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Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 08:45

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

Chapter 4 is entitled "Lottie", telling us which of Sara's satellites we'll be introduced to this time. But the initial part of the chapter concerns itself with setting up Sara's common sense, self-awareness, and charity in several senses.

This is initially explained by the omniscient narrator, who points out that the favoritism and flattery that Sara received at the school would be more than enough to turn an ordinary girl into a spoiled brat. Miss Minchin is once again emphasized as two-faced: secretly disliking Sara but publicly going rather over the top to indulge and pamper her, in the belief that this would cement Sara's enjoyment of her school experience.

Sara, we are shown (in a conversation with Ermengarde), is instead quite aware of both her privilege and her luck. "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. … Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all…and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials." But she is secure enough in her position that she's friendly to everyone, generous to beggars that she meets on the street, and even willing to suggest that Mean Girl Lavinia acts horrid only due to growing pains. And as the most salient sign of her generosity and charity, Sara is willing to attempt to befriend "the baby of the school", Lottie Lay. But that we will cover in the next entry.

At the moment, I want to indulge in a critique of literary style. (Because this is a critical re-read, after all.) The thing that peeves me the most about Burnett's prose in this book is her tendency to use formulaic strings of adjectives. In particular, the word "little" is vastly over-used and could probably be eliminated 90% of the time. The strings of adjectives themselves stand out as being just over the edge of what is needed: A clever little brain, a friendly little soul, a motherly young person -- all those from the present chapter. But earlier strings that irritate me every time I encounter them include: "a queer old-fashioned thoughfulness" (in fact, one could do an entire analysis of the use of the words "queer" and "old-fashioned" in this work), "her handsome, rich, petting father", "a rash, innocent young man", "a queer, polite little voice", "a funny, old-fashioned child" (I mean, what the heck does that even mean?), "a very nice, intelligent, middle-aged Frenchman". Looking at them like that, I'm not even sure why the constructions irritate me so much.

In any event, the exploration of Sara's character is then framed by contrasting her with Lavinia, via a conversation between Lavinia and her BFF Jessie. Lavinia, it is explained to us, had been the de facto leader of the students prior to Sara's arrival, evidently due to equal parts seniority, a spiteful domineering personality, and heretofore being the best-dressed "show pupil" given special privileges. Sara undermines her position without meaning to by virtue of being richer and smarter than Lavinia, but more consciously by Being Nice. Not nicey-nice, for she isn't above speaking sharply to Lavinia in defense of other students, but genuinely kind and generous.

This is the primary theme of these early parts of the book: in those areas where Sara has agency, she uses that agency to make the world a better, happier place for those around her, as best she can. And the lengths she's willing to go to do so are detailed in her encounter with Lottie, to be covered in the next segment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 07:30

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

That last section of the chapter introducting Ermengarde goes much deeper into Sara’s imaginative storytelling. But it tosses in one of those odd inconsistencies that the story occasionally trips over.

Sara invites her new friend up to her suite of rooms to meet her new doll and Ermengarde asks about how it happens that she has not just her own room, but a playroom all to herself. We can guess that this surplus of space was originally intended to be simply another sign of the ostentatious luxury that marked Sara’s position. But now there seems to be a need to justify the rooms logically, for some reason. So Sara explains that her father arranged it, “because when I play I make up stories and tell them to myself, and I don’t like people to hear me. It spoils it if I think people listen.” 

The story plunges straight on into a “pretend” about the doll, Emily being alive and trying to “catch her” moving about the room. Ermengarde is distracted and enthralled by the stories about animate dolls, but we can spend a moment contemplating this very odd claim. Because two chapters later (ch 5) we are told quite explicitly, “Sara not only could tell stories, but she adored telling them.” It makes me wonder whether this isn’t some sort of continuity error that came up when the original story was expanded to novel length. I don’t see any point in trying to integrate the version here in chapter 3. This is scarcely the most awkward of the logical errors we're asked to accept.

The chapter concludes with Sara experiencing a moment of intense homesickness for her father, and explaining how pretending helps her get through her sorrows. The contrast is made with how Ermengarde thinks of her daunting father. I suspect this is part of the regular reminders of how much Sara has to lose, compared with other girls. Ermengarde might possibly be relieved to be orphaned, but the intensity of Sara’s relationship with her father reinforces the fact that he is not just her only relation, but he is her whole world.

Then Ermengarde takes the daring step of asking if they could be best friends, to which Sara agrees with the somewhat odd response that “It makes you thankful when you are liked.” But from then on, Ermengarde is cemented as first among her followers, and Sara is established in a tutoring relationship to her.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 07:15

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

The next several chapters each introduce a girl who will have a key role in Sara’s experience. Each of them is subordinate to her in some fashion: Ermengarde intellectually, Lottie emotionally, and Becky socially. And in these introductory chapters one of the functions they fulfill is to show Sara being kind and supportive to others on their own terms according to their own needs and interests.

Ermengarde, unfortunately, is brought in with an unpleasant whiff of fat-phobia. Now, Burnett never quite says outright that Ermengarde is stupid because she is fat, but there’s a constant re-emphasis of her physical appearance, and regular comments from other students that restrict Ermengarde’s possible roles on the basis of her body. (Much later in the book, this attitude is summed up in Ermengarde’s repetition of the others’ judgement, “I can’t be a princess, I’m too fat.”) And while the narrative clearly takes the position that being a good person is more important than being thin and beautiful, it never really contradicts the judgement that her body is the determiner of all her other characteristics.

In my head-canon, there’s a somewhat different story going on. Ermengarde clearly needs a learning method other than what Miss Minchin’s school (and the society of the story in general) uses. She may have an actual learning disability or she may simply have different brain wiring. She comes from an intellectual family, with a father “who knows everything, who speaks seven or eight languages, and has thousands of volumes which he has apparently learned by heart”. Ermengarde has difficulties with rote memorization (though she does better when facts are contextualized in an interesting way). Her father is severely disappointed that Ermengarde doesn’t follow in his footsteps and various comments along the way indicate that she’s been told that she is stupid, dull, and a disappointment since long before she came to school. Miss Minchin was then primed to view her in the same way, and Ermengarde’s learning experience has been an exercise in being forced to repeat the same failure modes over and over as a public humiliation. Given all of that, it would be no surprise to me if her weight were a consequence of the emotional abuse. Comfort-eating has a strong attraction. (And evidently her aunts who sent her care packages at school are firm believers in "food is love".)

Sara’s first impulse is non-judgmental sympathy. She approaches Ermengarde specfically because the other girl is unhappy and looks lonely. Her first interaction is to draw Ermengarde into her imaginative world, commenting that her name “sounds like a story book.” And when Ermengarde expresses admiration for Sara’s facility with language and labels her “clever”, Sara discounts those things as moral virtues or personal achievements and returns to sharing stories. The rest of chapter 3 (which I’ll return to next week) explores that imaginative process a bit more.

Friday, March 11, 2016 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

This concludes this set of “re-published” reviews. I still have a long list of lesbian-themed movies on video to work my way through. Most often, when I watch videos, it’s while I’m doing some other activity and I want background entertainment. So I need to carve out some pure viewing time to continue this series.

* * *

Portrait of a Marriage (1990) Mini-series biopic about the lives and loves of post-WWI English politician Harold Nicolson, his wife the famous Vita Sackville-West, and her lover the manipulative and needy Violet Keppel. Nicolson and Sackville-West were both bisexual and had what would now be considered an open marriage. Portrayals like this point out how the difference between “open marriage” and “series of sordid little affairs” is often entirely in how society frames the events. In an age where neither open marriages nor bisexuality were socially acceptable, it should come as no surprise that the story Does Not End Happily.

Nobody is "punished by death" but there's a strong over-arching theme that same-sex relationships are doomed to unhappiness and failure, by nature of the pressures around them. Not really a coming-out story, as such. I don’t recall at this point whether there was anything that could be considered recanting. (In biographies of this sort, there’s often a desire to “redeem” the central figure by interpreting a continuing primary relationship as indicating a desire to recant.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 08:00

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

Chapter 2 (A French Lesson) serves the primary purpose of introducing a lot of characters. It is useful at this point to begin something of a timeline with character ages, because there is an interesting phenomenon to note later. We have been told at the beginning of the book that Sara is seven. It is unclear whether this is the typical age at which students enter Miss Minchin’s academy, but we are explicitly told that Lottie Legh, at four years old, is “the baby of the school” (and it is later implied that she’s been enrolled at a younger age than usual because her father doesn’t know what else to do with her). Lavinia Herbert (the prototypical “mean girl” of the school) is given as the other end of the age scale, at “nearly thirteen”. The context implies that she is the oldest student, although we’ll see later that she’s still a student quite some years later. Ermengarde is noted later as “about the same age” as Sara, although she seems to be an established student. So we might think that the usual starting age is five or six.

I’m not inclined to put too much weight on the realism of the ages, as given. With the exception of Sara, the students are portrayed as being very static in their maturity, even when the numbers change. Lottie is eternally the immature “baby” of the crowd, always on the verge of an emotional melt-down. And Lavinia is always the student “so grown-up she considers herself above the others” even at a point when it’s odd that she hasn’t aged out of the school yet. And Ermengarde is the eternal side-kick, tagging along with Sara as her foil, but never quite developing on her own. Against this backdrop, Sara matures and ages, but the others are a static set-piece. Given this understanding, I’m going to note occasions when the students’ putative ages strike odd notes against their characterizations, but I’m not going to dwell on it too much.

The chapter starts by listening in on the other students discussing Sara’s arrival and Lavinia taking a strong stand in criticism, not only of Sara’s luxuries, but of any positive opinion voiced of Sara. Lavinia is very obviously jealous of the potential Sara has for ousting her from her position of social prominence, which no doubt owes as much to seniority as to her described habit of enforcing dominance through bullying.

To be somewhat fair, it’s made clear that Miss Minchin is supporting--perhaps even driving--this ouster. Sara is rumored to be the new “show pupil”, not only for her stylish presentation, but for her academic accomplishments. In the previous chapter, Miss Minchin has stated her intention to place Sara in a position of honor when the students go on outings, and here in chapter 2, she places Sara in a prominent seat near her desk. It would be hard to do more to set Sara up for a fall. And perhaps--although we don’t see Miss Minchin’s overt change of heart toward Sara until the end of the chapter--there is already an intent in that direction. Miss Minchin is very prepared to view Sara as spoiled, entitled, and contrary.

But before we see the scene that cements that impression, we have a long interlude with Sara settling in and interacting imaginatively with her new doll, Emily. The purpose here seems to be to firmly establish Sara’s life of the mind, and the scene does that efficiently. Sara is imaginative, is solidly aware of the borders between imagination and reality, and is happy to playfully negotiate them with the adults around her. Mariette (her personal maid--another trigger for jealousy and resentment) has an investment in viewing Sara’s imaginings as amusing and droll. Other adults, not so much. But Mariette’s other function here is to introduce--both to the reader and to other staff at the school--the image of Sara as being “a little princess” in her behavior and manners. Although presented in a positive light, it's easy to see how this could be turned to mockery.

The last major episode in this chapter could have been avoided easily if Miss Minchin had been paying attention to what Captain Crewe told her about Sara’s studies (or if she’d believed what he said, assuming she was paying attention). Crewe clearly indicated that Sara read books in French and German in addition to English, but the entire premise of the unfortunate misunderstanding here is that Miss Minchin jumps to the conclusion that Sara is intended to learn French (hence, the French maid), and so she misinterprets Sara’s attempts to correct this misapprehension.

Miss M. states her understanding of the purpose of the French maid. Sara, knowing that understanding to be false, offers a different interpretation, which is taken for self-indulgence. Miss M. directs Sara to study a basic primer of French vocabulary, and Sara’s discomfiture at going along with this is taken for a Bad Attitude. Because this is all played out in front of the entire school, when the French teacher appears and Sara is able to explain the whole misunderstanding to him in fluent French, Miss M. is embarrassed in public and her authority is undermined. It would take a big person to overlook that and not hold the episode against Sara. And Miss Minchin, though not an out and out villain, is not that big a person. So the chapter ends with a solidification of Miss M’s personal dislike for the student she has determined to set up as the star pupil of her school. And this is an essential motivation for her treatment of Sara later, after the fall.

Monday, March 7, 2016 - 08:00

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

Chapter One efficiently covers several functions: we are introduced to Sara Crewe and her father, Sara is brought from India and delivered to a boarding school in London, and we see her initial impressions of the woman who is to be in charge of her there, Miss Minchin. Before we are told anything else, we are told that seven-year-old Sara is a bit of an unusual little girl. She’s precocious, articulate, and is always “thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to.” She also shows a bit of impatience at being treated by others as a little girl and not as a rational human being (though she seems to keep this impatience to herself). But as we will see, she in turn treats others as individual rational human beings, rather than as roles, and this is one of her strengths.

We learn that Sara's French mother died when she was born, and that her father--an officer in a British regiment in India--absolutely dotes on her and has freely and generously supported her in both her intellectual interests (“she wants grown-up books--great, big, fat ones--French and German as well as English--history and biography and poets, and all sorts of things”) and her material needs. Captain Crewe is described as “young, handsome, and rich”...which brings us to the first of the unexplained mysteries of the book.

To me, as a reader, there seem to be several obvious clues about the nature of Captain Crewe’s fortune. Common sense says that an army captain’s salary might be enough to live in extravagant comfort in colonial India, but it seems highly unlikely to be enough to be considered “rich” back in England. This leaves two possibilities: that Captain Crewe earned it himself in some fashion, or that it is inherited.

The first strkes me as highly unlikely. He’s young and in the military. That doesn’t leave much space for a career that could have produced a fortune. Later in the book there is a passing reference that he met Tom Carrisford when they were at Eton together, so Crewe started out a step up in the world. Furthermore, when his investment in the diamond mines turns sour, he writes to Sara, “your daddy is not a businessman at all, and figures and documents bother him.” Even allowing for some exaggeration, this doesn’t sound like a self-made millionaire.

So, inherited money it is. But is it old money or new money? I see two strong arguments for it being new money--most likely earned in the immediately previous generation. The first argument, I will confess, is based on stereotypes. Captain Crewe spends money like the nouveau riche. Sara is not merely to be comfortable at school; she is to have luxuries beyond what the other girls there have: a suite of rooms, a pony and carriage, her own lady’s maid, and an abundance of luxurious clothing that is, quite admittedly, beyond anything appropriate for a schoolgirl.

These luxuries are, in fact, one of the things that get Sara off on the wrong foot at school. One might think that Miss Minchin and the “mean girls” are simply jealous, but there’s a certain validity in Lavinia’s sneer that such ostentation is “vulgar” for a girl Sara's age.

The second reason Crewe’s money feels “new” to me, is that old money tends to come with people attached. And Captain Crewe appears to have no "people" with the exception of the soliciter who handles his business in England, and who deserts Sara with no compunction when her father dies and the money evaporates. The entire plot hinges on Sara having no relations or support structure in the world except for her father. No distant relatives who might take charge of Sara that she or anyone else knows of. (And evidently no one close enough to them personally, back in India, who thinks to follow up on Sara's welfare when her father dies. Even for Carrisford, it's an afterthought, though there are mitigating circumstances.)

One might, of course, argue that I’m looking for too much logical consistency in what is simply an essential plot-point. And perhaps I am. But this seems to me to be part of Sara’s key background. She has the privilege of wealth, but not, perhaps, of class. Miss Minchin’s academy was chosen, not because it was the traditional place to send daughters of the Crewe family, but because it was recommended by Lady Meredith (back in India, presumably) who had sent her daughters there. Miss Minchin is pragmatically impressed by Crewe’s money (and his willingness to spend it), but she is not impressed by Crewe himself. And therefore when the money is gone, Sara has no one but herself to fall back on. But it may well be that the lack of class privilege (and possibly even an unexpected lack of class consciousness--her daydreams traverse class boundaries freely and without anxiety; one can aspire to be royalty, at least in fantasy) contribute to her ability to reach out to others across social boundaries and treat them as individuals.

To finish off the chapter, we learn a few other things about key players. Although Sara takes her privileged lifestyle for granted, it doesn’t seem to have spoiled her. She is sensible, perceptive, and self-possessed. And she faces the tragedy of being sent away by her father with fortitude and self-control, though not without strong emotion.

We also learn a number of things about Miss Minchin and her younger sister, Miss Amelia. Miss Minchin is portrayed as a hard “worldly” business woman, who insincerely flatters her students and their parents, then bad-mouths them behind their backs. I’ve always felt a certain sympathy for Miss Minchin. Of course she’s a hard-edged business woman--how else could she make her living? And of course she has to make up to the parents of her pupils. They hold the purse strings and--as is later noted--could ruin her in the court of public opinion if they decide she isn’t doing a proper job. There is a very faint air that Burnett faults Miss Minchin for being pragmatic and not being generously warm-hearted when it counts. I’ll agree with dinging her for not being kind, but I think she gets a bad rap for being practical. She can’t afford to be unworldly. And she can't afford to freely maintain a "charity pupil" as Sara eventually becomes. But more on that later.

When we are introduced to her sister Miss Amelia, we’re also introduced to a theme that really grates on me. “Miss Amelia was fat and dumpy” and is consistenly portrayed as being timid and somewhat slow-witted. As we’ll see when we’re introduced to Ermengarde, there is an authorial correlation of fat=stupid. But I’ll have more to say on that later.

Next week, we’ll take note of several structural things that are being set up that will be relevant to keep track of, and witness Sara being inadvertently set up to put almost everyone’s nose out of joint.

Monday, February 29, 2016 - 12:00

I had another work session with my website designers this weekend and we're one more session away from the Go Live of the new site. This will not yet be the Go Live of the new LHMP interface, since that involves a few complicated technical problems (as well as a lot of clean-up of the existing data), so one of the interim tasks is making sure that nothing gets too broken during the two-part move. (I imagine I'll spend quite some time finding and correcting internal links in the archives so they point to the new LHMP home and not to LJ.)

Part of the new design has involved standardizing the format and content of the entries. Back when I started the Project, of course, I didn't give much thought to standardization. Now that I'm migrating things, I've had to identify the most preferable version of the internal structure that emerged. During this transition period, I've been trying to get in practice by formatting entries according to the new fixed plan.

In designing the structure, I had to consider four types of publications: individual articles, collections of articles where I was covering most or all of the entire collection, books covered in a single entry, and books covered in multiple entries (generally by chapter). The goal was to be able to present the reader with archived material where a whole book or a whole article collection could be read as a single text, or where any article could be listed and read separately. Furthermore, I wanted a way to clearly distinguish between the summary/analysis of the publication itself, my general discussions and personal interaction with the material, and things unrelated to the publication that happened to be discussed in the same blog entry. The bibliography needed to be able to list articles separately as well as listing them as subunits of a collection, but to only list book chapters as subunits of the book and not as separate entries. You can see how this might drive a web designer to drink!

 

But we seen to have developed a workable plan. So to use today's blog as an example, all the text up to and including this bit would be a separate "blog text" unit that appears only when the publication is initially presented in the blog, but not in the archive of publication-related entries. This is followed by the standard "about the LHMP" link. Then, for a collection of articles or a multi-part book (like the current publication), you get the top-level bibliographic citation, followed by a general introduction to the larger unit. Then you get either the specific article citation or, as in this case, the chapter heading, followed by a brief introduction specific to that item. Finally you get the actual summary/analysis/discussion of the content itself. If you're looking at the archives for a multi-part publication, you get the overall citation/intro at the top, followed by the specific citation, intro, and main-text for each article/chapter in turn. This will all make more sense once it's there to play with.

Full citation: 

Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0

Publication summary: 

 

This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.

Part 3: 17th Century (second half)

Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.

Nicholas Chorier from Dialogues on the Arcana of Love and Venus by Luisa Sigea Toletana (1660-78) -- Excerpts from the pornographic Satyra Sotadica that describe sexual activity between two women as part of a wider range of transgressive sexual adventures.

Anonymous from The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Moll Cutpurse (1662) -- Excerpts from a biography of a woman who openly cross-dressed and refused to follow expected feminine behavior.

Katherine Philips “To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship”, “Parting with Lucasia: A Song”, “Orinda to Lucasia”, “Friendship’s Mystery: To My Dearest Lucasia”, “Injuria Amici” (1664) -- A selection of homoerotic poetry addressed to Anne Owen by her poetic name Lucasia. The language goes beyond the conventions of romantic friendship but without being overtly sexual.

Pierre de Bourdeilles, Seigneur de Brantôme from Lives of Gallant Ladies (1665-1666) -- (Translated) An extensive collection of anecdotes involving sexual encounters between women.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) “To the Fair Clorinda, Who Made Love to Me Imagin’d More than Woman”, “Verses Design’d by Mrs. A. Behn to be sent to a Fair Lady, that Desir’d She Would Absent Herself to Cure her Love” -- A collection of love poems addressed to women.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz “Accompanying a Ring Bearing the Portrait of la Señora Condesa de Paredes. She Explains”, “Inés, Dear, with your Love I am Enraptuerd” (ca. 1686) -- Poems addressed from Sor Juana to her patroness, using romantic and erotic imagery.

Anne Killigrew “On a Picture Painted by Herself, Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s, One in a Posture to Hunt, the Other Bathing”, “On the Soft and Gentle Motions of Eudora” (attributed) (1686) -- Two poems that emphasize a sensual appreciation for the recipient’s beauty.

John Dryden from The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (1693) -- A translation of a Roman satire on women having sexual encounters with each other (although the intended imagery takes a bit of extraction from the text).

Elizabeth Singer Rowe “Love and Friendship: A Pastoral” (1696) -- A poem celebrating female romantic friendship that subtly equates it with heterosexual love.

 

Anonymous “Venus’s Reply” (1699) -- A ribald poem that was written in answer to the poem “The Women’s Complaint to Venus”, which spoke in the voice of women complaining that the prevalence of male homosexuality was depriving them of lovers. In this poem, Venus tells the women it’s their own fault for turning their desires to other women (described in quite graphic terms). Given the unambiguously sexual context, the poem is valuable for examples of the slang term “game of flats” and use of the word “odd” to imply homosexuality.

Time period: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 09:30

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

I really want to emphasize that I’m doing this extended re-read/review of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess because I love the book (despite its flaws). So I thought it makes sense to start out by talking about why I love it.

One of the things that really strikes me is how thoroughly female-centered the story is. There are significant male characters, of course: Captain Crewe, Mr. Carrisford, Ram Das. But they are external to the core of the story. The friends, the enemies, the supporters, the antagonists, the authority figures, the followers--all of them are women and girls. And we get to see a wide variety of characters, such that none of them has to support the concept of femaleness on her own.

One might point out that this is not at all peculiar in a story set in a girls’ boarding school, but it is a rather strong contrast with the usual structure of current children’s literature. There is never any sense within this book that a girl can’t be a hero, or a faithful friend, or a jealous rival, or a redeemed guttersnipe. And with one sole exception that I can think of, the female characters are not interacting with each other, for good or ill, in relation to men. (The exception that comes to mind is the incident toward the end of the book when Cook has been treating her boyfriend the policeman from the school kitchen, and then blaming the missing food on Becky.)

In appreciating this, it can be important to read the book by its own lights and not look for meanings or implications that would feel off if it were written today. Some of this is purely in the use of language. So, for example, when the text describes Sara and her father as being “the greatest friends and lovers in the world,” one is not to understand that any inappropriate relationship exists. Only that an archaic sense of the word “lovers” is being used that does not necessarily imply romantic love. There are other plot points that might have a less innocent spin today, but which are innocuous taken in a context where the characters are simply not sexualized in any way. So it is, to some extent, unremarkable that interactions within the school are untroubled by tensions between the sexes. Unremarkable, but refreshing.

The other major thing I love about this story is the way in which Sara’s redemptive arc is constructed. This book came immediately to mind when I was in grad school and we were discussing the concept of “moral accounting” as a way of analyzing and studying literature. (Or, for that matter, any sort of story.) The basic idea is that our culture has a theory that the “accounts” of a person’s moral experience should balance. And specifically in a literary context, that a story tends to “make sense” when the accounts balance. (The metaphor of “moral accounting” is laid out in Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. A concise and focused presentation of the component parts of the metaphor can be found here.)

What does it mean to have a moral balance? Having good things happen to you is to acquire “wealth”. Having bad things happen to you removes “wealth”. But taking good actions creates credit--something the person is owed. Alternately one might think of it as giving away wealth. However viewed, it reduces one's overall balance. Conversely, taking bad actions is the equivalent of acquiring a debt, or of stealing wealth, in either case creating a situation where something must be paid out to create balance.

Taken all together, there is a drive toward a balance of zero. So, for example, if a person starts from a neutral position and does lots of bad things, they’ve acquired debt that must be balanced out either by having something awful happen to them, or by having them repent and “make up for it” by doing good deeds. If someone is favored by fortune without having “earned” that acquisition, the story expects them to balance it either by doing good deeds, or by suffering calamity. Whereas the character who suffers from misfortunes--and especially one who does nothing but good at the same time--builds up a massive negative balance that can only be zeroed by having really wonderful things happen to them.

Sara Crewe starts off life with the handicap of a positive balance. She’s wealthy, talented, and beloved by her father. She balances this somewhat by always behaving well, but Accounting demands that she suffer some calamity. The magnitude of the calamity (losing her father and her fortune, and being forced to become a servant), combined with her determined insistence on behaving well (even when she struggles to do so), drive her even farther into a negative balance than the positive one she started with. This makes it possible for her to “earn” the reward of gaining a benevolent guardian (which isn’t quite as good as having a loving father) and regaining an even larger fortune than she started with. As the story ends, Sara is continuing to balance the weight of her good fortune by finding good deeds to perform. The moral balance is in constant motion, with adjustments and hyper-corrections, until it finds an equilibrium that brings Sara the reward she deserves. But if she hadn’t suffered so badly, or if she had given in to circumstance and become bad-tempered and spiteful, she wouldn’t have earned the same ending.

One of the consequences of looking at stories through the lens of moral accounting is that if you assume that a character’s accounts must zero out at the end of the story, you can work backwards to identify the moral “value” placed on their characteristics and actions. Fairy tales are an interesting exercise for this approach. For example, if you run the accounts for the witch in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Rapunzel, the only way you can make the accounts balance is if you consider the fact of being a witch to create a significant moral debt, regardless of any actions the character takes.

But I digress. What it comes down to is: I love A Little Princess because of how thoroughly Sara earns her happy ending through her own agency. While the overt facts of the story appear to return her fortune to her through a somewhat improbable chain of events, on an accounting basis, the ending is not merely probable, but actively required.

I'd meant to begin chapter 1 this week, but I think this is enough. Next week I’ll start the actual analytic review with The Mystery of Captain Crewe’s Money.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 11:45

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

I’m finding that the new Wednesday series of research squibs is being more creative work than I’m happy about currently, so I thought I’d jump the tracks to a different series that I’ve been contemplating for years.

Sometimes we like things that we know are problematic. Sometimes it takes us a while to realize many of the problematic aspects of things we like. And sometimes we aren’t sure how to engage with that aspect of things we like. For a number of years, I’ve been promising myself to expiate the problematic aspects of one of my favorite comfort-reads by dong a detailed examination and dissecting what it is about it that appeals to me, and what parts of it make me wince and why. So for the foreseeable future, my Wednesday blog is going to be a detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique and celebration of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess.

It’s a story with some really delightful themes: I love the way the entire world of the story centers around female characters, and the way the protagonist is shown to struggle to follow her better impulses, and the overall symbolic structure of how the protagonist earns her happy ending. And it’s a story with some seriously problematic shit: like orientalism and colonialism, and some peculiar gaps in its critique of class, and a rather nauseating equation of being fat with lower intelligence, and some plot holes you could drive a coach-and-four through.

And yet I come back to this story again and again. Back when I was in grad school and avoiding fiction that made me work too hard (because my academic reading sucked up all my reading energy), I’d do a Little Princess re-read any time I needed a pick-me-up. When I started having massive problems with insomnia and discovered that running audiobooks was the best mitigation I could find, the Librivox.org recording of A Little Princess read by Karen Savage went into heavy rotation (with its only flaw being that it doesn’t run quite long enough to cover the whole night). So rather than simply calling it my “guilty pleasure” (a term I hate), I decided to do penance by acknowledging the flaws while explaining why I keep coming back.

This first installment is going to be a bit of background, and then I’m going to begin working through the book chronologically (though I’ll be bouncing around when discussing themes and plot-holes). Spoilers will abound, but dammit the book was published over a hundred years ago. Statute of limitations and all that.

The Wikipedia entry on the novel gives some interesting background, including that it was an expansion of a previous, much less detailed novella, and may have been inspired by an unfinished fragment by Charlotte Brontë. Burnett was a prolific writer of both children’s and adult fiction, though she is best known now for the former. In addition to A Little Princess, the works people are most likely to have heard of include The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, all of which have a continuing theme of children who have lost their parents (although in the case of LLF, the loss of his mother is temporary), are massively displaced from their original place of residence, and eventually are beneficiaries of wealthy and privileged men with some indirect family connection to them.

One suspects a certain amount of authorial wish-fulfillment, given that Burnett’s father died when she was very young, and her family moved from England to the USA in impoverished circumstances when she was a teenager (she began writing to help support her family). She never relied on a wealthy benefactor, however, and even though her husband became a physician early in their marriage, she was the primary breadwinner of the family, enabling them to enjoy international travel and rather lavish socializing.

The basic plot of A Little Princess involves the riches-to-rags-to-riches story of motherless Sara Crewe, who is sent from a life of colonial privilege in India to boarding school in London and, after establishing her place in the schoolgirl pecking order, loses everything when her father simultaneously loses his fortune and his life. Sara is demoted from “princess” to scullery maid at the school and struggles to maintain a positive approach to life until, as a reward for her inherent virtue, she is discovered by her late father’s business partner who restores her fortunes and whisks her away to a life of comfort and affection.

Next week, I’ll lay out the basics of why the story appeals to me and begin Chapter One.

Monday, February 15, 2016 - 06:45

 

You never know where you’re going to stumble across some of these books. I found this one in the Half-Price Books in Concord California (my current residence), a venue and location where I ordinarily wouldn’t even bother to check out the single case that houses their entire collection of women’s studies, gender studies, and sexuality (including any LGBTQ fiction they bother to carry). But there it was. Furthermore, it appears that at some point the author inscribed it to somone. (At least, there’s an inscription to someone from a “Terry”. Could be unrelated. On the other hand, Wikipedia claims she lives in SF, so it’s entirely possible.)

Full citation: 

Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0

Publication summary: 

 

This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.

Unsurprisingly, the collection is skewed toward the modern: 600 pages of 20th century material (which I have not covered), another 250 from the 19th century. And particularly among the earlier material, the lesbian aspect may be subtextual rather than overt. (For example, it includes an excerpt from the Book of Ruth from the King James translation of the Bible.)

 

What makes this collection valuable--even to the casual reader--is how much it includes of the 15-18th century material commonly referenced in other publications covered under this project. It's far from exhaustive, but if you want to read through some of the original materials (often in translation) that keep coming up in these entries, this is a useful one-stop shop. Shorter works are included in full, and even longer works have extensive excerpts that provide much more context for the lesbian motifs than can be included in analytic articles.

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