Tag Archives: Victorian

Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.

Angels, whores and healing

The Victorian era seeded into our culture the division of women into angels and whores. The angel belongs to the domestic sphere. She is wife, mother or good daughter. Dutiful, gentle, self sacrificing, she puts all other needs before her own, and seeks no part in the world of men – in matters of religion, politics and social interaction, she is guided by her husband, father or brother. While if she can, she will bear children, the love of the angel is not carnal. She has no sexual desire, only the desire to please. Any woman who is not an angel, is a whore. The whores are not to be trusted, fair game for any kind of misuse and are assumed to deserve whatever happens to them. Men caught up in narratives with whores can be redeemed, but the whore will only be redeemed by a really penitent death. She does not get to win, only to remind women that they are much better off being docile and domesticated.

The overt language of the angel and the whore may seem not to be with us, but both are still here. Angels become domestic goddesses, yummy mummies, supermums. Now they work full time and are also paragons of the domestic sphere, pandering to everyone else’s needs and being selfless at every turn. The whores have turned into career women, tarts, slappers, hoes, and at the surface it seems we’re ok with them, and that there is room for more freedom of expression and to be something other than a doormat. But our media calls women cold, and bitches, if they don’t conform to angel standards. The woman who is not an angel is still considered fair game. What were you wearing? How much makeup? How many men have you slept with? Do you read or write erotica, or wear high heels, or dance sexy, or flirt…? Then you are in truth, a whore and we can safely assume you consented. You probably did more than consent, you were probably asking for it…(a ghastly, toxic notion in this context) and so play out the vast majority of court cases around the sexual abuse and rape of women.

The angel ideal is a personification of passive, obedient servitude. It’s not much to aspire to if you have feelings and opinions of your own. Express feelings and opinions of your own, and even today, you risk crossing over into unacceptability.

I was clearly never an angel. Not once I hit puberty. I had a wild and passionate nature, was a sensuous creature, generous in my affections and open hearted. I say ‘was’ because a good ten years of being treated as though that made me a whore left its marks. The angels and whores dynamic means that if you are anything other than very guarded, there are those who will assume you have no boundaries at all. You’ll find some of those people in courtrooms. You’ll find them putting hands on your body assuming you have neither the will nor the capacity to refuse them.

Underpinning the angels and whores paradigm is the key Victorian assumption that women exist to serve men. Angels do it gently in the home and are to be treated kindly. Whores are there to satisfy all the urges you can’t vent on an angel, but in the end, both kinds of women are designed to answer male needs, not to be people in their own right. And after all this time, the same underlying thoughts still affect our culture. We still call working mums, and childless women selfish. We also call stay at home mums lazy, so you don’t get to win this one.

Where is the healing in this? It comes from seeing the story, and realising that it is nothing more than a set of ideas. It is not a truth, and I am not bound by it. I am not defined by how other people have seen fit to treat my body. It comes from recognising that I do not have to be one or the other. I am not an angel in the house. I am not a whore. There is nothing in how I am and what I do that entitles anyone else to do anything to me. My curves are not permission.

My impression of mythic Celtic women is that they were able to be sexual and able to choose, free to say yes or no. There’s healing in that thought, and hope.

Reincarnation stories

I’m currently reading David Lacey’s ‘The Karma of Everyday Life’ and I suspect I’ll be back to ponder karma another day. Usually karma turns up in belief systems that also include reincarnation, although it could be applied as a one lifetime process. I don’t have any strong opinions about what happens after we die, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m entirely at ease with my own uncertainty. There are things that make me wonder though.

I have some very early memories from this lifetime. One of the things that strikes me about those recollections from the time when I was really small, is just how big my vocabulary was. I have a better memory for words than images at the best of times so am reasonably confident I’ve not added this later on. Being small enough to play under the coffee table and hearing the word ‘obsessed’ is one such example. I was talking early.

My family were not, I think, any weirder, more funny about nudity or more keen on covering up than any other typically repressed English household in the second half of the twentieth century. Me, on the other hand… I couldn’t bear nudity. I remember having a rash that might have been measles, and arguing with my parents that I did not want to have to show the Doctor my bottom. Ok the rash was worse there, but I had rash other places. I was made to do it though, and the burning shame and humiliation made for a powerful memory. My experience of other small children is that you tend to have more trouble getting them to not show you their bums, their underwear, etc.

I couldn’t stand it if adult males were topless around me. That filled me with feelings of fear and loathing (now, thankfully overcome!) It went further though. I loved cuddly toys, but they had to have pants too. Really. So obsessed was I with this issue, that I figured out a knitting pattern all by myself and I knitted pants for bears. Many bears. If someone had told me that you could cover up the scandalous, exposed legs of tables, I’d have been right there.

I arrived in this world with middle class Victorian sensibilities about nudity and clothing. I have no rational explanation for this. I didn’t like wearing trousers at all as a little girl, that felt almost immoral. I’ve since got over that one, too.

On the plus side, it gives me something to tap into for the period literature. I don’t have to imagine what it would feel like for it to be shocking if a man saw your ankles. I know that feeling. That sense of other people’s bodies as somehow alarming and wrong… I recall my father pointing out to me that, underneath the clothes, everyone is naked, and how sick that made me feel. A Victorian gentlewoman does not like to have such things pointed out to her, and there was one such creature living inside my childhood head. I remember the horror that came with understanding how reproduction works in the natural world, and realising that we humans might not be wholly different. That wasn’t a happy discovery for me. (Again, I got over it). I don’t struggle to imagine what an uninformed Victorian virgin might have gone through in face of the realities of marriage…

Paganism has been a great antidote to this, learning to be ok in my skin and with nature as it manifests in the human form. I started life in a very odd place, a hundred years out of date and desperately confused by everything around me. Reincarnation? I don’t know. And that’s without getting started on the fear of fire, and the meltdown I went into watching The Name of the Rose for the first time. I’m not squeamish, but show me a stake and I cease to function.