Miss Fisher and the Female Gaze

I’ve been re-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which I like very much — it’s the perfect show to curl up with when you’re thoroughly tired of the modern world we’re living in. You get to go back to another world, equally complicated but in a different way. The show is clever, with twists and turns in every mystery, and has wonderful characters that are deftly developed over time. They have strong, solid, sometimes conflicted relationships. Overall, there’s a lot to like, and I put Miss Fisher in my pantheon of really fun, interesting detectives, up there with Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, and their ilk. But something particularly struck me, watching the series again. It’s that Miss Fisher is filmed for a female gaze.

I realized this while watching an episode called “Dead Man’s Chest,” in Season 2. The murder weapon, a knife, has been thrown from a pier, so of course someone must search in the water around that pier. We see Miss Fisher and her companion Dot standing on the beach. They are beautifully attired, with flowing dresses and summer hats, and both hold what look like delicious cones of vanilla ice cream in their hands. They are looking at the water, where Detective Inspector Jack Robinson and Constable Hugh Collins are bobbing up and down, rather like dolphins, looking for the murder weapon. Miss Fisher smiles and lowers her sunglasses, presumably to see better. Collins finds the knife, then both men walk out of the water, like in that famous James Bond bathing suit scene with Ursula Andress but in reverse. They are attired in the fetching two-piece men’s bathing suits of the 1920s, which are clinging to their bodies because they are, of course, wet. The camera focuses in a particularly appreciative way on Collins’ chest and arms, and because the top of his bathing suit is white, it becomes translucent when wet. (Don’t even tell me the costume designer didn’t do that on purpose.) Dot towels him off — she is the innocent young woman, not yet aware of what has happened, but Miss Fisher knows. You can tell by her smile, which is, well, knowing. She is perfectly aware of the sexual subtext of the scene, which she has in a sense set up — in the last scene, she asked, with a pointedly innocent look on her face, whether Collins brought his bathing suit. Jack Robinson is also sexualized, but not to the same extent: his bathing suit is dark, his body leaner, more spare. Collins is rather like the ice cream of the scene, in addition to the actual ice cream — he is a delicious dessert, and you realized that Dot has lucked out in a way she doesn’t yet appreciate. But Miss Fisher knows . . . Once out of the water, Collins hands the knife not to Robinson, but to Miss Fisher, who immediately starts analyzing it in the context of the case. End scene.

The perspective of this scene is that of Miss Fisher herself, the heterosexual woman appreciating male bodies. And I find that so interesting, because as I think is clear from years of aesthetic criticism, the heterosexual male gaze has been primary in our culture for a very long time. I’m not interested in abolishing gazes — there is no such thing as no gaze, or a neutral gaze. In art, in film, even in literature where what is seen is entirely imaginary, there is always someone gazing. What I am interested in, though, is the multiplication of gazes. That allows us to see things in different ways, and one reason for Miss Fisher‘s allure, especially among women, is that it allows them to participate in a female gaze (not the only female gaze, but one type).

This is a pattern in the series. In an earlier episode in Season 2, “Death Comes Knocking,” Miss Fisher is in bed with the handsome male assistant of a famous psychic. He is bare-chested — on his chest is a pattern of shrapnel wounds. Miss Fisher is dressed in a beautiful silk gown. The texture of her gown is as sensual, as attractive, as his bare chest. Again we are looking at the scene as though we were Miss Fisher herself — the show turns us all into Miss Fishers, figuring out mysteries, presented with attractive male romantic possibilities. Critics who have written about the show usually focus on its feminist implications, with its liberated female detective who is mature, smart, sexual. The show fairly consistently focuses on issues of women’s equality in the 1920s: driving, work, contraception. But its feminism is deeper than the issues it explores or Miss Fisher herself. It’s woven into every camera shot.

I have to admit, I find it refreshing to watch from the perspective of a female gaze. In the broad tradition of Western art and film, I’m usually watching from a heterosexual male gaze, and I’m used to that — but it does always involve a slight dislocation, as though before truly seeing a painting (of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for example), I have to hop to the left. That dislocation can be good — Robert Mappelthorpe’s photographs of male nudes are controversial in part, I think, because they ask us to see from the perspective of a homosexual male gaze, in which the male body is desired in the way female bodies are desired in most of Western art. Western culture is not used to seeing from that perspective. It’s not used to seeing from Miss Fisher’s perspective either. Multiple gazes, as many gazes are we have identifies, which are multitudinous. Let us all learn to see in different ways.

But right now, I’m appreciating Miss Fisher’s gaze. And thinking about what a very clever show this is, to allow me to see in that way.

Essie Davis plays Phryne Fisher, a beautifully attired detective in 1920s Melbourne.

(The image comes from this interview on NPR, and is credited to Ben King/Acorn.TV.)

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Learning to Hide

Yesterday, I wrote a poem. I called it “Thumbelina.” It starts like this:

Sometimes I would like to be very small
so I could curl into a snail’s shell,
or a seashell: abalone, nautilus,
even an oyster shell. I would let the oyster
cover me with layer on layer of nacre,
come out shining.

This is something I’ve fantasized about since . . . probably since reading The Borrowers as a child. I’ve wondered what it would be like to be very small, to see the world on a completely different scale. I’ve never wondered about what it would be like to be larger than I am, to see things as tiny — no, I wanted to see them as gigantic. I think part of the impulse came from the realization that there’s nowhere to hide anymore, nowhere one can go to disappear. That’s not entirely true — I could probably buy a small cabin in a remote location and more or less disappear if I wanted to, live simply, disengage from modern life. It could be done. But there would still be satellites overhead. The world is a different place than it used to be.

When I first thought about writing this blog post, it wasn’t about becoming small, but about learning to hide. I was inspired by a sentence from a novel I read as a child. My mother read thrillers, and I think the sentence was in one of her books: Shibumi by Rodney William Whitaker, writing under the pseudonym Trevanian. To be honest, I barely remember the book. The internet tells me that it’s about an assassin, and I do remember that — the main character could kill people with a comb. I don’t remember whether he actually did. I do remember that it details his long training, and that a teacher told him to keep his skills, his very existence, a secret. “Hide, Niko,” was the sentence I remembered. Somehow, in my head, it got mixed up with The Borrowers, the way things do get mixed up. It seemed to me that one could not hide in this world unless one was, perhaps, the size of a mouse.

Later I realized that there was a way to hide: inside oneself. Imagine, your own body is a sort of shell, like a snail’s shell, a seashell: inside it is your mind, and inside your mind could be anything, anything at all, entire worlds of anything, and no one would ever know. This realization was intensely reassuring to me as a teenager. My outside could be monitored, controlled, but inside I could be thinking anything — I could write entire novels that no one would ever know about. We are all worlds, inside ourselves. A death is the death of a world, a universe.

We do not value this sort of interiority very much, nowadays. We are all supposed to be open, vulnerable. We are all supposed to share. But I think there is something valuable and reassuring about it. There is a freedom inside oneself, the freedom to be oneself in at least one place. And there is a freedom to choose: do I share this aspect of myself or not? I think that’s particularly important for artists. The art one sees is in a sense the detritus, the flotsam, of the art that happens inside. That is perhaps why we are fascinated by artist’s biographies — we want to know, what in the world was happening inside to create those paintings, those books? What world was happening inside that left those particular marks on our shared reality?

I think learning to hide is a sort of skill, and one we probably need in our modern world, where so much is open and shared, where we photograph our breakfasts and say look, here is my dog, here is my vacation, here is my life. I know it’s a skill I need, because for me at least, creativity happens in the small spaces, safe spaces, in the dark. It is when I am most alone, most myself, that I can write. (And how ironic, and modern, that I am sharing that information with you! Yet here I am, alone at my work desk, in the morning before anything has happened, before I have had to see anyone. Writing.) Artists in particular often need to lead a sort of double life: there is the public self, which goes to work, pays the bills. And there is the private self, which goes down deep into the recesses of the self, the soul, and creates something — like an oyster layering nacre over an irritant. (Isn’t that what we do when we write? Find something that itches, that we cannot seem to get rid of, and layer it over, make it aesthetically pleasing or at least not so annoying to us? Hope it turns out a pearl?)

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about this double life when describing how he conceived of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He described himself as a house, with a brownie in the attic (you know, those one of small Scottish fairies). He said that he paid the bills, and all the while the brownie was working, working. All his best ideas came from that supernatural helper. But sometimes I don’t want to have a brownie–I want to be the brownie, the borrower, living in the attic or behind the walls or under the floorboards, just doing my own work (and maybe stealing buttons).

I guess my advice for any artist would be, learn to hide. And then you can decide what to reveal. I know the more I do, the more I am out there in the world, the more my work is public, the more of an impulse I have to carve out a private space for myself. Who knows, perhaps someday I’ll find that cabin in the wilderness, although to be honest I think one can hide just as well in a busy city, where no one much cares who you are or what you’re doing, and the faces you pass are almost always anonymous. But I need my snail’s shell or seashell, a small nest, a room from which the rest of the world is shut out. (When I was a teenager, I had a small room, a sort of closet under the stairs, where usually brooms would be kept). Or even the inside of my brain, which so far despite our technologies is relatively inviolate. Make a space for yourself, or at least your brownie, where the creativity, the magic, can happen . . .

image-by-ida-rentoul-outhwaite

(The illustration is by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.)

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The Three of Me

I read Oprah Magazine, because I’m a sucker for self-improvement, even when it’s the self-improvement lite I often find there. But among the women’s magazines on the bookstore shelf, what else is there for someone like me? Nothing, really . . . Anyway, the author Elizabeth Gilbert has a column in Oprah now, and I think she’s a smart cookie. Even when I disagree with her, I like reading what she has to say. Several months ago, she wrote a column about the three selves she has inside her, and I thought, I could do that too: break myself up into three fairly distinct selves. I’ll call them Thea, Dora, and Theodora.

Theodora is my public self. It’s the one that teaches at a university, that answers interview questions or sits on convention panels, that gets dressed in the morning in something appropriate for work and puts on lipstick. Theodora is the me that most people encounter, even when I tell them to call me Dora. She’s polite, knowledgeable, hard-working.

Dora is my private self, my ordinary daily self when I’m alone or with family and close friends. Dora cleans the bathroom, does dishes, mends clothes. She is the one who binge-watches Poldark. She’s the one who eats half a pint of mint chip frozen yogurt and worries about calories. She’s the one who wears sweatpants and tries to get a tangle out of her hair in the morning. She is as ordinary and necessary as bread.

Thea is my very private self, that even family doesn’t see. She’s a sort of paradox, because on the one hand I am Thea mostly when I’m alone, so no one sees her. On the other, she’s probably the most visible to the extent that she’s all over my writing, because she’s the one who does it, or most of it. She’s there in the stories, in the poems. Thea is the one who is in touch with something completely different, something that isn’t ordinary life at all. She’s the one who knows the way to the Other Country. (That’s from a story of mine published recently called “The Other Thea.” And yes, it’s about having different parts of oneself, as well as other things like magic.) Thea is the one who, asked what she would do with her one wild and precious life, would tell you she’s doing it.

But Thea can’t exist by herself. She needs Dora, because otherwise who would clean the bathroom? Who would sew the buttons back on her sweaters? Who would cook? And who would read Oprah Magazine? Because I can tell you that Thea doesn’t. She reads poetry — she just bought a book by Carol Ann Duffy. And Theodora wouldn’t. She’s reading the books she will need to teach next semester. Dora is the one who reads books on decorating. So if my taste in books seems eclectic sometimes, it’s because there are three of me, and we have different tastes in reading material, as we probably have different (although overlapping) tastes in a lot of things. I mean, I’m pretty sure we all like flowers. But we probably all like them for different reasons, and Dora is the one who buys them, cuts their stems, makes sure they have enough water. Thea just writes poetry about them.

I think we can, potentially, understand ourselves better if we see our selves — the multiple selves we have inside us. It even helps to name them. The thing is, they sometimes want different things, and that leads to conflict. For example, when I’m at a convention, Theodora wants to socialize, because after all that’s what she’s there for. Dora wants to get to sleep not too late, because she knows otherwise they’re both going to be tired in the morning. Thea — well, when I’m at a convention, when I’m teaching, when I’m doing what I think of as work, she’s not there. She’s been left at home. She doesn’t like to go to such things. She just wants to walk in gardens and nature preserves. She just wants to read Willa Cather or write novels, stories, poems. She has very little interest in practical life.

I don’t think there’s any need to unify them. They’re like three sisters, living happily together in one house. This morning, Dora made breakfast, and now Thea is writing this. She’s the one who writes these sorts of things. Theodora is getting a much-deserved rest. She taught all semester, and she really, really needs some time off.

Who are the selves that live inside you? I bet there are at least three of them. The key to a successful life, I think, is getting them to live in harmony, like siblings who love each other even though they quarrel sometimes. And knowing which one to be at any particular time, because Dora can’t do what Theodora does, and Theodora can’t write the way Thea can, and so on. The key is being able to move smoothly among your selves, and to accept them each and all as part of who you are — they are all you, even though they are different.

The key is being able, and willing, to accept your own multiplicity and contradictions. Which I, I think, good training for life itself.

summer-clouds-by-charles-courtney-curran

The image is Summer Clouds by Charles Courtney Curran. I thought it fit the theme of this post very well . . .

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How We Live Now

I’ve been anxious and stressed for several weeks now. One reason, of course, is the election. Another is that I simply have so much work to do this semester — it’s been overwhelming. The world seems darker than it did, and life in it seems more difficult, less certain. It feels as though life is one never-ending cycle of work and worry — as though this is all there is, and all there ever will be until, well, death I suppose. Last night I could not get to sleep for hours. When I finally did get to sleep, I dreamed that I was on an island, looking for a house, and first I could not find it, second I did not have the key, and then I went for a swim in the ocean and worried about drowning. I don’t think we need Freud to interpret that one! In terms of the political situation, I have not felt this particular sensation since before the Berlin Wall fell — I still remember what that was like, when I was a teenager. Suddenly, the world felt more free. Now, suddenly, I’m worried that it will become less so.

When I’m not sure what to do, how to live, I give myself principles to live by. I find they help because, no matter what happens in the world outside me, at least I know what I should do in response. At least I can control the world inside myself, to some extent. I thought about how we live now, how we should live now. Really, this is no different than what I would have written a month ago, a year ago. But now, I think, it may be particularly helpful. Here, then, are some principles for living in our difficult, complicated world:

1. Don’t be evil. Don’t condone or collaborate with evil.

This isn’t really that complicated. Don’t hurt people. Don’t exploit them. Don’t treat them as though they were less important, less worthy of respect. Don’t lie to them. This may seem overly simplistic, but if people refrained from being evil, from participating in or condoning evil — from abusing each other, exploiting each other for profit — I mean, that would be a very different world, wouldn’t it?

We may disagree in some cases about what constitutes evil, but I think in most instances, most people will agree: Allowing children to drink water tainted with lead is evil. Stealing employees’ wages is evil. Making a racist joke is evil. (Yes, words can be evil, and they can create the conditions for evil acts.)

All this requires is negative action — don’t do it.

2. Do the most good you can, to the best of your ability.

This requires positive action — figure out what you can do, and do that. Help to the best of your ability, whatever that is. Is it donating money to an organization that fights for social justice or helps the needy? Is it doing something directly yourself to help another person? Is it doing your job well and honestly? Is it taking care of one child, one animal? Well, do that.

Figure out what you can do, make a plan, and do it. And then keep doing it.

3. Take care of yourself, because you matter.

You’re not going to do anyone any good if you don’t take care of yourself. You know this, right? Do the best you can to make sure that you’re staying healthy, and that your bills are paid. By extension, take care of your family and your home. You’re not going to be effective in the world if you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed. (These are words I try to remember, when I myself am stressed, tired, overwhelmed — as I am now.)

Taking care of yourself is not selfish or a cop-out. It’s a necessary precondition for (1) doing good and (2) not being evil. It’s much easier to do, and not do, those things when you yourself are well.

And by the way, accept that you will sometimes fail at the things I’ve listed above, as you will fail at anything you do. Pick yourself up and try again.

4. Live as though the world you wanted to live in already existed.

Imagine the world you want to live in. For me, it’s a world where we are all more environmentally conscious, where we support the arts and cultural institutions, where everyone is valued. So, you know, I try. I take public transportation, I buy organic produce, I try to recycle. I buy yearly memberships to the art museum. I splurge on the ballet, because I want to live in a city with a ballet. I subscribe to newspapers I want to make sure survive. I try to be a good, effective teacher — fair to my students, kind but also challenging them to write better, think more deeply.

I want to live in a world with less consumerism, where repairing items is valued over buying new ones, so I mend my clothes. I take my boots to the cobbler to be re-soled. I want to live in a world where literature matters, so I buy books. I support small businesses and environmental causes.

These things also make me feel better: they make me feel as though at least I’m doing something, not simply accepting things as they are. Because, and this is the last thing I’ll say, no one person will save the world. Trust me on this: no one is coming out of the sky to make this world better. We all have to do it ourselves, one small gesture at a time. But those small gestures add up to something much larger, which is the whole point.

You are not responsible for saving the world. But we are all responsible for doing our part.

print-by-hokusai

(The print is by Hokusai. I thought it captured the feel of what I was trying to say here . . .)

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Writing Is/as Work

Confession: last night I was up until 3:30 a.m. working on a novel. Was that good for me? Well no, probably not. But it was good for the novel, because I wrote a scene that I really like. Today I’m tired, but I have that scene on my typing stand. Tonight I’ll revise and add to it, although I can’t stay up that late again because tomorrow I have to teach. Why do I push myself in this way? Because writing is part of my job. I have deadlines to meet, novels to write and get out there into the world. I’m a writer . . . so I write.

Recently, there was an article published, somewhere or other, making the argument that writing is not a job. Well, I guess that depends on how you define a job. I mean, if you define it as something that provides you with steady income, health benefits, and a retirement plan, then no, writing isn’t a job. But then, a lot of other freelance work doesn’t qualify either.

I like the idea of writing as a job, because that’s what it feels like when I’m actually doing it. When I started thinking about this subject, I remembered two quotations that have always bothered me. Here’s the first one:

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” –Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know if Hemingway actually said this — it’s simply one of the things attributed to him on the internet. And it sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s pithy, and truthy . . . it feels true. We often think of writing as self-expression, so it feels true to say that writing is like bleeding. Why don’t I like the quotation? Because I’ve written before, and I’ve bled before, and bleeding is a lot easier. More painful, but easier in that you’re not sitting there bleeding for hours at a time, mentally engaged in bleeding, trying to bleed well, bleed so the reader can follow along, so she doesn’t put the book down and say, “What boring blood. I think I’ll go see what’s on Netflix.”

Of course the quotation isn’t talking about actually bleeding, but what it implies is that writing involves sitting down at your typewriter/keyboard and letting your emotions pour forth, as though you were bleeding. That attitude is expressed in the second quotation I dislike:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost

Maybe Frost really did say that? What I dislike about it is that it assumes the writer is a sort of emotional conduit. He or she must feel something, so the reader can later feel it. If you want your reader to cry, you must first cry . . . But that’s not true. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft, and I can make a reader cry without, while I am writing, feeling anything in particular myself. All I have to do is describe something likely to make a reader cry, and then hopefully the reader will respond.  But the reading experience exists independently of the writing experience. The reader and writer are not in a symbiotic relationship. The reader may well decide that the scene I wrote so emotionally myself is really quite funny. If I’m a good writer, I should be able to make most readers cry, depending on my knowledge of what makes most people cry. Hemingway supposedly wrote a devastating six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I read that, and it makes me tear up. He supposedly wrote it on a restaurant napkin in response to a bet. I don’t think he was tearing up as he wrote it.  If he did write it, I think he did so feeling rather smug that he could pull it off.

My point here is that writing takes craft and skill, and the writer is like any other artist: a painter, a composer. A Monet may well make you cry, but I don’t think Monet was crying as he painted it — he was painting. Yes, he may well have drawn on moments he had cried in the past, and writers do that — sometimes, when I’m stuck on an emotional scene, I’ll think about how I felt at an analogous moment and remember that. I’ll try to reproduce the emotion inside myself, based on memories.  But it’s in the service of description, and I know that if I don’t describe whatever it is I’m describing well, it’s not going to raise any sort of emotional response in the reader. That depends on my craft and skill.

Writing is a job, and it feels like a job — there are deadlines, there is work to be done. Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes I don’t, but I do it anyway because it’s my job to finish that particular story, that novel.  And honestly, I find the idea of writing as a job reassuring. If I woke up in the morning thinking, “I need to be an artist today,” I would probably go hide under the covers again. But if I think, “I need to get out of bed and write a chapter,” I will go do my job, using everything I have learned, all my intellect, whatever techniques I have. Because that’s how it’s done.

girl-writing

(I don’t know where this image is from, but I love that it’s of a girl writing.)

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A Birthday Present: Blanchefleur

Recently, I put together a PDF of my fairy tale “Blanchefleur,” based very loosely on Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat,” for a fairy tale class taught by a friend of mine. She said the class went well, and that the students liked my fairy tale, which is of course the best compliment any author can receive! Yesterday was my birthday, and I like to give presents on my birthday, so I thought I would give you (if you’re interested) a present . . .

This is the PDF of the story I prepared for her — it’s the story of Idiot (the boy no one trusted or cared about), Blanchefleur (the somewhat sarcastic white cat), and the mysterious Lady of the Forest. If you’d like to see whether or not you’re interested in the story, I’ve copied the first section below.

Here it is, with all best wishes:

Blanchefleur

They called him Idiot.

He was the miller’s son, and he had never been good for much. At least not since his mother’s death, when he was twelve years old. He had found her floating, face-down, in the millpond, and his cries had brought his father’s men. When they had turned her over, he had seen her face, pale and bloated, before someone had said, “Not in front of the child!” and they had hurried him away. He had never seen her again, just the wooden coffin going into the ground, and after that, the gray stone in the churchyard where, every Sunday, he and his father left whatever was in season — a bunch of violets, sprays of the wild roses that grew by the forest edge, tall lilies from beside the mill stream. In winter, they left holly branches red with berries.

Before her death, he had been a laughing, affectionate child. After her death, he became solitary. He would no longer play with his friends from school, and eventually they began to ignore him. He would no longer speak even to his father, and anyway the miller was a quiet man who, after his wife’s death, grew more silent. He was so broken, so bereft, by the loss of his wife that he could barely look at the son who had her golden hair, her eyes the color of spring leaves. Often they would go a whole day, saying no more than a few sentences to each other.

He went to school, but he never seemed to learn — he would stare out the window or, if called upon, shake his head and refuse to answer. Once, the teacher rapped his knuckles for it, but he simply looked at her with those eyes, which were so much like his mother’s. The teacher turned away, ashamed of herself, and after that she left him alone, telling herself that at least he was sitting in the schoolroom rather than loafing about the fields.

He learned nothing, he did nothing. When his father told him to do the work of the mill, he did it so badly that the water flowing through the sluice gates was either too fast or slow, or the large millstones that grind the grain were too close together or far apart, or he took the wrong amount of grain in payment from the farmers who came to grind their wheat. Finally, the miller hired another man, and his son wandered about the countryside, sometimes sleeping under the stars, eating berries from the hedges when he could find them. He would come home dirty, with scratches on his arms and brambles in his hair. And his father, rather than scolding him, would look away.

If anyone had looked closely, they would have seen that he was clever at carving pieces of wood into whistles, and that he seemed to know how to call all the birds. Also, that he knew the paths through the countryside and could tell the time by the position of the sun and moon on each day of the year, his direction by the stars. He knew the track and spoor of every animal, what tree each leaf came from by its shape. He knew which mushrooms were poisonous and how to find water under the ground. But no one did look closely.

It was the other schoolboys, most of whom had once been his friends, who started calling him Idiot. At first it was Idiot Ivan, but soon it was simply Idiot, and it spread through the village until people forgot that he had ever been called Ivan. Farmers would call to him, cheerfully enough, “Good morning, Idiot!” They meant no insult by it. In villages, people like knowing who you are. The boy was clearly an idiot, so let him be called that. And so he was.

No one noticed that under the dirt, and despite the rags he wore, he had grown into a large, handsome boy. He should have had sweethearts, but the village girls assumed he was slow and had no prospects, even though he was the miller’s son. So he was always alone, and the truth was, he seemed to prefer it.

The miller was the only one who still called him Ivan, although he had given his son up as hopeless, and even he secretly believed that the boy was slow and stupid.

This was how things stood when the miller rode to market to buy a new horse. The market was held in the nearest town, on a fine summer day that was also the feast-day of Saint Ivan, so the town was filled with stalls selling livestock, vegetables from the local farms, leather and rope harnesses, embroidered linen, woven baskets. Men and women in smocks lined up to hire themselves for the coming harvest. There were strolling players with fiddles or pipes, dancers on a wooden platform, and a great deal of beer — which the miller drank from a tankard.

The market went well for him. He found a horse for less money than he thought he would have to spend, and while he was paying for his beer, one of the maids from the tavern winked at him. She was plump, with sunburnt cheeks, and she poured his beer neatly, leaving a head of foam that just reached the top of the tankard. He had not thought of women, not in that way, since his wife had drowned. She had been one of those magical women, beautiful as the dawn, as slight as a willow-bough and with a voice like birds singing, that are perhaps too delicate for this world. That kind of woman gets into a man’s blood. But lately he had started to notice once again that other women existed, and that there were other things in the world than running a mill. Like his son, who was a great worry to him. What would the idiot — Ivan, he reminded himself — what would he do when the his father was gone, as we must all go someday? Would he be able to take care of himself?

He had saddled his horse and was fastening a rope to his saddle so the new horse could be led, when he heard a voice he recognized from many years ago. “Hello, Stephen Miller,” it said.

He turned around and bowed. “Hello, Lady.”

She was tall and pale, with long gray hair that hung to the backs of her knees, although she did not look older than when he had last seen her, at his wedding. She wore a gray linen dress that, although it was midsummer, reminded him of winter.

“How is my nephew? This is his name’s day, is it not?”

“It is, Lady. As to how he is –” The miller told her. He might not have, if the beer had not loosened his tongue, for he was a proud man and he did not want his sister-in-law to think that his son was doing badly. But with the beer and his worries, it all came out — the days Ivan spent staring out of windows or walking through the countryside, how the local farmers thought of him, even that name — Idiot.

“I warned you that no good comes of a mortal marrying a fairy woman,” said the Lady. “But those in love never listen. Send my nephew to me. I will make him my apprentice for three years, and at the end of that time we shall see. For his wages, you may take this.”

She handed him a purse. He bowed in acknowledgment, saying, “I thank you for your generosity –” but when he straightened again, she was already walking away from him. Just before leaving the inn yard, she turned back for a moment and said, “The Castle in the Forest, remember. I will expect him in three days’ time.”

The miller nodded, although she had already turned away again. As he rode home, he looked into the purse she had given him — in it was a handful of leaves. He wondered how he was going to tell his son about the bargain he had made. But when he reached home, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table whittling something out of wood, and he simply said, “I have apprenticed you for three years to your aunt, the Lady of the Forest. She expects you in three days’ time.”

The boy did not say a word. But the next morning, he put all of his possessions — they were few enough — into a satchel, which he slung over his shoulder. And he set out.

In three days’ time, Ivan walked through the forest, blowing on the whistle he had carved. He could hear birds calling to each other in the forest. He whistled to them, and they whistled back. He did not know how long his journey would take — if you set out for the Castle in the Forest, it can take you a day, or a week, or the rest of your life. But the Lady had said she expected him in three days, so he thought he would reach the Castle by the end of the day at the latest.

Before he left, his father had looked again in the purse that the Lady had given him. In it was a pile of gold coins — as the miller had expected, for that is the way fairy money works. “I will keep this for you,” his father had said. “When you come back, you will be old enough to marry, and with such a fortune, any of the local girls will take you. I do not know what you will do as the Lady’s apprentice, but I hope you will come back fit to run a mill.”

Ivan had simply nodded, slung his satchel over his shoulder, and gone.

Just as he was wondering if he would indeed find the castle that day, for the sun was beginning to set, he saw it through the trees, its turrets rising above a high stone wall.

He went up to the wall and knocked at the wooden door that was the only way in. It opened, seemingly by itself. In the doorway stood a white cat.

“Are you the Idiot?” she asked.

“I suppose so,” he said, speaking for the first time in three days.

“That’s what I thought,” she said. “You certainly look the part. Well, come in then, and follow me.”

He followed her through the doorway and along a path that led through the castle gardens. He had never seen such gardens, although in school his teacher had once described the gardens that surrounded the King’s castle, which she had visited on holiday. There were fountains set in green lawns, with stone fish spouting water. There were box hedges, and topiaries carved into the shapes of birds, rabbits, mice. There were pools filled with waterlilies, in which he could see real fish, silver and orange. There were arched trellises from which roses hung down in profusion, and an orchard with fruit trees. He could even see a kitchen garden, with vegetables in neat rows. And all through the gardens, he could see cats, pruning the hedges, tying back the roses, raking the earth in the flower beds.

It was the strangest sight he had ever seen, and for the first time it occurred to him that being the Lady’s apprentice would be an adventure — the first of his life.

The path took them to the door of the castle, which swung open as they approached. An orange tabby walked out and stood waiting at the top of the steps.

“Hello, Marmalade,” said the white cat.

“Good evening, Miss Blanchefleur,” he replied. “Is this the young man her Ladyship is expecting?”

“As far as I can tell,” she said. “Although what my mother would want with such an unprepossessing specimen, I don’t know.”

Marmalade bowed to Ivan and said, “Welcome, Ivan Miller. Her Ladyship is waiting in the solar.”

Ivan expected the white cat, whose name seemed to be Blanchefleur, to leave him with Marmalade, but instead she followed them through the doorway, then through a great hall whose walls were hung with tapestries showing cats sitting in gardens, climbing trees, hunting rabbits, catching fish. Here too there were cats, setting out bowls on two long wooden tables, and on a shorter table set on a dais at the end of the room. As Marmalade passed, they nodded, and a gray cat who seemed to be directing their activities said, “We’re almost ready, Mr. Marmalade. The birds are nicely roasted, and the mint sauce is really a treat if I say so myself.”

“Excellent, Mrs. Pebbles. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to those birds. Tailcatcher said that he caught them himself.”

“Well, with a little help!” said Mrs. Pebbles, acerbically. “He doesn’t go on the hunt alone, does he now, Mr. Marmalade? Oh, begging your pardon, Miss,” she said when she saw Blanchefleur. “I didn’t know you were there.”

“I couldn’t care less what you say about him,” said Blanchefleur, which a sniff and a twitch of her tail. “He’s nothing to me.”
“As you say, Miss,” said Mrs. Pebbles, not sounding particularly convinced.

At the back of the great hall was another, smaller door that led to a long hallway. Ivan was startled when, at the end of the hallway, which had been rather dark, they emerged into a room filled with sunlight. It had several windows looking out onto a green lawn, and scattered around the room were low cushions, on which cats sat engaged in various tasks. Some were carding wool, some were spinning it on drop spindles, some were plying the yarn or winding it into skeins. In a chair by one of the windows sat the Lady, with a piece of embroidery in her lap. One of the cats was reading a book aloud, but stopped when they entered.

“My Lady, this is Ivan Miller, your new apprentice,” said Marmalade.

“Otherwise known as the Idiot,” said Blanchefleur. “And he seems to deserve the name. He’s said nothing for himself all this time.”

“My dear, you should be polite to your cousin,” said the Lady. “Ivan, you’ve already met my daughter, Blanchefleur, and Marmalade, who takes such marvelous care of us all. These are my ladies in waiting: Elderberry, Twilight, Snowy, Whiskers, and Fluff. My daughter tells me you have nothing to say for yourself. Is that true?”

Ivan stared at her, sitting in her chair, surrounded by cats. She had green eyes, and although her gray hair hung down to the floor, she reminded him of his mother. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

She looked at him for a moment, appraisingly. Then she said, “Very well. I will send you where you need not say anything. Just this morning I received a letter from an old friend of mine, Professor Owl. He is compiling an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge, but he is old and feels arthritis terribly in his legs. He can no longer write the entries himself. For the first year of your apprenticeship, you will go to Professor Owl in the Eastern Waste and help him with his Encyclopedia. Do you think you can do that, nephew?”

“It’s all the same to me,” said Ivan. It was obvious that no one wanted him here, just as no one had wanted him at the mill. What did it matter where he went?

“Then you shall set out tomorrow morning,” said the Lady. “Tonight you shall join us for dinner. Are the preparations ready, Marmalade?”

“Almost, my Lady,” said the orange cat.

“How will I find this Professor Owl?” asked Ivan.

“Blanchefleur will take you,” said the Lady.

“You can’t be serious!” said Blanchefleur. “He’s an idiot, and he stinks like a pigsty.”

“Then show him the bathroom, where he can draw himself a bath,” said the Lady. “And give him new clothes to wear. Those are too ragged even for Professor Owl, I think.”

“Come on, you,” said Blanchefleur, clearly disgusted. He followed her out of the room and up a flight of stairs, to a bathroom with a large tub on four clawed legs. He had never seen anything quite like it before. At the mill, he had often washed under the kitchen spigot. After she had left, he filled it with hot water that came out of a tap and slipped into it until the water was up to his chin.

What a strange day it had been. Three days ago he had left his father’s house and the life he had always lived, a life that required almost nothing of him: no thought, no effort. And now here he was, in a castle filled with talking cats. And tomorrow he would start for another place, one that might be even stranger. When Blanchefleur had taunted him by telling the Lady that he had nothing to say for himself, he had wanted to say — what? Something that would have made her less disdainful. But what could he say for himself, after all?

With the piece of soap, he washed himself more carefully than he had ever before in his life. She had said that he smelled like a pigsty, and he had spent the night before last sleeping on a haystack that was, indeed, near a pen where several pigs had grunted in their dreams. Last night, he had slept in the forest, but he supposed that the smell still lingered — particularly to a cat’s nose. For the first time in years, he felt a sense of shame.

He dried himself and put on the clothes she had left for him. He went back down the stairs, toward the sound of music, and found his way to the great hall. It was lit with torches, and sitting at the two long tables were cats of all colors: black and brindled and tortoiseshell and piebald, with short hair and long. Sitting on the dais were the Lady, with Blanchefleur beside her, and a large yellow and brown cat who was striped like a tiger. He stood in the doorway, feeling self-conscious.

The Lady saw him across the room and motioned for him to come over. He walked to the dais and bowed before it, because that seemed the appropriate thing to do. She said, “That was courteous, nephew. Now come sit with us. Tailcatcher, you will not mind giving your seat to Ivan, will you?”

“Of course not, my Lady,” said the striped cat in a tone that indicated he did indeed mind, very much.

Ivan took his place, and Marmalade brought him a dish of roast starlings, with a green sauce that smelled like catmint. It was good, although relatively flavorless. The cats, evidently, did not use salt in their cooking. Halfway through the meal, he was startled to realize that the cats were conversing with one another and nodding politely, as though they were a roomful of ordinary people. He was probably the only silent one in the entire room. Several times he noticed Blanchefleur giving him exasperated looks.

When he had finished eating, the Lady said, “I think it’s time to dance.” She clapped her hands, and suddenly Ivan heard music. He wondered where it was coming from, then noticed that a group of cats at the far end of the room were playing, more skillfully than he had supposed possible, a fife, a viol, a tabor, and other instruments he could not identify, one of which curved like a long snake. The cats that had been sitting at the long tables moved them to the sides of the room, then formed two lines in the center. He had seen a line dance before, at one of the village fairs, but he had never seen one danced as gracefully as it was by the cats. They wove in and out, each line breaking and reforming in intricate patterns.

“Aren’t you going to ask your cousin to dance?” said the Lady, leaning over to him.

“What? Oh,” he said, feeling foolish. How could he dance with a cat? But the Lady was looking at him, waiting. “Would you like to dance?” he asked Blanchefleur.

“Not particularly,” she said, looking at him with disdain. “Oh, all right, Mother! You don’t have to pull my tail.”

He wiped his mouth and hands on a napkin, then followed Blanchefleur to the dance floor and joined at the end of the line, feeling large and clumsy, trying to follow the steps and not tread on any paws. It did not help that, just when he was beginning to feel as though he was learning the steps, he saw Tailcatcher glaring at him from across the room. He danced several times, once with Blanchefleur, once with Mrs. Pebbles, who must have taken pity on him, and once with Fluff, who told him that it was a pleasure to dance with such a handsome young man and seemed to mean it. He managed to step on only one set of paws, belonging to a tabby tomcat who said, “Do that again, Sir, and I’ll send you my second in the morning,” but was mollified when Ivan apologized sincerely and at length. After that, he insisted on sitting down until the feast was over and he could go to bed.

The next morning, he woke and wondered if it was all a dream, but no — there he was, lying in a curtained bed in the Lady’s castle. And there was Blanchefleur, sitting in a nearby chair, saying, “About time you woke up. We need to get started if we’re going to make the Eastern Waste by nightfall.”

Ivan got out of bed, vaguely embarrassed to be seen in his nightshirt, then reminded himself that she was just a cat. He put on the clothes he had been given last night, then found his satchel on a dresser. All of his old clothes were gone, replaced by new ones. In the satchel he also found a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a flask of wine, and a shiny new knife with a horn handle.

“I should thank the Lady for all these things,” he said.

“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you got here,” said Blanchefleur. “But she’s gone to see my father, and won’t be back for three days. And we have to get going. So hurry up already!”

To read the rest, download the PDF:

Blanchefleur

the-white-cat-illustration

(The illustration is from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book.)

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Heroine’s Journey: Vasilisa the Beautiful

In my last post, I included the article I had written for Faerie Magazine on the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey. That article described the full journey, as I had finally worked it out in my head, with its twelve steps:

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now what I’m going to do is write about specific stories that fit the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” pattern. Remember, I’m not saying this occurs in all fairy tales: far from it! It actually occurs in only a small number, but it’s nevertheless important to pay attention to, for two reasons. First, because it’s the underlying pattern of a disproportionate number of the fairy tales we still read or watch (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast” — you can immediately visualize the Disney versions, can’t you?). And second, this pattern is about women’s lives — even though our lives have changed, it still applies to us, hundreds of years after these tales came into being.  Today, I’m going to write about a Russian fairy tale called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”

vasilisa-the-beautiful-by-ivan-bilibin

(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

So, what am I going to write about this fairy tale? First, I’m looking at the tale in Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, which actually contains three versions. The one we usually hear about (to the extent we hear about this tale — it’s a wonderful tale, but often fairy tale scholars have heard of it, and readers haven’t), is the version called “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Here’s what happens:

Vasilisa is the daughter of a merchant. Her mother dies when she is eight years old. As she is dying, she gives Vasilisa a doll and says to Vasilisa, “Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice. When it has eaten, it will tell you what to do in your trouble.” The mother kisses her child and dies (literally — this being a fairy tale, that happens in one sentence). Of course the merchant marries again. Vasilisa’s stepmother has two daughters, and she and her daughters torment Vasilisa, making her do all the work. Already you can see a pattern developing that we associate with “Cinderella,” right?

What has happened so far?

1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

The doll is the gift. Losing her mother and then being treated like a servant is losing her home — Vasilisa no longer has the home she was a child in, even though she’s still in the same physical location. Her relationship to it has changed. This loss of home is literalized when her father leaves on a journey and her stepmother moves them all into a new home, next to a . . . dark forest, of course! The dark forest is always there, isn’t it? Just around the corner, in this case. And in this forest lives Baba Yaga.

Who is Baba Yaga? She’s a terrible witch with iron teeth! Except of course it’s more complicated than that, because in some stories there are three Baba Yagas, sisters — which reminds us of the Fates. Three of her servants are the White Horseman, Red Horseman, and Black Horseman — dawn, the sun, and the night. In other words, Baba Yaga looks very much like an ancient pagan figure of some sort, who became a witch in the Christian tradition. She lives in the dark forest in her hut on chicken legs, surrounded by human skulls.

Once Vasilisa’s family moves near the dark forest, her stepmother keeps sending her into the dark forest, but her doll keeps her safe. Then one night, the candles go out so that the three girls can’t finish some tasks the stepmother has set for them, and the stepsisters tell Vasilisa that she must go into the forest to get light from Baba Yaga. So Vasilisa goes into the dark forest.

3. The heroine enters the dark forest.

Finally, she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut: the fence is made of human bones, and on the spikes are human skulls. She sees Baba Yaga’s three horsemen pass by. Then Baba Yaga arrives, riding in her mortar, which she moves with a pestle, sweeping behind her with a broom to eradicate the traces of her passing. She sees Vasilisa, who asks for a light, and tells her that to get the light, she must first work — or Baba Yaga will eat her up!

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.

Vasilisa’s had two temporary homes at this point: the house her stepmother moved them into, and Baba Yaga’s hut. (This happened to Beauty as well: the house her merchant father moved the family into after they lost all their money, and the Beast’s house.) Her friend and helper is the doll, who was also the gift. The doll does most of the housework Baba Yaga assigned to Vasilisa — but not all. She still cooks the dinner. Unlike some of our other fairy tale heroines, Vasilisa is actually a worker from the beginning. It’s clear from the fairy tale that she knows how to cook and spin.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do everything, and Vasilisa says with her mother’s blessing. Well! That won’t do — Baba Yaga doesn’t want anyone blessed in her house, so she kicks Vasilisa out, but she gives her a skull with burning eyes to take back with her. That is the light she will return with to her stepmother’s house.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.

Vasilisa endures trials, not temptations — her trial is that she must do an impossible amount of work in Baba Yaga’s house. And how does she die? Well, I’m going to argue that Baba Yaga’s house is itself the house of death. That’s why her stepsisters sent her there in the first place. It’s the equivalent of the Wicked Queen in Snow White trying to kill her daughter/stepdaughter. The bones and skulls should clue us into its character. Vasilisa is sent there to die. Of course she escapes death, but when she brings the skull light back to her stepmother’s house, its light burns her stepmother and stepsisters. In other words,

12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Now that her stepmother is dead, Vasilisa moves in with another old woman in town — we are not told whom. That’s her third temporary home. There, she gets bored and asks for some flax. Out of the flax she spins the most beautiful linen thread, weaves it, and bleaches the resulting cloth. She tells the old woman to sell the cloth and keep the money for herself. The woman says it is only good enough for the tsar, so rather than selling it, she gives it as a gift to the tsar himself. The tsar wants some shirts made of it, but cannot find a seamstress to sew such find cloth, so he brings it back to the old woman and says if she knows how to spin it, she must know how to sew it. Of course she says it was all Vasilisa’s doing, and Vasilisa is given the task of sewing a dozen shirts. And here we are back at the sixth step:

6. The heroine learns to work.

It’s almost as though, since Vasilisa had the help of her doll in Baba Yaga’s hut, the storyteller wants to make sure we know Vasilisa can work — that she deserves the happy ending she’s about to get. Remember that these tales originated among the peasantry, where a girl had to prove herself by how well she could do the work of a household, including cooking, cleaning, and making clothes.

Vasilisa brings the shirts to the tsar herself, and of course he falls in love with her. He marries her, she moves into his palace, and she brings the old woman with her. When her father finally returns, he moves in too, and of course she still has the doll (who did not help make the shirts, notice!) in her pocket. In other words,

10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home

Here we find the complete journey of the fairy tale heroine, from childhood to marriage. And this is what the “fairy tale heroine’s journey” tales tend to look like: this is the common pattern. Notice that it’s also the pattern of Jane Eyre! Many tales of young girls growing up and finally getting married fit this pattern — not intentionally, I think, but because it’s been so deeply woven into our consciousness by reading fairy tales. It’s become a deep narrative pattern, both in literature and in our lives. We tend to live out this pattern in various ways because it’s the pattern the culture has given us for women. When we rebel against it, this is the narrative we’re rebelling against.

What about the other two Vasilisa stories in Afanas’ev? Interestingly, they’re both called “Baba Yaga.” In the first one, the father is a peasant, not a merchant. Because his second wife dislikes his daughter (who is not named), he brings her to Baba Yaga and offers her as a servant. She does well, with the help of some mice she has fed — here the mice replace the doll. The stepmother finds out that Baba Yaga is rewarding the girl for her hard work, so she sends her own daughter instead. She does not help the mice, so they don’t help her, and she is unable to complete Baba Yaga’s tasks. So Baba Yaga breaks her in pieces and sends her bones back to her stepmother, end of story. Here we see some of the same elements, but also a different pattern, which appears in a number of fairy tales: the good sister versus bad sister. That story pattern is almost an instruction manual in how to be a fairy tale heroine . . . Rule #1 is “be kind to animals.”

In the third story, the girl is again not named. The stepmother sends her to Baba Yaga, who is actually the stepmother’s sister. But the girl goes to her own aunt first, and her own aunt tells her how to defeat Baba Yaga. At Baba Yaga’s hut, she is helped by a birch tree, a gate, the dog, and the cat, all of whom she has benefited in some way. She runs away from Baba Yaga, first flinging down a towel that turns into a river, then flinging down a comb that grows into a forest. Finally she makes it home and tells her father what happened. He shoots the stepmother (I know, but fairy tales are violent — remember the Wicked Queen in Snow White . . .), and he and his daughter live happily ever after. This is also another pattern: the magical pursuit, with the heroine throwing items behind her that change into barriers for the pursuer.

So what have we learned today? That oral storytellers combined narrative elements, which are like small chunks of story: kindness to animals, the magical pursuit, the meeting with the tsar, etc. That’s how oral storytelling works. And some of those elements add up to the fairy tale heroine’s journey. It’s not the only journey: there are others. But this particular one has become deeply enmeshed in our cultural narratives.

baba-yaga-by-ivan-bilibin

(The image is an illustration for “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilbin.)

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