Sunday, December 20, 2009

Enid Blyton: The Girl Who Never Grew Up

Enid Blyton was recently selected as one of the most beloved writers of all tie. A J. K. Rowling of her day, she wrote nearly 750 books in a writing career that spanned half a century. Her books have been translated into several languages, and her imagination continues to inspire generations of children all over the world. A new biopic, starring Helena Bonham Carter, seeks to complicated our understanding of Blyton by tactfully examining the universal conflict between art and mother, ambition and service.

Bonham Carter's succint portral of Blyton reveals the dual nature of the writer. On the surface, she appears to be a petite, slender and matronly woman. Her hair is neatly combed, she wears plain dowdy dresses and sensible flat shoes, and she speaks in a monotone, addressing suitable epithets to the people around her. However, in her private moments, we see a different side of her. Alone in her bedroom, she is careless about her appearance and wards off her husband. When she writers alone, her brow furrows with concentration and her face darkens. Indeed, when she is interrupted by the maid or the children, the visible sign of anger conveys a sense of bieng possessed by writing. She insists that she must be left alone in order to craft her stories and takes great measures to shut out the world. In this way, Bonham Carter sympathetically unravels a woman much like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a woman whose dual personality is compounded by the way she wrestles her own childhood demons.

While childhood is the central theme in all her works, it is one that is ironically shunned in her personal life. Blyton's childhood was an unhappy one after her beloved father left the famaily when she was still a child. But by burrowing into her work for comfort, her children's childhoods were also unhappy. Blyton did not love her children the same way she did her "fans"--other children who wrote to her and even came to her house for tea while her own daughters were admonished to the nursery. It appears that her art, and her fans, demanded more of her, occupied so much of her time, that, by not being a good mother or caring for her children, she unwittingly inflicted wounds on their own childhoods. But perhaps it is this conflict, this difficulty to grapple with childhood and its myriad forms, which infuses Blyton's works with the poignancy and reality of childhood. For in childhood are our joys and sorrows, and art, inevitably is created out of loss--even if the price of that is motherhood and service to one's own children.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Artifice of a Manless World: A. S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" and the Perils at Women's Colleges

A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book," is set at a time when college education for women was just beginning to take shape. Two of the female characters--Griselda Wellwood and Florence Cain--attend Newnham College in Cambridge while other characters like Dorothy Wellwood and Elsie Warren find alternate ways to gain the education that enables them to build careers. This novel explores the ambiguities surrounding women's education and questions the ethics built into women’s education system. Although the setting is early twentieth century, I believe many of the issues explored are relevant to the present day.

It is crucial to ask the significance of Byatt’s work: is it merely a quasi-historical narrative to be shelved on the “women’s history” aisle, or is it a cautionary tale—much like a fairy story—that is supposed to warn women about the perils they are in. If the latter is true, then what type of women is the target population? Is it western women or women of color living in the west? Is it women in developing countries? Is it women in a chiefly patriarchal cultural system?

The themes relating to women’s education explored in the novel resonated strongly with me as I am not only a graduate of an elite women’s college, but a subaltern taught under the British system.

Speaking of college women, Griselda Wellwood remarks to Florence Cain:

"I feel a lot of incompatible things. I feel I must think or I'll go mad. And then I think of those colleges full of women--knitting, I imagine them, and flower-arranging, and drinking cocoa. And I think, is it like taking the veil, which is an idea that's always given me the horrors. Unhealthy, part of me says. And part of me says it is all secretly exciting. New. Doing things women haven't done, aren't expected to do. Things brothers take for would be a new kind of human being--" (495).

I was motivated to apply to women’s colleges because, like Griselda and Florence, I wanted to concentrate on academics without competing with traditional female duties like marriage. I wanted to nurture my feminist leanings and fight against sexism in my society. I thought college would enable me to “do things women haven’t done” (the women in my society, at least.)

It was only later, after graduating, that the reality of what I had chosen dawned on me. For Florence, however, it came early, for Byatt tells us that, "Florence was in a turmoil…And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex." (495).

I had chosen to think and before I knew it, four years of my youth flew by, as I abstained from the society of men. Men were scarce at my college and the only ones you would see on campus were men you could not have: boyfriends, fathers, and rarely brothers. Like many a young woman brought up in a traditional home where one needed to “save face” and where a liaison outside of marriage in inappropriate places was forbidden, I had no desire to party the night away in a raunchy frat or risk being date-raped in a bar. In America, unlike other commonwealth nations, communities from my cultural group were hard to come by. As a result, there weren’t enough opportunities to meet men the proper way: in dinners surrounded by chaperones (old aunties) or a quiet event in a religious center. I also was not terribly drawn towards the men who were different from me. I did not even have the opportunity to pick.

When Florence and Griselda discuss their future with Dorothy, who knew "exactly what she wanted" as she was going to be a doctor, Griselda notes that "she half-desired to spend the rest of her life in this College--largely because here she could call her life her own, and do what she wanted to do, which was to think..." (525).

I, too, thought I wanted to get a PhD and work in a liberal arts college—albeit women’s college—and inspire a future generation of young feminists who will change the world. But then I thought: what world will they change? For I wished to do that and the only path I have open is academy if I chose to get a PhD. I knew a PhD didn’t suffice, as Florence remarks to Griselda: "But is this enough, all these earnest women, and timid girls and the artifice of a manless world?"

In another instance, talking to Julian Cain, who questions her if she will settle in Newnham and study for the rest of her life, Griselda alludes to Florence’s point by remarking, "I cannot make my mind up. Sometimes I think a women's college is like the tower Rapunzel was shut in, or even the gingerbread cottage. I don't want to become unreal. Do you know what I mean? I think it is different for men." (537).

Florence and Griselda are both correct in noticing how the women’s college is nothing but “an artifice of a manless world.” I learnt too late how much of an artifice a women’s liberal arts college really is. True, there were opportunities to form strong bonds with women but I believe it could be formed anywhere. I, certainly, would naturally gravitate towards women because that’s what I feel most comfortable with. Having been taught to stay away from men, one becomes expert at forming bonds with women for companionship. Excluding men from women’s colleges creates an artificial world, especially for those women like me who have to go out into the real world and acquaint themselves with men’s ways and may not be able to cope for they were never given the opportunity to mingle with men in that capacity prior to going to college.

I believe, as Florence notes correctly,

"The truth is...that the women we are--have become--are not fit to do without men, or live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don't, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters, like Viola in Twelfth Night, or Miss Harrison's harpies and gorgons.” (526).

I know now that I cannot do without men, even though I pretended it was possible, or that I could wait until a man will come along who would know the woman I have become. The biological clock waits for no (wo)man. College does not tell you that, hence adding to the artifice. It is so focused on making you smart that it overlooks developing you—especially the shy, subaltern you—as a romantic partner. Even good, respectable men in my community want young wives, not one that is bohemian, seeking self-fulfillment at the expense of her age. Add to that the present economic crisis, when women who pursued the development of their minds and chose dead subjects as their majors found themselves unemployable. There is hardly a sadder sight than a single woman in reduced circumstances, unprotected and alone. While this seems to be something Austen’s Mr. Knightley would take pity upon, the modern world cannot shut a blind eye either. Indeed, for many women, penury is a real threat to forming an alliance by marriage. A woman without connections or fortune is the worst of the lot. Unlike a 19th century governess who can teach and thereby employ her talents, the poor woman nowadays is lucky if she can scrape floors and diaper other people’s babies.

College does not shield Florence from temptations, however, for within a year, she falls pregnant with an older man's child, and marries another man. Florence escapes college and finds fulfillment in her baby and marriage while taking classes from a tutor. She does not regret leaving college.

Griselda, on the other hand, continues her studies and eventually becomes a research student at Newnham while warding off any idea of romance. Griselda finds that her degree in History, with a concentration in German fairy tales, is useless. She later trains as a nurse and assists in the war efforts. In the end, we see that "Griselda had become fixed, efficient and almost spinsterly as the war went on. [Her mother] was almost resigned to seeing her close herself into a college." (675).

Thus, Byatt ends her novel by showing the options open to women who pursue an education: Florence leaves college to raise a baby; Griselda is set towards a “spinsterly” career as an academic; Dorothy saves lives on the battlefield; Elsie marries and thus has no need to work (teach). Each of them is fulfilled in a different way and neither is fulfilled in both an intellectual and romantic manner. It appears that education is not compatible with family life.

It serves to question how far we have come in the 21st century. Although we have female doctors who raise children, they have a spouse who helps. If men do not change and adapt to women’s changing roles in society, women—those that desire men, that is—cannot be fulfilled.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bright Star Movie Review

I had high hopes for this movie, but I must say, now that I've finally watched it, that I was rather disappointed. I thought it would be just as mesmerizing and emotionally compelling as "The Piano," but I found it lacking as a substitute for that former masterpiece.

First, what I found troubling about this movie is that there was little or no friction. By friction, I mean conflict. I just didn't see what the two lovers were so afraid of (besides their nebulous feelings for each other). Fanny's mother is not overbearing and I didn't notice any significant perils in their relationship. In "The Piano," Ada and the men in her life were mysterious and there was such a sexual charge in their encounters together. One is drawn to Ada's story because she is exceptional: she is mute, repressed, and rebellious. "Bright Star" does not really contain exceptional material. In simplest terms, it is a boy-meets-girl tale of first love set in 19th century.

Next, the acting didn't draw me so much. Abbie Cornish was a wonderful actress, however, and I do think she made full use of her role. However, her role wasn't complex enough and I think it could have been written better. Cornish was very expressive, but because there wasn't an explanation of the conflicts (if there were any to begin with) she had to overcome, we didn't know how to place her emotions. For example, her mother seems rather liberal in allowing her to mix with the young Keats rather than fear for Fanny's standing in society. We also don't know anything about her family: there's no indication about Fanny's family's class and wealth. With regard to acting, Ben Whishaw delivered a good performance as Keats and I think I shall remember the poet based on my impression of Whishaw. Still, there was an uncertainty in his portrayal. I wonder to what extent this had to do with the character and what extent it had to do with the actor playing the character. This question would have been clarified if we had been given a better introduction regarding the conflict and setting of the story. As far as the other actors are concerned, they were unremarkable, nothing but "types" rather than rounded characters with unique and realistic conflicts. Again, all the main characters in "The Piano" are unique, unforgettable, and very complex (and I am a Victorian/Postcolonial scholar).

As the movie did not have a proper conclusion regarding Fanny, it negated the centrality of her character in the movie, if not the title. At the end of the movie, we see Fanny cutting her hair, wearing mourning clothes and walking out on the heath as her brother follows her. The writing on the screen blandly notes that Fanny was seen walking on the heath and that she never forgot Keats. It does not contain any statement about how she survived, how she continued living, and how crucial she was to the remembrance of Keats--essentially, for the reason Campion made this movie in the first place. It is as if the story ended just as Keats' life ended, and indirectly, as if Fanny's life ended with that too.

I wanted to see more about Fanny as a woman. I especially wanted to see more of her sewing because I think that's where the real jewel of the story lay. Sewing is given prominence at the beginning of the movie, when Fanny emphatically defends the act of sewing and tells Keats that it is inferior to writing poetry and that she can make a living from sewing while Keats can barely do that from poetry. What appears to be a promising theme in this film is soon aborted and after about the first quarter of the movie, it disappears and I forgot that Fanny was a great seamstress. I was disheartened to see that Fanny swears that she will not sew anymore when Keats leaves her: this is unlike Ada, for whom playing the piano is visceral.

In "The Piano," the message was that women needed to be free, that silence can be a power, that starting life in a New World involves honoring and discovering artistry. But in "Bright Star," the point seems to be that young people fall madly in love (very cliche), that poetry is drawn from real experience, and that death can come at any time. Um...right. So what else is new?

But I will admit that the film had many virtues, besides the few I alluded to earlier. For example, some film techniques and cinematography worked. The close up of the actors' faces that allowed the viewer to discern their physiognomies and thereby discern their inner turmoil; the jarring contrast created by the continuous juxtaposition of light and dark, shown through the contrasting colors of fabric used in the costumes and lighting in the room contrasted with the dreariness of the landscape outside; the reading of the poetry, the lilting quality of the voices, the "sensuousness" of imminent death.

Overall, I wanted to love this movie, to rate it as exceptional, as I did its predecessor. A strong supporter of Campion's work, I expected this film to delve deeper into feminism and art, and as a consequence, am perhaps a harsher critic of this work. A little more conflict and better set up could have helped this film truly shine as the star in its title.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.