Bag Girl Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky

IMG_6449

Due to my interest in history and childhood obsession with princesses, one of my favorite series of books growing up was The Royal Diaries. I scoured my elementary school and middle school libraries for every book in the series I could get my hands on and checked them out over and over again. The one that I checked out the most was Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky. My first reading of the book probably predates my first viewing of the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, but my subsequent Marie Antoinette obsession lead me cracking it open many more times. The book and I encountered each other again after many years last fall at Wicked Good Books in Salem and I just had to finally own a copy of it for myself.

As a fictionalized diary, it follows Archduchess Maria Antonia (later Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France) as she prepares to marry Louis Auguste, heir to the French throne. The free-spirited and somewhat scatterbrained teenager chafes under the high expectations of her formidable mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and the rigid etiquette she is supposed to follow as future queen of France, and enjoys more simple pleasures such as sledding trips and moon-lit wadding in the palace fountains. Upon her arrival at the glittering but cut-throat court of Versailles, she finds that her future husband, Louis Auguste, is not the fairytale prince she had hope for but soon develops a deep fondness for the awkward young man. The young and inexperienced dauphine quickly sparks a rivalry with Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s greedy and arrogant mistress and struggles to find her footing at court. 

Being a book intended for children, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles glosses over the sexual failings which marred the first seven years of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis Auguste (later Louis XVI). Due to Louis’s awkwardness and lack of knowledge about reproduction, the royal couple failed to consummate their marriage for a number of years. The sexual debauchery for which Versailles was notorious for and the obscene mockery which was heaped on Marie Antoinette for most of her sojourn in France, are also left unmentioned. 

I have to admit that I’ve grown beyond books like this, them being written for kids. The language and plot are simple, almost juvenile and has little to offer an adult reader aside from nostalgia. But I would recommend it to little girls who, like me, had a taste for history, pretty dresses, and royal pomp and splendor. 

 

Bag Girl Reviews: The Poems of Anne Bradstreet

IMG_6413

The puritan poet Anne Bradstreet holds a special place in American literature as not only its first female writer but also as its first published author. Her book, The Tenth Muse, was the first literary work created in America. I had read some of Bradstreet’s poems in my American lit. class this year in school and I bought of a book of her poetry in the giftshop at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.  

The poems of Anne Bradstreet focus on subjects appropriate for a puritan woman: love, family life, and religion and the hardships which women like her faced in 17th century Massachusetts such as such as childbirth, lose of and separation from loved ones, and reconciling these hardships with their religious beliefs. The puritans who colonized New England dealt with a combination of a harsh and difficult landscape and similarly harsh and difficult religious beliefs. The puritan psyche was characterized by a struggle between the flesh, material things of the world, and the spirit, the soul and spirituality. Bradstreet’s poem, The Flesh and the Spirit, deals with this struggle, presented as an argument between two sisters, personification of these two forces. The flesh argues that the spirit can never be sure if what it believes is actually true. One of the most difficult parts of being a puritan is just that, cannot you be sure that your strict religious observance is worth it in the end. The Spirit’s rebuttal to her sister is that she will avoid being troubled by doubt and rely on faith because the rewards given in heaven are far greater than anything on earth. The needs of the flesh distract you from the needs of the spirit and keep you from living a godly life, according to puritan thought.

Another tenet of puritan thought is to dismiss hardship and tragedy as “god’s will.” In her poem, Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666, takes the typically puritan view of misfortune. In describing a fire which destroyed her home, she tries to tell herself that such a tragedy is God’s will and that worldly goods are meaningless. But the reader gets a sense that this only a half hearted way of trying to make herself feel better after losing her home and everything she owns. A difficulty which comes with being a person of faith is reconciling their belief in a just and loving god with the terrible things that can happen to them, and the idea that they “God’s will” is perhaps a way of dealing with profound sorrow.

Bradstreet wrote the poem, As Weary Pilgrim, Now at Rest, towards the end of her life. She compares herself to a traveler who has been on a long and difficult journey and longs for rest For a puritan with strict religious beliefs living in the harsh climate of New England, life would seem like a long and difficult journey. Puritans saw their earthly life as filled with hardships and the only rest they could hope for in heaven after death.

The puritans came to the New World seeking religious freedom, which has become a belief upon which America was, supposedly, founded. But what the puritans meant by religious freedom was religious freedom for themselves and no one else. They were notoriously intolerant of other religious groups and had the protestant fierce hatred of catholics. Bradstreet’s poem, A Dialogue Between Old England and New, is pretty much a long rant against popery. As a confirmed, if not necessarily practicing, catholic, I felt a little bit offended.  Puritans such as Anne Bradstreet are fascinating to study because in them, we find the seeds of so much of what makes up the American psyche: our idolization of a strong work ethic (our reality is perhaps less noble), our sense of exceptionalism and curmudgeonly independence, our tendency towards bigotry, and our penchant for literal and figurative witch hunts. Perhaps our modern culture of consumerism, excess, and hedonism is perhaps a reaction against our puritanical roots.

I would recommend reading Anne Bradstreet to anyone interested in American history and literature, specifically of the puritan era.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes

IMG_6380

Bettany Hughes is an historian whose documentaries I adore. My favorite documentaries of her’s are the episodes about Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization from her Ancient World series. The Mycenaeans and Minoans are two ancient civilizations whose culture and aesthetics I am fascinated with; Greece, specifically the island of Crete, are on my bucket list of places I want to visit. 

The definitive account of the life of Helen of Troy comes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but there are a plethora of, often conflicting, other sources from the ancient world which provide details of her life.  Many of these details, her conception via Zeus’s rape of her mother Leda in the form of a swan, being the protegee of the goddess Aphrodite, seem fantastic but are there kernels of truth in her story? Bettany Hughes presents Helen’s world, late bronze age Greece, as one where a superbly beautiful and high born woman like her would have wielded great power. Reports of a stunning and powerful queen and her misadventures may have been exaggerated over time. Helen was also perhaps a high priestess, officiating over religious ceremonies or a vestige of some long forgotten bronze age goddess.

A fascinating thing about Helen of Troy is that she refuses to conform the madonna/whore dichotomy of  later civilizations. She is an adulteress whose extramarital affair and elopement with the trojan prince, Paris, started the Trojan War but was also worshiped by young virgins on the cusp of womanhood in her hometown of Sparta, who hoped to gain some of her famous sexual allure.  Helen has been loathed as everything from a scheming seductress to a vapid bimbo and yet people have fascinated by her for thousands of years.

I have to admit that I had a hard time getting into this book, mostly because of the difficulty I have with reading non-fiction. Anyone with an interest in the ancient world, and an easier time reading non-fiction, will get something out of reading this.  I would recommend looking up Bettany Hughes’s documentaries on Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization on Youtube for those without the time or patient to crack open a scholarly book. I have a major girl crush on Bettany Hughes, the Nigella Lawson of ancient history, and Greece is a country rich in natural beauty and historical sites. You can relax on a beach and then explore a Minoan or Mycenaean ruin, my dream vacation destination.

After I finish college, I’m going to spend a few years taking classes at North Shore Community to get my library degree and to learn Italian and Greek  and working to save money. Then I’m going to spend some time traveling in Italy and Greece.

 

Bag Girl Reviews: The Homeric Hymns

IMG_6357

Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.  

Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter. 

The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.

Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.

Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia.  It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing.  If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.

 

 

Bag Girl Reviews The Witches by Stacy Schiff

TheWitches

One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.

Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.

Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.

Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and  the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.

The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events.  I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction. 

Slavery and Dehumanization in Abolitionist Literature

Frederick Douglass ends chapter two of  A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave with a description of the singing of the slaves on the plantation where he grew up: “The songs of the slaves represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” (1188). Slave owns and slavery supporters claim that since the slaves sing, they are content with their lot but Douglass claims the opposite. His interpretation of these songs is that they are a way for the slaves to retain some resemblance of humanity in their miserable and degrading lives by expressing their emotions.

The theme of Douglass’s work is that the institution of slavery dehumanizes all who are involved with it; it turns the black slaves into ignorant animals and their white masters into sadistic monsters. A slave complaining about the poor treatment they receive from their master is unthinkable, due to the fact that the slave would be brutally beaten, possibly to death, if they they do complain: “It is partly in consequence of such facts, the slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind” (1190).  If a slave in the society which Douglass is asked about the treatment they receive from their masters, they will usually lie and say that they are treated well out of fear of punishments.

Douglass gives the character of Sophia Auld as an example of how slavery negatively affects the white slaver holders. Sophia starts off as kind and motherly towards the young Douglass but the absolute power given to her by the slave holding society corrupts her absolutely:

“But alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (1196).

This passage foreshadows how Sophia Auld’s character changes from kind to cruel due to the malign influence of slavery.

During his time with the Aulds, the young Douglass slowly begins to teach himself how to read and write and notice how different he is from his white playmates,“You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life. Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (1199). With his new education, Douglass grows dissatisfied with his life as a slave. He is now more than ignorant animal that he is expected to be.

Harriet Jacobs begins her work, Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl, with a description of the main character, Linda’s, happy childhood. Her family is owned by kind masters who treat them well, so well that Linda is unaware that she is a slave for the first few years of her life. Linda realises her position in the world when her mistress dies and she willed to her mistress’s granddaughter and is separated from her family. She learns the hard way that the world at large sees her as an object and property: “These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (924).

In the home of her new masters, Linda is subject to sexual harassment from the cruel, Dr. Flint. She falls in love with a free black man who wishes to buy her from Dr. Flint and marry her, which Dr. Flint refuses to consent to.

“Again and again I revolved in my mind how all this would end. There was no hope that the doctor would consent to sell me on any terms. He had an iron will, and was determined to keep me, and to conquer me. My lover was an intelligent and religious man. Even if he could have obtained permission to marry me while I was a slave, the marriage would give him no power to protect me from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the insults I should have been subject to. And then, if we had children, I knew they must “follow the condition of the mother.” What a terrible blight that would be on the heart of a free, intelligent father!”

(Pages 927-8)

Linda is not free to live the life she wants or be with the man she loves. Her life is controlled by the whims of her masters.

In chapter ten, Linda begins an affair with a white man and becomes pregnant. She begs the readers not judge her harshly for what she has done because black slave women do not have the advantages of free white woman, who are protected by society and the law and are allowed to be with the men they love, “But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor slave girl too severely” (929).  Slaves, especially slave women, have little to no control over their lives.

The slave holding society which Harriet Beecher Stowe describes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin places black slaves at the mercy of their white owners: “So long as the law considered all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,-so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,-so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery” (813).  The life of a slave depends on the character of their masters.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Shelby family, who owns the heroine Eliza, are shown as being fairly kind masters, while Eliza’s husband George is owned by cruel people. George has become angry and resentful at his position, so much that he questions what right his master has to own him: “My master! And who made him my master? That’s what I think of-what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,-and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,-I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?” (815-16). The power of slave owners is fragile when those they claim to own no longer accept their authority.

Frances Harper’s poem, Eliza Harris, refers to the heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who escaped slavery with her young son. The Eliza of both the poem and the novel is determined to give her child freedom: “For she is a mother-her child is a slave-And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!” (Lines 7-8). Harper’s poem describes one of the best known scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Eliza and her son cross the frozen Ohio river which divides the slaveholding South from the free North. Eliza is overjoyed that she and her son are no longer slaves:

“With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss, She place’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:-Oh! Poverty, danger and death she can brave,

For the child of her love is no longer a slave!”

(Lines 45-48)

Another of Harper’s poems, The Slave Mother, describes the plight of Eliza prior to her escape. The slave mother of the poem loves her child but is tormented by the fact that her child could be taken away from her at any time and sold far away:

“He is not hers, for cruel hands

May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

That binds her breaking heart”

(Lines 21-24)

Both Harper and Stowe present a scenario to elicit pathos and sympathy from their readers. Eliza and The Slave Mother show recognizably human feelings: love for their children, a fear of losing those children, and a desire for those children to have a better life. The readers of Harper and Stowe’s works are expected to put themselves in the place of these slave mothers and imagine how heart-broken they would feel if their children were taken away from them.

 

William Blake and Childhood Poverty

99f4e8fc2ed2248a075e852a159f6762

The poet and artist, William Blake, spent most of his life living in London, eaking out a living as an engraver. The London of Blake’s day was a dark, violent, and oppressive place where violence and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, specifically child abuse, was rampant. In 1822, the British Parliament passed the Martin’s Act, which prohibited the cruel treatment of animals; legislation preventing cruelty towards children was not passed until much later. During Blake’s lifetime, you could buy three children from an orphanage or workhouse for the price of a horse (Mayall). Poor and unwanted children were subject to appalling living and working conditions and beatings from both their employers and parents. Corporal punishment was a fixture of the British school system and would remain so until the 1990s. Much of Blake’s work addressed the issues of his day rather directly or indirectly and was inspired by his strong but unconventional religious and spiritual beliefs. In discussing the themes of innocence and experience, Blake gives a voice to the abused underclasses (Martin 1)

William Blake believed that his poetry and engravings were divinely inspired. He was born into family of what was known as “dissenters,” those who did not follow the Church of England; they were possibly Baptists. Blake himself disapproved of the Church of England and did not follow any specific religious denomination, though he had a strong spiritual bent and belief in God (Campe 3). His unusual and controversial religious beliefs are expressed through his art which he felt a moral and sacred obligation to create.  Songs of Innocence and Experience shows Blake’s views on human nature. Blake describes innocence and experience as “two contrary states of the human soul” and the poems in this body of work show many of its subjects from two different perspectives: one childlike and idealistic, the other more mature and world-weary. When read together, the parallel  poems highlight contradictions in their intended subject. The England of Blake’s day may have a rich and prosperous place but only thrived due to an oppressed underclass. Children may be pure innocents but the world is filled with forces which can destroy them or turn them into ferocious and corrupt monsters (Campe 6).

The companion pieces Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience deal with man’s essential purity which is corrupted by the hardships and evils of the world. The themes of purity and corruption are expressed in the two corresponding Chimney Sweeper poems through the use of black and white. Little Tom Dacre, the sweep in the Innocence version, is presented as an angelic figure in a dark and dirty world; Tom’s curly blond hair is describe as being like the wool of a lamb, a conventional symbol for innocence and saintliness “You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (8) and the sooty chimneys he works in are compared to black coffins  “Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black” (12). The coffin imagery is used to foreshadow Tom’s possible early death but the poem gives him the possibility of salvation, “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for this father & and never want joy… Tho’the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” (19-24). His life is hard and will likely be short, but his innocence gives him the hope of heaven.

The chimney sweeper in the Experience version is presented as much more tragic and pathetic figure. In contrast to the white angelic Tom in his coffins of black, this sweeper is described as “A little black thing among the snow, crying’weep, ‘weep, in notes of woe!” (1-2), an ugly black blot on the superficial purity of the world. It is implied that this sweeper was carelessly abandoned by his parents, who hypocritically attend church to appear respectable while he suffers in the streets, “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury, and are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery,” (9-12). God, the Priest, and King refer to religion and government, those who are supposed to look after the poor and needy but do not. The Experience chimney sweeper is a miserable and doomed character, “Because I was happy upon the heath, and smil’d among the winter’s snow; the clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe.” (5-8). Both poems refer to the likely fate of these poor and unwanted children: a life of exploitation and an early death.

The cry of the Chimney Sweepers, “ ‘weep,” gives the poems an even more pathetic tone. In the Innocence version, it is meant to show how young Little Tom Dacre is: he cannot even fully pronounce the word “sweep” (Martin 3). While the Experience version uses the cry of  “‘weep” in a more complex way; to mimic sobbing and emphasize the tragic existence of the chimney sweepers, who were often sold off at six years old or younger (Martin 3). Children in Blake’s work are often presented as paragons of innocence and purity who cannot comprehend the evil in world or why it happens and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their youth and innocence. The “God & his Priest & King” mentioned in the Experience version of “The Chimney Sweep” fail to protect them.

Holy Thursday, another pair of companion poems, refers to a religious procession during the Easter season where the poor children of London are brought to a church service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s Innocence version, uses the term “innocent” frequently to describe these poor children, “‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,” (1), “Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands,” (8). They are even compared to angels, “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” (12). Blake paints these impoverished orphans as a picture of helpless innocence to get us to sympathize with their plight.

The Experience version of Holy Thursday has a darker tone. Blake laments the fact that so many children in a prosperous country like England are living in poverty, “Is this a holy thing to see, in a rich and fruitful land, babes reduced to misery, fed with cold and usurous hand?” (1-4). His verses take a more melancholy tone,  “Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy?” (5-6). The world for the poor orphans described in the previous poem will be desolate and difficult, cold, bleak, and filled with hardships, “It is a land of poverty! And their sun does never shine, and their fields are bleak & bare, and their ways are fill’d with thorns; It is eternal winter there,” (8-12).  The innocence of these children is not enough to protect them from suffering. Blake addresses a bitter truth about his time period; that thousands of children in London were orphaned and living in poverty. Both of the Holy Thursday poems are meant to address the plight of needy children and elicit sympathy for it.

Blake presents childhood as a double edged sword. Children might be guileless and uninhibited but they are also dependent and vulnerable. The corresponding Innocence and Experience poems show these two sides of their subjects. They present innocent and needy children but also a society that exploits and abuses them. Innocence, experience, youth, maturity, good and evil are all faces of the same coin: youth and innocence are fragile and finite states and even the most virtuous person has the potential for evil.

William Blake’s religious beliefs and social conflicts influenced his work. His Songs of Innocence and Experience show his views on the dual nature of the human soul. “Innocence” epitomizes the the purity and optimism of childhood but also it’s helplessness and vulnerability. “Experience” represents maturity and corruption as well as knowledge and enlightenment.The Chimney Sweep of the two poems of the same name is portrayed as both an angelic figure and as a crack in society’s hypocritical facade. He is destined to live a short and miserable life but has the promise of heavenly salvation. The poor orphans who attend the Holy Thursday church service are innocents worthy of protection but also a reminder of how the Church and State have failed. Blake condemns a society that exploits helpless children when it is supposed to protect and provide for them and turns them into evil and destructive individuals.  Loss of innocence through experience is an inevitable and perhaps necessary part of a person’s development but should not lead to corruption and vice.Though the lives of these children are difficult and unhappy they are also a symbol of hope. There is a chance that they make overcome their hardships and maybe grow up to change the world for the better.

An Analysis of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

IMG_6143

Gothic fiction is an extreme version of romanticism popular in England and Germany whose name comes from a style of medieval architecture which is often found in such stories. The genre focuses on a pleasant form of horror and terror through suspense and the supernatural. This type of story was popular with young women in Jane Austen’s day, as reflected by the character of Catherine Morland, who is a big fan of gothic novels. Northanger Abbey is filled with references to books such as The Mystery of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, which her contemporary readers would have gotten. The tropes of gothic fiction are referenced throughout Northanger Abbey, as the heroine, Catherine, knows little of the world besides what she has read in such stories. Although Austen playfully mocks the cliches often found in novels, she also defends Catherine’s hobby of novel reading, “Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” (59). Austen points out the hypocrisy of having the heroine of a novel be dismissive of novel reading.

During her introduction, Catherine Morland is described as “…for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features;-so much for her person;-and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind” (Page 37). The heroines of gothic fiction are usually described as highly refined and exceptionally beautiful and talented, while in contrast, Catherine is an awkward tomboy of completely ordinary looks and abilities. By making her so, Austen presents Catherine as an unlikely heroine. In chapter 2, Catherine attends her first ball in Bath, which starts off very poorly. She knows few people there and has no one to dance with. But things take a turn for the better when the party breaks up and she overhears two men saying that she is pretty “She was looked at, however, and with some admiration; for, in her own hearing, two gentlemen pronounced her to be a pretty girl. Such words had their due effect; she immediately thought the evening pleasanter than she had found it before-her humble vanity was contented- she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms, and went to her chair in good humor with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention” (47-48). Catherine is no romance novel heroine who could captivate an entire room with her beauty and charm and inspire rapturous praise; she must be content with simply being called pretty. Austen subverts our expectations of what a novel and its heroine should be.

Catherine’s good luck continues in chapter 3, with the introduction of Henry Tilney, “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner-his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome , was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck” (48). Henry Tilney is good-looking, charming, and intelligent with an irreverent sense of humor. He charms Catherine by playfully mocking the conventional smalltalk between dancing partners. She is instantly smitten.  Catherine’s materialistic and fashion obsessed chaperone, Mrs. Allen, is impressed with Mr. Tilney’s knowledge of muslin, “My dear Catherine,” said she, “do take this pin out of my sleeve; I am afraid it has torn a hole already; I shall be quite sorry if it has, for this is a favorite gown, though it cost but nine shillings a yard.” “That is exactly what I should have guessed it, madam,” said Mr. Tilney, looking at the muslin. “Do you understand muslins, sir?” “Particularly well…”. Tilney’s comfortableness with discussing her favorite subject is enough to cement the good opinion of the shallow Mrs. Allen.

In contrast to Henry Tilney, John Thorpe is described as “…a stout young man man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy” (67). The boorish John Thorpe is an unimpressive figure but has an inflated sense of his own importance; throughout his interactions with Catherine, he arrogantly assumes that she is in love with him and is too conceited to notice that Catherine is uninterested in him.  The incident where Catherine is pressured into going on a carriage ride with John Thorpe and misses her plans with Henry Tilney, shows her naivety and susceptibility to peer-pressure. Her friends trick her into believing that the Tilneys have cancelled their plans due to bad weather, which is quickly proven false when she sees the Tilneys on the street. Catherine has no other choice but to join John Thorpe on an excursion to Bristol, “Pray, pray, stop, Mr. Thorpe.-I cannot go on.-I will not go on.-I must go back to Miss Tilney.” But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on; and Catherine, angry and vexed as she was, having no power of getting away, was obliged to give up the point and submit” (104). She is powerless to resist the browbeating of her so called friends.

One of Catherine’s biggest faux-pas in the novel is failing to pick up upon Thorpe’s intentions towards her. Thorpe’s vanity misinterprets her politeness towards him as romantic encouragement. He goes as far as to spread rumors that he can Catherine are engaged, which leaves her feeling humiliated and baffled as to how it could have happened, “Catherine, with all the earnestness of truth, expressed her astonishment at such a charge, protesting her innocence of every thought of Mr. Thorpe’s being in love with her, and the consequent impossibility of her having ever intended to encourage him” (150). Catherine’s rejection of Thorpe offends and alienates her best friend, Isabella, who is Thorpe’s sister.

The novels of Jane Austen, which focus on the domestic affairs and social interactions of the British country gentry, are often given as examples of a novel of manners, a genre of writing which focuses on realistic descriptions of the everyday lives and customs and conventions of polite society.  It’s plot is driven by Catherine’s faux pas. She is too naive to sense John Thorpe’s intentions towards her; Thorpe brags about his believed conquest of her and overly hypes up her family situation to make them seem richer and more important than they really are. Her supposed wealth attracts General Tilney’s attention and secures her an invitation to Northanger Abbey. She is then sent home in disgrace after it is revealed that she is not the rich heiress she is believed to be. Catherine’s inexperience also threatens her budding relationship with Henry Tilney. She ends up missing her walk with Henry and his sister, Eleanor, because she is unable to resist the pressuring of John and Isabella Thorpe. Later on, her overactive imagination leads her to believe that General Tilney killed his wife; the supposition is what she believes is the cause of her expulsion from Northanger Abbey.

Courtship and marriage are often a major subject in novels of manners and of Austen’s work in particular. Both Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney have rather materialistic and self serving views on marriage. Isabella attaches herself to James Morland, Catherine’s brother, because she believes that he will inherit a large sum of money from the Allens. But when she learns that James will only receive a modest income from being a clergyman, she is disapointed though she tries to deny it, “For my own part,” said Isabella, “My wishes are so moderate, that the smallest income in nature would be enough for me. Where people are really attached, poverty itself is wealth: grandeur I detest: I would not settle in London for the universe. A cottage in some tired village would be ecstasy” (133).  She then dumps James when the richer Frederick Tilney takes an interest in her.  Throughout her friendship with Isabella, Catherine is unaware of her self serving duplicitousness, though it is obvious to the reader. Henry and Eleanor, in particular, are able to see her for the shallow and selfish person that she is. They are unsurprised when Isabella jilts Catherine’s brother James for their own brother, Frederick, who eventually abandons her. Catherine is disappointed when she learns of her friend’s true character and even more disappointed in herself for not seeing it sooner, “How quick you are!” cried Catherine: “You have guess it, I declare!-And yet, when we talked about it in Bath, you little thought of its ending so. Isabella-no wonder now I have not heard from her-Isabella has deserted my brother, and is marry your’s! Could you have believed there had been such inconstancy and fickleness, and everything that is bad in the world?” (201). General Tilney is polite towards Catherine and seems to encourage her relationship with Henry, but that is only because he is convinced that she is wealthy, “Henry was convinced of his father’s believing it to be an advantageous connection, it was not until that late explanation at Northanger that they had the smallest idea of the false calculations which had hurried him on” (235). The only reason Catherine was invited to Northanger Abbey in the first place and was later kicked out with no explanation is that General Tilney believed her to be rich and was disappointed to find out she is not.

Catherine starts off as a young girl with little experience of the ways of the world and her gullibility causes a lot of trouble. Throughout the course of the story, she learns that life is not as black and white as it is in her gothic novels. General Tilney might not have been the best of husbands but he is not a murderer. People who appear to be her friends may have ulterior motives. She learns to be more perceptive of her surroundings and not let her wild imagination get the better of her. Catherine is naive and inexperienced but she is not stupid and is willing admit when she has made a mistake and learn from it.

As is the case with Jane Austen’s novels, the misunderstandings are sorted out by the end and the main couple, Catherine and Henry, get married and live happily ever after. It is a satisfying though predictable ending. The narrator presents the story’s ending as if it is an obvious and foregone conclusion.

A Review of Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

IMG_6082

I feel myself indebted to a YouTube channel called Herodotus MK2 The Father of History for posting a wealth of fascinating historical documentaries. One of the series that was uploaded was called The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History which focuses on the later plays of William Shakespeare and the early years of James I’s reign. In the first episode, it discussed a play of Shakespeare’s that I was unfamiliar with, Measure for Measure. The plot of the play intrigued me, so I decided to pick up a used copy of it at Wicked Good Books in downtown Salem.

Measure for Measure focuses on Duke Vincentio of Vienna, who decides to take a break from governing and mix among his people, disguised as a priest. He leaves authority with Angelo, his harsh and puritanical deputy. Angelo seeks to crack down on sexual immorality by closing down the Viennese brothels and by executing those found guilty of fornication, including a young man named Claudio, who has gotten his fiancee, Juliet or Julietta, pregnant. Claudio enlists the help of his sister, Isabella or Isabel, a novice nun known for being an eloquent and persuasive speaker.

I have noticed that Shakespeare tends to do this weird thing with the names of his characters where he gives two different versions of the name: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sometimes called Helen, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida is often referred to as Cresside, the name of the titular shrew in The Taming of the Shrew alternates between Katherine and Katerina.

The plot of Measure for Measure thickens when Angelo agrees to spare Claudio’s life if the fiercely chaste Isabella agrees to give herself to him. As you can imagine, she will have none of it. Claudio and Isabella start off as sympathetic characters; Claudio seems like a nice guy who wants to marry his pregnant girlfriend and help raise their child but is condemned to die because of an unjust law; Isabella is a sweet and smart girl who wants to save her life of her brother. But the introduction of Angelo’s ultimatum puts them into a worse light. He originally starts off saying that he would rather die than have his sister degrade herself, but then breaks down into sniveling cowardice and pleads with Isabella to give into Angelo’s demands. She insists that his execution is preferable to the loss of her virginity. A possible interpretation of Isabella is that she is little different than the hypocritical and self serving Angelo and would rather throw her own brother under the bus to save her own saintly reputation.

Measure for Measure describes a world filled with corruption and weakness. Those in charge are unjust (like Angelo) or possibly incompetent (like The Duke), and the lower orders are a vice ridden bunch of madams, pimps, and drunkards. The two main heroic characters, the Duke and Isabella, are pretty morally dubious when you think about it.  The only person in the story who comes across as perfectly noble is Marianna, Angelo’s former fiancee. Marianna still loves Angelo, although he jilted her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck (this trope of the girl still loving and easily forgiving the guy even though he treated her like garbage has always bothered me) and agrees to go to bed with him in Isabella’s place, which obliges him to marry her. She has an unshakeable, if misguided, devotion to Angelo and makes a sacrifice for someone else, something that the so called heroine, Isabella, refuses to do.

If you are a fan of Shakespeare and do not mind moral greyness, then I would recommend this play.

Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Jonathan Edwards

The calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent his later years as pastor of the church in Stockbridge MA. and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. Stockbridge was also the hometown of author Catherine Maria Sedgwick. In Sedgwick’s novel, A New England Tale, calvinist beliefs similar to those of Edwards are shown in a dark light through the character of Mrs. Wilson, the stern and uncaring aunt of the heroine, Jane Elton.  Mrs. Wilson, like Edwards, is a staunch Calvinist, and Sedgwick portrays her as being more concerned with outward displays of piety than actually practicing Christian virtue. She uses her strict religious beliefs to justify her cold hearted treatment of others, specifically her authoritarian parenting style and her lack of charity towards her orphaned niece. Some of her most notable traits are her sense of superiority and lack of empathy. Throughout the novel, she harshly judges people and feels no obligation to help them. The character of Mrs. Wilson feels like a negative of parody of beliefs espoused by the likes of Jonathan Edwards.

When Mrs. Wilson is introduced in chapter one, she is presented as an unkind and judgemental figure. She tells the recently orphaned Jane that the untimely deaths of her parents were due to their sinfulness,

“I told her the judgements of an offended God were made manifest towards her in a remarkable manner; and then I put it to her conscience, whether if she was sure her mother had gone where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched, she should be reconciled to the character of God, and be willing herself to promote his glory, by suffering that just condemnation.”

(Sedgwick 16)

She dismisses Jane’s suffering as “God’s will” and a just punishment for her family’s shortcomings. In his best known sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards shows a similar lack of compassion,

“They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between Him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell”

(Norton 431)

According to Mrs. Wilson and Jonathan Edwards, anyone who does not live up their idea of Christian virtue is beyond redemption and bound for hell.

In Chapter eight, Mrs. Wilson refuses to aid her profligate son, David, when he is in financial trouble, claiming that these troubles are a punishment from God for his dissolute lifestyle and that because he is sinful, he deserves these punishments.

“If my children, though they are my flesh and blood, are not elected, the Lord is justified in their destruction, and I am still. I have done my duty, and I know not ‘why tarry His chariot wheels.’”

(Sedgwick 85)

It is a tenant of Calvinist theology, known as predestination, that a select few were born holy and destined to go to heaven while the majority are inherently sinful and hellbound. The sinful majority deserve whatever punishments they get because it is God’s will. This is the theme Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which Edwards tells his congregation that God can strike them down into hell any moment and if it his will to do so, then it is perfectly justified.

“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using His power at any moment to destroy them, Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down, why cumbereth the ground?” Luke 13.7. The sword of divine justice is at any moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s will, that holds it back”

(Norton  431)

Both Jonathan Edwards and Mrs. Wilson have negative and unforgiving views on human nature and are quick to turn against anyone who does not fit their idea of holiness.

Edwards begins his sermon by referencing Deuteronomy 32.35 “Their foot shall slide in due time”. He describes the sinful as being in a slippery place where they can slide into hell at any moment. They do not know when they are going to fall but that end is inevitable.

“It implies that they were always exposed to to sudden unexpected destruction. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall, he cannot foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once without warning: which is also expressed in Psalm 73.18-19 “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castest them down into destruction: How are they brought into desolation as in a moment!”’

(Norton 430)

In chapter fifteen, the dying Mrs. Wilson is informed of the further iniquity that her son, David, has fallen into. She tells Jane, the only person who bothered to visit her on her deathbed, “…he has gone out from me, and he is not of me; his blood be upon his own head; I am clear of it. My ‘foot standeth on an even place’” (Sedgwick 166).  Mrs. Wilson sees herself as a model of holiness and,therefore, not on Edward’s slippery slope. There is a degree of snobbishness which colors the doctrine of predestination; the elect (those chosen by God to go to heaven) are an elite group who judge and look down the rest of the population. People like Mrs. Wilson see themselves as above everyone else and do not feel responsible for people they see as beneath them.

In contrast to the harsh calvinism of Mrs. Wilson and Jonathan Edwards, Sedgwick advocates a more compassionate form of Christianity. She characterizes people like them as using religion to feed their their own sense of self-righteousness.

“Mrs. Wilson was often heard to denounce those who insisted on the necessity of good works, as Pharisees;-she was thankful, she said, that she should not presume to appear before her Judge with any of the the ‘filthy rags of her own righteousness;’-it would be easy getting to heaven if the work in any way depended on ourselves;-any body could ‘deal justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.’ How is easy it is, we leave to those to determine, who have sought to adjust their lives by this divine rule.

Mrs. Wilson rejected the name of the Pharisee, but the proud, oppressive, bitter spirit of the jewish bigot was manifest in the complacency with which she regarded her own faith, and the illiberality she cherished towards every person, of every denomination, who did not believe what she believed, act according to her rule of right)

(Sedgwick 22)

Sedgwick would say that someone like Mrs. Wilson may be outwardly christian but do not practice christian charity and compassion. Her idea of what Christianity should be is expressed in the words of John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity: “Secondly, the former propounds one man to another, as the same flesh and image of God; this is as a brother in Christ also, and in the communication of the same spirit and so teacheth us to put the difference between Christians and others” (167). A proper christian, according to Winthrop, treats everyone with respect and compassion.

The character of Mrs. Wilson in A New England Tale shows how strict religious views, like those of Jonathan Edwards, can be negative. They feed into a smug sense of superiority and foster a lack of sympathy for others, these, in turn, can make a person selfish, cruel, and intolerant. People like this feel that can do whatever they want to others because they see themselves as superior. A New England Tale, in the form of the virtuous heroine, Jane Elton, advocates kindness, compassion, and humble dignity and more uplifting and inclusive forms of Christianity.