake (2012-2016).
The New Jerusalem Bible, ( London, Eyre and Spottiswoode) Genesis 2, p. 6.
Auden, W. H, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ Harpers, 1948, p. 406-412, http:www.harpers.org/archive/1948/05/0033206 accessed 29th January 2012.
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, (Penguin, London, 1847), p.93.
Gilbert, M, Sandra & Gubar, Susan, The Mad Woman in the Attic (London, Yale University), p. 6.
Homans, Margaret Bearing the Word, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 20.
McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers (London, Vintage Books, 1981) P, 41-42.
Morgan, Charles, Sparkenbroke ( New York, The McMillan Company) 1936.
McGoohan, Patrick, The Prisoner, 1967-1968. (I’m not sure which episode featured the chimes of Big Ben).
The Telegraph, Lazarus Trial to take first step in ‘bringing humans back from the dead.’ Knapton, Sarah, p. 9, May 3rd 2016.
(accessed 12:54 pm, 17/05/2016).
Just as I finished this essay, a few hours ago, I found an extract from one which is witty and well said, and more or less draws attention to the errors I have commented on in this essay regarding gender stories drawn from the Bible. This often happens to me when I come up for air after writing and search for something to read—(at the moment this is usually Maria Popova’s marvellous encyclopaedia of writing since I don’t have access to a university library at the moment)—should you be interested in the subject matter, Maria Popoa references Ursula K. Guin on being a man, and you can find this link on my Twitter account tweeted at 7 pm. GMT , 11th June 2016. My account name is herziloph