Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Fate of Lady's Maids

I've spent the past two weeks with the Brownings while reading Margaret Foster's Lady's Maid and now that I've finished the book, I feel the pangs of withdrawal. I keep waiting to traverse the rooms of Case Guidi, or learn of Mrs. Browning's disposition, or see Pen's frolics, and then it takes a while before I register that it is "all over."

Though I flipped the last page of this book only this morning, I still feel like there is more I'll come home to. The book was long, but I never found it tedious, which surprises me. It was an easy read, and nothing too convoluted or dense like other novels in the same genre that I've read recently. Forster centers the story around Lily Wilson, Mrs. Browning's maid, and so most of the story is told from her perspective. Not being an inquiring sort, or an intellectual, Lily Wilson's life revolves around caring for her own family and her mistress. Thus, the book chiefly, and rightly, deals with the concerns of a servant: we are given insight into the Barrett household, Mrs. Browning's illness and medications, the landscape of different places in England and Italy, and the carnal desires that drive all people, both the learned and the uneducated. In many ways this novel is a study of the 19th century, with a focus on class, especially with regard to that of the working poor.

The novel pays little attention to Mrs. Browning's poetry, or her role as an artist of her time. All we are told is that she is famous, and it ends there. Mrs. Browning also does not discuss her poems with Wilson, and I suppose this is expected as the latter was quite a simpleton compared to the former. But was this so? The novel does not offer easy answers. Lily Wilson, though uneducated, feels a lot more than she is given credit for. She is attuned to the suffering of others, especially that of her mistress, whom she adores. She is not immune to needing companionship and makes a few lasting friendships. She does have maternal feelings and does what is best, in her eyes, for her children. But above all else, she is loyal, and never wavers in her loyalty, even when she is no longer hired by the Brownings.

The fate of Lily speaks to the fate of all women of her class: where does the lady's maid stand in the social ladder? How intimate are her relationship with her employers? How can she continue to be loyal at the price of her family's suffering? Who is to provide for her if she became ill, and more importantly, if she had children?

All these questions point to the "woman question" that was vital to 19th century discourse: What are women to do when they have lost all? How could a single woman surivive if she is barred from advancing professionally like her male counterparts? To what extents would women be driven to stay out of the workhouse and what impact does this have on the rest of the society, let alone the women themselves?

Hortense, Lady Dedlocks's maid in Bleak House, is publicly dimissed by her mistress and struggles to find another suitable position. Unlike Rosa, her submissive rival maid, Hortense is aggressive and unabashed. She is loquacious about her position in life, stressing that she would have no where to go if she were unemployed. This aggression of hers, motivated by the depravity of her situation, does not win her any friends, unfortunately. Everyone rejects her, including Lady Dedlock, who hides behind the veil of her iciness. When Hortense' faith in Mr. Tulkinghorn fails, she takes matters into her own hands. While patience and righteousness might have saved her, or at least prolonged her life, her drastic action, committed out of despair, speeds her downfall.

But I ask: Is the judgement on Hortense fair?

Can a woman, who has lost her employment and is denied help, who is on the verge of entering the poorhouse, only to possibly starve or be exploited there, be expected to make sane decisions? Would it have been far better for Hortense to die than for Tulkinghorn, whose evil deeds wreck havoc on the lives of many more innocent people?

And more importantly, while we cannot esteem Hortense' temper, can we do the opposite for mute submission? Does Lily Wilson's endless sacrifice to her mistress trump over Hortense's efforts to escape poverty?

Who is the better woman?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Persistence of Memories

In a mini-reading excursion I undertook on my own, I read Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter, and Susan Minot's Evening. Both books deal with the role of memories and how they continue to exert their effects long after the events have taken place. I compared these two novels to Penelope Lively's The Photograph, which I had read not too long ago.

In Evening, 65 year-old Ann Lord, the protagonist, is dying of cancer, and in her deathbed, remembers events that happened over forty years ago. That summer weekend long ago, Ann had traveled to Maine to attend her friend Lila's wedding. That meeting was pivotal in her life, for it was there that she met her true love, a man she loved and lost. Realizing the futility of their relationship, Ann later marries three different men and bears five children. But none of them knows the story of their mother: the passion she harbored, the guilt she has bottled, and her courage in striving to lead a happier life for her children's sake.

As Ann starts hallucinating, she recalls vividly the summer of her youth, and it is at this point that her children begin to understand her. As she lay dying, it is Harris' face that she remembers the most, it is the memory of their time together, however brief, that she clings to. However, in learning to deal with her imminent death, she must learn to see her relationship with Harris as more than what she romanticized it to be. She must see the effects of that relationship: the tragedy that befell the Wintennborn that mirrors her inner turmoil, her misjudgement of love, her hard, practical exterior which masked her inner, more sensitive nature that she concealed. As a result, her children were deprived of knowing their mother for the woman she used to be, which increased the distance between all of them.

In Evening, Susan Minot shows that in the last days of a woman's life, what matters most to her are the few moments of bliss that she tasted in her youth. These memories comfort her towards the end of her life, and paradoxically, help her to 'live' at the same time. Ann does not die grieving, but instead, lives her past, a past she has blotted out of her memories while saddled with responsibilities that come from being a wife and mother. Only by re-living her past, and by coming to terms with its effects, could she finally lay herself to rest: only in living could she die.
In contrast to Evening, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, shows that it is not possible to blot out memories of our past, even for an instant, because the past follows us wherever we go. While Ann Lord manges to blot out her memories until the end of her life, the Henrys face dire consequence throughout Memory Keeper, as a result of a single act committed by David Henry.

In Memory Keeper, David Henry is consistantly haunted by his past and never escapes it: his experiences of living in poverty and watching his sister die tragically propels him to try and fix everyone's problem. He becomes a doctor so that she can cure people of disease. But more importantly, he is concerned with eliminating pain and heartache: he could not endure his loved ones facing pain the way he did when he was growing up.

Thus, when his wife gives birth to twins, he sends away his disabled baby daughter, who is born with Down's syndrome, and orders his nurse to put her in a home. He tells his wife later, as she regains consciousness after her birth, that one of their twins has died. When his wife Norah, stricken with grief, plans a memorial services to bring some kind of closure, David Henry retaliates: in a strained manner, he reproaches his wife for having a memorial service so soon, while his wife accuses him of not feeling enough pain for the loss of their daughter. And so begins their path of misunderstanding, that will eventually lead to the family's downfall. Norah, unable to understand her husband's secrecy and emotional distace, copes in her own way by succumbing to different affairs with other men to find relief. David, ever guilty, permits her to do so, even though he is hurt in the process. And their son Paul, the living twin, is also eager to learn more about his father, and feels the void in the family as he watches his parents drift apart.

Norah remembers her daughter at every instant and she at first cannot see Paul without pain, although she learns to support him for what he wants to do, that is become a musician. David expects more from Paul because he feels guilty for giving up his daughter and robbing her of opportunities that his son, born more perfect than his daughter, is given. And while the Henry family breaks down, Pheobe, the discarded daughter, thrives with her surrogate mother, the nurse Carolyn Gill. Though disabled, she learns to surivive on her own, by getting a good education and then a job, all with the help of Carolyn, who fights for Pheobe's rights to a better life.
David's memories of his childhood, watching his sickly sister June die of a heart condition, haunts him all his life, as do his actions of the day that his twins were born. Phoebe is like a physical representation of memory: as the Henry family cannot let go of its memories, Phoebe continues to exist. She shows that memory will live and flourish, and haunt. Her existence causes both pain and joy, just as memories do, as Ann Lord would find at the end of her life. Knowing that Pheobe is doing well does make her father David Henry proud, but the same time, grossly ashamed for what he has done to give her up and conceal that from his wife.

Kim Edward shows us that memory cannot be defined and it will surprise us. Phoebe trancends classification: she has Down' syndrome, but she is also more self-sufficient that what one would expect of her. She does have feelings like a normal person, and more importantly she has enormous capacity for forgiveness and love. She bridges the gap between the two families: she shows Norah that David isn't the epitome of evil when he gave her away, and she shows Paul that there are things he must understand about his father. By leading her life as brightly as she could every day, Phoebe shows everyone that you cannot take life for granted: it is precious, though conflicted. You have to take it day by day, with both its joys and pains, while cherishing it for what it is.

Similar themes are evoked in Lively's The Photograph. Once again, memory re-enters people's lives and changes it in a manner they did not expect. Here, a single photograph is shown to create chaos in the lives of many people. At the same time, we see that the photograph can bring them together. The photograph, in essence, is the representation for memory, just as Phoebe is in Memory Keeper.
In this book, Lively shows the persistence of memory by weaving this story around the absent Kath. From the opening pages, Kath is always there in the lives of everyone who knew her, though we, the readers, never see her. Unlike Phoebe, who is alive, Kath is dead. While Edwards is of the belief that memory will always exist, and take a physical form, even if it is damaged, Lively believes that memory does not need merely a physical form to represent it: it can exist in a metaphysical manner. Even if the matter of the photograph was never brought up, Kath would still continue to fill the minds of all who knew her. Thus, in The Photograph, memory is shown to be even more abstract, but also very tangible, by its abstractness. Memories of Kath fill others' minds in such a vivid manner that it seems like Kath is alive in the flesh; we sense her just as we sense anything else. It almost feels to the reader as if Kath is not dead after all. Lively creates this effect by the title of her chapters: we find chapters with titles of Glyn and Elaine just as we find chapters with Kath and Elaine.
Just as the birth of the twins catalyses the events to follow in Memory Keeper, Glyn's finding the photograph of his wife catalyses the events in this book. The photograph is crucial for Elaine to understand her sister, just as it is important for David Henry, through his journey in the book, to understand his love for his sister and his parents. The photograph leads Elaine to seek Mary Packard, Kath's friend, and to learn another side of Kath that she kept hidden from the rest of the world. It is in understanding Kath for who she was, instead of re-living the memories of who she was perceived to be, that Elaine finally comes to terms with Kath as a person. Kath is given form, to the rest of the characters who aren't given the same insight as us, the readers, when she is perceived as someone real: when she is seen as someone who has known both joy and sorrow.

Like in Evening, The Photograph shows us that memories are strongly tied around death. All three novels force us to question what makes death such a powerful motive for making us confront our deepest desires and our darkest secrets. While death, either our own, or a loved one's, makes us re-live our past through our memories, such a second 'living' is different for each of us: it can either be transient, or it can have lasting effects. While Ann Lord dies after the powerful surge of her memories, Phoebe lives on, and Elaine mends her relationship with her sister and her family.
Do memories cause death or are they an effect? Are memories the means to escape death, or do they allow us to embrace it, unafraid, unprejudiced, and willing?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lady Dedlock's Trap

And I've been caught. I am very intrigued by Lady Dedlock and she continues to haunt Bleak House. As for this fabulous production, I can't commend it enough. Suffice it to say, I think I've endured enough sores and pins and needles while attempting to sit still and watch a series that has more than six hours of viewing time.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I am afraid my ramblings on The Thirteenth Tale will be be withheld momentarily until I find enough time to devote to discussing it.

The days have been very full lately. This semester I had signed up to take two classes and I just finished the coursework for one class. But once I turned in my portfolio for that class, I told myself that I should take a little break before I start on the research paper for the other class. This assignment needs to be 25 pages long and I've finally decided to write it on Kate Chopin's The Awakening. The novel is quite a treasure, really, and provides much food for thought. Edna Pontellier's 'awakening' speaks volumes about the experiences of women in parts of the world in the present day. No wonder the novel is a staple for Women's Studies courses.

I have to spend the next few weeks working on this project and I expect to complete it in June. I can't wait to relax a little this summer.