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Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - 09:21

Sorry about the irregular spacing of this week's blog posts. The Wednesday A Little Princess post may get kicked over into Friday, and Random Thursday may get skipped (or kicked to Saturday). I'm scheduled to deliver the completed manuscript of Mother of Souls...um...tomorrow. And while I'm still quite on track, I'm a bit busy.

During this morning's work session, I finished the final editorial read-through and mark-up. (I do this on the iPad with a pdf-markup app to avoid getting distracted by actually entering the changes.) Only found a couple of oopsies introduced when working on beta feedback. Like: a comment in the beginning of a chapter said, "But why doesn't this scene make reference to X?" So I added a reference to X. On re-reading, turns out X happened several pages later. Even beta readers can goof! Spotted a couple more places where I've done the same bit of exposition more than once. But mostly this pass was a matter of spotting typos, deleting unnecessary sentence-initial conjunctions, and spotting times when I'd used the same word twice in adjacent sentences.

To stay on track, all these mark-ups get added to the manuscript this evening. That leaves tomorrow for running the spell check, drawing up the reference vocabulary list for the proofreaders (i.e., anything not in the standard Word spell check dictionary), doing all the standard search-and-replace clean-up, and running through my formatting checklist.

This isn't my last chance, of course. There'll be a chance for more revisions when it comes back from my editor. But from past experience, this version may well be the one that goes out to pre-publication reviewers.  So I need to be willing to have the book judged by it.

Publications: 
Mother of Souls
Monday, June 27, 2016 - 08:00

OK, so the answer is that the blog doesn't auto-post yet. I must have been told that, but we discussed a lot of things in the website work sessions and the information is probably buried in the to-do list. But I'm still able to set up blog posts in advance and only have to hit the "publish" button on the relevant day.

Full citation: 

Jelinek, Estelle. 1987. “Disguise Autobiographies: ‘Women Masquerading as Men’” in Women’s Studies International Forum, 10, pp.53-62.

I’m experimenting with pre-scheduling this to post automatically. It should drop onto the blog on Monday 6/27 at 8am PDT. According to my website folks, there are complications to setting it up to auto post if I embed this in a blog-entry shell. Otherwise information like this would ordinarily be in that shell rather than in the LHMP entry itself. Thank you for your continuing patience with my experiments.

 

I regularly cover discussions of cross-dressing, gender disguise, and “passing women”, but typically from an external point of view. The women are identified in the context of court cases, scandals, or as the subject of popular literature. This article looks at an entire genre of self-reported cases of women passing as men. The “autobiographies” are quite self-conscious, generally either written for economic advantage, or sometimes for didactic purposes. In many cases, they are ghost-written, especially if the subject is not well educated. And despite the frequency with which marriage to women, or sexual relationships with women feature in court records of passing women, such themes are nearly absent here. This may be because these stories are being voluntarily told by women who want to be perceived in a positive light.

Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish. The motif was also popular in broadside ballads, such as The Female Highway Hector” and “The Woman Warrier” [sic], and the motif of dressing as a man to follow a (male) lover or husband to sea is echoed in some of the biographies. Also noted is the rise of women openly appropriating men’s garments, in part or in whole, in the 19-20th centuries. But the focus here is on disguise.

The following are the people/texts that are discussed, with only a very brief summary of the context and consequences. If I have been able to find a copy of the relevant autobiography in Google Books, I’ve included a link, although not all of them are available as ebooks.

Almira Paul (b.1790), the widow of a sailor in Nova Scotia, determined to support her children by taking up her late husband’s profession. She served on both British and American ships around the War of 1812. She reports having flirted with girls as “one of the boys” and even successfully proposed marriage to a woman “to test her disguise”. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Npw4AwEACAAJ)

Charlotte Cibber Charke (d. 1760) is briefly mentioned, though her cross-dressing was often done openly and may have been tolerated from an actress. But in her autobiography, she notes several occasions when she passed as a man to take on male professions in a pinch. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Bl5ZAAAAcAAJ)

Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)  served in the Americal Revolutionary war as “Robert Shurtleff”. She did not write an autobiography but was the subject of a contemporary biography.

Ellen Craft (fl. 1848) used a combination of gender-disguise and her light skin to play the role of a white southern slave owner in order to enable her and her darker-skinned husband, William to escape slavery. Willian Craft describes the feat in his own autobiography.

Christian Davies (1667-1739) enlisted in an Irish regiment to search for her drafted husband, embodying one of the popular plots of gender-disguise ballads. She provides a detailed description of how she modified her clothing to disguise her anatomy. (https://books.google.com/books?id=IZ9CAAAAYAAJ)

Hannah Snell (1723-1792) may be one of the most famous women who enlisted in disguise. She, too, was looking for her husband, but in this case because he’d run off. Like many of the disgusied women who served, she had to fight for the right to her military pension. (https://books.google.com/books?id=9yEvHAAACAAJ)

Ellen Stephens (fl. 1840) similarly disguised herself to go after a cheating spouse.  She worked on a Mississippi steamboat rather than joining the military and worked her way up and down the river trying to track down the child her husband had taken from her. (no book listing)

Madeline Moore (b. 1831) had neither economics nor desperation driving her, only romance. The 18-y.o. heiress accompanied her lover, enlisting in disguise (including false beard and whiskers) under the name Albert Harville, without his knowledge. They fought together at the battle of Cárdenas in Cuba and when he was wounded she nursed him back to health, still unrevealed. And people say the broadside ballads with this plot are implausible! (no book listing)

Loreta Janeta Velazquez (b. 1842) similarly accompanied a lover in battle in disguise and after his death continued serving the Confederacy as a spy. The Cuban-born Texan provides a detailed explaination of both her physical and behavioral disguise techniques. (https://books.google.com/books?id=a3Z3AAAAMAAJ)

Emma Cole’s motives were more purely economic. Orphaned at age 7 in the late 18th century, she went to sea in disguise at age 14 to avoid the alternative of prostitution. Her autobiography glosses over the practical details but tells of thrilling escapes from pirates and from hanging. (https://books.google.com/books?id=y_hLAQAAMAAJ)

Lucy Brewer (b. 1793) ran away from her well-to-do home when she became pregnant as a teen, and after a stint forced into prostitution, accepted a sailor friend’s offer of a spare uniform to escape and go to sea. The majority of her autobiography, however, is a polemic against prostitution. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Hym5nQEACAAJ)

Elizabeth Emmons (1817-1841) packed a lot into her apparently short life. A series of personal and familial calamities motivated her to disguise herself to work as a waiter on an Atlantic coast passenger ship. Later she spent a short time in the military in Florida but quit in disgust at the violence, then worked raising shipwrecks. (https://books.google.com/books?id=bYncGwAACAAJ)

Lucy Ann Lobdell (b. 1829) didn’t deliberately disguise herself as a man, though she was sometimes mistaken for one. She simply felt masculine clothing was more practical for her occupation-of-necessity deerhunting in New York. Her autobiography breaks off when she decides that she can make a better living genuinely passing as a man. (https://books.google.com/books?id=KTRFuAAACAAJ)

 

 
Friday, June 24, 2016 - 12:17

If I made a list of the books I re-read shortly after finishing, ordered by the briefness of the delay in starting that re-read, the top five slots would all be occupied by books in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. While I have deep philosophical problems with some aspects of underlying socio-political messages of the stories, I will be one of the first to admire her ability to create a “good read”.

I say all this to provide a context for my reaction to this latest Vorkosigan story. Meh. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen follows the unexpectedly [to the reader] intertwined personal lives Cordelia Vorkosigan (Regent of the planet of Sergyar) and Oliver Jole (Admiral in charge of same) several years after the death of Aral Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s husband and Oliver’s long-term lover. Now that they are beginning to recover emotionally from the death of the man they both loved, Cordelia has plans for her future that offer Oliver some options that only this latest generation of Barayarans have any need or ability to take account of. Options that involve creative uses of reproductive technology.

GJ&tRQ isn’t a romance in any sort of structural sense, but it is very much organized around personal, domestic concerns and consequences. Family dynamics. Relationships. Life choices. That sort of thing. And given that one of the things I’ve always loved about the series is the focus on those dynamics, one might think the love would carry over here. But…meh. All in all, it felt like nothing much happened. The dancers walked through the figures and returned to their places, a little flushed and out of breath, but nothing more. And the non-personal aspects of the plot revolve around the everyday logistics of running a colony planet. Early on in the story, the phrase “bureaucracy porn” popped into my head. I’m sure a thrilling novel could be built around diplomatic disasters and finding ways to turn the tables on dishonest contractors, but this novel wasn’t it.

I joke that the series hasn’t been quite as interesting since Miles became happy, but there’s a definite correlation in my enjoyment of the books. A Civil Campaign was the last one that triggered an immediate re-read. About a third of the way through GJ&tRQ, I realized that if I put the book down and walked away, I wouldn’t feel like I’d missed anything. It is a technical well-written story about interesting characters, but it feels like the butter is being scraped over too much toast at this point. I’m sure that Bujold can still write a book that would have me diving back to page one after I get to “the end”, but I’ve come to the conclusion that such a book is likely to be outside the Vorkosigan universe.

Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 21:26

Sorry about missing posting this yesterday. (Well, technically I missed writing it.) It's be a hectic week at work, and I haven't quite gotten into the rhythm of the new posting process yet. So you're getting the Princess Re-Read in place of a Random Thursday.

The second part of Chapter 8 (In The Attic) briefly touches on Becky's very practical support for Sara, which consists of giving her advice on how to behave in her new position (by the tactful means of explaining what her own behavior means: "Someone would be down on us if I did [say please and thank you]." Becky takes a few moments each day to help Sara dress and undress. It's an interesting echo of Mary Lennox's experience in The Secret Garden. Both Sara and Mary are accustomed to being assisted in dressing by servants. But while Sara's transition to doing for herself is eased by Becky's eagerness to play lady's maid, Mary is ridiculed for expecting someone else to help dress her.

Mind you, Mary is very much in need of some shock therapy to get her rebellious spirit working in productive ways. But I find the parallels between the two characters fascinating. Both come from financially priviledged British colonial families in India. Both lose their parents abruptly. (And although Mary didn't lose her mother at birth, in an emotional sense, she might as well have.) While both girls might be considered dreadfully spoiled, Sara has emerged with a happy and helpful disposition, while Mary is self-centered, rude, and exploitive of anyone she has power over. If we are to identify a cause of this, it would be that Sara was loved and knew she was loved, while Mary knew herself to be not only unloved, but essentially forgotten.

But we were talking about Sara. The majority of the rest of the chapter involves Sara's rapprochement with Ermengarde. Somewhat conveniently for the plot flow, Ermengade was temporarily taken out of the picture for family reasons just after the tragic birthday party. So by the time they see each other again, Sara has settled into her new life of service, and has gotten used to the expectation that she will no longer interact with the students as an equal. Her diffidence sends Ermengarde into awkward confusion when they next meet and Sara shows one of her few flashes of mean-spiritedness: she snaps at her friend's rather tactless question and drives her away. One expects that there's a bit of pre-rejection going on, so that Sara doesn't have to deal with Ermengarde snubbing her.

But Sara's friendship is so important to Ermengarde that she risks another rejection by going up to Sara's attic room to plead for forgiveness. It never, in any of her dealings with Sara, occurs to Ermengarde that her demands for continued friendship put Sara at a great deal of risk. Their relationship continues much as before, with Ermengarde gaining emotional and academic support, but now Sara does get something in return: she has one continuing relationship with someone who treats her as a social equal. (Becky doesn't treat her as an equal--Becky always and ever treats Sara as her superior.)

And Ermengarde gives Sara one more thing: she re-awakens Sara's imagination, transforming the garret into a cell in the Bastile or the Count of Monte Cristo's dungeon in the Chateau d'If. These transformations (and others) will enable Sara to manipulate her relationship with her environment and to re-negotiate her relations with the Minchin sisters, at least in her own mind.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 - 13:25

The push to get the website finished distracted me over the weekend, but now I’ve almost finished processing all the beta-reader comments. Quick fixes are being taken care of immediately; more complicated things—like, “simplify and clarify Barbara’s dealings in Turinz”—are being noted for the next phase. The next layer, that is. At this stage of revisions, I find it easier to isolate tasks into “patches” (small, specific tasks) and “layers” (taking one particular thing and going through the whole manuscript to address it). I find that approach less daunting, and it makes it less likely that I’ll get distracted and forget some element within a larger set.

So the next layer will be to go through from the start and find the revision notes for those more complicated items and patch them. (This is where Scrivener is really helping my workflow. There’s that little place to add notes to each scene) The layer after that will be a high-level read-through. For that, I need to trick myself in two ways: change the visual appearance (different font, different size) so that I can see it fresh, and export it into the pdf-mark-up app on my iPad so that I won’t be distracted into doing actual revisions, I’ll just be able to flag items to come back to. (This, of course, assumes I will remember why I flagged them.)

After that, it’ll be time to export into Word for the layers of formatting, copyediting, final spell-check (and drawing up the vocabulary/names list), and then delivery. My beta-readers were good about noting all manner of copyediting things, but there are a few systematic issues that aren’t worth addressing until the end, because they may simply get re-introduced. (The most annoying one is how the smart-quotes always go the wrong way when quoted speech trails off in an m-dash. One of my readers valiantly flagged every single instance. Sorry about that!)

Seems like a lot to get done in…yikes, nine days! *deep breath* No problem. I can do it. To be sure, the June 30 delivery date is arbitrary, given that it’s unlikely to get editorial attention for a few months yet. But it’s the date I promised, and I’d mess up my working habits if I started treating due dates as squishy.

Remember: Mother of Souls, due out in November! Opera! Magic! Evil sorcery! Literary salons! Duels! Scandalous novels! The founding of a women’s college! What more could you ask?

Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 22:30
LHMP logo

This will be the first time when I publish a new LHMP entry directly to the new website. Maybe next week I’ll experiment with setting up a post-dated publication date. Exciting adventures!

Full citation: 

Lardinois, André. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” in Bremmer, Jan. 1989. From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the HIstory of Sexuality. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02089-1

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.

Lardinois notes that the first use of the word “lesbian” in the sexual orientation sense in English dates to 1890 (although other authors have noted much earlier uses in other languages, with the earliest examples dating to the Middle Ages). The question of whether the connection between the isle of Lesbos and female homoeroticism has historic roots in Sappho’s time has been long debated, beginning in Antiquity.

The earliest source materials for Sappho’s life are: the remnants of her poetry (mostly fragments quoted by later writers); an assortment of fiction, gossip, and facts about Sappho and her poetry found in the works of Classical authors; and circumstantial evidence regarding the socio-historic context in which she lived.

Sappho’s body of work includes songs celebrating the beauty of young girls, ceremonial songs (cultic hymns, wedding songs), satires, and songs about members of her immediate famliy. There is also a fragment of an epic. It is the songs in praise of girls that form the primary evidence for Sappho’s erotic interests, but the ceremonial songs provide important evidence regarding the social context. Sappho’s authorship of cultic hymns demonstrates that she was an established and respected member of her community. Therefore if her songs in praise of girls are evidence of sexual interest, then that interest must have been acceptable to her community. Similarly, the satirical works that speak of rivalries and jealousies indicate that whatever relationships were involved, they were known and accepted by the community.

Lardinois discusses clues in Sappho’s poems regarding social and political relationships on Lesbos and the respectable position that both she and the girls she addressed held. And yet there is a pattern of references to named girls leaving Sappho, either with her consent or to her regret. The personal and individual nature of these references suggests they were works written for specific occasions. In contrast, her praise verses tend to be generic, not mentioning names either of the speaker or the subject. (Though it should be noted that most of what survives is fragmentary and we can’t know what was in the parts not preserved.)

If one takes the content of these poems at face value, they suggest a context of female pederasty (in the technical, classical Greek sense), and one which was compatible with respected social standing. Over the centuries, these two observations have often been interpreted according to the prejudices of the interpreter.

Although Sappho’s poetry never touches explicitly on sexual activity (with the possible exception of one fragmentary reference to a dildo, insufficient to determine the context), it does use the forms and tropes of erotic love poetry, and details activities associated with courtship (making flower wreaths) or that are suggestive of physical expression (”on soft beds...you would satisfy your longing”). For context, these themes should be compared to poems written in the context of male pederasty, which similarly avoid mention of sexual acts (but where no one doubts their existence).

Songs praising the beauty and attractiveness of girls--even when Sappho notes her own response to it--must also be understood in the context of their performance, often as part of marriage ceremonies. Themes of praise may be conventional rather than personal. Turning the argument around again, later male poets such as Catullus had no qualms about quoting Sappho’s work to express their own erotic response to a woman.

Among the later “testimonia” regarding Sappho’s life, the story used most prominently to argue against her homoeroticism (or at least to argue for her eventual and inevitable “conversion” to heterosexualtiy) concerns Phaon, the man for home she is said to have made a suicidal jump from the Leucadian rock. (The earliest surviving source for this is from Ovid, taking the form of a letter purportedly in Sappho’s voice.) Sappho’s work also refers to a daughter, and it is unlikely that she could have held the social position she did without being married (to a man). Can all these elements be compatible with homoerotic desire? References to that desire (albeit, often disapproving ones) are rife in later classical commentaries. Athenian comedies sometimes caricatured her, but never for homoeroticism, rather for heterosexual promiscuity. It can reasonably be supposed, however, that these authors were as unfamiliar with the historic context of 6th century BC Lesbos as more modern authors are. The only difference is that they most likely had a much larger corpus of Sappho’s work available to them.

So, for example, when classical authors assert that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis, a certain amount of confidence can be placed on this (the name appears in fragments of her work, and she wrote about other family members) even though the fact could not be confirmed from what survives of her work today.

What, then, are we to make of the story of Phaon and the Leucadian rock? Lardinois suggests this is a mythic reference and a poetic trope. Phaon was one of the legendary beloveds of Aphrodite (who figures prominently in Sappho’s songs), and it is possible that the story arose from a poem that was intended to be understood in the voice of the goddess. A near-contemporary poet of Sappho, Anacreon, mentions a “leap from the Leucadian rock” as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. As love-pangs feature regularly in Sappho’s work, it is not unlikely that she, too, may have made use of it as a rhetorical device. From such references, a later legend of Sappho’s leap of despair for the love of Phaon could have been constructed by someone not familiar with the literary motifs.

Could Sappho’s reputation for loving women also have originated in a mis-reading of poetic tropes? For this, such tropes would need to exist. And if they existed, then they would reflect prevalent and accepted practices. Did such practices exist? (And if they did, would they not be support for the historic plausibility of homoeroticism being compatible with Sappho’s professional reputation?)

Sappho’s sexual reputation in pop culture changed radically over time. Sappho flourished around the early 6th century BC. In Athenian comedies of the 4th century BC, she was satirized as excessively heterosexual. Snide references by Roman writers to her “disgraceful friendships” with women began appearing around the 1st century CE. Slang uses of the term “lesbian” (lesbis, lesbia) underwent similar shifts. It always had a primary sense of “a female inhabitant of Lesbos”, but picked up a variety of erotic connotations. Aristophanes (5th c BC) used a verb with the same root to mean “to practice fellatio” and this sense continued through late antiquity. The first known explicit association of “lesbian” with female homosexuality comes from Lucian (2nd century CE) who writes, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” And there are Byzantine references to “lesbia” explicitly meaning a female homosexual.

Were the shifts in Sappho’s sexual reputation a result, or a cause, of shifts in the senses associated with “lesbian”? Or is it entirely the wrong question to ask whether Sappho was homosexual, given that a categorical distinction and division between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism post-dates her era?

The final part of Landinois’ paper turns to evidence for that historical context. The first consideration is the social institutions that brought young girls together in groups for the sort of education in song, dance, and other activities referenced in Sappho’s works. The second consideration is the evidence in other parts of Greece of that era for institutions of female pederasty, in parallel with the more familiar male institutions.

There is copious evidence for organized institutions of young women who learned music, singing, dance, and other activities to “serve the Muses.” In addition to serving as education for the girls, they would participate in religious and social rituals. This organization and these activities are perfectly compatible with the many references in Sappho’s poetry, including references to beautiful clothing and other adornments. Therefore the context of Sappho’s interactions with the subjects of her poetry could easily be in one of these institutions.

Although later Roman authors generally treated the subject of female homoeroticism with distaste and disapproval, they provide occasional references suggesting that earlier Greek attitudes were different. Plutarch describes a Spartan custom whereby “distinguished ladies” had sexual relationships with younger women/girls, in direct parallel to the pederastic relationships between adult men and youths. This claim is corroborated by other authors as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek poet Alcman, who wrote songs for Spartan “maiden choirs” in the 7th century BC (i.e., slightly earlier than Sappho) used the word “aïtis” for a girl in a sexual relationship, as a direct parallel to male “aïtas”, which was the official term for a boy in a pederastic relationship. Alcman’s songs for the maiden choirs include language that suggests erotic interactions (or at least desires) between the girls themselves. A vase from the Greek island of Thera ca. 600 BC shows two women in a stylized interaction similar to depictions of male erotic couples.

From all this, we can envision a scenario where a married female poet of high social status and impeccable reputation could enjoy and openly celebrate erotic relationships with the young women under her guidance. Such relationships could even have been an important part of extensive social and political networks. Only with the loss of that institution were later writers left with the need to try to make sense of Sappho’s erotic expressions in the context of her life and times.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 02:45

Quite some time ago (nearly two years, I think), I decided I needed a more professional looking website for my writing activities. And it could have all sorts of bells and whistles! Book reviews! Forthcoming publications! Future convention schedules! I could not only move the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to the new site, but I could make it the primary home of my blog. And then it could push content automatically to LiveJournal and Twitter and Facebook. And the LHMP could have improved functionality, with better tagging, and a dynamic index page, and...and everything!

Bells and whistles take a while to build. And there are a few important steps to get from, “So what would you like it to look like?” to “Go live!” But thanks to the folks at SK+ (Sharon Krossa Consulting), I have a lovely new web home. Some of the back-end bells and whistles are still under construction, but the front end is ready to go.

Check out the site. Explore the new LHMP interface. Kick the tires. Let me know if you spot any problems. (And old links to content at the site should roll over to the new equivalents.) And when I’ve had a chance to breath a little, I’ll probably do some sort of fun thing to celebrate the launch (and drive traffic to the site).

 

(Note: A variety of older blog entries have been imported for testing purposes, but I won’t be systematically migrating older LiveJournal entries to the new blog.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 11:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

I suspect that the structure of Chapter 8 (In the Attic) is affected by the expansion of the original story. (This is one of those places where I'm curious to look at the original shorter version.) The first half is something of a brisk summary of at least the first several months (maybe longer) of Sara's new life. But then the chapter returns to the morning after Sara first moves to the attic and begins a more detailed look at her new relationships. I'll cover the first part in this blog.

I feel that the first several paragraphs capture the trauma of Sara's sudden transition vividly: the physical discomfort, the emotional distress, the sense of being removed from herself and looking for something to hang on to, even if only the painful truth, "My papa is dead!" We get some foreshadowing of Melchizidec in the scampering noises she hears in the night. And then, the next day, it's as if her life as a student has been erased. Her belongings have disappeared from her old suite of rooms. Lavinia has reclaimed the position of honor closest to Miss Minchin. And Sara is assigned a task that actually suits her abilities perfectly: a sort of teaching assistant to watch over and coach the youngest students.

But beyond that, she is turned into something of a maid-of-all-work: cleaning, and shopping, and running errands, and anything else that the rest of the staff can dump on her. Anyone who has experienced a sudden change of occupation, and especially when the new one involves physical labor, can easily imagine how time would blur together as Sara simply tried to make it through each day. And yet she made time to continue studying on her own and she connects education with class very directly. If she doesn't hold on to the things she has learned, she fears that she will "be like poor Becky" and lose her upper class speech mannerisms.

Behavior is one of the few things Sara has control over. She now wears plain, shabby clothing that she is always outgrowing and that becomes an object of ridicule. And there is now an enormous social distance between her and the other students, even when she is interacting with them. Those interactions become more constrained when Sara is told to take her meals with the other servants. (For all of Miss Minchin's instruction that Sara's transition is to be immediate and complete, there does seem to be a more gradual withdrawal in some areas.)

In combination with Sara's decision to set the best, most hardworking example that she can, she survives emotionally through her role-playing. At first, she sees herself as a soldier like her papa. "Soldiers don't complain. I will pretend this is part of a war." It will be some time before she returns to the role of princess.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 11:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Sara’s reaction to the news of her father’s death feels like one of the most emotionally real passages in the story. (And this isn’t meant to disparage the rest of the story!) Her shock, her desperate self-control in public, and then her retreat to privacy and nearly incoherent attempts to reconcile herself to the news feel both utterly in character and entirely realistic. For all Sara’s popularity, she is an intensely private and self-contained person. And, as Becky later notes, sometimes it’s best that people in trouble should be left alone. (It might not be true of all people, but it’s certainly true of Sara. And once again, Becky is spot-on in her emotional reactions.)

When Sara emerges again to face Miss Minchin, she is subdued, but self-controlled and determined. This reaction might almost be designed to set Miss Minchin off. Miss Minchin wants to be the one in control, the one who causes others to react. For the rest of the story, she will view Sara’s self-possession as a personal affront—as a challenge to her authority. The more self-control Sara shows, the more out of control Miss Minchin becomes.

Miss Minchin verbally strips Sara of every scrap and vestige of her previous luxury and privilege, failing only when Sara refuses to give up the doll, Emily, who represents her emotional bond with her father. And when Miss Minchin thinks she’s putting the last nail in the coffin of Sara’s pride, by telling her she will need to work for a living, Sara subverts the situation by seizing on this as a positive. She will earn her living and prove her worth. And she will keep her self-possession and dignity, symbolized by her refusal to thank Miss Minchin for her “kindness”.

But it isn’t until she is shown to her new room up in the attic that she lets down her guard once more and feels the full weight of the transition in her life. And it is only there—when Becky comes in to comfort her—that Sara comes close to crying. When she first met Becky, she observed that they were alike—both two little girls. And now she repeats that observation: that there is no difference between them now. Becky, however is wiser. “Whatever happens to you—whatsoever—you’d be a princess all the same. And nothing couldn’t make you nothing different.” She recognizes the deepest truth to the story, that Sara’s “princess nature” is an inherent characteristic and not something that can be taken away.

But it will be a while before Sara rediscovers how to use that “princess nature” in her new situation, and first she needs to renegotiate her relationship to the world around her.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - 09:15

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

In the second part of Chapter 7, we see the depths of nastiness that the adult characters are capable of. Captain Crewe’s soliciter comes to tell Miss Minchin the news that Crewe has died--and died a pauper after the diamond mines failed. The soliciter does get one rather delicious line in this conversation. In the initial conversation where he is railing against the fantasies spawned by the diamond mines, he notes, “When a man is in the hands of a very dear friend and is not a businessman himself, he had better steer clear of the dear friend’s diamond mines, or gold mines, or any other kind of mines dear friends want his money to put into.” After dropping the bomb that the Captain has died from a combination of jungle fever and business troubles, Miss Minchin asks exactly what the business troubles were. “Diamond mines,” answered Mr. Barrow, “and dear friends--and ruin.”

But the shock of the thought of Crewe’s fortune having evaporated (and Miss Minchin being on the hook for the funds she’d fronted for Sara’s party, as well as ordinary expenses), seems to drive a number of things out of both their minds. It seems implausible to me that neither of them thinks to try to locate someone who will stand in loco parentis for Sara. The soliciter presumably had the means to follow up with Captain Crewe’s military superiors, who might have ideas about what arrangements might be made--even assuming that Sara truly has no remaining living relatives. (Whatever did happen to her mother’s family?) For that matter, he is quite aware of the existence of Captain Crewe's "dear friend" who--though presumably equally bankrupt from the mine debacle--might well be expected to feel some responsibility for Sara (as, indeed, we later see he does), and might very well have relatives of his own in England who could step in and provide assistance.

But even Miss Minchin is aware of Sara having at least one potential sponsor, because she knows that Crewe chose her school on the personal recommendation of Lady Meredith. And there’s a clear indication in Chapter 1 that Miss Minchin had personal correspondence with Lady Meredith regarding Sara’s suitability for the school. So why doesn’t it occur to her to contact Lady Meredith and let her know that her dear friend Captain Crewe’s daughter is now friendless and destitute? At the very least, Sara might be taken off her hands. At the most, Lady Meredith might feel a moral obligation to pay Sara’s debt at the school as well.

This aspect has always troubled me. There is no reason other than plot logistics for Sara to be considered genuinely alone and friendless in the world.

Miss Minchin is so personally affronted by the loss of Sara’s fortune that she leaps to the decision to throw her into the street, rather than considering following up on any of these possibilities. It is noted that this is an indiscreet intention to voice. But the soliciter, rather than chiding her for her hard-heartedness, only points out that it would reflect badly on the school and that it would be more practical to exploit Sara as an unpaid servant. If nothing else, this is one more piece of evidence that Captain Crewe was extremely incompetent in his business decisions. One might think that when he chose an agent to look out for his daughter’s interests in England, he would have chosen someone capable of empathy and compassion.

But, no.

So Miss Minchin calls her sister in to do the dirty work and devises a way of informing Sara of her father’s death designed for maximum trauma. In this chapter, any sympathy one might have had for Minchin’s position vis a vis her pampered pupil is trampled into the dirt.

It’s left to Becky--who has been hiding under the table while all these conversations have gone on--to think what all this will mean for Sara herself, and to beg for permission to help soften the blow and assist Sara in the transition. And it’s Becky who sees the tragedy as a story arc: “It’s exactly like the ones in the stories--them poor princess ones that was drove into the world.”

Next week, we’ll finish Chapter 7 with Sara’s reaction to the news.

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