Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lady Audley's Secret Readalong 5: "I have been afraid of you, Mr. Robert Audley, but perhaps the time may come in which you will have cause to be afraid of me."

Now that Lady Audley has made a good-faith effort to burn Robert to death in his bed, this seems like a good time to analyze Rob’s capital-W, capital-I Woman Issues.

Whenever the narrator has given us Rob’s perspective on matters, especially this week, we’ve been treated to his manifesto on the state of womankind—her inner plottings, her outward treacheries.

First, it was the thesis-worthy paragraph essentially expounding on that old adage, “Behind every great man is a woman who just will never shut up OMG.” Then we were treated to a lesson on the “witchery” of the tea ritual, the “legitimate empire” of women. “What do men know of the mysterious beverage?” It’s a very important job, and women are indispensable in carrying it out. Let the “sterner sex” worry about all this other tiresome business.

Then he’s dishing out judgment regarding women’s manner of dealing with other women and thus taking life out of men’s hands. And poor, unsuspecting man! He knows nothing of these womanly wiles until they are being applied to him mercilessly while the band plays on. And here is yet another comparison of women to witches and yet another depiction of men as helpless victims.

Through this dizzying and sometimes contradictory inner monologue delivered via narrator, two of Rob’s core beliefs emerge: Women abuse the power they’re given, and it’s up to men to ensure that doesn't happen. This is the same sentiment that powers most instances of prejudice and discrimination. It's fear.

Rob is afraid of women. And I’ve gotta say, within the framework of this story . . . he has reason to be.

Aside from the obvious external threat posed by Lady Audley, the women in this book seem to have most of the power—although not explicitly, because it’s still Victorian England. Think about the men though: Sir Michael, George, Luke, Rob. They are all written as strong in body and mind (maybe not you, Luke) but ultimately ruled, for better or worse, by the women in their lives.

But no, the women don’t always exert their power through selfish manipulation, as Lucy does. Alicia would have made Rob a powerful ally if he had ever bothered to confide in her about his doubts and suspicions. And Rob wastes a great deal of energy fretting over whether Clara will figure out what he’s been trying to conceal from her, the name of the person he suspects in George’s death. Meanwhile, Clara connects a few dots and figures it out all by herself in about 5 minutes.

And a couple of key Victorian tropes are being turned on their heads, too.

First, we have the commonly held belief at that time that a woman’s outward appearance was a foolproof indication of her inner character. Beautiful women were good, and ugly women were bad. Period. Rob muses over the shocking possibility that Lucy could be evil despite her beauty. But, alone in her chambers, Lucy contemplates the likelihood that she has done wrong all her life because of her beauty—because people discounted her character in favor of her appearance and thus gave her license to do as she pleased.

Second, how often in Victorian literature is a woman pronounced mad and wrongfully committed because a man needed her out of the way for one reason or another? In this case, Rob is terrified that Lucy will use her feminine power to reverse that trend. Based on my knowledge of the time period, such an occurrence would be virtually unheard of.

What I don’t understand is what Braddon is trying to tell us with all this. Is she using Rob as a mouthpiece for what she knew to be outdated views on women, in an effort to illustrate their absurdity? Is she expressing her feminism the only way she knows how, by painting the women as calculating and clever and the men as helpless and na├»ve? Will Rob ever admit to himself that maybe he keeps women at arm's length because his mother died when he was 5 and he just wants to be held?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lady Audley’s Secret Readalong 4: “Such a nice girl, too, if she didn’t bounce!”

This week I started to notice some similarities between Robert Audley and Sherlock Holmes. And before you accuse me of fabricating an excuse to use CumberGIFs, hear me out. I've compiled evidence.

It’s also worth noting that if one writer was influenced by the other in this case, the influencee was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because Lady Audley came first (1862 vs. 1887, BOOM).



1. They're both terrible at subtlety and social interactions in general.

Just as one example, after years of ignoring let alone reciprocating Alicia’s affection for him, Rob takes the occasion of her rejected marriage proposal from Harry Towers (he of the aversion to girls who wear green spectacles) to tell Alicia that he might be interested in marrying her . . . eventually—that is, if she would first kindly change a few key aspects of her personality. And absolutely swear off bouncing now and forever.

Can't imagine WHY that upset her.

2. They both have well-intentioned housekeepers whom they find exasperating.

Classic Rob and Mrs. Maloney:
“Oh, you were in and out all the time. If you could conveniently give me a plain answer, Mrs. M., I should be glad to know what was the longest time that you were out while the locksmith was in my chambers?”
But Mrs. Maloney could not give a plain answer. It might have been ten minutes; though she didn’t think it was as much. It might have been a quarter of an hour; but she was sure it wasn’t more. It didn’t seem to her more than five minutes; but “thim stairs, your honour—” and here she rambled off into a disquisition upon the scouring of stairs in general, and the stairs outside Robert’s chambers in particular.

3. They both have a close man-friend, formerly of the British military, whom they would go to extreme lengths to defend and/or avenge.

The number of times Rob says something along the lines of “I would give 10 years of my life to have George back” is . . . a lot of times. And whenever he gets kind of alarmingly stern and says something that forces you to stop reading so you can fan yourself with the book, it’s always in relation to doing right by George. George, even in his absence, is driving Rob to become a better man—more conscientious, more compassionate, more selfless. More human.

But about that face-fanning:
Heaven help those who stand between me and the secret, for they will be sacrificed to the memory of George Talboys.

4. They are both unimpressed by women in general . . . until one woman finally impresses them.

This one is a little tricky, because I truly believe that Sherlock is an asexual character. I understand why every movie and TV adaptation portrays Irene Adler as his love interest, but I don’t agree with that interpretation. To me, Sherlock is an example of someone who gets along very well without romantic love; those kinds of people exist in the world, and I always liked that they had a representative in him.

That being said—and acknowledging that Rob will most likely fall in love and happily marry before this book is done and Sherlock never did—recall Rob’s reaction to Clara in Chapter 24 (“She was different to all other women that he had ever seen”), and then read the opening paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia”:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. . . . And yet there was but one woman to him.

5. They both have archenemies who have a certain power over them.

At this point Rob is 98% sure that Lucy Graham is Helen Talboys and is behind the disappearance and probable demise of his best friend. But so far Lucy is a match for him, thwarting him at almost every turn. And, to complicate matters further, exposing Lucy for the deceitful temptress she is would mean destroying his beloved uncle, which he’s loath to do. So he’s conflicted, much like Sherlock in his run-ins with Moriarty—because he knows he must be stopped but he also ADMIRES him.

Incidentally, Lucy and Moriarty share a penchant for disguising their identities to infiltrate polite society.

Not always WELL, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Black Hole: Come, let us stroll arm in arm toward the event horizon

Oh hey, guys . . . do you wanna read a graphic novel that's an extended metaphor for "the nature of high school alienation itselfthe savagery, the cruelty, the relentless anxiety and ennui, the longing for escape"?

Yeah, I didn't either. But then I saw the part about how the high school students in this '70s suburban Seattle neighborhood are passing around an STD that manifests in different physical mutations (lizard tails that fall off and grow back later! tiny neck-mouths that wheeze in the night!). I can't resist a good wheezing neck-mouth.

In the appropriately titled Black Hole, we see the story from the perspectives of a few different characters, infected and noninfected and soon-to-be infected alike. In a lot of ways, it’s a typical slice of high school life. You have the popular kids and the rejects, same as always. The virus is just a way of making the politics of popularity more visible than usual. And it doesn’t matter if you were the prettiest, nicest girl in school before you got the plague; once everyone finds out that you slept with the neck-mouth guy and now your skin peels off in one big piece, you might rather drop out of school and live in the woods than face the inevitable social castigation.

But, just like high school, the cruelty doesn't necessarily stop even if you remove yourself from polite society and refuse to participate in teenage politics . . . because you can be judged less worthy and persecuted (and possibly beaten with a large stick) by your fellow freaks, too.

Hurray, high school!
So you might be wondering if I actually liked this graphic novel, and I certainly wish I could tell you. I can say that I didn't enjoy it. But that means nothing because I don't think it's meant to be enjoyed, per se. Even though the illustrations are in simple black and white, they still manage to be pretty cringe-inducing. And everything feels like the '70s, which is to say . . . kind of dirty? And then you have the generally unpleasant subject matter.

But the message is universal, and any time a story can connect with the shared experience of a whole age group, across generations, that's invaluable. I'm still trying to decide whether this would be a good book to put in the hands of kids who are currently in high school, or whether it's safer to consume it with the benefit of hindsight and stabilized hormone levels.

If any of you high schoolers out there do decide to pick this up, I would counsel you to remember that the book's reality is likely bleaker than your own, even if it doesn't always feel that way. For instance, do you have a tail that prevents you from wearing skirts? *waits while you double-check* I didn't think so. Also remember this:

Eventually, most awkward teenagers...

grow up.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lady Audley's Secret Readalong 2: George Meets Well

I have a sneaking suspicion that we've seen the last of George Talboys (poooor George); so let’s look back fondly on his friendship with Robert Audley. And, oh, what a friendship it was.

George swooned, and Rob was there to pick him up and tuck him into bed. George wanted to go to a cemetery in the middle of the night, and Rob said that was dumb. George was sad that his son didn't love him immediately, and Rob said, "Manage your expectations, man."
The young man looked at him with a pitiful, bewildered expression. The big dragoon was as helpless as a baby; Robert Audley, the most vacillating and unenergetic of men, found himself called upon to act for another. He rose superior to himself and equal to the occasion.
And a professional underachiever who had avoided responsibility his whole life suddenly found himself tied to this mopey, heartsick fellow.

George is forever talking about his emotional wounds, and Rob is forever talking about the value of a good cigar, and between the two of them, we get conversations that vacillate between poignancy and absurdity, which is just how I like my conversations.

George: “I am like a man standing upon a long low shore, with hideous cliffs frowning down upon him from behind, and the rising tide crawling slowly but surely about his feet. It seems to grow nearer and nearer every day, that black, pitiless tide; not rushing upon me with a great noise and a mighty impetus, but crawling, creeping, stealing, gliding towards me, ready to close in above my head when I am least prepared for the end.”

Rob: “Are you quite sure you haven’t just eaten some bad pork?”

Things that Rob has attributed to indigestion: 
  1. Love
  2. Feelings of existential dread
  3. Ghosts

Rob has a very particular way of viewing the world. If there’s only one candle, you’ll take turns viewing the portrait, and if he says you’re afraid of the lightning, then you’re afraid of the lightning DO YOU HEAR ME?

Where this will work against Rob the most, I’m afraid, is when he has to start seeing Lucy Audley for what she is . . . and I think what she may be is a sociopath. Unless this is all clever misdirection on Braddon’s part, Lucy clearly arranged matters so she wouldn’t come face-to-face with George. But she hasn’t seemed particularly panicked about any of this. Every action is calm and calculated. And if she has, as I’m sure we’re supposed to believe, just returned to the house from offing George, she does so with a bounce in her step and a pile of flowers in her skirts.

Don't fight it, George. I have flower-picking to do.

And Caesar knows something is wrong with Lucy. Always listen to the dog.

Alicia (beautiful, clever Alicia, let me love thee in Robert's stead) knows something is off, too, but I don’t think she’s taking it very seriously. Aside from her brilliant theory about the painter capturing Lucy’s true, dark self (which Rob did not appreciate: “Don’t be German, Alicia, if you love me…I’m not metaphysical; don’t unsettle me.”), she seems to think Lucy is just a vapid, cheerful bore who hates reading and loves pretty dresses.

But what if Lucy is playing the child to disarm everyone? If she hates reading so much, why was she taking a book out to the lime walk the night George paid Audley Court an unscheduled visit?

And why does she try to give compliments when she’s so bad at it?
Not at all, Phoebe; you are like me, and your features are very nice; it is only colour that you want. My hair is pale yellow shot with gold, and yours is drab; my eyebrows and eyelashes are dark brown, and yours are almost—I scarcely like to say it, but they’re almost white, my dear Phoebe; your complexion is sallow, and mine is pink and rosy.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lady Audley's Secret Readalong Week 1: Doesn't everyone keep baby shoes in their jewelry box?

It's time for another readalong hosted by Alice at Reading Rambo, during which we will endeavor to uncover Lady Audley's Secret.

I read this during the first years of my English major, but I remember next to nothing about it. Unfortunately, one of the things I seem to remember is The Secret. Nothing leading up to or surrounding it, just . . . The Secret itself.

For this reason, I'll keep my plot-related speculations to a minimum and stick to commenting on the garden and how lovely Lucy's curls are this time of year.

At first, our female lead seems fairly stereotypical of her era. I'm sure we all experienced disappointment and a slight stimulation of the gag reflex at these words:
Everybody, high and low, united in declaring that Lucy Graham was the sweetest girl that ever lived.
You may well ask.

But by page 9, Lucy was beginning to hint at something akin to a shameful past, and my mental comparison of Lucy Graham and Ada Clare up to that point had to be revised with the caveat: "if Ada had anything at all interesting about her."

If we can't get mold-breaking female characters from an author who supported herself and her mother with her writing and was brazen enough to shack up with a married man and his five children—in the mid-1800s, mind you—then what hope do we have? Plus, "she was the first English author to acknowledge Flaubert" (which I think she did by rewriting Madame Bovary for the English market, leading me to wonder how Flaubert felt about her).

This lady was not afraid of coloring outside the lines; so I have high hopes for Lucy Graham and Alicia Audley.

We haven't heard much about Alicia yet, except that she dislikes Lucy for marrying her father and thinks that keeping house is mainly about misplacing the keys a lot. But the dichotomy being set up between these two leading ladies of Sir Michael Audley's life could turn out to be veeeeeery interesting.

And as for the men, so far I've mainly written "poor George" and "George is not very bright" in my notes. I'm concerned about George, but what do you EXPECT, George? Three and a half years is a long time to go without contacting your wife, especially when you didn't part on the best or most mutual of terms. I suppose he thought she didn't have much choice but to hang around at her dad's house.

She, too, exercised her right to die.

Sir Audley is a delight, although so far his role seems to be that of a foil for the rivalry between Lucy and Alicia.

So in the first 36 pages, Braddon has given us many inquisitive cows, one stupid clock, lots of descriptions of how secluded Audley Court is, one scheming servant girl who is possibly albino (contributing to a different stereotype altogether), one mysterious pair of hidden baby shoes, one equally mysterious letter/ring on a ribbon (wouldn't the paper get all sweaty down in her dress like that?), an overall sense of foreboding . . . and this:
She fell on her knees at his feet.
"No, Lucy, no, no!' he cried vehemently, 'not here, not here!"
"Yes, here, here," she said.