misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Loving and Sly Parodies: the gothic and anti-gothic: Atwood's Lady Oracle & Fuller's The Convent

..... from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen .... (NA, 2:8)

Dear friends and readers,

In the last week and one half, I finished reading the last texts I'm going to read for this paper on The Intertextual Gothic in Northanger Abbey (its latest title). Both were (as is not uncommon in the last writing one reads just before writing) unplanned, unexpected, one unknown. I have owned a copy of Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle for years, but it was only a couple of weeks ago that I came across a description of it in Michelle Masse's In the Name of Love:  Women, Masochism and the Gothic, which convinced me it is the closest thing to Austen's Northanger Abbey to exist in English: Lady Oracle is both a delicious parody and a gothic in its own right:  the critique is as serious as the adherence is, and the parts of the novel not parodic gothic are a primary subject for justifying why women read (as do younger sons in NA) and write gothics.  I preceded to take it down from my shelves; my copy was that bad it just about fell apart as I was reading it, so I bought a new decent paperback:

I must have come across the title and name Anne Fuller, The Convent, or The History of Sophia Nelson (published 1786) because I later found it's cited in J.M.S. Thompkin's delightful-to-read The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800, long ago one of my favorite and reread books of 18th century novel critical history, but it didn't register for me as at all important until I read a description of it in Eugenia de LaMotte's Perils of the NightThe Convent, like NA, moves between realistic and gothic sections.  It includes the growing up and education of a young girl (as does Lady Oracle). I'm beginning to see that one of female gothic's distinguishing characteristics is the education idyll or long section where the female is taught.  Is not this the whole of Austen theme in NA too, as well as hilariously central to the opening chapter.  Genlis's Duchess of C*********** occurs in an educational treatise, Adele et Theodore, and Adele listens hard and reads hear this inset story, not to omit (though people won't believe this quite) that two of Sade's female gothics also have inset educational projects for the heroine, e.g. Eugenie de Franval, where alas though this does include learning a pro-incest attitude, though on her and her father's behalf she does some serious moral reading we would most of us approve of).  The 1993 free adaptation of NA, Ruby in Paradise, by Victor Nunez is all about a "young lady's [very hard] entrance in our world, here the Florida west coast. 

What is a more common theme in women's educational novels of the era than to show how inadequate and misleading is convent education for girls?  One of the inset gothic novels in Adele et Theodore is about a young girl coerced into becoming a nun to save her family money.

An opening still from Forman's 1988 Valmont (from Les Liaisons Dangereuses) where Mesdames Merteuil and Volanges take the innocent ignorant but impressionable and obedient Cecile from the convent to enter "the world" under their (corrupt amoral) tutelage.

Happily, The convent is on ECCO, and in my efforts to read it swiftly I discovered I can download whole books from ECCO and put the texts on my desk!

Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle:

One of my favorite stills from the 2007 NA (Davies's adaptation):  Catherine's dream room come true

Quoting an article, Fran, my good friend on WWTTA, wrote of Lady Oracle: 'Margaret Atwood is a highly self-conscious writer, nowhere more so than in the self-parodies in which she explores her own predilection for palimpsestic texts.  ...this self-reflexive element is a constant of her writing.' Lady Oracle has always been one of my personal favourites, possibly because I find it her wittiest, with probably the most unconscionably unreliable first-person narrator in Atwood's long line of such.

To which I responded:

I agree especially that there is a vein of grave seriousness running throughout the book, except I have to say I keep finding myself laughing aloud again and again. This is so rare an experience for me (for many people I should think) that I feel compelled to remark on it and recommend this book to others if you've not read it.  One instance when Joan Foster aka Louisa K. Delacourt (out heroine) is thinking of titles and and somehow lands on the likeness of Love and Terror at Redmond Grange with The Bobbsey Twins at Sunset Beach.  Yes, these are both semi-fatuous comforting escapes.  (Bobbie Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth latches onto this.)  Atwood does not just parody gothic, she's out to send up and herself write patterns of romance, and she deals directly at the same time with real issues women present repeatedly in their novels and reflect clearly issues and problems and behaviors we are asked to enact, do enact and have to cope with from others in life.

There's so much it's hard to know where to begin, from fatness, to a mother who dislikes the daughter for not replicating herself and for confronting the mother with all she has spent her life suppressing out of shame, to the absent father who does not act on her behalf (Mr and Mrs Bennet are soft versions of this in P&P), to the fraught dancing schools (this section made me remember so much I endured as a girl and ask myself why I inflicted it on my daughters, as I did to some extent), to the high school years, the flight and now (where I am) her life with the Polish count in London.  Another type incident found in Lady Oracle (when the heroine is a fat teenager) is also found in Persuasion: Anne Elliot is also the woman who listens to everyone else's troubles and endures her non-life ignored by all.

The framing of a self-induced live burial in Italy adds multiple foci.  It is also picaro in structure (so male gothic in part). I found her antics over her typewriter funny because I've always written on a typewriter or now a computer board.  The brilliance of the book was brought home to me when I thought of Valerie Martin's Italian Fever where her author heroine goes to Italy and we get a straight female gothic (not as harrowing as usual though).

The sudden insights:  "My high school typing was regarded as a female secondary sex characteristic, like breasts ..."

"They though I was a middle-aged ex-librarian, overweight and shy"

For me what stands out just now are the parodies of the gothic itself. The inset passages of the novel Joan as Louisa is writing. I have the omnibus edition so the two inset pieces begin p. 444 and 526.  What fascinates is how unerringly Atwood both repeats and parodies the usual motifs -- I laugh and yet recognize -- and now I can see these reflect Joan's life.  My reading of two books on governesses recently brought home to me the parallels with today's young woman's seeking a middle class job.

There are some troubling motifs in the book:  for example, Joan's hatred of the mother and absolving of the father (well in part).  This is not a gothic where we have an overtly tyrant male we see how quickly the males -- Polish count, Paul and the aptly named husband, Arthur who I've not met as yet -- control her.

How body weight functions for women, how they can't escape being judged by their bodies first and foremost: a barrier, a come-on, a definer.

How about this: the gothic is a form which naturally leads the woman writer to write of a young girl growing up, of adolescence, of the first years coping with sex, either indirectly through the conventions or directly.  I see this parallel in Lady Oracle, Northanger Abbey and so many of the gothics, from Udolpho to Cat's Eye -- to Adele et Theodore.

The power of the first third of this book is very like Cat's Eye:  a persuasive believable account of growing up. I note that both in Cat's Eye and Lady Oracle we have these scenes of such terrible bullying Joan's life (Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye) is at risk for her life.  Not an exaggeration: Twain has a story where a young boy is killed because he allows his tormenters to push him into staying under water until he drowns.  Twain's hard ironic narrator (who is nonetheless showing us this horror) says he did not have the nerve to survive and that is a sina qua non in life. Twain's story took my breath away as it happens: we read of these things now and again.  Remember the two English boys who tortured a third to death and such a fuss was made about it in the 1990s it was.

Tim Burton's 2007 Sweeney Todd is also in the spirit of semi-mockery, showing up our world by caricature (Johnny Dep and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney and Mrs Loveit)

Fran replied:

"Unlike the first person,'everywoman'-type of female narrator in Surfacing, the (anti-) heroine in Lady Oracle does have a name: Joan Foster.

<How about this: what do you think of it: the gothic is a form which
naturally leads the woman writer to write of a young girl growing up, of
 adolescence, of the first years coping with sex, either indirectly
through the conventions or directly>

Well, it certainly seems to have been used by more than one writer as a vehicle to act out or vent feelings and experiences women weren't otherwise supposed to voice in the societies they lived in.

The sometimes negative portrayal of women in Atwood's novels is one of the things that has often got Atwood into hot water with feminist groups. I don't know, perhaps she feels that same-sex betrayals are more strongly felt and possibly even more injurious than those by the opposite sex and that it's naive to assume that women can't be just as hurtful as men sometimes are.

If you've not got to Arthur yet you are in for a treat. The portrayal of him and the tragi-comic saga of their marriage, which is at the same time a fast forward version and review of many of the social and political events and movements of the time, is both very funny and sometimes bitingly sardonic. It's also very self-ironic - Atwood herself was, and in some cases still is, very much involved in many of the same causes. He's definitely a man who doesn't get off lightly in the portrayal. Some think he may have been somewhat modelled after Atwood's experiences with her own first husband.

I've read the Cora Ann Howell's monograph, but all I know of Margery Fee's fat lady monograph is a brief abstract I saw a while back.

I remember being very interested in the mirror symbolism in the novel, which is pretty much a constant in Atwood's work and some other Gothic writers. There's an article by Jessie Givner on the subject, for example: 'Mirror Images in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle.

Since it's also very much a novel about the act of writing and the creative process itself, I also followed up on that aspect and have Arnold and Cathy Davidson's article 'Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle: The Artist as Escapist and Seer'.

You've probably noticed by now how fluid the boundaries between fact and fiction become for Joan, so fluid in fact that she's in danger of completely losing herself in her multiple fictions, especially since her sense of self and identity has always been as unstable, multiple and fractured as in those many mirror images. Atwood's mise en abîme narrative technique serves to reinforce this.

The family at the beach, 2007 Sweeney Todd

And I responded:

The multiple identities fit in with LaMotte's thesis about the importance to women of protecting their boundaries and yet how we fall into different selves thrust on us.  Genlis discusses this in the hostile 18th century way, that is, that women are coerced into imitating different roles and being those and so cannot be known as a single identity -- she does say something close to women have no characters at all. 

So we have Joan's aunt's name as her pseudonym for her as author. It's also a sort of pseudo-French name.

I have gotten into the Arthur section; I have gotten to Paul the older European ex-count writing nurse novels. One real distinction from Austen's NA is while Austen keeps a distance from Catherine Morland as a naif, she also sympathizes and makes her an exemplary kind of character. Not Joan.  We are to feel for her, but many of her behaviors and attitudes are distressing or meant to appall us -- on her behalf or our own as women: how she represses her past, how much she lies, how she defers to Arthur.  And sometimes she comes out with these cant utterances about how all men want this or that -- usually with regard to why she writes her fiction the way she does.

All this makes me feel this character is made up of a strongly ironic stance on Atwood's part.  More ironic than in Cat's Eye.

Yet a pattern to identify with is emerging also.  Joan is growing up. She is beginning to break away from Arthur to question him. There is the long-time affair with Royal Porcupine (what a funny name -- it made me think of the lords in Gorey's cartoons) aka Chuck. When she starts to call him, Chuck she is moving into a more independent stance. She has an affair which in this novel is a healthy move.  I saw in Cat's Eye how the heroine emerged independent and mature where the girl who so tortured and bullied her ended in her mother's house, her life a wreck; well, we've met one of Joan's earlier tormenters, Marlene, and Marlene is not doing so badly but is a terrific hypocrite (with a husband and lover who she shares pronounced high flying leftist ideals with with Arthur -- only the way they are to implement them is dangerous and ridiculous and unfeeling (to say the least). They plan to blow bombs up.

I noticed the mirrors in Alias Grace (Jane Eyre imitation or modern rewrite). Sewing is not here  as it is in Alias Grace as we are told that Joan loathes sewing.  The sequence on dance class had this sewing-connected memory for me: my mother did not sew those complicated costumes; like other women in the class, she paid a seamstress to make it look professional -- my mother usually held a full-time outside job in an office so paid other women to do what she was not that good at or didn't want to be bothered doing.

I did keep laughing and laughing now and again. I'd go off into uncontrollable titters. I used to do that for Austen -- the first time I read her Juvenilia I had these sudden outbursts of wild laughter. She was 15; she wrote them more than 200 years ago, but there I was wild with laughter.  You'd think at 50 you could stop worrying about young noblemen assaulting you ... (some such passage) or the stinking fish of Southampton or fainting alternatively on the couch. I don't know Atwood well enough to recite, but if I reread this I might after a while.

As to why all the complaints:  I suspect the real (but frequently unacknowledged) source of the complaints is the same as for Fanny Price:  many women readers want only to identify with a big winner; they don't want to identify with human weakness and refuse to define anything as strength but that which gives power or some semblance of it. Margary Fee in going over the complaint it is too canny to tell this truth; John Wiltshire begins there, possibly because he's a man and can comfortably condescend to these woman who refuse to recognize themselves in Fanny.

I've also been reading Diane Hoeveler's Gothic Feminism and find I literally detest the tone: like Michelle Masse who is (however unconsciously or contradictorily) hostile. Hoeveler nonetheless does not want to give such well-known and liked books up, so she invents this contorted theory which turns a victim into someone playing the part of a victim.  Underneath all the jargon is the idea of passive aggressivity as something she admires (!) or almost seems to.

Anne Fuller's The Convent; or the History of Sophia Nelson (1786)

18th century woodcut illustration for Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest

First I learned how little we know about this author. This information is taken from one of Janet Todd's compilations of female writers:   Anne Fuller (?-1790): she wrote two "straight" gothic tales:  Alan Fitz-Osborne (also published 1786), is set in the reign of Henry II (ghosts, murders, underground caverns), and is an imitation of Walpole -- this is pre-Radcliffe but without knowledge of the Lee sisters' RecessThe son of Ethelwof (1789), is another, this time the setting is the reign of Alfred but there is a resourceful female hero (or heroine) who disguised fights in battle beside Alfred.  Little known but these three texts and she died of consumption in Cork, Ireland.

Second this is an interesting book until the third volume when it dissolves away into exemplary sentimental happiness for all. I'm enjoying reading t he first two volumes.  Fuller does indeed combine the light comic vein with satiric types including one heroine who is a gay witty lady and whose tones occasionally remind me of Austen's Mary Crawford; there are gothic subplots and themes.  The use of epistolary interweave is ironic and lively. 

Gainsborough, Mallin, St James Park

The "minor" novel often quoted as making fun of gothic, Barrett's The Heroine (which Austen cites in her letters and apparently with approval) is one which rejects the gothic because it violates proprieties and puts female chastity in danger.  It upholds the status quo and makes the girl who clings to these patterns an utter fool.  Barrett also despised the gothic: his is a crude book and really mocks Richardson's Pamela. Barrett appears not to have read many gothics.

By contrast, The Convent has a character, Cassandra (romance lady name) who reads these romances obsessively and is sent up for it, but the action of the novel suggests that the gothic version of reality has real truth. 

There's in set story of great male grief: younger son disinherited, forced into becoming a cleric, he runs off and marries someone beneath him, and his father remorseless, abducts and puts the fiance by lettre de cachet into a prison and his son into a private dungeon.  Unlike female gothics, the son escapes and (now the male paradigm) becomes an outcast, exile, wanderer. The hero is French, Comte de St Pierre, who is (like one of Genlis's inset tales) a younger son, and egregiously pressured to give up all for the older brother: again forced into an occupation the father has connections to get (in Genlis it was military and here a monastery), who falls in love with a French girl, Hortensia beneath him, whom he engaged himself to. In Genlis they marry, she has a child and then she is put in a dungeon; Genlis goes much further in showing death and permanent destruction. In both the instrument is the lettre de cachet.  This is an exaggerated version of actual realities.

A second inset gothic also features a male at the center, a character whose abrupt appearance in the narrative resembles that of MacCartney in Evelina -- and the story very like that i Fielding's Tom Jones of Anderson or what Nancy Miller's could have been had Jones not intervened and pressured Nightingale to marry her.  This is a young English male, Dalton; ther eis no Tom to push Dalton into marrying the young girl he has impregnated in The Convent, and he (wrongly he now says) despised this girl for giving into him and avoided marrying her and thus destroyed her and now can make a living only by thieving, beating people up (for rich people). The girl has died it seems. So there is a real grief here.

From the 1997 BBC Tom Jones:  Nancy Miller (pregnant) and Nightingale marry, he pushed into it by Tom (over to the left side of the frame)

Both these gothics form around the male gothic pattern of exile, and outcast.

As for the third inset gothic (like Adele et Theodore there are three), Sophia, our heroine, is trapped by her uncle into a convent herself -- he is trying to force her to marry his son (like Brandon pere did Eliza Brandon in S&S). Nothing in her experience prepares her for this experience; she fends off this gothic nightmare but she does experience this hidden unspeakable pressure too. Nonetheless, she survives with relative ease with daylight reason.

While in the convent she meets a down-trodden fearful Sister Agatha.  She turns out to be Hortensia, the long-lost love of the French young man above. One target here is probably a protestant attack on Catholicism -- not seen in any of the novels I've read thus far and again showing this is a more minor writer even if she's giving this book all she's got. She's narrow. No sexual intercourse has happened. 

The comic sections are fun and interesting too -- very Burney. At one point our heroine goes to a costume ball,  a masquerade where like Burney the characters dress in types that reflect themselves, and it's lightly and effectively done.

Our heroine is a Burney type in effect - and in the realistic fiction there's a long tribute to the writer Burney.  Fuller is clearly thinking of Cecilia in this novel.  She is also thinking of Tom Jones with Sophia Nelson an allusion to Sophia Western. I don't know if it's quite believable that an English guardian could get away with abducting his heiress ward, secreting her away in a convent in France, but perhaps it was.  The atmosphere is however, most un-gothic.  Sophia responds to her bad treatment with sarcasm, her spirit is not broken, she carries on seeking her rights, and she gets a letter out of the convent to her friends. It has pattern of later gothics: the protective males who rescue the heroine. This is seen in Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes series again and again. So the male guardian is an aberation not typical. This makes for a weak novel: in Genlis and Fielding the bad people who take advantage of these unjust punitive social arrangements are part of the norm.

Grisoni, a masquerade at the Haymarket, mid-18th century

There is an assembly ball scene which makes me remember Darcy and Elizabeth meeting for the first time, and the mother-wife of one of the sets of characters is this silent enduring woman who is super-virtuous and is living with this mean stupid cold husband -- very much the paradigm of Lady Elliot and Mrs Tilney before death released them. Funny jokes on lawyers too.

So the novel interweaves "domestic social realty and nightmarish gothic irreality" (I'm quoting these phrases from LaMotte's Perils of the Night -- a study of gothic) not on behalf of the male hegemonic order and hierarchy but to expose them.  It represents the younger son and heroine's social situation, their vulnerabilty stripped of disguise and pretense. It's far more readable than most of the books cited in Isabella Thorpe's list of novels in Northanger Abbey that Valancourt has printed.

As I wrote above, also like Genlis's Adele et Theodore, the novel does fall apart at the close for me: like Sir Charles Grandison too it becomes an endless fatuous celebration of the heroine's coming wedding and the happy marriages of all around them, carried on at great length.

To conclude, although The Convent resembles Austen's NA in mingling realistic social satire and gothic parts and moves back and forth between them, there is no affectionate parody or replay of gothics as in both Atwood's Lady Oracle and Austen's NA (and the recent loving parody of Austen's P&P and many of the Austen movies, Lost in Austen). It's that I myself so love in Austen's NA, in Atwood's Lady Oracle (and am amused by in Lost in Austen). That's what matters to me, that's what is the draw for NA: the parodic gothic that is loving and yet sends up the mode.

In an interview about Lady Oracle, Atwood told her interlocutor that "in an anti-gothic what you're doing is examining the perils of gothic thinking, as it were. And one of the perils of gothic thinking is that gothic thinking means that you have a scenario in your head which involves certain roles -- the dark, experienced man, who is possibly evil and possibly good, the rescuer, the mad wife, and so on -- and that as you go to real life you tend to cast real people in these roles as Joan does. Then when you find out that the real people don't fit these two-dimensional roles, you can either discard the roles and try to deal with the real person or discard the real person. (laughter). 

In Lady Oracle, the imitation of ordinary reality and of allusive gothic conventions deliberately converges so the gothic becomes a reflection of the real world; in The Convent, the two remain separate largely and by the end of the novel we are invited to discard our memories of bad experiences in the gothic, which were not too searing for our sensible heroine anyway.

I close with a brilliant parodic poem by Atwood on Werewolf movies:

"Werewolf Movies"

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they'd be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate's throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it's the protein
male who's gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queen-sized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

This is a powerful sardonic exposure of the impulses underlying this unhappily popular archetype, no? I say popular because, for example, I'm now persuaded that the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story is a werewolf story. Hyde is a variant on the werewolf: his intense brutality, hairiness, animal like nature, the refusal of the narrator in the original (and consequent) stories to describe his face.

Tags: 18th century films, female archetypes, french writers, women's art, women's novels

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