Ada Lovelace

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, — not as now we part, But with a hope. –( Child Harold Pilgrimages, Canto III)

Ada Lovelace never saw her father, yet in a way he never left her. Her name Augusta Ada, for example, was always to remind her the scandalous liaison he had had with her aunt Augusta Leigh, actually, his step sister, who was so dear to him to dispose that his daughter should be named after her. Easy to guess, her parents’ marriage came to an end soon and the small talk concerning the circumstances of their divorce would follow her till her death. This may happen when your father is poetry super star George Byron. The swelling tide of rumours about his indecorous conduct forced him to leave the country when Ada was only five weeks old, never to come  back. He died in Greece, when she was only eight years old.

Her mother, who came from a rich family and was a renowned mathematician, in a way feared her daughter might be inclined to the study of humanities just like her father and introduced Ada to her own field of expertise. It was soon evident that the magic of words was not to be in her future, but rather the enchant of numbers. At the age of 12 she made the project of a steam power flight machine. As a true scientist she studied birds’ mechanisms of flight, and then examined various materials, including silk, feathers and paper, with which to build wings. She jotted down the results of her research and recorded each experiment in an illustrated guide, entitled Flyology . One of her tutors proclaimed that if a young male student had her skills “they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. But she was just a girl.

Lady Byron decided to enhance Ada’s natural aptitude to Math entrusting her training to Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who in 1835 would become the first woman to be accepted, as an honorary member, by the Royal Astronomical Society. Once out in society at the age of 17, it is Mary Sommerville that  introduced Ada to William King, who will become her husband and make her Countess of Lovelace and scientist Charles Babbage, the inventor the “Difference Engine”, a first model of automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

When Ada was invited by Babbage himself to see a demonstration of how the “Difference Engine” worked, she was strongly impressed. She couldn’t know it then, but the “Difference Engine” would change her life and would also be the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship with Babbage.The man, who at first underestimated that curious girl, began to change his mind and to open up more. They began to correspond about science and even to discuss his ever evolving projects. He also encouraged Ada to indulge her evident predisposition for numbers and to put her potential to good use. For those times, it was not at all easy: the Victorian patriarchal society was hostile towards the ladies who tried to overcome the intellectual, cultural and social boundaries imposed on them.

In  1835, a year before Ada married, Babbage had begun to plan the “Analytical Engine”, a computing system that used cards to multiply and divide numbers and perform a variety of data tasks. The mathematician was forced to seek support and investments on the project abroad, as the British government had tightened the purse strings and this is the reason why in September 1840 Babbage attended the Second Congress of Italian Scientists in Turin.

Among the people in the audience there was the engineer Luigi Menabrea, who offered to draw up a description of the analytical engine, hitherto non-existent. The article appeared two years later in French (Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage), in a Swiss magazine. Ada Lovelace, who knew French and every aspect of Babbage’s creature very well, proposed herself as a translator. No, actually she did something more.

She added to Menabrea’s writing some of her notes. The new text, almost three times longer than the original, was published in the British magazine “Taylor’s Scientific Memoir” in August 1843. It was signed simply A.A.L. (the initials of Augusta Ada Lovelace) to hide the author’s gender.

Ada Lovelace’s notes also contained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, the so called “Note G”.  In short, the first computer program in history. This is the reason why today Ada is considered the founder of the science of programming, at least in its theoretical aspects: for her, in fact, what mattered was the possibility of demonstrating that only one machine could really be applied for multiple purposes, thanks to the instructions that were provided.

Her intuitive mind was able to see even more: if, following instructions, those machines could manipulate numbers, then they would also be able to manipulate the symbols they represented, like musical notes or letters of the alphabet. In a way she was able imagine the behaviour of our modern computers.

Babbage never managed to build his analytical engine and Ada Lovelace could never test his program as she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Thus, for over 100 years after her death, no one remembered her, except as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. Her scientific contribution remained underestimated until the “father of computer science” Alan Turing rediscovered her notes in 1936. It is possible that the British mathematician was inspired by Ada’s ideas in theorizing artificial intelligence.

The greatest tribute to Lovelace’s work, however, came in the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence called ADA  the newly developed programming language DOD-1 (Department of Defense 1). Furthermore, since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated around the world on the second Tuesday in October, to acknowledge the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By the ways, Ada Lovelace was more alike to her father than her story tells, in fact, she did have the gift of poetry, but she applied it to science. She actually declared in a letter that she aspired to what she considered a “poetic science” and that “ imagination is also the faculty of combining“, that is, “of finding points in common between subjects who have no apparent connection”, but “pre-eminently it is the faculty of discovery. It is what penetrates into the invisible worlds around us, the worlds of Science ”. Those could be the words of any romantic poet; just like her father. When she died, she wanted to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Together at last.

The Prioress

If I told you to think about a woman who is commonly considered extremely elegant, refined with a great sense of fashion, one who enjoys food and a good company where she often delights in displaying her good manners and knowledge of languages, I am sure you would presume, and with reason, that I’m talking about myself, because I am all such things. But, if I told you that the subject in question is not actually Mrs Tink, but a nun, I am likewise sure that you would understand that there must be something weird in what I am saying, as our image of a “nun” does not , cannot match that description. The Prioress of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is exactly  all this: a character that does not fit stereotypes.

Chaucer’s description of the pilgrims, actually, is all about detecting their weirdness in behaviour or look, rather than giving you an exact picture of  their physical account, as if only spotting  their singularities, the poet could read their true nature. Chaucer proceeds with great elegance making a crafty use of gentle satire, which consists in the case of the Prioress in a sequence of flatteries, which actually mean quite the opposite of what it seems .

Since the very first lines we understand that this Prioress is somewhat ambiguous. The poet appears to be attracted by her way of smiling, which he describes  as “ simple and coy”. Nothing odd, you would say, this first image fits the behaviour of a nun perfectly, but then he soon adds that she is known as “Madam Eglantine” and eglantine is wild rose with fragrant leaves and flowers, which was in the Middle Age  a symbol of Christ but also of passion and love, and, well, this is weird. Hence, we wouldn’t be far from the truth if we assumed that her being “simple and coy” would refer to another more secular stereotype : the chaste, angel like woman of courtly love tradition.

Chaucer goes ahead telling us how beautiful she sings, even if she intones straight through her nose and also notices that she speaks English with a French accent, even if she is not French at all and very likely she has never been to France. So, we understand that this nun wishes to impress the people she interacts with, thus suggesting that she was once lower-class. Her strange mannerisms can be noticed also at meal time. In fact, she displays excellent table manners: she never lets a morsel of meat fall from her mouth onto her breast, nor does she dips her fingers into the sauce. She wipes her lips so clean that not a trace of grease remains after a meal and eats slowly as if she were not hungry. It is clear that the Prioress’s intent is that of imitating courtly manners and in a way, thus being noticed….. by men.

A nun must be “charitable”, of course, and Chaucer, I am sure, sneered , while emphasizing how sensitive this woman was. She wept if she only saw a mouse bleeding and used to feed “with roast meat, milk and fine white bread”……..her dogs. Chaucer’s satire lies here in what he omits to say, as her humane attitude is displayed only to animals, but there is not a single word of Christian compassion for human beings.

It seems hard to believe, but Prioress is not indifferent to the fashion of  the time, and this is strange indeed. She loves gathering her veil “in a seemly way, thus, keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered, she goes against monastic rules. That is why Chaucer tells us he appreciates the “graceful charm” of  her neck,  because he saw it and this was quite an unusual exhibition for a nun.

She also indulged on a little make up, as her soft and red lips suggest the use of lipstick which was considered, of course, unacceptable. Furthermore, she wears beautiful, expensive clothing and jewelry, while monastic rule forbade nuns to wear ornaments. The coral rosary with green beads, from which hangs a golden pin with an engraved “A” with the Latin phrase “Amor vincit omnia”- “Love conquers all”- reveals her materialistic interests, which are far away from  being  spiritual. This attitude is emphasized  through the fact that her “greatest oath was but by Saint Loy”, a saint who worked as a goldsmith .

In conclusion, this Madame Eglantine is more interested in profane things rather than fulfilling her religious role. Even the fact that she is far away from her monastery on a pilgrimage, a practice which had been forbidden by bishops several times in history and condemned by the Lollards, proves it . Hence, the target of Chaucer’s criticism is not the lady, but what she represents, that is, the increasing secularization of the church in the late Middle Ages, which by no means could be seen as “dainty”.

The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.

Alluring and Entertaining

I often  wonder what response I would get if I taught in the way I used to do at the beginning of my career. Because one thing teachers must learn quickly – and those who don’t will end their days behind a desk or screen bitterly disappointed –  : the communication model has to be modified again and again to be effective and have a positive feedback. Generations change and necessarily we have to change with them.  Any teacher’s repertoire, because we have one, has to be updated, refreshed, modernized in order to be appealing and above all, we always need to find new forms of expression to connect with our public. When I was a student, I was the one who had to find a way to connect with my teachers and if I did not, well, the problem was mine. Now it is just the opposite. If it was much easier to teach decades ago, I can’t say. What I know is that now we are mostly required to be entertainers, as adolescents cannot, must not be bored.

Hence, since it was time to deal with the theme of the double narrator in Wuthering Heights, I wondered how I could connect with my audience without being  boring, but catchy and  entertaining. My addiction to Netflix helped me in a way.  Recently I have noticed that the flash forward device, for example,  has become increasingly popular among series. Flash forwards are effective, if you want to create a certain suspense, which originates in the initial disorientation due to the lack of familiarity with the characters and the usual breathtaking event, of which we have only partial knowledge.  We are given just the few necessary tiles to leave us confused enough to want for more. At that point the chronological, explicative narration begins. I also noticed that if the use of such device is not well calibrated, it may often result quite annoying, as in series I loved like “How to get away with murder”  or “How I met you mother”, in fact, sometimes I found myself wishing to scream: “Enough!”

And what are the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights but one of the first experiments in using flash forwards in a narration? When the novel starts, 98% of the events have already happened. Emily Brontë chooses apparently the most unfit of narrators to introduce us to Wuthering Heights, in fact Mr Lockwood is a total stranger to the story. He has just arrived from London to go to Wuthering Heights and call on Heathcliff, the landlord whose house he has rented: Thrushcross Grange. In a way, he forces Heathcliff lo let him in, feigning to ignore his scarce sense of hospitality and due to adverse weather conditions, he is allowed to stay the night. Through the eyes of Lockwood we are introduced to the weird characters who inhabit Wuthering Heights, even those who are dead. The general  atmosphere is unfriendly and scary. That place seems to be hiding secrets everywhere. When he reads some diaries he finds in the room he has been left, we are acquainted with a certain Catherine, who will be the other central character of the novel. That very moment something seems to be tapping at the window and suddently a sequence of unexpected events follow: a scream, a ghost, Heathcliff’s tears and desperation, till dawn arrives.  

Lockwood accomplishes his task of exciting our curiosity, keeping well locked at the same time, as his name anticipates, the secrets of Wuthering Heights. To unveil all the dynamics of the story a second narrator will be needed, a witness to the entire saga, one of the few who survived, actually, as Nelly Dean, the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, who will answer all Lockwood’s curiosities and ours. At this point we could also say that Wuthering Heights has been structured in such a way to make the first three chapters of the novel  the catalysers of the reader‘s attention and curiosity, as a good pilot episode of a modern drama series would. It is up to the reader to say whether Wuthering Heights’s novel keeps up to the expectations aroused by the three chapter pilot episode, but certainly Emily Brontë’s craft and modernity will never be questioned. It is otherwise questionable, whether such an approach may work with my public made of bored adolescents. Well, I’ll let you know about it.

Becoming a Tenant

 

It is dawn. In the darkness three silhouettes are on the run: Helen Graham, her son and a trusted servant. They aim at leaving behind a life made of vexations suffered from an egoist self-conceited man, Helen’s husband, to face all the troubles of an uncertain future. Their destination is Wildfell Hall, Helen’s family house. Helen Graham is the protagonist of Anne Brontë’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, a novel which can be considered in all respects a feminist milestone, as the authoress’ s intent is clearly that of vindicating the necessity of women’s emancipation, a “real” one.

At the time of publishing, that is 1848, the word emancipation for a woman still coincided with marriage: a girl left her patriarchal structured family to emancipate herself and join another one, whose prevailing role naturally pertained to the husband. It was truly a peculiar way of emancipating oneself from our modern point of view, particularly, if we consider that before the Women’s Property Act of 1870, once married, women lost their rights on their properties, profits, they had no legal custody of their own children and could not sue or divorce. Therefore, emancipation meant actually leaving a cage to fly lightly into another one, hopefully on the wings of love. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” warned a more realistic Charlotte Lucas and she was right, as too often those girlish Prince Charming fantasies crashed against the reality of that long awaited “emancipation”. That “unpalatable” truth had to be made known and Anne did it, in her own way.

Helen Graham, in fact, is one of those women who married for love. Being her reason blurred by her feelings, she is blind to her beloved  Arthur’s tricks and wicked nature and she is determined to have him despite her family’s warnings. Pretty soon, once clouds disappear and Helen recovers her better judgement, she understands that under the ruins of what she believed marriage was, nothing remains but abuse and fear. She is bullied and mistreated, in fact, by her husband Arthur, but only when she realizes that their only son has begun to be the object of his ill-treatments too, she decides to leave the marital home going against all the moral and social laws of the time and take refuge at Wildfell Hall, her brother’s house. She will become, hence, a “tenant”, that is displaced. The word tenant reinforces, in fact, the concept that society did not conceive a place for a woman without a man by her side. Those places were all filled by men. Helen is well aware of that, in fact, she introduces herself in the new neighbourhood as a widow, thus providing herself with an acceptable justification for her present situation to the eyes of strangers.

Life was not what Helen had hoped to be and her story was that of many other girls: painful truths often untold for shame or fear. Anne meant to give voice to those silent cries, but, naturally, that voice at those times had to belong to a man to be heard, that is why, just like her other sisters, she published her works using a male pseudonym. The novel was a hit, but popularity often attracts bitter criticism too and this was exactly the case. That is why she felt compelling to add a preface to the second edition of the novel, where she claimed that it was time somebody revealed the truth. That was her mission:

“…when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?” (Preface. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)

To those who had censured her choice of language, which was regarded shocking, if not brutal, she replied that  “if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts” the young of both sexes who were about to experience marital life would suffer less misery, they would be more prepared, rather than being left “ to wring their bitter knowledge from experience”. If somebody questioned the truthfulness of her characters she answered that they were not a product of her imagination: “I know that such characters do exist” and for this reason she felt her duty to speak the “unpalatable truth” in order to warn women, but also to incite them to be aware of their full potential.

Before marriage, for example, Helen knew exactly who she was: an artist. Once she becomes Mrs Huntingdon, thus accepting her new role of wife, she rarely refers to herself in such a way. That is why the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband represents not only the first conscious reaction against Victorian strict moral rules, but it also gave hope that things could be changed, would have changed one day, if all those silent voices had eventually found the courage to speak all together, fight together, in order that their daughters and granddaughter would have no longer been just “tenants” in this world.

Witch Week 2020

First witch : When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lighting or in rain?

Second witch: When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Third witch: That will be ere the set of sun.

First witch: Where the place?

Second witch: Lizzie Ross‘s blog. That is the place!!

It is Witch Week time! You don’t know what I am talking about? Well, let me explain it to you. It’s an event inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Witch Week, which is set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, that is the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Six years ago, Lory of “Emerald City Book Review” made of this week an annual event to celebrate fantasy books and authors.

This year Lizzie Ross  will host the event on her blog along with Chris at Calmgrove. 2020 ‘s theme is very dark indeed: Gothick. I have given myself a small contribution to this event, so I want to thank Lizzie and Chris for having given me the occasion to be part of the lot.

Here is the schedule:

Day 1: 31st October, Halloween
Chris takes us on a tour of Gothick castles and towers featured in more than 200 years of gothic literature.

Day 2: 1st November, All Saint’s Day
We travel to Italy, with e-Tinkerbell as our guide through Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century gothic romance, The Betrothed.

Day 3: 2nd November, All Soul’s Day
Is there a better place to visit on this Day of the Dead than a graveyard? We think not. Join us for an in-depth consideration of our read-along book.

Day 4: 3rd November
Gothic short stories move into the spotlight today, with Jean of Howling Frog Books giving us a taste of Montague Rhodes James’s collected works.

Day 5: 4th November
Lizzie reviews a modern gothic YA fantasy that features creepy puppets: Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms.

Day 6: 5th November, Guy Fawkes’ Day (Bonfire Night)
“Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America” (The Guardian). Kristen of We Be Reading tempts us with her review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-seller, Mexican Gothic.

Day 7: 6th November
Lizzie ends the celebration with the usual wrap-up post, and end by unveiling the theme for Witch Week 2021 (to be hosted on Chris’s blog).

Don’t be afraid to join us!!

Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.

 

A New Sense of Freedom

You cannot imagine our surprise when a couple of weeks ago, we Italians were complimented by WHO for our approach to stem Covid-19 outbreak. It was, you know, something between being pleased and amazed at the same time, as we are not used to such kind of praises, expecially when the efficiency of our organizational model is the subject of the matter.

Our surprise turned into a shock, when we read that English Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that his country had a worse COVID-19 rate than Italy and Germany because it is a “freedom-loving country.” Freedom, this is the point. What kind freedom was he taking about? If he meant the freedom of ignoring rules, from a historical point of view we are the champions, as we may say that Italy has mostly behaved since the fall of the Roman empire as the Becky Sharp of the continent, always striving to earn a place in good European society anyhow. Or maybe he was hinting at the bloody dictatorships of the previous century, which have made obedience part of our cultural heritage. By the ways, we follow rules? Please, Sir. You must be joking.

We Italians also love freedom, but we also care about seriousness,” was the patriotic reply of our President Mattarella. Maybe he is right, after all, it has always been national sport to underestimate our “virtues”. It comes so natural. Indeed, if you asked me how we actually managed so well in this Covid matter, my first answer would be luck rather than wisdom or seriousness. Yet, I can say by daily experience that the majority of the Italians now are no longer willing to keep up with their “virtuous” behaviour, as it has recently become for many an umbearable burden, like a heavy chain that must be broken to be released from the actual state of servitute, they say. Becky Sharp wants to be free again.

Day by day I see more and more people, friends, collegues contaminated by the new “liberty denied virus”.  They don’t see themselves as negationists, of course, but rather, “libertatis vindices“, for whom social distancing is one of the ways the state controls citizens and masks are like burqas. Others claim news should break in a less scary way, softly, so that we are not afraid to go restaurants, bars, theatres etc.,  as the economy the country, rather than people’s health, has to be preserved. Of course, those who follow the rules like me are the slaves, born to be so.

Well, my dear fellows, friends, collegues, it is about time to say that your strife for all those lost liberties due to the pandemic is not guided by the love for freedom, but rather, ignorance. I don’t need a law decree to do what is right for me and the people I interact with, because of that “moral law within me”. I am free. But you are not. Since you cannot discern between what is necessary and what is not, you need somebody to take decisions for you, which, of course, are childishly interpreted as liberties denied.

So while you keep complaining, I keep the distance, wash my hands and wear my mask, which is the symbol of my free choice to stay safe as long as I can and my detachement from the rest of this foolish world, whose inhabitants look like Yahoos to me day after day.

I began last week to permit my wife to sit at dinner with me, at the farthest end of a long table; and to answer (but with the utmost brevity) the few questions I asked her. Yet, the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves. And, although it be hard for a man late in life to re-move old habits, I am not altogether out of hopes, in some time, to suffer a neighbour Yahoo in my company, without the apprehensions I am yet under of his teeth or his claws.(Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift)😏

 

 

Riccardino

It was 1994 when Camilleri’s “The Shape of Water” was published. It was the first episode of Inspector Montalbano’s saga, which, after more than 25 years, is about to end. Truly the end of an era. In fact, exactly a year after Camilleri’s death, his last work “Riccardino” will be released just tomorrow. We, Montalbano’s fans, cannot be but absolutely thrilled to discover what kind of finale Maestro Camilleri imagined for his hero. Being very close to retirement, as we ave read in the last books, will he eventually leave his beloved Vigata to join Livia, his perpetual fiancèe,  in Boccadasse? Will he die in one of his missions?

I am pretty confident that Camilleri found a way to close the curtains without being predictitable. In fact, it was 2005 when Camilleri delivered the draft of “Riccardino” to Elvira Sellerio, his publisher, but with the promise to release it in an unspecified tomorrow. In 2016, after eleven years and 15 books, Camilleri returned to those pages because he needed to “fix” the language adapting it to the times. Nothing changed in the plot and not even in the title which remained identical. In fact, differently from the essential and evocative titles of the other books like “the Shape of Water” to “The Snack Thief”, Camilleri with “Riccardino” wanted to mark an end. A definite one.

As Camilleri recounted in an old interview, at one point of his life he had to tackle with the problem of the “seriality” of his novels. A problem that many noir writers have and that he had decided to solve by making Montalbano age, thus dealing with all the changes that this would have entailed and the times that he would have lived. But it was not enough, as there was also a superstition issue, he explained. His two friends, crime writers too, JeanClaude Izzo and Manuel Vázquez Montálban, who wanted to get rid of their characters, had died before them in the end. So “I came up with another idea“:

“I wrote the end ten years ago – the writer revealed surprisingly – I found the solution I liked and I wrote it straight away, you never know if Alzheimer then comes. Therefore,  fearing Alzheimer I preferred to immediately write the ending. The thing that makes me smile most is when I hear that the manuscript is kept in the publisher’s safe … It is simply kept in a drawer.”

He then added:

“Montalbano will end, when I end, only then the last book will come out. What I can say is that it is not so fiction , but rather metafiction where the Inspector talks to me and also to the other Montalbano, the TV one. »

When he was asked if he had planned to make Montalbano die in a shooting, he just said:

“Nothing like this will happen . Montalbano will not die. No autopsy. … He will go away, he will disappear but without dying.”

With these words we have a sample Maestro Camilleri’s craft in creating interest and suspance, as he mocks us pretending to spoil his finale providing his readers with some anticipations, but he is not. Montalbano will disappear without dying, where to? What does he mean? And, if he disappears, isn’t it like dying, after all? So, a day before being released, Riccardino is a hit already. I can imagine Camilleri sneer with satisfaction, while he is lighting one last cigarette.

Il telefono sonò che era appena appena arrinisciuto a pigliari sonno, o almeno accussì gli parse. ‘Riccardino sono’, disse una voce squillante e festevole, per dargli appuntamento al bar Aurora. Ma Montalbano non conosceva nessuno con quel nome… Un’ora dopo, la telefonata di Catarella: avevano sparato a un uomo, Fazio lo stava cercando. Inutilmente il commissario cercò di affidare l’indagine a Mimì Augello, perché gli anni principiavano a pesargli; aveva perso il piacere indescrivibile della caccia solitaria, insomma da qualichi tempo gli fagliava la gana, si era stuffato di aviri a chiffari coi cretini. Si precipitò sul posto, e scoprì che il morto era proprio Riccardino”. (Riccardino. Chpt. 1)

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Sex & drugs & rock & roll”  I remember Ian Dury sang some time ago. A mantra which has constituted for more than one generation the antidote to the homologation to middle class morality and values: family, a good job, a responsible life. Dull!! I am sure any of us has enjoyed a more or less long “sex & drugs & rock & roll ” phase in their life, the rebellious phase, when you want to break the world of OLD RULES, advocating one with NO RULES, till without even realizing it, you find yourself banging your head against the wall of NECESSARY RULES (better known as compromises), so the Hegelian phase of growing up comes to an end and you have become an adult, brand new middle class, of course.

This fight against the bourgeois system of values is nothing new and actually dates back to the time when the middle class world definitely imposed itself on the old aristocrat model of society. Profit, utilitarianism, success, respectability united to a massive dose of prudery and hypocrisy became the totems of the age of the triumph of the middle class: the Victorian Age. And you know what kind of lifestyle did the rebels of the time dream of? Sex & drugs an& rock & roll. Nineteenth century style, of course.

These peculiar kinds of rebels were called “dandies”. They were easily recognizable, as they exhibited a unique refinement, which was their way to express their contempt towards the triviality, hypocrisy, materialism, in a word, the ugliness of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Aesthetics was for them a religion and as they believed that the Victorian society was desperately in want of beauty, they defied it trying to make of their lives something different, just as beautiful as a work of art and if a prudish, respectable kind of behaviour was required, well, they chose to devote themselves to the god of pleasure. Dandies never followed fashion, they did not seek for homologation, for sure. They made it. They embodied such models of elegance and sophistication, which were to be seen unattainable by anybody and no amount of money could buy.

Hence, the dandies chose to fight the system creating an antithetical model, thus proving the mediocrity of the Victorian standards of behaviour. Did they succeed? Well, yes, of course, till they banged their heads against the above mentioned wall (sooner or later it happens). However, they were not the only voices against those standards, there were some others, who were called: Bohemians.  They were, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, “ artists or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” rejecting permanent residence and surviving on little material wealth. They were exactly like the hippies of the end of the nineteenth century. In Paris many of them lived at Montmartre, not far from the “Moulin Rouge”, while in London they could be seen at Chelsea or Soho. They lived solely for art and literature’s sake and their dissolute lives were often characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as open sexual freedom.  The Bohemians, in fact, felt the need to express and assert themselves, being at such a social and economic disadvantage. They aimed at defying the system, flaunting their marginality. They were actually sex and drugs & rock & roll.

Did they succeed? You know the answer. Rebellions bring new lymph to any society but their life is short and their fate is inevitably homologation. Therefore, once the disuptive impetus has gone, what remains is a sort of quietness, better known as adulthood, and in this new land only the memory of a refrain remains: “sex & drugs & rock & roll”.