Musings on Boxing Day

When you are a child, Christmas time is fabulous. When you are a child born on the third of December, named Stefania, Christmas time is a long Dionysiac festival, a bacchanal, which starts exactly the day of your birthday and whose wild dances die out the day of the Epiphany. Well, when I was a child. I should have realized that something was about to change the moment when accidentally I was told that, from then on, the name-day present was part of the Christmas present, implying that I would have received only one gift but, of course, a more expensive one. Was it really so? I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t give much consequence to that slight change of plan, after all, the name-day present was usually really a small thing, just the emotion of unwrapping the little surprise. That was all.

By the way, after few years, I started to suspect that something was going the wrong way, when I was told that I was too old to expect the usual sock full of candies, coins and that delicious sugar in the form and colour of charcoal, which was usually given to all the bad children in the world -and I was happily one if them – along with a present by the old and scary Befana witch. Old? Old at thirty!I couldn’t believe it.

As the time went by, I realized that December had become a “problem” for all my relatives and friends, as very likely, when you are no longer a child, it is less obvious to find a present that you really need or wish, let alone 4 in a month, so, before I knew it, the four presents had become one. Now I can candidly say that being born and having my name-day celebrated in December is a bummer. Furthermore, my beloved husband Mr Run and I (?) have decided that this year we would have waited for the sale season to buy and exchange our presents. Of course, mine will be something invaluable he said, but I suspect another….bummer?

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Ruth

 

“If a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.” (Moll Flanders, Chpt 4)

Can a “fallen women” be also pure, innocent? A sinless sinner? Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth is the answer to these questions. Ruth is the angel that sins without even knowing the meaning and the consequences of her action, she is a pure ray of light that brightens the entire novel and gently glides over the greyness of Victorian prudery and moralism. Ruth is an orphan of about sixteen, who works at a sweatshop and whose uncommon beauty attracts the young and rich Henry Bellingham. They form a secret friendship, which is found out by Mrs Mason, the owner of the shop, who soon dismisses her for the sake of the reputation her business. Homeless and unemployed she consents to leave with Henry Bellingham to go to London first and then to Wales. This makes her a “fallen woman” at the eyes of society, the point is that she didn’t know the meaning of it:

” She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice” (Ruth Chpt 3)

For her it had been natural to follow the man she loved and had offered protection; it was natural for to please him or entertain him; it is natural when you love. She couldn’t see anything wrong in her doings, but  the people she occasionally interacted with, oh yes, they could. Gaskell, here, is at her best when she depicts Ruth’s joyful and spontaneous world, made of expectations, true feelings and pure emotions, which strikes with the strict code of proper behavior of the Victorian society, which couldn’t but condemn the degree of moral corruption that all that meant. Only when a young boy, whose innocence had already been dented by the talks inside the family, shouts at her “naughty woman” – very likely without comprehending the meaning of his words – she catches for a moment a glimpse of reality, but she doesn’t figure it out fully. She’ll have to wake up abruptly from her dream of love, when Mr Bellingham’s mother, called by her son on the occasion of a fever, persuades him to abandon Ruth in Wales. She will remain alone with a 50 pound note and a kid on the way.

Elizabeth Gaskell never deceives her readers on the true nature of Ruth’s lover, he is a rake. Whatever point of view she uses, however genteel his manners may look or honest his intentions may be, there is always a fraction, a word that unmasks his real temper. Even when he seems to display a sort of heroic nature, saving the life of a child, we cannot trust him, in fact when he carries the boy back to his humble abode he is disgusted by the dirt and the smell of the place, and he openly says it with contempt, hurting the feelings of the boy’s grandmother.

Distraught and alone in a hostile world Ruth attempts suicide, but she is saved by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister, who offers her comfort and decides to take her to his home town to live with him, his sister Faith and Sally their housekeeper. Being pregnant, she will be introduced in the neighbourhood as Mrs Denbigh, a young widow of only 16, to protect her from tittle-tattle. Years of sorrow and expiation will follow,  which she will be able to bear thanks to the love and comfort the Benson’s give her and, of course, her son Leonard who will become the only reason of her life.

So this “fallen woman” is given a chance to rescue herself and this is the novelty of this character. She will be accepted, loved, praised and be offered a job as governess, and when Mr Bellingham reappears in her life, she has become strong enough to be no longer seduced by his words and offers. Yet, her reception in that society was based on a lie, her being a widow, and when the falsehood is discovered, she is shunned once again, but she will not go away and she will endure with patience, like a Madonna, all the consequences for the sake of her child.

Once again she will redeem herself, and the occasion will be a deadly fever. Ruth volunteers to be sick-nurse for the townspeople, as no one else was willing. As a real Madonna she’ll work hard to comfort the sick and dying. It would seem the ultimate penance for her sin, but it is not. Mr Bellingham has caught the fever and even if she is weak and tired, she revolves upon attending him. She will catch the fever and die, while he will recover. I have to confess that his is the part I have real trouble to understand fully. Even Charlotte Bronte herself said: ” Why should she die?” and I would add: “why should she go?”  The turning of a “fallen woman” into a saint with the final sacrifice must have tempted her, but to find peace and her reward in the other world is not an end that can satisfy my more modern taste. I do prefer rewards in this world.

 

The Abstract Principle of Equality

It was 1871 when Swiss philosopher Henry Frèderic Amiel  pondered on the nature of democracy in his “Journal Intime”. It is impressive how Amiel in few clear words nails effectively the problems implied by a representation where one is worth one despite merit, experience, education etc. and foresees the processes that will shape the world as we know it. Of course, he could not predict how the impact of modern means of communications would have made the development of those processes more dangerous and faster with the consequences we know worldwide, however, his intuition has become astonishingly and bitterly true.

“The masses will always be below the average. Besides, the age of majority will be lowered, the barriers of sex will be swept away, and democracy will finally make itself absurd by handing over the decision of all that is greatest to all that is most incapable. Such an end will be the punishment of its abstract principle of equality, which dispenses the ignorant man from the necessity of self-training, the foolish man from that of self-judgment, and tells the child that there is no need for him to become a man, and the good-for-nothing that self-improvement is of no account.
Public law, founded upon virtual equality, will destroy itself by its consequences. It will not recognize the inequalities of worth, of merit, and of experience; in a word, it ignores individual labor, and it will end in the triumph of platitude and the residuum.”
HENRY-FREDERIC AMIEL
Journal Intime”
12th June 1871

“Man is not Truly One but Truly Two”

Dr Jekyll had always strived to conform to the dominant values of his time. Highly respectable with a charitable disposition, he enjoys a reputation as a courteous and genial man, however, he very soon understands that the sparkling facade that he exhibits in society does not correspond to his real nature, or better, natures. “Man is not truly one , but truly two“, Dr Jekyll says , a “double being“, then, whose most secret side is more prudent to have it concealed from the eyes of the many, but at the same time it is also so dangerously attractive. Whether we call it “evil side” or “id” as Freud would define it, what’s so fascinating in the exploration of this dark, emotional world?

According to the Freudian tripartite division of the psyche, the “id” is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. That part of our psyche prevails when we are children, as we haven’t fully developed a moral conscience yet, according to the values imparted by parents or society, what Freud calls the “superego”. This development, which occurs around the age 3-5, is called the phallic age of the psychosexual development. How does it all this work, then? Well, the “superego” controls the “id” ‘s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression, for example and persuades the “ego” to turn to moralistic goals, to behave properly and to seek for perfection. Otherwise, the controlling power of the superego would take the form of conscience, thus making arouse a sense of guilt for not having being able to conform to what family and society expect from you, for not being that ideal self that you ought to become in order to be proudly integrated in the system.

So, the “id” is the instinct, whatever is forbidden and therefore evil, that is why it is so appealing, in particular to seemingly strait-laced Dr Jekyll, who would like to enjoy the drives he so painfully tries to repress. A potion will do the trick and give him the chance to tell us readers, what it feels like to fully experience that secret side of our self, to be finally the Mr Hyde each of us conceals. Well, the answer we’ll be shockingly simple: happy.

He is happy, as for the first time he we’ll be able to feel ” something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet“. Without the moral laces of the superego he feels even “younger, lighter, happier in body” like a child and in his mind “a current of disordered sensual images” runs” like a mill-race in (his) fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul”. Dr Jekyll, now Mr Hyde, is fully aware that this new self is “ more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to (his) original evil“, but there is no room for a moral condemnation here, but rather, the only thought of it is as inebriating as wine.

Having struggled all his life to improve his good side, this Mr Hyde appears to be shorter and smaller than Dr Jekyll and conforming to the canons which connote evil, he is ugly and deformed. However, when he looks upon that “ugly idol “in the mirror, he feels no repugnance but rather “a leap of welcome”. He recognizes that as his real, natural self, better than “the imperfect and divided countenance” of Dr Jekyll and even if Mr Hyde is repulsive at the eyes of other people, he doesn’t care. Why should he? After all, he finds himself now above the moral ties of the Victorian society and can enjoy freely the darkness of his soul.

Being Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders

What if you had been gifted of a unique talent but not allowed to express it freely because you were born woman. If Shakespeare had had a sister, endowed with the same degree of genius, or even more, what would have become of her, was Virginia Woolf’s question in “A Room of One’s Own”? Marriage, children, a woman ‘s  “career” was quite defined whatever her social status was at those times. Hence, Virginia Woolf ‘s conclusions were that had such a playwright existed, she would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed, her voice made dumb.

Sleeping Venus

Well, exactly at those times, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, a woman was struggling to gain hers as an artist. Born in Rome on 8 July 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.  Artemisia was soon introduced to painting in her father’s workshop  just like her brothers but soon Orazio saw where real talent harbored among his children and it was in those little, delicate fingers of her daughter. He encouraged her and taught her how to draw, mix color and  paint, but at the same time, she had to take her mother’s place, who had lately died, and bear the burden of the various responsibilities of family business, home management and the custody of her three little brothers. Whatever Artemisia had learnt, therefore, it was within the domestic walls. Even Caravaggio’s technique, the most popular and innovative painter of those times that had influenced her style so much, was not apprehended directly but through his father’s paintings. As woman, she was unable to enjoy the same learning paths undertaken by her male colleagues. As you can easily guess, painting was considered almost exclusively male and not feminine at that time. However; Artemisia’s talent was blossoming to such an extent that Orazio allowed her to work on his canvases. It was in 1610, at the age of 17, when she produced what, according to some critics, is the work that officially seals Artemisia’s debut into the world of art: “Susanna and the Elders“(Susanna e i Vecchioni).

The episode to which the work relates is narrated in Daniel’s book from the Old Testament. Susanna is a young and chaste girl, who is surprised naked in the bathroom by two elderly gentlemen attending her husband’s home. She is subjected to a sexual blackmail: either she will agree to submit to their appetites or the two will tell her husband that they had surprised her with a young lover. Susanna accepts the humiliation of an unjust accusation and only later Daniel will bring to light the lie of the two elders. Maybe it was a presage, but incredibly Artemisia will experience a similar event with devastating consequences in her life. In 1611, when Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi, a talented painter, to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Orazio decided to hire him to mentor his daughter privately, despite the rumors about his obscure past.  During this tutelage,Tassi raped Artemisia. 

Death of Cleopatra

Which were Artemisia’s options? Telling everything to her father? What if he had not believed her? Denounce the rapist? Bearing the consequence of public exposure and comments? She decided to be silent. She even continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, hoping he would marry her, thus restoring her dignity and future, but Tassi continually postponed the marriage, using his promise as a means of convincing her to continue sexual relations with him. Nine months had passed and rumors about the liaison reached the ear of Orazio. The two were confronted and eventually both Tassi and another “gentleman” Cosimo Quorli (who had tried but failed to rape Artemisia and had helped Agostino plan visits to her house when her father was absent) were charged. The trial lasted seven months in 1612, and received, as you can well imagine, considerable publicity.

The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, Orazio would not have been able to press charges. “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me….I have never had any sexual relations with any other person besides  Agostino..” she declared, but these were only the words of a woman, therefore; during the trial she was subjected to a gynecological examination, first to verify her testimony and then tortured with the “sibille”, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to “prove” that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which, of course, seriously injured her hands, thus risking her career, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded: “it is true, it is true.”

Orazio Gentileschi’s self portrait

During the trial Artemisia discovered that Tassi could have never married her, because he already had a wife, a wife that he had planned to murder, but still alive. Furthemore; he had been engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law and had in mind to steal some of Orazio’s painting. Not exactly a Prince Charming. After the trial he was condemned to five years of imprisonment or, alternatively, perpetual exile from Rome. Of course, he opted for the second possibility, but he managed never to move from Rome. Hence; even if Artemisia won, her  in Rome was completely undermined and  an impressive  amount of licentious sonnets that saw her as protagonist started to spread. One month after the trial, in order to save her reputation Artemisia married a painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. She and her husband separated a few years later.

What followed were years of hard work, but also fame. He travelled and made herself known all over Europe and her genius reached even the court of Charles I. Of course, the consequences of the rape and subsequent trial had left inevitably a profound impression on Artemisia’s life and art, thus  transposing the psychological consequences of the violence suffered on her canvas. Very often, “la pittora”(the woman painter) as she was called, turned to the uplifting theme of biblical heroines such as Judith, Jade, Betsabeah, or Esther, who – fearless of danger and animated by an upset and vindictive desire – triumph over the cruel enemy, and somehow, claim their right within society. In this way, Artemisia soon became a kind of protofeminist, permanently in war with the other sex and able to incarnate the desire of women to affirm themselves in society.

 


A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

Was Shakespeare Italian and born in Italy?

Today…….we celebrate the Bard’s birthday💁

e-Tinkerbell

16shakespeare

William Shakespeare is the emblem of English literature for sure, but, you know, every time I read his works he seems so familiar to me, so Italian. This is not only because 15 out 37 of his works are set in Italy, he knows the nature of the Italians so well, that some of his immortal lines mirror perfectly some unchangeable traits of our society. An example? In his famous soliloquy “to be or not to be” , he actually seems to be pondering about committing suicide speculating on life and death, but he truly complains about some aspects of society that have the stamp of the Italian character. First of all ” the law’s delay” (it may take more than ten years to see the conclusion of a trial here and in the end you have spent so much money to pay the lawyers to end up…

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