Bag Girl Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.

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Sarah Vowell is an American historian and author known for her snarky and irreverent writing style and unconventional way of handling non-fiction prose. My father is an admirer of her and her work and that is how I am aware of it. When I decided to write my term paper on the Marquis de Lafayette and the beginnings of America’s relationship with France, I was reminded of this book and chose to use it as one of my sources. Vowell’s writing is unique among history books in that they have a much less formal and pedantic tone than is typically associated with the genre. Her books read more like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than the history texts students are made to read in school. The structure of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is based around Vowell’s trips to sites associated with her subjects and she often goes into descriptions of the people and places she encounters on her excursions. As someone with a penchant for history related vacations, I find this format enjoyable.

Vowell begins the book with the question “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” The most fascinating question to ponder about this unlikeliest of founding fathers is why and how did a teenage French aristocrat end up becoming an important figure in the cause of American independence and wholeheartedly embraced, and was embraced by, a country so different from his own. Vowell’s central theme is what Lafayette, as one of America’s first national celebrities, was one of the few unifying figures in American history, which is riddled with social and political division.

During the research period for this book, Vowell visited a number of Lafayette related sites such as the Chateau de Chavaniac in the Auvergne region of France, Lafayette’s childhood home and the Brandywine Battle Site, where Lafayette fought his first battle as a general in the Continental Congress, and the sites of other battles where Lafayette fought such as Monmouth and Yorktown. Because Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is as much a travel narrative as a historical one, Vowell finds ways of incorporating these experiences into the narrative she is telling. Vowell describes her approach to history as thus “Having studied art history, as opposed to political history, I tend to incorporate found objects into my books,” she writes. “Just as Pablo Picasso glued a fragment of furniture onto the canvas of ‘Still Life With Chair Caning,’ I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past — traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bibs and bobs I learn from looking out bus windows or chatting up the people I bump into on the road.” The final product is a hodgepodge of historical fact and amusing anecdote.

Vowell explores Lafayette as both a person and as symbol for both the Americans and the French of a relationship that was tense and complex from the beginning. Lafayette managed to form an alliance between two vastly different countries (the curmudgeonly and puritanical Americans and the haughty and effete French) which lasted over the centuries. He tried to use his revolutionary credentials to cool the worst excesses of the French Revolution but barely managed to get out of it with his head intact. In 1824, the sixty-seven year old Lafayette visited the now United States and was met with a superstar’s welcome. The 1824 American tour elicited the equivalent of a modern day media frenzy with crowds of thousands appearing to see the elderly Lafayette wherever he went. Entrepreneurs profited from the Lafayette mania through the very American phenomenon of commemorative souvenirs.

The title Vowell chose for her book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States refers to the main theme of the text, that Americans have been traditionally a divided people, broken up into a number of social, political, religious, and racial factions, and unwilling to cooperate and agree amongst themselves and other countries but Lafayette was one of the few things that united the American people and united them with France. Lafayette embraced America wholeheartedly and the feelings were mutual as the Lafayette mania of 1824 shows.

Almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on North American soil, they began to squabble pettily with one another and their relationship with the outside world was marred by misunderstanding and outright xenophobia. The decision to break away from Europe and form their own society was much easier than coming to a consensus as to who should run that society and how it should be run. In today’s socio-political climate, the growing pains of the New United States feel familiar, relevant, and perhaps comforting. Viciousness, pettiness, and conflict are far from anything new in American political life and the country has gone through some nasty periods of strife but always come through it. One of the few things that can bring its diverse peoples with their diverse values together is a shared reverence for its founding fathers.

One of the things I find fascinating about studying the founding fathers, and I get the impression that Sarah Vowell does too, is that once you get past the image of wise and infallible sages that posterity created for them, you find that they are relatably flawed. Vowell enjoys affectionately taking her subjects down a peg. Washington and Lafayette were great men but even they had their shortcomings. Lafayette’s disobedience to the orders of the French government and departure for the Americas was the ultimate act of teenage petulance and rebellion and Washington was saddled with a position that no mere mortal could possibly handle without a lot of strain. We find stories of their outbursts and petty infighting interesting and amusing because such behavior is understandable and relatable. Who has not talked smack about someone they do not like.  

As much as I love history, I struggle with reading history books as do many people. The genre has a not totally undeserved reputation for being dry, intimidating, and unapproachable. This is why Sarah Vowell’s books come as a breath of fresh air. Her snarky, rambling prose filled with slang and pop culture references is the exact opposite of the textbooks I had to slog through for my history classes. I am also reading W.E Woodward’s biography of Lafayette as research for the term paper I am writing and saying that getting through the book is a chore to get through is putting it mildly. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an ideal book for people with an interest in history but struggle with five hundred page biographies filled with footnotes, annotations, and other appendices.

Vowell’s informal and irreverent writing style makes the book more accessible than those of her peers but does not feel dumbed down. Her prose has the feeling of a casual conversation with an intelligent, interesting, and eccentric person. The road trip format of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States I find enjoyable as someone who loves to travel and whose childhood family trips were to historic sites such as Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg. The text is cobbled together from both the highbrow discourse of historians and conversations with the random people one encounters during a road trip. This style is effective because it shows how history relates to the world outside of academia. Vowell enjoys taking digs at America’s intertwined reverence and ignorance of its own history. She is tackling a well known but not understood subject. Most people have a vague knowledge of the American Revolution or the Civil War but have little interest in studying deeper into the subjects.  Yet we trot out our god-like adoration of the founding generation each Fourth of July and the Civil War still evokes violent feelings even today. Historic sites are popular and lucrative tourist destinations yet no one seems to want to pay tax money for their upkeep.

I would recommend Lafayette in the Somewhat United States especially if you are interested in the Revolutionary War Era and or Franco-American relations.

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High School Musical, Heathers, Spring Awakening, and Young Broadway

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I recently discovered a Youtube channel called Musical Theater Mash which uploaded a video entitled “The High School Musical Conspiracy” whose thesis was that the High School Musical franchise, love it or hate it, made musical theater “cool” and brought it to a younger audience. I myself am a perfect example of the phenomenon that Musical Theater Mash illustrates. High School Musical came out when I was in elementary school, so I was the perfect age for it. This was around the time when I was getting interested in Broadway musicals and High School Musical was probably how a lot of kids my age became theater fans. We would move onto shows like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables which are the gateway drugs of the theater world.

Each age has its edgy and transgressive theater. The turn-of-the-center had Puccini’s La Boheme. The 1950s had Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and the 60s and 70s had Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The theater kids who were slightly older than me had Rent and Avenue Q. When the High School Musical age bracket hit their teens, the big shows were Next to Normal and America Idiot. We had just about missed Spring Awakening (which would make a brief resurgence in 2015 due to it short-lived revival) and a few holdovers from our predecessors, such as Rent and Wicked were still around along with perennial theater kid staples like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. The theater kid scene during my adolescence, roughly 2007-2014, was a time between times. It was after things like Rent, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, which we liked in spite of, perhaps because of, the fact that we were told that they were too adult for us, and before smash hits like Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen, a large portion of whose fan bases are made up of teens and young adults.

The conclusion of “The High School Musical Conspiracy” is that the most noteworthy musicals of the past several decades, such as Rent and Hamilton have been geared towards younger audiences and have themes like rebellion and dissatisfaction with society which resonate with adolescents and young adults and use a more contemporary style of music. I was fortunate enough to a part of the Itunes/Youtube generation and live a world where one can have access to the cast recording of shows they might otherwise never get to experience. It is much easier to search up bootlegs on Youtube than spend several hundred dollars on theater tickets. This has lead to the rise of cult hits like Bonnie and Clyde (which famously closed after a month) and Heathers (which never made it past off-Broadway). Most of their fanbases never got to see them live and only know about them through bootlegs and original cast recordings. Bootlegs are controversial in the theater world but it is strangely appropriate that these tales of youthful criminality be experienced through a technically illegal activity.

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Heathers and Spring Awakening are musicals that I experienced in similar ways. I started off by listening to a few of the songs before finally getting to see a bootleg several years later. They both have a dark tone and deal with the uglier side of being a teen. Spring Awakening is a melodramatic cautionary tale while Heathers finds sardonic humor in even its most messed up moments.

Both musicals take place in the past (Spring Awakening is set in 1891 while  Heathers is set in 1989) and are very much stories of their time yet speak to timeless issues that young people (Spring Awakening specifically focuses on burgeoning sexuality and overly strict parenting while Heathers is about clique and popularity culture and how psychologically damaging it can be). Veronica Sawyer and Melchior Gabor, the snarky, diary writing protagonists respectively, each directly or indirectly cause the deaths of several characters (Veronica and her boyfriend J.D. manage to off Heather Chandler, the head of the Heathers, and jerk jocks Ram and Kurt while Melchior is unable, despite his best efforts, to prevent his best friend Moritz’s suicide and gets his lover Wendla pregnant, leading to her death from a botched abortion). The two stories also share a theme of teenage suicide (Moritz commits suicide and Veronica and J.D.’s m.o is making the deaths of their victims look like suicides). 

The characters of Heathers are fortunate enough to live in a more permissive time (the late 1980s where premarital sex and booze and drug-fueled parties are facts of high school life) than the characters of Spring Awakening (the straight-laced, buttoned-up 1890s where such debauchery would have been unthinkable). But adults in both eras appear to be equally out of touch and hypocritical: the adults in Spring Awakening are cruel (the teachers) or at least overbearing (Frau Bergmann, Wendla’s mother, and Herr Stiefel, Moritz’s father) while their counterparts in Heathers are either abusive (Big Bud, J.D.’s father), self-serving (Miss Fleming, the flaky hippie English teacher), or absent (Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Kelly, Ram and Kurt’s fathers).  The few positive parental figures (Frau Gabor, Melchior’s mother, and the Sawyers, Veronica’s parents) are unable to prevent the tragedies which befall their children.

Both musicals follow High School Musical’s lead: a story about teenagers set in a high school about the pressure to conform to society’s expectations feature recognizable teenage types and un-understanding parents. High School Musical, as insufferable as it is another over the age of twelve, may have contributed something positive to the world: the rise of musicals like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Heathers, and Dear Evan Hansen.

Hadestown Album Comparison

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I first discovered the folk opera Hadestown a couple of years ago when I was researching the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the favorites, and found that there was a concept album based on this story. The album was available for listening on YouTube and I was instantly obsessed. Unlike your typical concept album, there are different singers playing the different characters in the story. It feels like the cast recording of a musical and my first thought was that there should be a stage production. Sure enough, there was one in New York but it came and went before I had the chance to see it. So I looked up everything I could find of the production online which was tantalizingly little. Then it was announced a few months ago that a cast recording was to be released and I quickly pre-ordered it off of iTunes and waited for the whole thing to be available with a track released every few weeks to wet my appetite.  

For the purpose of comparison, I am going to go through each track on both of the albums, some of which overlap, and give my thoughts on the story and how it plays out in each version. The original concept album will be referred to as “H” while the cast recording will be referred to as “C”.

C begins with a song called Road to Hell which sets up the setting: a vaguely Great Depression era American south or midwest cum mythological Greece. It also introduces some of the divine players in the story about to unfold, Hermes, the messenger god who acts at the show’s narrator, the Fates, who control the destiny of mortals, and Persephone, queen of the underworld and goddess of spring, and how a young mortal named Orpheus will try to cheat death because of love. H gets right into introducing the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice (Anaïs Mitchell, the songwriter behind Hadestown and Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver). It’s first track, aptly titled Wedding Song, tells of how Orpheus and Eurydice wish to get married. Eurydice is concerned about how they are going to support themselves but the happy-go-lucky Orpheus assures her that everything will work out for them.

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Road to Hell introduces the story’s themes such as fate and undying love while Wedding Song sets up the struggles that our sweethearts, Orpheus and Eurydice, will face. As Road to Hell says “It was hard times,” which is bad news for our romantic poet Orpheus, who seems like the kind of guy who is very good at wooing a girl but is perhaps not as good at being a husband and provider.

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The second tracks of H and C paint different pictures of the world up above. Livin’ It Up On Top presents the world outside of Hadestown as fruitful, summery, and idyllic. Persephone feels stifled by her marriage to Hades and her life in Hadestown and only feels like she can be herself during the six months of the year she is allowed to spend with the living, who appear to be enjoying themselves greatly and appreciate nature’s bounty.

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While Epic I, which features in both versions, portrays the mortal world in a much bleaker light. Like Road to Hell, it provides the imagery of a railroad line, acting as a River Styx bringing people to the underworld or Hadestown, built by the lost souls who have come under Hades’s sway. The only alternative to starvation and poverty is body crushing drudgery and soul-crushing conformity in Hadestown. We also see Orpheus’s idealism in Livin’ It Up On Top. He values independence over money and is distrustful of those who take more than their fair share and seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others, an attitude which will later put him in conflict with Hades. Way Down Hadestown, which also appears in each version, shows that the world that characters live in is a tough one, so tough that people are willing to sell their souls to Hades to be able to survive.  We also begin to see a disconnect between Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus wants nothing to do with Hadestown and see it as a literal hell-hole but Eurydice is intrigued by its promise of a better life. 

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An interesting adaptation change is that Eurydice’s verses about how great things must be in Hadestown are sung by the fates in the C version, and Eurydice sings her line “Kinda makes you wonder how it feels” in response as if the fates are influencing her later decisions.

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In All I’ve Ever Known, we see that Eurydice’s life has seen a lot of hardship and her love for Orpheus has made her feel more optimistic. Much like in Wedding Song, Orpheus assures his lover that they can face anything as long as they are together. The world around them may be bleak and tough but their love is one of its few bright spots.

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The song Chant in C tracks the passage of time from idyllic summer to harsh winter as well as the souring of the two relationships we see in the story: Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. Hades tries his hardest to please his wayward wife with elaborate gestures but Persephone misses the simpler times back when they were first married and Eurydice is frustrated with Orpheus’s inability to provide for them.

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The desperate and vulnerable Eurydice is easy prey for Hades who is compared to rattlesnake going after a songbird. The imagery of a songbird paints Eurydice as flighty and unable to handle hardship since birds tend to fly away to a warmer climate during the winter.  Hey, Little Song Bird shows Hades luring Eurydice away from Orpheus and her hand to mouth existence. 

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When the Chips are Down is sung by the fates who are trying to convince Eurydice to accept Hades’s offer. In H they come across as mean girls who are mocking Eurydice for her bad life decisions whereas, in C, they are older and more cynical figures influencing the young and naive Eurydice to put her own survival ahead of everything else.

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The C version of Wait for Me features Orpheus looking for Eurydice and being chastised by Hermes for losing track of her. Orpheus convinces Hermes to give him directions on how to get to Hadestown and rescue Eurydice. Despite the hiccups in their relationship, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice is strong enough to see him through to Hell and back.

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Why We Build the Wall gives a closer look at how things operate in Hadestown. The lost souls who end up there are put to work building a wall that they are made to believe will keep out poverty and hardship. This song is in a call and response format with Hades drilling his followers in the tenants of his ideology: that they must build a wall around Hadestown to keep out those who wish to come in and take what they have. Sounds familiar?  The C version shows Eurydice going into Hades’s office and giving him her soul and possibly more. 

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In Our Lady of the Underground, Persephone undermines her husband’s operation by providing his employees with things that will help them forget about their drab existence at a secret speakeasy. This is set up earlier in Way Down Hadestown when Persephone mentions that she is bringing drugs and alcohol back with her to help her get through the winter. The crack in the wall mentioned by Persephone in Our Lady of the Underground is a representation of the flaws in the system that Persephone and Orpheus try to exploit.

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Eurydice begins to regret her decision to come to Hadestown and describes her journey there in Flowers (Eurydice’s Song), which features in H, using imagery suggestive of drug intoxication and being sexually assaulted. The vague nature of her memories of her previous life with Orpheus shows that they have begun to fade. C shows Eurydice’s realization that things in Hadestown are not all she expected in Way Down Hadestown II. Persephone and the fates mock her for her naivety and for getting conned by Hades out of her freedom and her life.

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The fates similarly mock Orpheus in Nothing Changes in H, by saying that he is foolish for believing he can cheat death and rescue Eurydice. This plays out differently in C, with Chant II, where Hades tells the recently arrived Orpheus that he was once an idealistic and romantic young man like him but learned that women are fickle and need to be placated with expensive things.

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Persephone has a similar talk with Eurydice about how she was once a young girl hungry for wealth but learned that love was more important. Hades asks Orpheus to sing him one last song before he destroys him. In H, this song is called If Its True, where Orpheus tries to gain Hades’s pity by singing of how hopeless he feels without Eurydice. C has him use a different tactic: reminding Hades of how he fell in love with Persephone and how all the wealth he has cannot compare with that love in Epic II, which appears later on in H.

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Each version gives us a scene where Hades pounders what do in the situation: either keep Eurydice and feel bad about it or let her go and look weak and undermine his power. H has a song called How Long where Persephone tries to persuade her husband to free Eurydice and let her be with Orpheus but he fears that doing so will make him lose his authority. In the C version, Word to the Wise, the fates get Hades to come to this conclusion, making them arguably the true villains of the story. Hades has one more trick left to play. He allows Orpheus to leave with Eurydice under the condition that he is not allowed to look back.

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Orpheus and Eurydice get a duet in C called Promises where they decide that despite everything that has happened, they still love each other and want to be together. The frequent use of the phrases “I do” and “I will” are reminiscent of wedding vows. Wait for Me has a reprise in C where Persephone is about to leave again for her spring and summer sojourn outside of Hadestown. She and Hades decide to give their marriage a second chance when she returns in the fall. Hades and Persephone are a foil to Orpheus and Eurydice. The mistakes they have made are ones that the younger couple should learn from. Both couples, despite the ups and downs they have gone through, have a strong love and a strong bond.

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H skips right to Doubt Comes In which appears at roughly the same point in each version. It’s the classic scene where Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld, forbidden to look back upon her. The main difference in C is that part of Orpheus’s verses are sung by the fates, who are making Orpheus suspicious of Eurydice and begin to falter in his determination.

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C ends with a reprise of Road to Hell and H ends with a song called I  Raise My Cup to Him where Eurydice and Persephone toast Orpheus in a reverse eulogy, the dead praise and celebrate the living. Road to Hell II ends the story on a brighter note: spring returns and the love between Orpheus and Eurydice survived despite their separation. Those who are familiar with Greek Mythology will know that they will eventually be reunited in Elysium after Orpheus’s death.

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I would highly recommend both versions. The music is beautiful and poetic and the story is nuanced and compelling. But here’s a warning: it’s ending will destroy you emotionally. I think the stage production sounds very well done with all the performers doing a fantastic job. The actor who plays Orpheus, Damon Daunno, has a gorgeous voice and Amber Grey is hysterical as Persephone. Nabiyah Be, who plays Eurydice, is great as well though I prefer Anaïs Mitchell in the original concept album, whose honey and graham crackers voice gives the character a naive quality. I regret not being able to see this production live.

 

Bag Girl Attends the Boston “Free-Speach” Counter Demonstraiton

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I was disappointed last January when I was unable to attend the Women’s March in Boston, so when I heard that there was going to be an event in the city last weekend, I was eager to go. An alt-right “free-speech” demonstration was planned in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville VA. A counter demonstration gathered on Boston Common in front of the State House. My dad and I decided to go into the city with Steve and Nancy, some old friends of my parents. We met up at their house in Saugus, where I received a heart-shaped “love trumps hate” sign to carry, and took the T into Boston. 

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On our way to the State House, we stopped at the Holocaust Memorial. One of its glass panes had been smashed by a rock but bouquets of flowers had been placed all along the memorial, as well as, candles venerating Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville. Visiting the memorial was a powerful reminder of what prejudices, like those espoused by the alt-right, can do if not stopped. This reminder was particularly relevant in light of recent events. The day started off cloudy and gray but by the time we got to Boston Common, it was sunny and beautiful.

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Our base camp for the events was St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, which was open those attending the counter demonstration. In its downstairs hall, they put out water, coffee, and baked goods. After using the restroom and grabbing a cookie, we went to see the counter-demonstration. Boston Commons was crowded with counter demonstrators, many holding clever signs.  They outnumbered the alt-right agitators, who were holed up in a gazebo, about a hundred to one. As we made our way up the hill to the capitol building, we saw a group dressed in black and pointy hats called “Witches Against White Supremacy.” I made sure to take pictures and send them to Jasmine, who I knew would get a kick out of it.  

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We also saw a man dressed in the uniform of a Civil War union soldier, who denounced the capitalist system and a boy who Dad said must be cosplaying as 60s radical Abbie Hoffman. 

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At the top of Capitol Hill is a monument honoring the 54th Massachusetts, the first African American regiment organized during the Civil War. From this vantage point, we listened to a man give an impassioned speech on prison refer, which encouraged its listeners to be “pains in the ass” and demand change in the socio-political system. When the speech was over, Dad and I returned to the 54th Massachusetts monument to join Steve and Nancy.

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At noon, Steve, Nancy, and I returned to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a prayer service, whose theme was love and acceptance. The story from the Bible was about Joseph forgiving the brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt. Being Episcopalian, the service was indistinguishable from the Catholic mass I am used to. On the scale of Protestants, Episcopalians are the closest to Catholics. The service was beautiful. It’s music, readings, and prayers were in keeping with the day’s message of love and world changing. The bishop announced at the end of the service that the alt-right agitators were beginning to disperse.

Dad, who had spent the past hour exploring, met up with us again after the service. We went downstairs to the hall where sandwiches were served. I had a ham and cheese which was delicious. On our way out, we thanked the clergy of St. Paul’s for their hospitality. The day made me feel optimistic about human nature. I was glad that more people showed up to represent love and acceptance than intolerance and that the demonstration and counter demonstration went about fairly peacefully.

Bag Girl Reviews: Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Without a Country by Kathyrn Lasky

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Growing up, Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country was an entry in the Royal Diaries series that I always wanted to read but never got a chance to. When I reread Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles last fall, I decided to purchase Queen Without a Country off of Amazon. 

Eleven-year-old Mary Stuart believes that she is destined to rule three countries. By birth, she is Queen of Scotland and she is arranged to marry the heir to the French throne, the frail but good natured Francis. Those around her say that she has a better claim to the English throne than its current occupant. But being a beautiful young royal growing up in the renaissance French court is not the fairy tale one might imagine. Mary and her loyal clique of ladies in waiting, all named Mary (this gets a little confusing at times, I can understand why Reign changed this but did they have to give them such preposterous names as Lola, Greer, Kenna, and Aylee) have to deal with spies and political intrigue, a pedophilic music teacher, and Mary’s treacherous and prickly mother-in-law to be, Catherine de Medici.

I always get a kick out of when I find surprisingly adult elements in books intended for children, such as Signor Marcellini, the music master who comes onto Mary Fleming, the real life counterpart to Reign’s Lola. One needs to keep in mind that Mary and her ladies are supposed to around eleven or twelve and girls in the sixteenth century were considered sexually mature around that age so that by the standards of the time, Signor Marcellini would not be considered a pedophile.  

Like I said with Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, this book is meant for elementary and middle school aged readers and comes across as somewhat juvenile to me at this point in my life, but I probably would have enjoyed when I was younger. The setting of the highly refined sixteenth-century French court is fascinating and like with Reign, it is meant to be escapism. Many young girls enjoyed fantasizing about being a beautiful princess, wearing gorgeous clothes, and having exciting things happen to you, I know I did. And if there is a historical setting, all the better.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Reign Season 4

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Perhaps the most egregious television shows I can think of is the C.W series Reign, based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The story lines are cliched and melodramatic and give only the slightest nod to the history it is supposed to be based on, the acting is hoaky and terrible, the costumes range from looking like tacky prom dresses to looking like school play costumes. It’s characters behave like your typical C.W style spoiled brats and it’s thin veneer of political drama comes second to bed hopping and petulant rivalries. But the strangest thing is that I got caught up in the show and have a strange soft spot for it.  It is my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. As an aspiring writer and a  lover of history who appreciates historical accuracy and artistic integrity, enjoying this pandering trash makes me feel like a hypocrite. If shows like Downton Abbey, Poldark, and Outlander are like a fine chocolate truffle, Reign is the television equivalent of eating a dozen pixie stixs. You know it is crap and bad for you and that there are better things out there, but sometimes you just need the hollow rush.

In this final season, Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) struggles to find her footing as the Catholic ruler of Protestant Scotland and makes a politically advantageous to Lord Darnley (Will Kemp) who tries to undermine her authority as queen. Her rivalry with Elizabeth I of England (Rachel Skarsten) escalates to an outright grudge match. Meanwhile back in France, Catherine de Medici (Megan Follows) tries to protect her increasingly unstable son Charles IX (Spencer MacPherson).

Poor Adelaide Kane is completely out of her depth as Mary, Queen of Scots. She is trying to be a dignified and queenly figure but comes across more as an overindulged little girl. Rachel Skarsten reads as more of a Regina George style alpha bitch in the role of Elizabeth I than the brilliant and pragmatic politician Elizabeth really was. Both are presented as strong, independent women in a man’s world but, in reality, are little more than the bitchy combatants in a soap opera catfight.

The best performance is given by Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici who is brilliant and steals the show.

There are a lot of bad things you can say about Reign. It is silly fluff and emblematic of the shallowness of the entertainment industry, mostly in how it thinks it needs to sacrifice authenticity in order to pander to the lowest common denominator. My opinion is that if you are going to make a film or television series involving some sort of history, the people who are most likely going to watch it are those who are interested in history, and you should not alienate that demographic. There is a terrible misconception that history is boring and not relevant to people today and this is not a mid set we should encourage or pander to. I find that history is fascinating enough without being turned into a costume ball version of Pretty Little Liars.

Romance and Feminism

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As with today, romance and relationships were a popular subject for fiction during the Victorian era and the early 20th century. Literature has long been used to highlight social issues such as social inequality, especially gender inequality. The period bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, known as the turn of the century, was a period of great change, specifically in views on marriage, romantic love, and relationships between men and women. As one century faded into another, portrayals of women in fiction became more complex as real life women became more emancipated. Their identity was beyond that of just a virgin, a wife, or a whore. Authors championed the idea of marriage as a romantic partnership between equals and it was not always the happy ending of the story. The fiction of this time period reflected the changes that were going on and also perhaps influenced them. But the core values of society and its expectations of women changed little because they were still expected to conform to what men wanted.

Women during the Victorian and Edwardian eras were valued according their attractiveness and usefulness to men. A girl’s education would involve skills which would make her attractive to potential suitors such as dancing, singing and music, needlework, etiquette, and conversation; it was her job to catch the best husband she could. The fashions of the Victorian era emphasized natural beauty and femininity. The most attractive shape for a woman was a tiny waist with generous hips and bust and the most desired complexion was pale with rosy cheeks; both were signs of health and fertility. Corsets were worn throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras to control the waist and support the bust. A lady would not go outside without a hat or parasol to protect her pallor and would pinch her cheeks and bite her lips to give them color; wearing makeup was unthinkable because it was associated with actresses and prostitutes. After a girl was married, she would devote herself to running her household, raising her children, and pleasing her husband. A good woman was expected to remain sexually pure before marriage and only have sex in order to satisfy her husband and conceive children. Female sexuality was related to male honor; a woman who went against the sexual mores of the time made the men in her life vulnerable to shame and ridicule. The patriarchal social structure of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took a rather simplistic view on women as either virgins, wives, or whores. Women were considered intellectually inferior to men yet, ironically, were put on a pedestal as the moral guardians of society but they used this role to enter public life.

Charity and social work were considered acceptable activities for a respectable lady. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were periods of great social reform. Women played a large and active role in these reforms and gained more social, political, and economic autonomy for themselves. This time period was also the first great era of manufacturing, advertising, and consumerism with many of its new products marketed at women, who were under the most pressure to look attractive and would be the primary consumer for the home. To make their products more appealing to female customers, advertisers gave the impression that these products would emancipate them. Household appliances would free them from the drudgery of housework and fashion and beauty products would turn them into a modern and liberated woman. Bicycling was a popular pastime during the turn of the century, and was championed by women’s rights activists because it gave women a degree of independence. But some argued that it was damaging to a woman’s health (specifically their fertility) and would make them seem masculine and unattractive (therefore unlikely to marry and fulfill the acceptable role of wife and mother). Bicycling was also seen as immoral because it involved riding astride (an unladylike position) and a woman could presumably go off unchaperoned to meet with lovers. Similar concerns were raised about the newfound access to higher education which women gained at the end of the nineteenth century. The big women’s rights debate of the era was whether or not to give women the rights to vote. Some of the reasons people had for not allowing women to vote were that women did not have judgment enough to participate in politics, that it would disrupt the social order ( which benefited men), that it would emasculate and feminize politics (because anything feminine must be bad) and would cause disharmony between the sexes.

The literature of the day presented models for behavior and also showed what happened when you did not live up to society’s expectations .It reflected and formed the values of the age. It’s heroines often suffered in an unequal and harsh world and were abused by cruel people, often male. Proto feminist literature featured male characters who were some sort of threat or obstacle for the heroine. Often they are romantically or sexually interested in her, wishing to marry her or take advantage of her. A happy ending featured the heroine overcoming all of her trials and marrying Mr. Right; the male character she has been pitted against learns to accept and appreciate her as an equal and turns out to be the perfect husband. An earlier example of this type of narrative is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The spirited Elizabeth Bennet and the haughty and introverted Mr. Darcy misunderstand each other and are thrown into conflict with one another. But the attraction that has been between them from the beginning overcomes their defenses and the novel ends with them marrying. By marrying Mr. Darcy, who is a wealthy nobleman, Elizabeth improves her socioeconomic status.  The goal of romantic love is the social and economic stability of marriage. A sad ending often involved the heroine dying tragically, a victim of the injustice and sexual inequality of the world. She often ended up as a victim by going against conventional ideas about female behavior. Her story could either be a warning about what happened when you broke the rules or a condemnation of a social system which judged her too harshly. Perhaps the best known of this type of story is   Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Anna, the wife of a Russian diplomat, is dissatisfied with her marriage and leaves her husband for her lover. She becomes a social outcast and ends up committing suicide. Even women who are portrayed sympathetically are punished when they step outside the boundaries of conventional behavior.

In 1891, German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote one of his best known plays,   Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy. Around the same time, English novelist Thomas Hardy wrote what is perhaps his best known work,   Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. Both works were shocking due to their frank portrayals of sexuality and the fate of women who fail to live up to society’s ideal of female purity, and are in many ways similar.

Hardy’s heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, has a lot in common with Wendla Bergmann,   Spring Awakening’s   main female character. Both are innocent small ­town girls with a spirited and feisty side, and they go through similar experiences. Tess’s love interest, Angel Clare, and   Spring Awakening’s protagonist, Melchior Gabor, resemble the self-important, know-it-all, male characters common in proto feminist literature. Melchior and Wendla’s scene in the woods has a lot of similarities with scenes in Tess of the D’Urbervilles between Angel and Tess. When Angel is struck by Tess’s beauty, he compares her to classical goddesses such as Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and Artemis, goddess of purity. Melchior greets Wendla by saying she is “like a tree nymph fallen from the branches”. Both Angel and Melchior have had more access to education than their love interests and treat them patronizingly. Angel offers to educate and cultivate the less sophisticated Tess, who responds that the answers she is looking for are not found in books. Melchior bombards Wendla with cynical rhetoric about how he does not see the point of her charitable visits to the poor because they are unpleasant and possibly useless and is more interested in this moral dilemma than in Wendla’s actual answer, that she makes these visits because they are necessary.

The relationship between Melchior and Wendla then begins to resemble that of Tess and Alec D’Urberville in that they engage in consentually ambiguous sex. Both Tess and Alec’s sexual encounter in the woods and Melchior and Wendla’s sexual encounter in the hayloft are not explicitly described and open to interpretation. Views on sexuality when  Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Spring Awakening were written were different than they are today. Sex outside of marriage was not something which a nice girl was supposed to want and it was a trope of erotic literature to have the heroine be the victim of a quasi­rape. The purpose was to shift the blame for the act away from her and say that it was not her fault, so she would still be a “good girl” (Worsley Episode 3.) The forceful seduction is also used to present the heroine as a victim worthy of sympathy even though she stepped out of society’s bounds. Tess clearly regrets her encounter with Alec and her experiences with him are more explicitly negative but Wendla’s reaction to what she has gone through is much more cryptic.

“Why did I slip out of the room?­To pick violets!­ Because Mother sees me smiling. Why can’t I close my lips any longer?­I don’t know, ­I simply don’t know, I can’t find the words for it…The path feels like velvet, ­no stones, no thorns. My feet don’t touch the ground. How well I slept last night.­ This is where they were.­I feel so solemn,­like a nun at communion.­Such beautiful violets!­Calm down, Mother, I’ll wear my sackcloth from now on.­If only there was someone here now who I could embrace and tell everything.

( Spring Awakening , page 39-­40)

Wendla’s monologue suggests that she received some pleasure and excitement from the encounter, whether she wanted it or not.  The phrase “Calm down, mother, I’ll wear my sackcloth from now on,” refers to the long dress which Wendla’s mother gave her at the beginning of the story and can possible be interpreted as Wendla saying she is willing to accept sexuality and womanhood for good or bad. Both Alec and Melchior express guilt for what they have done and a desire to make amends.

I suppose I am a bad fellow,­a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability. But, upon my lost soul, i won’t be bad towards you again, Tess. And if certain circumstances should arise, ­you understand,­in which you are in the least difficulty, send me one line and you shall have by return

whatever you require.”

( Tess of the D’Urbervilles , Page 61 )

“In the letter Melchior declares to this fifteen year old girl that his conduct give him no peace, that he has wronged her, etc, that he will of course stand by her in any eventuality,­she should not grieve, even if she feels consequence,s­he is already taking steps to secure help.­his expulsion from school makes such a course easier,­his transgression may yet bring about her happiness­,and more nonsense of a similar

nature.”  

( Spring Awakening , Pages 58­-59)

Of course their actions both have the predictable results.  Both Tess and Wendla berate their mothers for leaving them ignorant about the dangers of male desire. Tess says to her mother:

 

“Oh Mother, my Mother!… How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men­folk? Why didn’t you warn me?Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’learning in that way, and

you did not help me!”

( Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Page 65)

Tess’s rebuke of her mother can be summed up in  Wendla’s rebuke of her’s “ O Mother, why didn’t you tell me the truth?” ( Spring Awakening, Page 65).  Tess has to suffer the trauma of having to watch her illegitimate child die and not being able to bury him in in the church graveyard and is later rejected by Angel because of her past while Wendla is killed by abortion pills given to her by her mother. Had she not died and had gone through with her pregnancy, one can imagine that she would have met with similar experiences to that of Tess: slut shaming and a life as a social pariah. The play leaves us with the feeling that we should not be too sad about

Wendla’s death because she would have met with a worse fate had she lived. Alec offers to take Tess under his protection either by marrying her or making her his mistress, even though Tess wants nothing to do with him. Melchior, who is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, feels that he is such a horrible person that he should kill himself. In a world of shame and sexual inequality and double standards, physical desire and romantic love are at best, untrustworthy, and at worst dangerous.  

The Edwardian era ended in 1914, with the beginning of the First World War. Reform minded women supported the war effort by becoming nurses and munitions workers and other such things. A large percentage of the male population was killed during the war which meant that a large number of women would never marry and would have to support themselves (Worsley Episode 3.)  As women began taking a more active role in the world, the hemlines of skirts went up, the silhouette became straighter and less restrictive, and corsets loosened and then disappeared altogether. The 1920s saw many more women enter the workforce and engage in traditionally masculine activities such as drinking, smoking, motoring, and promiscuous sex. Clothing in the 1920s took on a straight, boyish silhouette with a drop waist, and arms and legs became more visible than they had ever been. Women began wearing short hair and it became acceptable to wear makeup. Women who embraced these new forms of liberation were known as “flappers”. Interestingly, the corresponding term for “flapper” in French is “garçonne”, the feminine version of the French word for boy which roughly translates into “tomboy,”. This shows how these women sought equality with men by adopting some of the trappings of masculinity.  

The silent films of the 1910s and 1920s picked up where Victorian literature left off. The so called “Victorian” view of women as either sweet, innocent, and asexual or dangerous and sexually aggressive man eaters, was already seen as dated, and the heroines of film were portrayed in more complex ways (Sharot 7386.) The personas of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford were a continuation of the wholesome, child­like idea of femininity championed by the Victorians. Pickford’s characters were often feisty and rebellious, while Gish often played the tragic heroine who is a victim of the cruelty and injustice of her environment. With the 1920s came flappers like Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, and Louise Brooks. Colleen Moore had the appearance of a modern flapper but acted in a wholesome way, while Clara Bow represented the alluring and sexually assertive flapper but was kind hearted and never immoral. Each of these actresses played the liberated woman of the early twentieth century in a sympathetic and appealing way.

The films they starred in had similar stories and themes to those tackled by the Victorian writers. Lillian Gish starred in a 1920 film called Way Down East which bares many similarities with

Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gish plays a poor country girl named Anna Moore who is sent to beg assistance from rich relations in the city, and is tricked into a false marriage by the caddish villain and is abandoned when she becomes pregnant. After her illegitimate child dies, Anna starts a new life working on farm and strikes up a new romance with the farmer’s son, which is threatened by the possibility of her past being revealed. The main difference between Way Down

East and Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that the former ends happily.  The 1922 Mary Pickford film Tess of the Storm Country (a remake of a 1914 film also starring Pickford) features Pickford’s titular raggamuffin agreeing to take in the illegitimate child of her landlord’s daughter and facing social ostracization, which threatens her romance with the landlord’s son. The illegitimate child dies and Tess has to plead for it to be allowed to be buried in the churchyard. Women who have children out of wedlock still faced social ostracism. Clara Bow’s most famous film is a 1927 film called It, where she plays sassy salesgirl, Bettylou, who claims her roommate’s baby as her own when social worker threaten to take him way became his mother cannot afford to support him. This gives  Bettylou’s love interest the wrong idea about her. Even though Bettylou is willing to use her liberated sexiness to attract a man, her goal is ultimately marriage and respectability. Louise Brooks starred in a 1929 film called Diary of a Lost Girl directed by G.W. Pabst and based on a novel by Wedekind contemporary Margarete Böheme, about a girl named Thymian, who is seduced and impregnated by her father’s assistant and is sent away to a girl’s reformatory. Brooks and Pabst also collaborated that year on a film version of Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box. All of these films have the conventional happy ending where the heroine finds happiness, wealth, and love by winning the heart and then hand of a wealthy Mr. Right. Marriage was beginning to be seen as something based on romance and physical attraction rather than as a form of social and economic security. Romantic love was  supposed to overcome class distinctions and women were more liberated than ever before, but the happy ending of a romance usually features one of the partners improving their socioeconomic status and female characters were not supposed to break certain taboos.  

The quintessential novel of the 1920s is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s plot revolves around the problematic love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Five years before the start of the novel, the poor Jay fell in love with the wealthy Daisy but their romance is interrupted by Jay having to go fight in World War I. In the meantime, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, who is of her own social class. By the point at which the novel opens, Gatsby has now become fabulously wealthy and has built a house across from where Daisy and Tom live, where he throws lavish parties in hopes that Daisy might attend one of them. The romance between Daisy and Gatsby rekindles but Daisy is unwilling to leave her husband Tom and give up her comfortable life. The Great Gatsby’s two beautiful and glamorous main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker are emblematic of the 1920s flapper. But Fitzgerald shows the flapper in a negative light: Daisy is fickle and shallow, and Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Part of the reason Daisy appears in such a bad light is because Gatsby has so idealized her and has such unrealistic expectations. Men put women on pedestals and do not see them as complex and flawed individuals. Daisy famously says that she hopes her daughter will be a beautiful fool because that is the best thing a girl can be in life.

“And I hope she’ll be a fool­,that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

(The Great Gatsby, Page 17)

Whereas women in the Victorian era were supposed to demure and submissive, women in the 1920s were expected to be light hearted and giddy. Seriousness in women is still seen as undesirable and women are expected to conform to the mold set by society . Despite all of the outward trappings of liberation, such as economic autonomy and less restrictive clothing,, expectations of women have not changed all that much. Works of fiction such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Great Gatsby can get us to think about how far society has come and how little has changed.

Works Cited

American Experience: Mary Pickford . Dir. Sue William. Perf. Laura Linney. Pbs. Film.

Barkhorn, Eleanor. “‘Vote No on Women’s Suffrage’: Bizarre Reasons For Not Letting Women Vote.”

The Atlantic . The Atlantic Group, 6 Nov 2013. Web. 29 September 2015.

In Vote No On Women’s Suffrage: Bizarre Reasons For Not Letting Women Vote, , the author states that different parts of the community, specifically blacks and women, did not always have the right to vote. Women had to wait longer for suffrage and women’s suffrage met with a lot of opposition for a number of different reasons.

Clara Bow. Dir. Hugh Hunro Neely. Turner Classic Movies. 1999 Film.

De época. “A Very British Romance.” Perf. and Writ. Lucy Worsley. Video. Youtube. BBC. 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 18 April. 2016.

Diary of a Lost Girl. Dir. G.W. Pabst. Perf. Louise Brooks.  1929. Film

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby . New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.

In The Great Gatsby , the plot revolves around the problematic love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Five years before the start of the novel, the poor Jay fell in love with the wealthy Daisy but their romance is interrupted by Jay having to go fight in World War I. In the meantime, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, who is of her own social class.

By the point at which the novel opens, Gatsby has now become fabulously wealthy and has built a house across from where Daisy and Tom live, where he throws lavish parties in hopes that Daisy might attend one of them. The romance between Daisy and Gatsby rekindles but Daisy is unwilling to leave her husband Tom and give up her comfortable life.

The Great Gatsby is considered the quintessential novel of the 1920s, and it’s two beautiful and glamorous main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker are emblematic of the 1920s flapper. But Fitzgerald shows the flapper in a negative light: Daisy is fickle and shallow, and Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Part of the reason Daisy appears in such a bad light is because Gatsby has so idealized her and has such unrealistic expectations. Men put women on pedestals and do not see them as complex and flawed individuals.

Daisy famously says that she hopes her daughter will be a beautiful fool because that is the best thing a girl can be in life. Whereas women in the Victorian era were supposed to demure and submissive, women in the 1920s were expected to be light hearted and giddy. Seriousness in women is still seen as undesirable. Despite all of the outward trappings of liberation, expectations of women have not changed very much.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Mineola:Dover, 2001. Print.

Haluk, Askun. “The Woman Question And The Victorian Literature On Gender.” Literature 2012 16:52.

Ekev Academy Magazine. Web. 29 Sept. 2015

It. Dir. Clarence G. Badger. Perf. Clara Bow. Paramount Pictures. 1927. Film.

Prior, Karen Swallow. “‘You Ain’t Ruined’: How Thomas Hardy Took On Victorian­Era Purity Culture.”

The Atlantic . The Atlantic Group, 8 May 2013. Web. 29 September 2015.

In You Ain’t Ruined: How Thomas Hardy took on Victorian Era Purity Culture, the author addresses  a movement in the Evangelical Christian community to stop stressing female purity. In addition she says that this debate is nothing new and cites the example of 19th century author, Thomas Hardy.

Women in Hardy’s day who lost their virginity outside of marriage were deemed “ruined” or “damaged goods” and were condemned by society. Prior points out that Hardy often tackled this subject in his writings and gives an example of his early work, a humorous poem meant to poke fun at how society ascribes an almost monetary value on female sexual purity.

Then Prior describes Hardy’s most famous work, the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which features a young woman condemned by society as “ruined”. The novel has the subtitle, “a pure woman faithfully presented” to suggest that even though Tess is no longer sexually pure, she is still morally pure which is contrary to the victorian belief that for a woman, chastity and goodness were the same thing and that a woman who is no longer sexaully pure is no longer morally good. Hardy’s Tess is a victim, not only of sexual violence but of a hypocritical society which judged her too harshly because of something which happened that was not her fault.

Prior ends the article with her belief that the issues raised by Hardy in this writing are still ongoing and worthy of debate and examination.

Sharot, Stephen. “‘New Woman’, star personas, and cross­ class romance films in 1920s America.” Gender

Studies March 2010: Vol. 19 No. 1,  73­86. Journal of Gender Studies. Web. 29  Sept. 2015. In, The ‘New Woman’, star personas, and cross­class romance films in 1920s America , the author talks about how the early 20th century was a time of growing social and economic independence for women and tells how this influenced the popular movies of the time by examining the star personas of three of the most famous actresses of the silent age: Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow. The 1920s saw a rise in women in the workplace as well as changes in views on women and romantic love. The so called “victorian” view of women as either sweet, innocent, and asexual or dangerous and sexually aggressive man­eaters, was already seen as dated, and people began to see marriage as something based on romance and attraction rather than as a form of social and economic stability. Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow all played the heroines in films about love between two people of different social classes. Often they were working class girls who win the love and the hand of a wealthy Mr. Right. The personas these actresses adopted in this films reflected how society was beginning to see women in more complex ways. Mary Pickford had a wholesome, girlish image, but the characters she played were often feisty and rebellious. Colleen Moore had the appearance of the modern flapper but did not seem like she would behave in a way that was immoral. Clara Bow epitomized the alluring and sexually assertive flapper, but was kind hearted and stayed within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Each of them portrayed the liberated woman of the early 20th century in a sympathetic and appealing way.

Strange, Lisa S. “The Bicycle, Women’s Rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Women’s Studies 2002:

31:609­626. Taylor & Francis. Web. 29 Sept. 2015

Sweet, Matthew. Inventing The Victorians. London: Faber, 2001. Print.

Tess of the Storm Country. Dir. John Robertson. Perf. Mary Pickford. United Artists. 1922. Film.

Wedekind, Frank. Spring Awakening. London: Nick Hern Books, 2010. Print.

Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship In Early Cinema. Dir. Hugh Hefner, Perf. Diane Lane. Alta Loma Entertainment, 2007. Film.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber

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If  Marie Antoinette’s legacy is as anything, it is as a fashion icon and a symbol of luxury and decadence. Her name and image has been used to conjure up visions of girly excess: cake, shoes, and elaborate and towering hairstyles. In her own time, France’s doomed last queen used her style choices to forge her own identity, which Caroline Weber explores in her book Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The Revolution.

As a member of the rigidly formal and etiquette controlled court of Versailles, Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices were limited. She was expected to lead a shy and retiring life and let a de Pompadour or du Barry hog the limelight, but this was not diva queen bee Antoinette’s style. With the help of the pioneering fashion designer Rose Bertin and her trusty hairdresser, Monsieur Léonard, Marie Antoinette created her own iconic look which provoked outrage as well as legions of imitators. Weber describes each of the fashion trends that Marie Antoinette helped launch, from the fabulously gaudy pouf to the scandalously revealing chemise à la reine, and how her reign as “queen of fashion” coincided with the birth of what we would know as France’s couture industry.

For someone of Marie Antoinette’s status, what you wore was political as well as personal. To wear an elaborate court costume complete with tower pouf, was to be seen as frivolous and uncaring about the plight of the poor; the powder which covered the wigs of the aristocracy was said to be made from flour stolen from hungry peasants. On the other hand, wearing a chemise à la reine and frolicking like a Rousseau inspired Shepherdess was seen as behaving in way which was unseemly for a queen and anti-french; the muslin from which a chemise à la reine was made being a foreign import. Colors, trimmings, and accessories were loaded with meanings which you ignored at your peril. Marie Antoinette, and her instantly recognizable wardrobe, were a fixture of both the burgeoning fashion press and seditious political pamphlets and cartoons. Her poufs and chemises became to epitomize all that was wrong with her and the world she represented.

Caroline Weber has an obvious enjoyment of both history and fashion which comes across in the book, which is well written and engaging, as side from a couple of language ticks which bugged me for some reason. She over uses the words “sartorial” and “ci-devant”; if you were to take a drink every time those phrases appear, you would quickly pass out.

Bag Girl Reviews: Clarissa: Book 1 by Samuel Richardson or In Defense of the Good Girl

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At around 1,431 pages, Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady beats out Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (826 pages), Bleak House by Charles Dickens (813 pages) and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (955 pages) for the title of longest book I have ever read. Such a tome seems like an overwhelming task to get through but fortunately they are often divided up into a number of sections, each a mini book in themselves. How I got through War and Peace was that I would read a section and then take a break for a few weeks and repeat until the book was finished. I am going to do the same for Clarissa.

After her grandfather dies and leaves her a large fortune, Clarissa Harlowe, a young woman of great beauty, intelligence, and virtue, is uninterested in marrying; being independently wealthy, she lacks the economic incentive to do so. She has already refused several suitors and her nouveau riche family is frustrated with her. They insist that she marry the rich but repulsive Mr. Solmes, which is partially a revenge plot by Clarissa’s greedy and envious brother and sister. Her refusal to marry the man picked out for her by her family causes them to become increasingly controlling and hostile. Clarissa’s beauty and virtue attract the notice of  Robert Lovelace, a notorious rake, who sets out to win her with offers of protection should she wish to flee her impossible situation. 

Passive and virtuous Clarissa is a heroine who would be hard for modern audiences to get behind. We like our period heroines to be rebels who stick it to the patriarchy but this does not do justice to the reality of what life was like for women in centuries past. Clarissa’s plight is an extreme example of what many women in the 18th century went through. They were considered the property of either their father or their husband and were constantly reminded that they had to be obedient. By refusing to marry Solmes, Clarissa is posing a threat to the social structure. Her parents do not relent because doing so would compromise their authority; they are pretty much a parody of the “because I said so” style of parenting. Trying to buck the system backfires on Clarissa as doing so causes her to be stripped of whatever freedom she has: walking in the garden, sending letters, and even leaving her room. The point is that Clarissa is a goody-goody who is used to playing by the rules but is conflicted when duty means sacrificing her own happiness. A genteelly brought up girl like Clarissa would be ill equipped to handle life on her own and she would be dependent on a man, which is where Lovelace comes in, who we get the feeling cannot be trusted.  

Richardson explores the helplessness of women in his society. From the time she was a child, Clarissa would have little say in own life. She would be subject to the authority of her parents and later her husband, an authority which could easily turn tyrannical and abusive. Clarissa starts off as a beloved and indulged daughter of privilege but the absolute rule of parents slowly turns her into a prisoner in their own home when she opposes them. A contemporary reader may ask why she does not stick up for herself? The answer is: she does. Clarissa finds a number of ways to snark at and rebel against her oppressors but this only serves to make life worse for her. 

The Jo Marches and Arya Starks of the world will always chaff against what society expects of them and be admired when they rebel against these expectations. But for the majority of women throughout history, this would be merely wish fulfilment fantasy. The Clarissa Harlowes of the world try their best to find their way within the system and later end up being screwed over, then criticized for being weak.