Sunday, September 30, 2007
With its fairy-tale beginning ("In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house . . ."), the subtitle of Wives and Daughters is gently ironic. While the basic plot is standardboy and girl meet and overcome many obstacles, including themselvesGaskell's tale is as much about the rapidly changing Victorian world as about Molly Gibson and her provincial village of Hollingford.
Set before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters consciously brings together England's aristocratic past, represented by Squire Hamley and the upstart earl and countess of Cumnor Towers, and the future, represented by Molly Gibson and Squire Hamley's sons, especially Roger. The elder son, Osborne, puts his own interests and more modern sensibilities above those of his father, while Roger envisions a future of science, exploration, and expansionism. To Mrs. Gibson, who marries to avoid having to work and dependence on the aristocracy, Osborne offers her daughter an entrée into at least the landed gentry, whereas Roger is merely a second son demeaning himself by dabbling in the sciences. Although renowned in London for his travels and discoveries, Roger becomes worthy of her notice only when he is taken into the inner circle of Lord Hollingford and the Towers as a result of his personal achievements.
While the visible action takes place within the small circle of Hollingford, Cumnor Towers, and Hamley Hall, Gaskell encompasses the widening world of rural England. Cynthia attends school in France while the Hamleys are off to Cambridge. The Hamley home is filled with relics from India, while Lady Harriet advises the Miss Brownings on how to obtain the best-priced Indian tea. Cynthia returns from her jaunts to London fashionably dressed and with hints of admirers, while Roger comes back from Africa browned, bearded, and mature in aspect and mien. Even villagers like Miss Hornblower feel the pull of the larger world and the new technology. As Mr. Gibson tells Molly, " . . . if these newfangled railways spread, as they say they will, we shall all be spinning about the world; 'sitting on tea-kettles,' as Phoebe Browning calls it."
The spheres of the sexes are vastly different. Clare Kirkpatrick thinks "how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; some one who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room." Even as Mr. Gibson thwarts the advances of Molly's first suitor, he tries to keep his "little goosey" unprepared for anything but life under the protection of a man, either father or husband. He advises her governess, "Don't teach Molly too much: she must sew, and read, and write, and do her sums; but I want to keep her a child, and if I find more learning desirable for her, I'll see about giving it to her myself." As men of science, he and Roger believe themselves to be dispassionate and rational, yet Molly senses their obvious mistakes before they do and that they are more deeply affected than they appear to be. Gaskell's characters, however, do not follow stereotypes. Lord Cumnor, a garrulous gossip, and Squire Hamley, an openly emotional man, are "womanly" in their ways, while Lady Cumnor and her daughter, Lady Harriet, are models of independence and detachment. Rather than assert her own independence and risk upsetting her excitable, patriarchal husband, Mrs. Hamley wastes away, ironically depriving her husband of her management of his emotions and their expression.
Molly is raised to suppress her feelings. As Mrs. Gibson's values clash with those of Mr. Gibson and Molly, he is able to ride off and immerse himself in his work, while Molly can only swallow her emotions or, as a last resort, hide them in solitude. There is hope, however, that Molly can avoid the life for which Mr. Gibson is preparing her, that of an obedient wife. Her life as companion to Mrs. Hamley shows her impressionable mind the folly of pride and the lasting harm it causes as it separates Mr. Hamley and his elder son. Her natural curiosity and intelligence, consciously discouraged by Mr. Gibson, are encouraged by Roger Hamley, who bridges the ancient Hamley past and the future of science and discovery. This future will be built on achievements, not family name, which makes young Osborne's parentage significant only to traditionalists like the squire and Mrs. Gibson. Their vision of the possibilities never extends beyond their own desires and concerns.
In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell addresses myriad issues important to her and her contemporariesmedicine, science, marriage, the family, gender roles, monetary wealth and land wealth, rural mores, the perception of English heritage and strength and French decadence, exploration, and change. Her characters are so richly drawn that the reader begins to anticipate Mrs. Gibson's "infinite nothings" and Mr. Gibson's searing irony. Gaskell imbues some of them with an enticing air of unsolved mystery. What are Mr. Gibson's origins? Who was Jeanie, his first love, and why did he not marry her? How does that and his other early relationships influence his behavior toward Molly? Why, at age 28, does Lady Harriet refuse a good match and seemingly scorn romance? Gaskell does not judge her characterseven Mrs. Gibson has redeeming qualitiesnor does she reveal all their secrets. Wives and Daughters is an enlightening, captivating, and, despite its unfinished state, satisfying look at Victorian life and society, the influence of which is still felt.
Sunday, 30 September 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
It rang four times, but I didn't hear a message. I struggled to wake up, swinging my legs off the end of the bed and my feet onto the wet carpet. Wet carpet? My sleepy mind struggled with how I could have had an accident on the carpet.
Suddenly I snapped awake. Wet carpet. Phone call. I opened the closet and found wet walls, wet boxes, wet carpet, and water dripping down along the light bulb. Not again . . .
Yes. Again. At 4:00 a.m., I was pulling out the ton of sodden stuff I'd put back back into the closet last month when it had dried and the wall had been repaired after the last incident. The water leaking was hot, so the entire bedroom was like a sauna.
This time, I also removed everything from the floor of the linen closet, which I learned too late had gotten soaked last time. When I got to the back, I discovered that the plaster and wood had developed a healthy mold. Whoops . . .
A knock at the door proved to be that of two young Asian men who live downstairs. They had called the front desk when the water set off their smoke detector.
At no point in my childhood, youth, or adulthood would I have imagined myself standing in an apartment hallway at 4:00 a.m. in a nightshirt talking to college students in pajamas. Surreal.
I didn't go to work. I tried to sleep but couldn't relax. I would have read the last few pages of Wives and Daughters, but the last third of the book was sopping and is still wet. I went to Bonjour for breakfast and later took myself outside to write when, as if on cue, it promptly started to rain. So I took care of the laundry, washing towels that had gotten wet as well as bed linens.
My head aches slightly, I'm exhausted but not sleepy, and I can't focus on anything or get comfortable mentally or physically.
I'm the first to be bored with and worry about the rut I am in, but now I want nothing more than a return to normalcy. I feel strange and discombobulated again, and this time I don' t have a little trip to look forward to. I wonder what I will do with my Friday off now—more than I did today, I hope, and less cleaning up and worrying.
Monday, September 24, 2007
I couldn't argue against the point; I don't think anyone could. There are practical matters to consider, such as making sure that either you or your spouse is able to pick up the baby from day-care on time. Then, for working parents every moment spent with the baby must seem precious, especially if he or she is their first. Who would sacrifice their time with the fascinating new infant to work without compelling reason or cause?
But the observation did send a cold probe deep into a hot well of remembered resentment that formed at a job I had many years ago, when I worked with married, middle-aged mothers. As a single, unfettered woman and the reluctant part of the village it takes to raise a child, my lot was to work extra hours (unpaid) so the mothers could pick up their children (none of them babies) to take them to their various activities.
At first I didn't mind, especially if the project I was working on happened to be interesting or challenging. As time wore on, however, my nerves wore on. I would work until 7:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m., and even 10:00 p.m. and beyond. Lonely. Exhausted. With nothing to look forward to except more of the same.
I began to imagine my co-workers' happy domestic lives. While I sat in a sterile white cubicle under unnatural fluorescent light breathing stale office air, my tired mind pictured idyllic family scenes in pricey suburban houses, with manicured lawns, spotless back yards, comfortable living and family rooms, and warm and cozy kitchens. All this was possible because I was not empowered to say, "No"; that would have been perceived as uncooperative, the mark of someone who's not a "team player." The work had to be done. No one was waiting for me, and everyone knew it. That I liked to go home, sit outside in the fine weather with a book, and have quiet time to myself probably did not occur to my colleagues. For giving up my few simple, unimaginable pleasures, I was not thanked or acknowledged. All of us accepted that this is the way it works.
A single, childless person seems to be a social anomaly with whom most people are uncomfortable, as though the era of the "old maid" or "bachelor" never ended. We get no tax breaks. We are not invited to formal dinners or social occasions unless we can be suitably paired with a single person of the opposite gender—which rarely falls into place. We excite unspoken surprise if we attend concerts, movies, and the like alone. On Amtrak, single people are asked to move if a couple boards and a pair of seats is unavailable. After seeing one single man moved three times in as many hours, I wondered why people who live together can't travel alone for the amount of time it would take for a pair of seats to open naturally. No, three times this man had to collect his belongings and move elsewhere.
The message is clear: The needs of the many, or the pair, outweigh the needs of the one. Always.
A former co-worker told me that, had I lived at the right time, I might have been condemned to burn as a witch. I believe it. I'm single, I'm female, I'm childless, I'm educated, I'm older, I'm unconventional, and I'm apparently completely at odds with our family-centric society. That makes me frightening and disturbing and weird. Societies rarely embrace those whose lot or choice it is to be different.
Except that there has to be someone to work late and give up his or her seat.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Not my mind. I loved Marcel Marceau's act.
When I was a student, probably in high school (I don't think I wrote these things down, alas), our French class went on a couple of excursions. One of them was to see Marcel Marceau. Afterward, when I understood who he was and what he was known for, it struck me that French language students had gone off to see a French performer whose act did not include a single spoken word. It wasn't like attending a Eugéne Ionesco play performed in French by French-speaking actors, as we also did, or having Jacques Yvart come to our school to sing in French. We were not going to benefit from hearing French spoken. Instead, I believe we took advantage of an opportunity to experience a French icon.
And we did. Marcel Marceau was marvelous. He did not need speech to convey a change in character or emotion. His facial expression, posture, movements, and body language proved that spoken language is not necessary to communicate. A middle-aged Frenchman, a Jewish survivor of Nazi occupation, spoke eloquently to a group of teenage WASPs without saying a word.
The skit I remember best depicted a series of failed suicide attempts—by gas, by hanging, etc. Always something went wrong, and silently the character went about the grim business of trying every means possible. With the crass lack of thought that is perhaps natural to youth, we, along with the adults, laughed at each of the hapless character's futile attempts to end his life. While we may not have recognized it at the time, the humor lay in the irony—a failure at life, a failure at death. As one obituary said, "Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, 'alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.'"
Marceau, like those who inspired him, including Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was no failure. He could not save his father from Auschwitz, but he did what he could to save Jewish men by forging documents and children by taking them to Switzerland. More than 30 years after World War II, his performance gifted me with the appreciation for bringing "poetry to silence" that I still have today, another 30 years later.
When I hear mimes and clowns disparaged, I remain silent. Now that silence is in honor of Marcel Marceau, a great mime and man whose artistic and humanitarian legacy needs no defense from me. It speaks for itself.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
It's become a cliché to say that fall is your favorite season. People who prefer autumn often cite specific reasons—the brilliant color of the trees, the smell of leaves burning, the crisp air, and childhood memories.
I believe that the reason we like fall, and spring, is deeper than sights, smells, sensations, or even memories. Fall and spring are times of change, and change keeps us from becoming too complacent and falling too deeply into a prolonged rut. Winter and summer, each in its way, wear on us. The short days and long nights, the bitter cold, the snow, and the confinement indoors, or of the heat, humidity, and the sometimes unrelenting sun, can exhaust, dull, and depress us after they have continued unabated for a long period of time. No matter how mild the winter or how pleasant the summer, we look forward to the change that spring and autumn bring—budding and falling leaves give us something new and different to look forward to and remind us that all lives have phases—sometimes of growth, sometimes of rest and renewal.
That is why we love spring and fall, and why the delightfully unusual juxtaposition of summer air with an autumn sky enchants me so. Without change, without the unexpected, there would be no purpose and zest in life. I live because tomorrow may be different than today. That is my hope and my inspiration, and my despair.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
I am 46 years old and in reasonably good health.
And I don't drink bottled water.
How can this be? For how long has the marketing for bottled water brands implied that pure spring water is the source of health, vitality, and long life? How ingrained has that message become in our culture? As I write this, six people at four nearby tables are drinking bottled water. With tap water available, most people raised on powerful, ubiquitous marketing and peer conformity opt for bottled water.
The underlying belief is that tap water is bad for you. It's not "pure," it's not ancient, and it doesn't flow from a mysterious mountain spring 6,000 miles away in a nonexistent, unpolluted paradise. It's laced with unpleasant and/or lethal chemicals. How could anyone drink tap water knowing all that? Yet, unless you have foul-tasting well water or live downstream from a toxic waste dump, the chances are excellent that your tap water isn't going to kill you or cause you bodily harm.
The perception that bottled water is better for you than tap water is pure marketing myth. It's been perpetrated by marketing geniuses who saw a new, health-conscious generation with disposable incomes willing to pay $2–$4 a bottle for a substance that they could get from their tap for a fraction of that cost. Now they would no more drink tap water than toilet water.
How pervasive is this myth? At my [old] office, filtered water is available. Many employees, however, say they want bottled water to have and to hold. One woman pointed out that the lack of bottled water was contradictory to the organization's touted wellness philosophy. "They keep promoting health and wellness, right? Well, how about bottled water? It's hypocritical not to provide it!" She was so pleased with this logic that she repeated it to anyone who would listen. No one questioned it, nor did she ask herself why she was so focused on "healthy" water as she smoked cigarette after cigarette.
In fact, her entire generation has been raised on bottled water, accepting the purported health benefits, "purity," and convenience without question.
The real price, of course, will be paid by a future generation, including the depletion of nonrenewable resources and energy in the manufacture of billions of disposable plastic bottles and the long-term damage to the environment. Billions of bottles used for a few moments are lying around, not biodegrading, now part of the landscape forever.
There's a possibility our descendants may be smarter than we are and may figure out what to do with the mess we are leaving behind. We can hope so because this is what they face: Two million plastic beverage bottles disposed of every five minutes in the U.S. alone (Chris Jordan).
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Lilac bushes grew in front of the place where I was raised, and their springtime scent became one of my favorite sensual memories from my childhood. My dad must have liked them, too, because he planted several lilacs behind the fence separating our yard from the woods. They were a disappointment to him, though; in 15 to 20 years, only one of them flowered, producing only one or two blooms.
I think the deep shade of the woods prevented them from thriving. Here, the lilacs in the circular garden at 59th and Stony Island are flooded with sunlight for most of the day and bloom healthily. On 6 May, I visited them, standing on tiptoe and pulling them closer so I could inhale their sweet, heavy scent like a drug.
The slightest scent of lilac transports me more than 500 miles and 35 years. So does the sight and sound of a chickadee or cardinal. The sight and smell of cotton candy. The yeasty smell and taste of fresh-baked bread or the smell and taste of chocolate chip cookie dough. The sight of tiger lilies and lilies-of-the-valley. The sight of green peppers in a garden. The sight and smell of wild climbing roses. The sight, smell, and taste of strawberries. The feel of cool, damp grass underfoot.
It was not so long ago that the lilacs called to me. Now it is time for the fire of autumn, the sight of the yellows, oranges, and reds of the trees and the heavy scent of a wood fire, the feel of crisp yet comfortable air, the sense of languor changing into one of bustle. This is the season during which I landed in Chicago and the season here that I like best, although it signals the beginning of early evenings where darkness sets in at 4:00 p.m. and a long, cold, bitter winter when little changes, and I begin to wonder if anything ever will.
I long for the call of the lilacs. In seven long months, they will tempt me again.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Perhaps I expect to see a little iridescent glass with a June wild rose on the dresser. But the dresser is no longer there, the rosebush is undoubtedly long since gone, and so am I—long since gone.
This thought of how and why I am here must prey on my subconscious. The answer itself is easy; I came here out of pride, and I stay here because of inertia.
If I would learn to drive, I might have more options elsewhere, but I shrink from the idea. I see a world enslaved by its unfocused restlessness, its cravings for more of things that do not satisfy, and the vehicles that move people and their goods on a never-ending journey to nowhere. I've seen beautiful stretches of mountainous countryside marred by roads, highways, "big box" stores, malls, strip malls, and even automobile graveyards. I see man-made ugliness where once there was natural beauty, and I see only indifference where I feel a great loss.
I may fear contributing to and becoming part of that culture, the culture of the car, the culture on the move, more than I fear being behind the wheel on a Chicago expressway.
Like it or not, though, I am part of this culture that I feel powerless to change. My clothes, food, books, household goods, everything, have been shipped untold miles using untold resources that are gone for good. That's just for me—one individual among 6+ billion. Many live more lightly on the land than I do; many live less.
Our culture is not going to change until it has to, until the real price of cheap, fast, global transportation and shipping has been paid by the future in some way we can't imagine. My actions or inactions aren't going to make any difference; it takes a world to change a world.
I would be happier, much happier, elsewhere, I think. I have not connected to anything here—urban living, the people, the cultural life, the social life, the way of thinking and being. I am nearly as reclusive as if I lived in the Irish cave I used to fantasize about. I go to work, and I sleep and dream and think of being somewhere else—where, I don't know. Somewhere with fewer buildings, less infrastructure, less self-importance, fewer examples of arrogance and futility—but that would require me to learn how to drive.
In my heart I may know that there is no such place. The only place in which I can feel free is in my imagination.
Or perhaps I don't want to find out that, even in the perfect world I imagine, surrounded by trees, brooks, animals, sun, and moon, I still could not be happy.
In my sleep, off guard, I know that I would at least be less miserable and more connected to something important, and so it is then that I ask myself how I arrived here and why.
Yet here I am. Still.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
Yesterday morning, I woke up early, about an hour before sunrise, and was treated to the sight of the moon's last sliver before it becomes new, with a very bright Venus hanging nearby in the pink-and-blue pastels of the pre-dawn sky.
I've never been adept at seeing, identifying, or remembering the constellations. Orion's belt stuck with me, and of course I know the Dippers, but more than that is beyond my ken if not my interest. Astronomy fascinates me, even though I do not understand it. On days like these, though, it's best to forget the technicalities and to take in the wonder.
When I was very young, I could see perhaps thousands of stars over the darkness of the field and woods. Once or twice I may have seen the Milky Way. Then, for security reasons, a streetlight was installed near my bedroom that helped to illuminate the field and eliminate the stars. There were many left, but it was never the same.
My father grew up on an out-of-the-way Pennsylvania farm in the 1910s and '20s. I imagine that from his vantage point in time and space, he could have seen nearly everything, mostly unspoiled by light pollution. Further back in time, there were the crowded night skies of Galileo et al, and those of the biblical shepherds and wise men.
Today, however, living in the city in the 21st century, I am excited by the rare sight of a dozen stars, easily counted, and a partial constellation because that is the best I can expect.
There has been talk of taking measures to reduce light pollution as much as possible so that the wonders of the visible universe that inspired generations of scientists, philosophers, and poets are not lost to us. I think of "Krikkit," the fictional planet envisioned by writer Douglas Adams, surrounded by a gas cloud that prevents its inhabitants from seeing and knowing that they are not alone and that there is a greater universe all around them. The fewer heavenly bodies we can see, the lonelier we must feel on a subconscious level of which we are not even aware.
As I watched the dozen stars last week and the moon and Venus duet yesterday, something reassured me that even if we can't see dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of stars or the Milky Way as we were meant to, they are still there. Whatever we choose to do to our world, ourselves, and our future, the planets, stars, and galaxies will continue on their courses, untouched and unmoved.
I was looking at a display of boxed tchotchkes, mostly pens, when one of the old office managers, apparently recognizing me, told me not to take any and hinted strongly that I should leave. I had some papers and one of the tchotchkes in my hand, but I didn't remember taking it; I think someone who had talked to me had given it to me. I tried to hide it from her in the papers. Her attitude seemed unduly belligerent and offensive, the opposite of mine. I was mainly curious.
Then a young man was introduced whom I knew to be a temporary administrative assistant. His computer screen was projected; it was a simulation of a battle. His side went into retreat immediately and could not recover, and I was embarrassed for him since he was supposed to be an expert. The person who had introduced him said, "Consolidate your forces!" so he rammed them altogether on a beachhead at twilight in a massive pileup.
I remembered what had been said of me (I was told) when I left, that I had walked out abruptly, without warning or notice, and how no one had believed such an obvious fabrication. I still resent it.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Perhaps I was reminded of an irrational fear that dogged me every summer of my childhood—that the woods behind my home would catch on fire and that the fire would rage out of control, consuming the trees, my home, and everything I had ever known. Every now and then I would become fixated on this idea. It terrified me. I would tell myself that fires in the woods were rare, and that the few there had been had been contained and put out quickly. I saw the smoke of one on a fine, sunny day; that one perhaps triggered my fear.
As I grew up and had more to focus on—schoolwork, friends, etc.—this particular fear receded into the background. It was still there, but it was dormant. The only time I was troubled by fire in the woods was in my dreams, but not very often.
How naive I was. I couldn't picture how a fire in the woods could spread very far and thought that that was the rational viewpoint, so my fear seemed irrational and childish. I am sure I must have seen footage of forest fires, and I understood Smokey the Bear's message and took it to heart. Somehow, never having been affected, I didn't truly understand the speed, the scope, and the consequences of forest fires. Perhaps it was my animal brain that did and that was wise to be afraid and to intrude on my more rational one.
Now I live more than 500 miles from those woods, which I loved and feared. I still do, and I still worry in my deepest consciousness about the potential for fire there—a fire which could no longer reach me.
Friday, September 7, 2007
Seen this first week of September 2007:
- A store sign thermometer with a reading of 505 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate change could be worse than we thought.
- An elderly woman, age 75 or more, with hair dyed a shade between lilac and lavender, a color that would put any 1980s punker to shame.
- A pink jet, flying low overhead. The CEO of Mary Kay Cosmetics?
- A young woman wearing a skirt with an embroidered flower and a Superman T shirt. Why not Batman?
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
I couldn’t remember being at the community. I couldn’t remember flying to California. I did not know why these two would manage such a project—the nature of which I couldn’t imagine—or why so many people from so many disciplines would be involved. I couldn’t remember getting on the bus. All this continued to puzzle me, along with the fact that I didn’t know anyone else.
The bus was barreling over a series of hills, complete with steep slopes and twists and turns. The time seemed to be on the cusp of darkness, the tricky dusk during which so many accidents occur.
To add to my sense of disorientation, the bus was misdirected several times by signs, lines, and barriers diverting it dangerously across multiple lanes of traffic from the far right to the far left, or into impossible areas that made no sense.
On a steep downhill slope with curves, I saw the driver leave her seat and disappear into the back of the bus. I didn’t know how I could get to the seat in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if I could get control of the steering and brakes and could figure then out.
I found a middle-aged woman had taken over and felt relief, but then she left, too. By now, I had noticed there were no accidents even when no one was driving. The next time I spotted someone driving, a middle-aged woman with a particularly frowsy permanent, I said without thinking, “You could get pulled over and into trouble for driving without a bus driver’s license. I heard someone agree and someone disagree. She left the seat, but I still could not take over. The repetition of the circumstances, and the murkiness behind them, made it nightmarish.
Monday, September 3, 2007
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Saturday, September 1, 2007
After a while, I cautiously found my way out of the room. I remembered that my colleague and I had been sent here to find out what was going on. She had been killed when we were captured, but I was stunned only.
As I was examining one of the yellow industrial drums that seemed to be everywhere, a group of four or five women came along, chattering. They paid no attention to me or my clearly suspicious behavior, and did not question me when I joined their group. I put a plastic bag that I had pulled out of a drum into another one nearby that seemed to be full of liquid nitrogen. Instantly "mutations" popped into my mind. With a sense of horror, I thought that I would now be responsible for one.
The women, who were workers, seemed to be able to go anywhere. I clung to them for safety, answering that I had not seen a particular movie when they asked.
I did not know what I was looking for or what I was seeing. Thoughts of the dead colleague haunted me. Then we came across a man, a scientist, with pieces of something, including blue and yellow membranes. He told a large group gathering, including mine, that he was going to reconstruct and bring back to life an enormous (and unnatural) spider. I watched with horror and fascination as he did so. A sixth sense felt that I was being surrounded and would be trapped again.