Friday, June 29, 2007

A Sign of the Times...

So the Spice Girls have confirmed their reunion.! I was stunned as I watched the news on TV.

I can't think of the Spice Girls without thinking of my past, growing up in the '90s. They were iconic figures during my most formative years. I remember waiting in the stores to buy their CDs, trying to memorize the lyrics to their songs, and figuring out what 'Spice Girl' I was ( I think I was a hybrid, though quizzes don't give that option ;)) The Spice Girls seemed a normal part of life, amidst the family dramas, school exams, sports practices, vacations, and social events.

With the best of the Spice Girls coming to an end after their split, it seemed like an era was past for me as well. Then followed important transitions in my life, more 'growing up' and so forth.

But with their impending reunion, and that picture in particular, it seems as if it was but yesterday that they came out with their first album. Though all except Mel C now have children, or are expecting, it isn't visible in this picture. They all look as trim and young as they were. Of course, fashions have changed, but the Spice Girls weren't ones to fuss about that ;)

I hope their reunion turns out to be as refreshing as the memories it kindles.

*Pictures courtesy:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Scandalous Virtue in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

"But sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom."--Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell's last novel was a delight to read, and I am only sorry that she never lived to finish it. Although the ending seems clear, I would still have wished to drink more of Mrs. Gaskell's prose, until the very last drop. The writing, thought not dense, had enough wit to hold the reader's interest. The plot, like the writing, can seem unremarkable on the surface. But a closer look beneath the surface is all that's needed to see contradictions.

The novel is, essentially, a story of relationships, and this is what makes it timeless. We can all relate to feelings of filial affection, parental intrusion, neighbors' reproofs, and sibling rivalry. While Molly appears to be a docile, sheltered girl, we know that this isn't really case. She has lost her mother, a traumatic experience for any child, although how much it has affected her isn't clear until much later. Her father, Mr. Gibson, marries another woman when Molly is seventeen and just on the cusp of adulthood. When the new Mrs. Gibson and her daughter arrive, that is when Molly's (seemingly) idyllic life is about to be turned upside down. Molly learns the nuances of social conduct. She learns to balance her own moral integrity with the social restraint that is required. She also forms new relationships with the Cumnors and the Hamleys, and her behavior brings her just rewards.

In the DVD's commentary, one of the crew members remarked something to the effect of: "Molly is like the sun, with everything else fanning out from her". I wondered how much of this was true. I think it is true that Gaskell meant for Molly to be the heroine. But what I find more interesting are the peripheral characters. They are more complicated, well drawn characters than Molly. In fact, without them, Molly's character would lose much of the luster that she is credited for.

As Mr. Gibson says in the opening lines quoted in this post, I think it is the "foolish people" in this story who steal the show. There's Osborne, who trangresses beyond all the bounds expected of him, and whose actions accelerate his doom. When Osborne marries a girl far beneath him, and fails in his examinations, he questions his worth in the eyes of his proud father. Even when his mother, Mrs. Hamley, lies on her deathbed, Osborne still fails to confess to her. His relationship with his father deteriorates as his marital relationship bears fruit. As Osborne worsens, his wife gives birth to their son, and the child blossoms in health and vigor. Already there is a sense that the old order is breaking down. The Hamleys' station in the social ladder, as Squire Hamley knows it, will no longer be the same. The aristocracy will be replaced by a new class, and in fact, one that includes foreigners, as Aimee comes to live at Hamley Hall. The 'old order' also includes old ways of social behavior, and virtue. It is implied that it is no longer a world full of innocence, but is rather one ripe with dangers--the dangers of change. Osborne's world of poetry is now being replaced by one of science: the days of chivalry and arthurian Romance will give way to enlightenment's Rationality.

Osborne's female equivalent is Cynthia. Cynthia's place in the moral spectrum is even more ambigous than Osborne's. She is, nevertheless, very interesting, and we are meant to like and sympthize with her, like Molly, the heroine we are rooting for. Cynthia is, by all appearances, a coquette, but she isn't a simpleton. Throughout the novel, Molly and Mr. Gibson praise her for her wit. She is kind to Molly and Mr Gibson is fond of her. She is vivacious and lively. Furthermore, she listens with enthusiasm. She is not immune to vanity, however, and that does threaten to ruin her. We find ourselves interested in her "imbroglio", just as much as we find ourselves immersed in Osborne's.

Though raised, like Molly, by a single-parent, Cynthia has had a less sheltered life, which speaks to the status of women in nineteenth-century. Unlike Mr. Gibson who can practice medicine and protect his daughter, Cynthia's mother, Hyacinth, could not do any such thing. The only respectable path open to her was to work as a governess, which meant she had to leave her daughter behind in a school. As Margaret Forster has shown in 'Lady's Maid', it must be very difficult for a woman to secure employment if she had a child of her own. Unsupervised, Cynthia has only herself to turn to for moral guidance. Her mother, occupied with earning her keep, and open to flattery and admiration herself, cannot provide that guidance to Cynthia. So Cynthia falls prey to others' good opinion of her: she craves attention constantly, although she cannot "love deeply " as much as Molly.

Cynthia attracts attention simply by being young, beautiful, and interesting. Young men fall for her more for her beauty than for her wit. They imagine Cynthia as the paragon of womanhood, instead of seeing her for who she is. This masculine definition of her is precisely what she must escape from, but in the absence of a network of women to teach her manners, as Molly has, she becomes a victim. Cynthia is a creation of male fantasies: she is everything men want, and yet, they cannot have her faulty. They elevate her, even when she is fickle, they refute her, even when she says the truth. And as men flock to her, she is blamed for attracting them. Mr. Preston gets aggressive about his demands, even though she keeps refusing him. And Mr. Gibson is unsympathetic to her at one point. While it is easier to forgive Osborne for his scandalous marriage, it is harder to forgive a girl for entangling herself in scandal. This just shows how women can be pliant: Aimee is "sweet and submissive" and so easily controlled, while it is harder to believe that a woman could control a man (e.g. if Cynthia or Molly could control Mr. Preston's apparent vulgarity). Although Cynthia does not love Roger very much, he still pursues her, believing in the image of her instead of the reality. In the end, it is by acknowlegding her fickleness to Mr. Henderson that she gains a partner who now accepts her for who she is. Having learned her mistakes, she vows that she will "place her own happiness before anyone else" in choosing a husband.

If scandal has virtue, we see it in Molly's coming-of-age. Though at the start Molly is inexperienced to matters of sexuality, she changes towards the end. Though docile and proper, and in some ways invisible compared to Cynthia, it is Molly who holds the two biggest secrets at the heart of the novel. She is faithful to her promises of secrecy, and we wonder what would have happened if she acted differently: if she had confessed to Squire Hamley, would Osborne still be alive? If she has confessed her love for Roger, would he still have fancied Cynthia for two years? If she has told her father the truth about Cynthia, would Mr. Gibson have doubted her?

It is important that these secrets pass through Molly because they are necessary for her growing up, for her own "awakening". By knowing Osborne's past, she is aware of a passion that trancends filial duty. Early on, Molly was compared to a little French girl, and this echoes later in the novel, when Molly contact Osborne's French wife, and the two grow close.

Through Cynthia's actions, Molly sees the sincerity and falshood in romantic attachments. She also becomes aware of her love for Roger. She sees that her love for him is constant. His love for Cynthia is steady while Cynthia's wavers. Molly also has a chance to act bravely on behalf of another, to take actions into her own hands, when she helps Cynthia to stave off Mr. Preston. At the same time, she learns that Mr. Preston is not wholly bad. Being in company with Cynthia throws Molly into Mr. Preston's way, which symbolically throws her in the way of sexual awakening.

Finally, it is important to note that towards the end, Molly behaves very much like Cynthia. She is sophisticated, witty, and plays hard-to-get, albeit unintentionally. Molly's earnestly talking to another suitor makes Roger jealous, prompting him to pursue her. The more she resists him, the more he is drawn to her. When Molly falls ill, Roger pays attention to her, in very much the same way he paid attention to Cynthia when she was in low spirits. As Molly grows up in the midst of scandal, and as matters are resolved for the other characters, the novel shows that scandal holds a virtue--a different virtue than one defined by conventional (masculine) terms.

*Pictures credit: Masterpiece Theater

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Lawyer and the Leech

Among the many themes coursing through Dickens' Bleak House and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the theme of the forbidden love affair takes center stage in both novels.

The Scarlet Letter opens with Hester Prynne, holding an infant at her bosom, standing on a pedestal before the villagers and magistrates who question her regarding the father of her illegitimate child. She refuses to answer such a question and goes on to live a secluded life with her baby girl, Pearl, so that she may pay penance for her 'sin'. However, despite removing herself from the public eye, she is never free from scrutiny, especially from the watchful eyes of her ruthless husband, Roger Chillingworth. The person who shares her 'crime' of adultery is also never far away, and ridden with guilt and remorse, his secret slowly consumes him.

The instigator of wounds in Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan preacher who struggles with his love for Hester and his duty towards his faith and community, is Hester's lawful husband, Roger Chillingworth, who claims that he is a physician familiar with herbal remedies. Instead of curing the preacher, who complains of heart troubles, he sets out to do the opposite. As he is aware of his wife's secret, he leaks the information to the preacher by and by in a subtle manner, so that the preacher, naive and unsuspecting, begins to trust his physician and blame himself for his weakness. Eventually, the physician has so much control over his patient that, like a parasite, he gnaws at his flesh and his soul, bringing the pastor to his tragic end.

In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock, who has bottled up a similar secret of her own for many years, finds herself threatened with the risk of exposure, when she recognizes a letter written in the hand of the man she once loved, and then catches a glimpse of their child, whose existence was previously withheld from her.

Here it is the lawyer Tulkinghorn who functions as the leech. Insisting that his only concern is to protect his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Lady Dedlock's husband, he makes it knows to the Lady that he will stick to his word at "whatever the cost maybe to others." Once he puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he taunts Lady Dedlock psychologically and emotionally, which wrecks deeper havoc than anything physical would have done.

Though Lady Dedlock, outwardly, wears the icy reserve she has trained herself to wear for so long, inside she is full of turmoil. Only when we see my Lady in her private chambers do we realize the extent of the pain she carries within her. In the innermost corners of the house she finds a private space enough to betray a little of the emotions she keeps at bay. There she is kind to Rosa, her maid, bestowing a motherly tenderness towards that young girl. And when she is finally left to retire for the night, she is driven frantic with worry, her hair and clothes left in disarray.

But Tulkinghorn is the only other person who is a match for her. He watches her every move and sees the flutter of panic in her eyes that would be undiscernible to anyone else, even her husband. Just as she behaves calm and collected on the outside, Tulkinghorn acts as if her secret matters little to him while becoming just as obsessed with it himself. It affords him an opportunity to manipulate her according to his whims, so that she will be supple under his commands.

Both Tulkinghorn and Chillingorth are driven by a ruthless greed for power. They thrive from controlling their victims, from overpowering them, and seeing them destroyed. They are persons who dismiss the idea of personal freedom and human choice. They are self-intersted individuals, the most perverted of villains, who employ weapons of such emotional magnitude.

While Chillingworth is driven to do so primarily out of a need for revenge, Tulkinghorn's motives are not so clear. Though Chillingworth does not want Hester anymore and believes she is punished enough, he still resents her for protecting the identity of her lover so fiercely. Thus, he sets to give just deserts to Dimmesdale so that Hester will never be able to unite with him. Tulkinghorn, on the other hand, has no interests in Lady Dedlock, other than the fact that she is the wife of a powerful aristocrat, who happens to be his client. He is well aware that Sir Leicester adores his wife. I believe that Tulkinghorn resents Lady Dedlock for her power. She is "not of a great family," but has managed to marry well and carry out her duties as a Lady befitting her new station. She instills both fear and respect in other people. She is admired by high Society for her beauty and her conduct. She can dismiss her irate maid Hortense and just as soon welcome another maid, Rosa, who admires her for her kindness, all at her will. Nothing angers Tulkinghorn more than knowing that Lady Dedlock has worked so hard to mask the enormity of her past. And so, he vows to destroy her, admitting that "the power and force of this woman are astonishing!"(Chapter 41).

Though both Chillingworth and Tulkinghorn are bent on destroying their victims' reputations, Chillingworth succeeds in calling Religion into question, while Tulkinghorn's deeds are focused on the boundaries of a woman's power. Between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock lies a battle of the sexes: when the Lady tries to break free fron the chains that bind her, the male, a lawyer, representing the confines of 19th century Society, is determined to bring her down. Unlike Hester Prynne, who shuns the public and meekly pays penance for her sins, Lady Dedlock is at the center of high society, and tries to bravely retain her power and her dignity until the very end. It is important to note that despite differences in their conducts, there are visceral ties that bind the two women: their daughters, born out of the same sin, are a living testament to their mothers' spirits, courage, intelligence, and endurance.