Women Becoming

While I was sick, I watched a movie that had been given to us as a gift and that I had never watched: Julie & Julia. I thought it would be the sort of movie one could watch while sick, and it was.

It’s about a blogger, Julie Powell, who decides to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Half the movie is about Julie’s life, half about Julia’s life in France learning to cook and developing the cookbook with her partners, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. One criticism of the movie is that the Julia parts are more powerful and interesting than the Julie parts. And they are, because – and I write this with no disrespect to the actual Julie Powell – in the movie, Julia is a more interesting character. After all, she doesn’t just try to cook from a cookbook for a year. She spends years learning to cook, mastering the actual art of French cooking, and then meticulously trying to adapt French cooking for the American home cook. In other words, she spends years becoming the person we now call Julia Child. The person who changed food culture in this country.

I don’t think that’s too broad of a claim. Child changed the way we look at food and cooking. I collect old cooking and gardening books, mostly because they are time machines showing me how people once lived. If you’ve ever seen a cookbook from the nineteen sixties, you’ll know what I mean when I say that no one, nowadays, would ever want to cook from them. No one eats like that anymore. (If you’ve never seen one of those cookbooks, I’ll give you an example from one of mine, called Cooking for Two, which charmingly begins, “You have returned from your honeymoon and are about to start the great adventure of homemaking.” For dinner, Cooking for Two suggests that you serve the following: Broiled Liver, Potatoes Anna, Creamed String Beans and Mushrooms, Lettuce with Russian Dressing, and Baked Apple Dumplings. Or alternatively, Tomato Juice Cocktail, Halibut Steak with Cheese, Baked Potatoes, Wilted Dandelion Greens, Pear Salad, and Gingerbread with Whipped Cream. Which are the strangest combinations of foods I think I’ve ever seen.)

The Child sections of the movie were fascinating because it’s always fascinating to watch someone work on a project that he or she cares passionately about. The number of eggs she had to poach, so she could get the instructions just right! The number of rewrites she had to do! And she was a fascinating personality, of course. And she was played by Meryl Streep, which doesn’t hurt: one technical perfectionist playing another.

But the reason I thought about the movie further, rather than simply dismissing it as something I had watched while sick, was that I had recently seen Coco before Chanel. So here were two movies about women in the process of becoming what they were later to be, and be known as: Julia Child and Coco Chanel. It reminded me that some time ago I had seen The Hours, which is at least partly about Virginia Woolf, unfortunately played by Nicole Kidman in a fake nose.

Three women, each of whom changed the way we do things, deeply and fundamentally: the way we cook, the way we dress, the way we write.

Here is how we dressed before Chanel:

And here is how we dressed after Chanel:

Here is the beginning of Middlemarch:

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impression of a fine quotation from the Bible, – or from one of our elder poets, – in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister’s, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke’s plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably ‘good’: if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers – anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlour, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster’s daughter.”

And here is the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

“For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, ‘Musing among the vegetables?’ – was that it? – ‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’ – was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace – Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished – how strange it was! – a few sayings like this about cabbages.”

I’m not picking on George Eliot, whom I like, although not as much as Jane Austen or Charlotte and Emily Brontë. But you can see how her prose resembles those pre-Coco dresses. It feels heavy (what I’ve included here is only half of the first paragraph). You can’t wear it in a modern city. It would get caught in the door of the bus. It would (to be more precise) sound like a caricature. I have never yet read an attempt to write nineteenth-century prose that didn’t. Woolf’s style is lighter, more modern. Now that I read it again, I can see how it’s influenced me. I mean, it’s all over “Pip and the Fairies,” in which I skip between the past and present and even future based on what my protagonist is thinking about.

(Of course, Child, Chanel, and Woolf did not change things by themselves.  No one ever does.  But they were important parts of changes that were taking place at the time.)

Three women who changed things. You know me by now, so you know what I’m thinking. Will I change anything? Not that I have to, necessarily. At least, not anything on such a scale. But I would like what I do to count. Three women who became themselves. What will I become?

There’s only one way to find out. Start cracking eggs.

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5 Responses to Women Becoming

  1. Alex Wells says:

    Dora, please, please, please don’t stop writing these wonderful posts. Every time I read them I’m inspired to go further, push further, and learn more (and watch Coco Before Chanel). This one filled me with joy. I still have to go do the dishes tonight, but afterwards, who knows what I might do?

  2. Hecate says:

    I love this post! Thank you for this gift!

  3. This just made up for a lack-luster day. Thank you.
    I read Mrs. Dalloway in a capstone seminar — need to reread, just to admire the prose. Sometimes I wish class didn’t inspire such unaesthetic readings, but summer makes up for it. 🙂

  4. C.S.E. Cooney says:

    I’m sorry you were sick, but if it gave you an excuse to watch Julie and Julia (which I’ve been wanting to see just for the Streep/Toucci thing since it came out), and then to write this cool post, then some good came of it. Here’s to hoping you’ll feel better very soon.

    Your book of short stories is changing the way I see short stories. Tiny tectonic shifts, eh?

  5. Shveta says:

    Like Claire said above, you’re already doing that with your fiction. More, please. 😀

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