On Friendship and Solitude

I still remember a colleague of mine years ago, who boasted proudly that she had given as summer holiday read Joyce’s Ulysses to her students, Italian  students of about 17 years old, actually. “And….are you sure, they will read it?” was my dubious reply. “Of course”, she said. She had no doubts, good for her. I always envy such decided people. I moved to another school then, so I couldn’t check the outcome of that educational choice, but I would bet nobody had truly opened Joyce’s book. An easy win, I dare say. In fact,  how could half ignorant adolescents enjoy the read of such a bulky, complex novel, when I …………had not. It is time to confess that I skipped many parts of the masterpiece, read only the last pages of Molly Bloom’s famous monologue and that I have reserved the same destiny to Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Yes , I did it and I don’t mean to make amend for it. That does not mean, for sure, that both novels are not good enough for me, but rather, I am not good enough for them. The global literary knowledge I should have  – my edition of Ulysses came with  another book twice as big as the original to enlighten us mortals about the numerous literary references and interpretations – and the experimental syntax craft are just too much for my humble person.

Yet, when you allow yourself to be touched inadvertently and unprejudiced by their words, you can never be indifferent. Never. In fact, I was recently conquered by following the passage during a lecture,  before knowing it was actually Proust the source of the unexpected pleasure. I had to dive into the ocean of “In Search of Lost time” for a while, actually, before finding the passage I wanted to share with you, and here it is: so modern, so real, so thought provoking. This is how Proust deals with the theme of friendship:

“People who enjoy the capacity—it is true that such people are artists, and I had long been convinced that I should never be that—are also under an obligation to live for themselves.”

So far nothing exceptional. He was a decadent, so he shared the idea that the artist was the superior being whose talent should not be contaminated by the taste of vulgar masses, but he goes a little further here, as in those masses friends are included:

And friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self.”

Hence,  we understand that it is  wrong for an artist to consider friendship as a dispensation from that duty, as friendship is a sort of partnership in which you self is not free to expand itself, but must “abdicate” for the sake of that friendship.

“ Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime with-out doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute,”

These words may induce you to believe that Proust was a snobbish, solitary man, but he was not. He was a man who enjoyed society and much. In fact, Proust began very young to frequent the refined circles of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, thanks to the social and economic position of his family. He met illustrious writers, like Paul Valéry and André Gide, nevertheless, he found all that time spent in the habit of conversation useless and vacuous, an unpardonable weakness especially  in an artist:

whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.”

Only in the “bliss of solitude”  the artist can proceed into the depth of thought and avoid being kept at the surface by the  vacuity of light conversation and friendship works the same :

For the sense of boredom which it is impossible not to feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain ex-posed on the surface of our consciousness, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths) for those of us in whom the law of development is purely internal….”

I was wondering, how often have you felt this sense of boredom at a dinner with your friends, for example,  even if you are not one for “whom the law of development in purely internal” or experienced that “vacuity of the minute” which repeats itself ? I am sure that you have and often. Hence:

that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words uttered by our friend, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, albeit…”

Here lies the danger, we tend to believe that  what a friend says, just because he is so, may in a way enrich “our substance”, but according to Proust this is impossible:

 “we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the knot that duly appears on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage.”

No matter how clever, poignant or true the words spoken are, they are just like bricks and bricks cannot make a tree  grow. They are made of  different substances, after all. The living, creating sap may only come from within, and that must be the focus of an artist in particular and maybe men in general.

In short, the time used to cultivate friendships is not only useless but also unproductive. In the company of others we cannot be our real self  and constantly remain chained to what is superficial rather than go into the heart of things. It is a dynamic which does not allow the growth of a human being. I don’t fully agree with him, but if it is so, is  this monstrous society of “friends” connected worldwide in the never-ending practice of conversation allowing the growth of any sensible human being?

P.S. There is another question I would like to ask you and please don’t lie to me: “Is  there anyone out there who has truly read Ulysses from page one to page “too many” and enjoyed it?”

Goodbyes

There is something moving when you see your students go right after the secondary high school examination. 5 years together, with ups and downs, for sure , 5 years during which you have seen boys and girls blossom and become adults . 5 years is too long to be indifferent. That is why I see what we call “Esame di Maturità” more like a ceremony, a rite of passage, rather than a real exam, where we, their teachers, let the students go to experience the world.

The “ceremony” usually ends with the final question: “ what are you plans for the future?”  That very moment we realize we belong to the past  and a sort melancholy clouds us . We would like to say one last word to the , something they can remember, a treasure to be kept.

We have discovered in time  that the language poetry on this purpose may be very effective. In fact, every end of the school year some of us enjoy playing the “Dead Poet Society” borrowing some touching lines from famous poets. Hence, poems are recited  with moved and broken voices to say the class goodbye, which sometimes for some student may sound quite disorienting,  especially if the day before they had seen you going nuts and turning into a yelling Cyclop eager not to spare even one of those rebel souls.

 I used to read a poem myself too, but I gave up as soon as I saw  everybody did it. I know, it is very snobbish of me, but if what you mean to be a magic moment turns into a habit, everybody’s habit, it cannot be magic any longer. By the ways , if you want to know it, I used  to read “George Gray”, from the anthology of “Spoon River” by Edgar Lee Master:

“I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

A  man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone . He is dead. On his gravestone there is a marble sailboat, a most befitting symbol for a life full of motion and adventure, which is a kind of ironic, as  his life had , actually,  been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbour, under cover of the rough winds of Ambition, Sorrow and Love. He had always chosen the simplest and the safest route: no effort, no risk, but he couldn’t escape the uneasiness of such a life because each of us intimately “hungers” for meaning. To live is “lifting” the sails and “catching” the winds of destiny wherever they will take us, otherwise the sense of unrest will overwhelm and torture us. Only now he understands, now that it is too late, that he had never truly lived. My message for them , as adult woman, was to embrace life as it is, as Stephen Dedalus would say: “life is to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”, don’t be afraid to err, but rather learn from your mistakes and  move ahead . But I don’t read it any longer.

This year my colleague and writer Dario Pisano preferred the end of the exams as the appropriate moment to gift the students with a very poingnant poem:  “Ithaka” by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Cavafy chose the most iconic journey ever as pattern : Ulysses’. The poet says, that each of us  keeps looking for his own Ithaca, that is the achievement of his personal supreme goals, every single day of his life. Of course, there is nothing  wrong with it, but  eventually, it is not the goal but the journey that matters, because it is the  journey that  makes us wise and gives people the richest prizes: experience, knowledge and maturity.

Yet, the journey of our students has just begun, and while I see one of them politely, but carelessly,  take the poem and leave, I cannot help but wonder: isn’t this but our final attempt not to be forgotten in their journey?

The Handmaid’s Tale

Western civilization has been influenced by Aristotle’s vision of the world for centuries.  In short, God had structured all matters of life in a sort of hierarchy were  God was at the top of the ladder while right under him there were the angels and human beings. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order. Everything and everybody had they exact place and , according to this perfect organization, women ranked right after men. Women were meant for reproduction after all, and apparently,  this was believed to be their main task  as all the other more important matters concerned men only. Therefore, man’s place was the world, while women had to remain confined in their houses.

This patriarchal vision of society was the consequence the divine vision of the world and for this reason  it was regarded to be primary duty of men to tell the subordinate gender what was right or wrong and to behave accordingly. Men have accurately controlled their education over the centuries focusing a woman’s training mostly on her accomplishments: sewing,  playing , dancing, drawing etc.…. still, when we get to the nineteenth century, the running of a house and family was everything that should matter to a woman. This scheme started to crack during WW1, when women replaced men at work while they were at the front. Women started to earn their own living, to gain independence and have access to a broader education. When the war was over, the taste of freedom had been too sweet and exciting to go back to home seclusion, furthermore, with independence the right to vote had arrived. The door house was now wide open and the world tantalizing.

Hence, women had eventually rebelled to what had been designed for them by God himself but, can all this be without consequences? As I said before, it is incontrovertible that we have a reproductive biological function, but it is likewise incontrovertible that the women that belong to the more advanced and wealthiest part of the world make less children. My great grandmother had six children, my grandmother four, my mother just me and I chose to have none. If this is the trend, we are doomed to extinction. Hence, if we want to keep stuck to the metaphor of God’s hierarchy, the world is out joint, as Hamlet would say, what if a totalitarian theonomic state would form to set things right? Would it be so impossible?

This what “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian novel by Canadia authoress Margaret Atwood, is about. We are in a not too distant but nightmarish future: a radioactive disaster has devastated the Earth and the wars that have followed have changed the face of states and governments. In the United Stares, a theocratic sect, called the “Sons of Jacob”, has come to power and has upset the social order. In this new Republic of Gilead, as it is now called, it is possible to confess only one religion, the one decided by the state, and absolute power is in the hands of the Commanders. Below them, the Angels are the armed militia, the secret agents called the Eyes, while the men of lower social class are employed for the humblest jobs. But , where are the women?

Women are completely subservient to man – again -, and according to a rigid and aberrant interpretation of the the Holy Scriptures, they are considered useful only if the are able to procreate. Deprived of any kind of freedom, access to their goods, the possibility of receiving an education, women are divided into different categories: among these, the “Handmaids” are those who, being fertile, are used for the purpose to father the children of the Commanders.

All women of Gilead are classed socially and follow a strict dress code: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train the Handmaids in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives ( the wives of lower-ranking men) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarries girls in white; widows in black. Some women are sent to work as prostitutes in brothels called Jezabel.

The novel is told from the point of view of June, now called Offred, a Handmaid. Before the coup that brought the Commanders to power, the girl led a normal life: she had a job and lived with Luke, with whom she had a daughter. But when the Republic of Gilead is founded, her life is completely turned upside down: she loses her job – women in fact cannot work -, her bank account is cleared and she is persecuted as an immoral woman, because Luke and she are not married.

The two then try to flee to Canada with the child, but are captured: the child is given up for adoption, Luke disappears and the girl is transformed into a Handmaid, thus taking the name of Offred. In fact, the maids do not even have the right to their own name; since the only purpose of their existence is to generate children on behalf of the Commander to whom they belong, they take their name: “Offred” stands for “Fred’s”, the name of the Commander to whom the girl is enslaved. So now Offred is nothing but an object in the Commander’s hands.

Atwood says she wrote the novel in 1984 when she was in East Berlin, and that she was inspired by seventeenth-century American puritanism. So the crazy drifts described in the work are certainly the result of invention, but certainly the atmosphere of the Iron Curtain and the religious radicalism, real and historical facts, contributed to the genesis of the novel. In fact, as the writer explains, “every totalitarian regime does nothing but exasperate trends already present in society to consolidate its power”.

This is perhaps why the story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a truly disturbing, even if engaging whether one decides to read the book or watch the series. What is disturbing is that, in the midst of the inventions typical of a science fiction novel, you always feel that there is something potentially close to us, from misogyny to attempts to control the woman’s body. Atwood says, in fact: “My rule was that I would not include events in the book that had not already occurred in what James Joyce called “the nightmare of history”: nor any technology that was not already available, no imaginary law, no atrocity that was not already been committed. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil. “

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.