Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Villette-along Week IS IT OVER YET? "Fighting the battle of life by proxy"

I lost steam there at the end, as did Charlotte by all appearances.
He advanced; he opened the door; my back was toward it; I felt a little thrill---a curious sensation, too quick and transient to be analyzed. I turned, I stood in the supposed master artisan's presence: looking toward the doorway, I saw it filled with a figure, and my eyes printed upon my brain the picture of M. Paul.

But not, like, ALL of them.

Although I would've appreciated if Lucy had exerted herself to yell something more than "Dog in a manger!" at Madame Beck (who is a colossal twat, by the way, and I take back all the nice things I said about her at the beginning of this readalong).

I still like Lucy, because she personifies abstract ideas like a boss ("Freedom excused himself, as for the present, impoverished and disabled to assist; and Renovation never spoke; he had died in the night suddenly.") and because everyone else is so awful that she seems pretty okay in comparison. Also she says things that make me want to put her in a nest and pet her head:
I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. . . . gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written "Lucy's Room."
Ginevra eloped just because she felt like it, but still got a trousseau and family money and a proper wedding after the fact. And remember how she was disgusted by John's whiskers and Lucy described de Hamal as really feminine? Well de Hamal also saw a nun's dress and thought, "I should definitely put that on and walk around a little and then keep doing that on a regular basis." Juuuuust saying.

So after a long period of Lucy being passive to an infuriating degree, M. Paul presented her with a place to live and her own school and might have said that he would maybe want to get married when he came back in three years.

He promptly went to the West Indies and . . . never came back? (CB, what is with you and the West Indies as a place where bad things happen to love interests?) Did he come back? I DON'T KNOW.

What I do know is that the three characters I hated the absolute most in the whole book lived long and prospered all the days of their lives, because that is the literal last line of this 559-page book of which they are not the main characters.

I mean it this time, Charlotte.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Villette-along Week 5: "I never offer flowers to those I love."

You have to give CB credit for writing a love story that is simultaneously predictable and bizarre. At this point, it seems pretty inevitable that M. Paul and Lucy will end up legally bound, but the way they're getting to that conclusion is so gradual that I almost didn't notice it was happening. Lucy's attitude toward M. Paul has been evolving almost imperceptibly, largely because even though she's narrating, she's not really telegraphing her mind-set at specific points in time. Our latest sign post was, "I did not dislike Professor Emanuel." And that, from Lucy, is as good as a declaration of love.

M. Paul is not a clear-cut romantic hero. That is to say, if CB tells us one good thing about him, she immediately balances it out with something negative.

  • He tutors Lucy one-on-one and challenges her to stretch herself mentally because he believes in her intelligence even if she doesn't. (HURRAY!)
  • He's a jerk to her when her hard work pays off and she finally starts excelling in her studies. (BOO!)
  • But "when M. Paul sneered at me, I wanted to possess them more fully; his injustice stirred in me ambitious wishes---it imparted a strong stimulus---it gave wings to aspiration." (Excellent use of reverse psychology, M. Paul.)
  • He rifles through her personal effects. (Not cool, man.)
  • He leaves her chocolates and books he knows she'll enjoy, and she does. (Oh, well played I guess?)
  • He censors those books by literally cutting portions out. (What, are you her dad?)
  • He validates Lucy's Ghost Nun sightings. (ABOUT DAMN TIME.)
  • The only reason he's seen Ghost Nun is because he's been rear-windowing from his private rented room over the garden. (There is nothing okay about this, and thank goodness Lucy voices as much.)
  • He exhibits actual childlike glee when Lucy presents him with his birthday present. "This object is all mine?"

In the end, my opinion of M. Paul's actions has to be informed by Lucy's reactions to them. She's clearly charmed by his habit of going through her things. The more worked up and unruly he gets, the more content she feels ("It seemed as if the presence of a nature so restless, chafing, thorny as that of M. Paul, absorbed all feverish and unsettling influences like a magnet, and left me none but such as were placid and harmonious"). And while I would not find it endearing if a man commented on my choice of clothing, because it's a woman's personal business if she wants to wear a ribbon, yo, this is how Lucy receives M. Paul's criticism of her "gay fashions":
You are well habituated to be passed by as a shadow in Life's sunshine: it is a new thing to see one testily lifting his hand to screen his eyes, because you tease him with an obtrusive ray.
Under the guise of criticism, M. Paul gives Lucy permission to see herself as "volatile and versatile," as a blaze instead of a shadow. He is the literal antithesis to John Graham Bretton, just as Lucy is to Paulina.

And every scene Lucy and M. Paul share in this section (which is a section mainly of scenes with Lucy and M. Paul) veers into the territory of quirky rom-com. I know some of us are wishing for sexual tension (because obviously), but if I was in a room with these two people I would definitely think they were about to bone:
As for me, I took it with entire coolness. There I sat, isolated and cut off from human intercourse; I sat and minded my work, and was quiet, and not at all unhappy.
"Is that far enough away?" he demanded.
"Monsieur is responsible for it," said I.
"You know very well that it is not so. It is you who have created this immense void: I had nothing to do with it."

Not touching can be sexy, too.

And THIS, this is like a description of an alternate universe wherein Casaubon was actually worthy of Dorothea Brooke:
There were few bound and printed volumes that did not weary me . . . but his tomes of thought were collyrium to the spirit's eyes; over their contents, inward sight grew clear and strong. I used to think what a delight it would be for one who loved him better than he loved himself to gather and store up those handfuls of gold dust, so recklessly flung to heaven's reckless winds.
CB seems to be providing an honest portrayal of a romance between flawed people whose flaws perfectly dovetail to make each a better person. And is that not kind of beautiful, at the end of the day?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Villette-along Week 4: "You are at once mournful and mutinous"

All right, Charlotte. We've always agreed, you and I, that there's just something about a man with a crunchy exterior and a gooey center, but M. Paul. You're blowing it, dude.

We can all see that he's sometimes mean to her because he loves her and doesn't know quite what else to do about it. But he is a grown and educated man, and at a certain point it becomes counterproductive to have an adult tantrum in front of the object of your admiration and her classroom full of young girls.
The stove stood near my desk, and he attacked it; the little iron door was nearly dashed from its hinges, the fuel was made to fly.
"Est-ce que vous avez l'intention de m'insulter?" said he to me, in a low, furious voice, as he thus outraged, under pretence of arranging the fire.
Which is a real possibility if you don't back up off that stove.

But more interesting than M. Paul's continued reliance on the Crush Handbook for Adolescent Boys is the slooooooow metamorphosis of Lucy's attitude toward him. I mean, for the longest it was, "M. Paul was not a good little man, though he had good points," and "Never was a better little man, in some points, than M. Paul; never, in others, a more waspish little despot." But then she saw him rise majestically out of that orchestra pit at the Tribune and heard him talking politics with the perfect balance of reason and passion, and afterward he was all, "How did I do?" and she was all,

If he overhauls his technique, he may actually have a shot with her, because she seems pretty thoroughly disenchanted with Dr. John these days. And well she should be.

A sampling of gripes against Dr. John:

  • He's getting reeeeally pushy about this Ghost Nun business and a little too adamant in his belief that Lucy is hallucinating everything. Can anyone remember a time in a Victorian novel when a man insisted a woman was seeing things and it ended well for her?
  • He was writing Lucy regularly and showing up late at night to whisk her off to the theater and generally being a friend, and then he reunited with Polly and . . . SEVEN WEEKS later, his mom wrote Lucy to invite her over for dinner and see this old mutual acquaintance of theirs that she didn't know John had been spending his days with all that time. And then I do believe three months of silence from his quarter followed that. What. the. hell, John?
  • He still talks down to Polly.
  • He expects Lucy to do and be whatever suits him in the moment, and she's sick and tired of it. "I realized his entire misapprehension of my character and nature. He wanted always to give me a role not mine. Nature and I opposed him."
  • He doesn't properly appreciate Vashti. I'll bet M. PAUL would've appreciated Vashti.

Yeah, let's end on that. Vashti. That whole section of chapter 23 was seriously intense and I'm sure laden with meaning I'll never grasp. Not only was it a bit of a turning point in Lucy's infatuation with John but I think a moment of personal epiphany for her and just a damn good description of a complex woman.
Before calamity she is a tigress; she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence. Pain, for her, has no result in good; tears water no harvest of wisdom: on sickness, on death itself, she looks with the eye of a rebel. Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong; and her strength has conquered Beauty, has overcome Grace, and bound both at her side, captives peerlessly fair, and docile as fair.
At first it's like . . . is this an endorsement or a judgment, Lucy? And then you forget about forming an opinion of the woman or even understanding what the hell this opera is about, because Vashti is a gorgeous mess of qualities, "a mighty revelation." And that could apply to Lucy, because everyone has a particular view of her personality (Madame Beck: learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe: caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home: model teacher, essence of the sedate and discreet; M. Paul: adventurous, indocile, audacious), and she finds that variation ridiculous. But maybe with the help of Vashti she could begin to see that it's possible to be all those things at once.

And John's reaction to the same spectacle that inspired so much introspection for Lucy? "He judged her as a woman, not an artist: it was a branding judgment."

You don't want a man like that, Lucy. And you may not want a jealous little wasp who embarrasses you in public, either. You don't have to choose either of them. You can stay independent. You can even choose Ginevra if you want! It would definitely do her some good.

*sound moral drubbing*

Monday, March 16, 2015

Villette-along Week 3: "A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me."

After this week, I'm more certain that I love Lucy and moderately less certain that I love Dr. John, and a surprise dark horse has emerged in the competition for Lucy's heart.

But Lucy. Allow me to briefly sing her praises.

She's clearly smitten with Dr. John and, if that little tangent about his portrait is any indication, has been since they were teenagers. But she still brings up Ginevra Fanshawe's name just because she knows it will make John happy if he's given an opening to talk about her. She submits willingly to play the Watts to his Eric Stoltz.

Complete with occasional
sass, of course.

She's aware and accepting enough of her shortcomings to be candid with M. Paul about her difficulty in caring for Marie Broc by herself. He's hard on her about it, but she doesn't give in to the temptation to make herself out as a naturally patient caregiver when she's not. And there's no shame in that at all. Not everyone is cut out to care for children, let alone children with special needs, and that was not her job at the school. She got the responsibility by default because she was the only one not leaving town for the holiday. She did her best, and she isn't going to beat herself up about it.

But even as harsh as M. Paul has been with Lucy, I'm joining Jenny in championing him as a suitor. Beginning with the vaudeville, he's been steadily challenging Lucy to be more than she thinks she can be (with tough love). He's not going to gush over her the way John does with Ginevra or encase her in jewelry, probably, but his admiration for her is based in fact and not fantasy and is thus worth infinity more than all of John's flattery and presents. M. Paul's methods are unconventional, but I think Lucy recognizes their merit.
M. Josef Emanuel stood by them while they played; but he had not the tact or influence of his kinsman, who, under similar circumstances, would certainly have compelled pupils of his to demean themselves with heroism and self-possession. M. Paul would have placed the hysteric debutantes between two fires—terror of the audience, and terror of himself—and would have inspired them with the courage of desperation, by making the latter terror incomparably the greater.

Music teachers: Terrifying their students into excellence
since the 1800s at least but probably even before that

Next to M. Paul, Dr. John, with all his square jaw and strong chin, looks bland. Although I am liking him much better now that the Ginevra Spell is broken (take note, ladies: do not laugh at a man's mother), he has a worrying habit of being generally . . . close-minded.

For example, contrast Lucy's disdain for the "Cleopatra" painting with his. Where she is adorably confused as to why everyone is so impressed by this sizable woman who is naked and lying on a couch amidst her own clutter in the middle of the day, John goes straight to body shaming with a side of skin-color prejudice as casually as he would ask Martha what's for dinner.

And in his tirade against Ginevra at the concert, he puts Lucy in the awkward position of having to defend a person whom she doesn't much like. Even as insufferable as Ginevra is, Lucy is fair enough to see that she hardly deserves to be a labeled a slut because of the very specific meaning Dr. John assigned to a very brief look she exchanged with de Hamal across a crowded room.

I love Dr. John's banter with his mother and Lucy, and I'm pretty sure I would also love his face, but I'm afraid he's the sort of man who's only safe for women who manage not to fall off the precarious pedestal he's placed them on. We've all encountered such men. They're the ones who have very particular ideas about what women should want and how they should behave, and dangerously little respect for those women who fall short of those strictures.

No, my vote is for M. Paul.
Yet, in the midst of prejudice and annoyance, I could not, while watching, avoid perceiving a certain not disagreeable naivete in all he did and said; nor could I be blind to certain vigorous characteristics of his physiognomy, rendered conspicuous now by the contrast with a throng of tamer faces: the deep, intent keenness of his eye, the power of his forehead—pale, broad, and full—the mobility of his most flexible mouth.
If popular culture has taught us anything, it's that righteously abrasive men and composed yet opinionated women, when combined and mixed with cold weather, lead to a chemical reaction of hot-flaming love.

Don't worry, M. Paul. Next time she won't choose to study
another man's coat sleeve instead of your glorious hawk-like face.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Villette-along Week 2: "I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures"

The temptation to summarize is great in these readalongs, but you've all read the chapters (yes, even though they were many?) and I just want to talk about Madame Beck.

I find this character so interesting. Through Lucy's description of her, we get what amounts to a portrait of a living, breathing woman. It would've been so easy to make her either a cheerful and plump benefactress or a strict and unfeeling taskmaster. But Madame Beck resists categorization, and above all she resists conforming to the Victorian feminine ideal.

I think Lucy sees in her some traits that she is missing and that challenge and empower her to step outside of her comfort zone.
At that instant, she did not wear a woman's aspect, but rather a man's. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy, nor congeniality, nor submission, were the emotions it awakened. I stoodnot soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonor of my diffidenceall the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire. 

So it's clear that Lucy admires Madame Beck for, among other things, her business acumen and ability to manage a school of about 120 students, four teachers, eight masters, six servants, and her own three children. But she doesn't fail to mention the character traits that would open Madame Beck to judgment even in our gender-progressive era.

Madame Beck isn't compassionate or feeling. Her heart can't be appealed to in any matter. She's a fairly terrible mother. She cares for her children and their future, but she doesn't punish them when they're out of line and she doesn't hold them when they come to her seeking affection. She is what many would call today (pardon my French) a bitch.

Lucy acknowledges these traits, but she doesn't demonize Madame Beck for them. And because Lucy, as the narrator, is effectively Charlotte Brontё's mouthpiece (Hi, Charlotte, we know you don't like the French or Catholics, WE KNOW), it doesn't seem like she's meant to be an example of a "bad woman." She's just a woman, and a fairly capable one at that.

Although I have to disagree with Lucy about Madame Beck's special talent being cunning and espionage, because if she's so good at sneaking around undetected why has Lucy detected her so many times?

I am good at spying. Look what a good spy I am.

And how does Madame Beck react to the disappointment of Dr. John's unreturned affections? She gets on with her business. She's got other stuff to worry about, like her career and stuff. Moping over boys was so 1789.

And all Madame Beck's traits contrast most drastically, of course, with Ginevra Fanshawe's, a girl who has nothing to do in life but find a husband. Too bad Ginevra is totally gay for Lucy. Oh, hi, welcome to our readalongs, in which we always make someone gay.

No but seriously, Ginevra.

She has two suitors. One is a manly-man with whiskers (gross), and the other is a pretty man with hands smaller than hers. Who do you think she prefers? I will give you two guesses.

And not only is she disgusted by John's whiskers, but she hates his name and insists on giving him a new one, and that name is ISADORE.

So there's all that. And then you have the vaudeville in which Lucy acts as one of Ginevra's suitors and steals the show. And then afterward Ginevra delivers that sermon to Lucy about all the ways she is better situated in life, and I couldn't help but think, "Sweetie, who are you trying to convince?" For her part, Lucy remains unconvinced.
For in my heart you have not the outline of a place: I only occasionally turn you over in my brain.

Lucy's heart belongs to Dr. John, and I'll entertain no contrary opinions. Good day.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Villette-along Week 1: So far, so Brontё

Villette readalong! Another fantastic excuse, kindly provided by Alice at Reading Rambo, to talk about Victorian literature approximately once a week.

I'm getting a pretty strong Jane Eyre vibe so far, which I find comforting because of how much I love Jane Eyre. Something I used to forget about that novel, until about the fifth reading, was that the characters start out as children. That happens in Villette, too, but they don't stay children for nearly as long.

We also have Brontё's trademark (based on my knowledge of the one other novel, but just go with it) level-headed and beleaguered protagonist. Lucy Snowe is only 14 at the start of the story. By the end of Chapter 5, she is 22 and has lost everyone in her family and then also the sickly Miss Marchmont, whom she'd just recently grown attached to. And I'm not sure, but I have a feeling she's going to lose the blue-eyed, auburn-haired Graham, too . . . probably right after she's decided she loves him. For now, she doesn't seem to love him.
"I told you I liked him a little. Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults."
"Is he?"
"All boys are."

I'm assuming that Polly Home (who's ten years younger than Graham) will end up catching his fancy in the coming chapters. There've already been some concerning interactions between sixteen-year-old Graham and six-year-old Polly.

I'm sure it's perfectly innocent when Graham cradles Polly in his lap or snatches her up and holds her aloft or tries to coerce her into kissing him. And even her infatuation with him seems natural. Younger children idolize older children all the time. But it also feels ominous, somehow, like it won't end well for one or both of them.

This is clearly the best, though:
"Little Mousie" crept to his side, and lay down on the carpet at his feet, her face to the floor; mute and motionless she kept that post and position till bedtime. Once I saw Graham—wholly unconscious of her proximity—push her with his restless foot. She receded an inch or two. A minute after one little hand stole out from beneath her face, to which it had been pressed, and softly caressed the heedless foot.
No one understands her pain.

Brontё also foreshadows unfortunate events, such as Miss Marchmont's death, with turbulent weather, which was a major literary device in Jane Eyre. And Lucy uses a storm at sea as an extended metaphor for the difficult events of her life in the eight years after she leaves her godmother's house ("The ship was lost, the crew perished").

Speaking of foreshadowing, Miss Marchmont's story about her lover, Frank, dying in her arms was so heart-achingly detailed that its inclusion hardly seems incidental. Since we know Lucy is recounting this story as an old woman, I'm wondering if her life will somehow imitate Miss Marchmont's. Will she, too, be alone at the end, looking back on her short-lived encounter with true love?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Me Before You: I Before E Except After C, or Every Rule Has an Exception

Here comes the honesty. This story is what you might call emotionally manipulative, and it has tropes. Oh, does it have tropes. I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing. My husband is an occasional reader of Nicholas Sparks, and when I (good-naturedly) mock him he responds by patting me on the head and saying, "It's okay if you're dead inside."

I just save my tears for things that matter is all.

But Me Before You is proof that I can unzip the leathery pouch around my reader's heart (separate from the heart I use in everyday life, because that one is made of gummy bears and suspended in cherry Jello) and let the author guide me where she or he will.

Louisa Clark is our heroine, playing the not-unique role of directionless 26-year-old still living at home and exhibiting unconventional fashion choices. (Aspects of this character are, in fact, almost identical to Johanna Morrigan in How to Build a Girl.) Her earnings are basically keeping her family (mother, father, younger sister, younger sister's young son) afloat, so when the bakery where she works closes, she's in desperate straits. The job agency finds her a position working as a full-time caretaker for a paraplegic man. She is assured she won't be asked to perform any medical or intimate duties, for which she isn't qualified anyway, so she's not entirely sure why she's being hired at all. But she doesn't have the luxury to be picky, and the job pays well.

The man in question, Will Traynor, is quite young (in his early 30s), quite handsome, and quite rich. None of this should be a surprise to you.

Nor should it be a surprise that this handsome
yet vaguely douchey-seeming actor will be playing
him in the movie adaptation due out this year.

Will is bitter and sarcastic and stubborn as all hell. He was a successful businessman who traveled the world and climbed things and then sometimes jumped off of those same things he had just climbed, and he's not adjusting well to this new reality as a prisoner in his own body. In fact, he's staunchly opposed to the idea of adjusting to it, and he resents anyone who dares to suggest that his situation has a silver lining.

So here we have a girl who hasn't figured out her passion or seen the world outside her small hometown, yet is reasonably content, and a recently crippled man who has lived enough for five lifetimes but has a chip on his shoulder the size of his parents' castle. (Oh right, I forgot to tell you that his parents own a castle.)

I'm sure you can see where this is going. Yes? You have some knowledge of such things?

Not as much as you might suspect, unfortunately

I could see the setup from a mile away, and I knew I shouldn't be falling for it, but I couldn't help myself. Plus, there were a couple of interesting dynamics at play that made this story more than it might seem at first glance.

Because Will is a man whose life revolved around what he could do, on the power he wielded both physically and mentally, in a world that largely reinforces that superficial conception of male self-worth, he struggles to realign himself to his new reality in a way that will allow him to see any worth in himself. This situation would be just as difficult for a woman, but gender roles being what they are there is an added element of shame for a male living under this degree of dependence.

At one point, Will recommends that Louisa read The Red Queen, and the book gives her (and us) some insight into his worldview:
This book . . . was all about a kind of battle for survival. It claimed that women didn't pick men because they loved them at all. It said that the female of the species would always go for the strongest male, in order to give her offspring the best chance. She couldn't help herself. It was just the way nature was.
I didn't agree with this. And I didn't like the argument. There was an uncomfortable undercurrent to what he was trying to persuade me of. Will was physically weak, damaged, in this author's eyes. That made him biologically irrelevant. It would have made his life worthless. 
Oh, I said a couple of interesting dynamics. I owe you another dynamic. Louisa has some issues with men that, to keep it vague, involve their using their God-given manly power against her. So she's able to let her guard down with Will, exactly because of the imbalance of power between them, which ends up being crucial to her growth as an individual and wouldn't have been possible with literally any other man.

And bonus dynamic! Louisa's relationship with her family and especially her sister, and the ways they show up for her and she shows up for them are . . . really great. They're just really great.

So, yes, sure, I read a sappy love story, and I liked it a lot.

Go about your business.