Category Archives: women

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Except not really because I would probably be absolutely petrified, have a heart attack, and die. If you are completely lost, the title refers to the first and very well-known line from the eerie Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My first experience with Rebecca was as a child when I first watched Hitchcock’s interpretation with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I’ve seen it half a dozen times, more recently two months ago. I finally picked up a copy of the book at the library the day before Thanksgiving and devoured it as it rained outside, which, I have to say, is pretty much perfect reading weather but is certainly perfect Du Maurier reading weather.

The unnamed narrator, a young, unworldly woman, meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo while acting as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an older, wealthy, prattling woman. Mrs. Van Hopper refers to some sort of awful tragedy Mr. de Winter has endured (she seems to know everything about everyone), but our narrator doesn’t pry. Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, and the narrator finds herself more and more in the company of Mr. de Winter, an inscrutable but fascinating older man.

All too quickly, the holiday in Monte Cristo comes to a close, but Maxim refuses to let the naive young narrator sail off into the sunset. No, there is a much-less-happy-ending in the narrator’s future. The couple goes to Manderley, Maxim’s estate, and the young companion has no idea how to run a household, much less a household as large as Manderley. She meets the household staff and quickly learns Maxim goes about Maxim’s business while she is left to her own devices.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, conspicuously brings up Rebecca (the first Mrs. De Winter) in conversation, referring to how Mrs. DeWinter did this and how Mrs. DeWinter did that, leaving the narrator feeling more insecure and less able to learn how to adjust to her new home. Mrs. Danvers tempts the narrator with discussions of Rebecca’s rooms, the best in the house. When the narrator walks through the grounds, she looks up and curtains in Rebecca’s old room part to reveal Mrs. Danvers, ever watchful. Let’s stop there. Mrs. Danvers is easily one of the most spooky characters I have ever read about or watched in a film. Her obsession with Rebecca and her obvious distaste for the new Mrs. DeWinter verges on demented. This is one twisted housekeeper, and you should be very, very afraid.

As for Maxim, he is gone quite often and has turned sullen and standoffish inside the walls of Manderley. His moods are inconstant; he treats the narrator like a young girl (which drove me nuts). In the face of near insurmountable evidence, the narrator naturally believes he is still in love with the dead Rebecca. She begs him to host a ball for the neighbors, a costume ball, and Mrs. Danvers suggests what the narrator should wear. The tension mounts until the night of the party, and then there is all sorts of action.  Who was Rebecca, and what happened to her?

I will leave you hanging here because I don’t want to spoil anything. Plus, I think every blogger is owed several “Go read this book right now” statements throughout the year, so I’m calling in my first. Go read this book. Second, watch the movie. Third, come back and thank me, and we can talk. Need some more reasons? Spooky house? Check. Crazy housekeeper? Check. Dead wife? Check. Now go.

If you’ve read it, have you seen the movie? I seriously felt as though it played in my head the entire time. Hitchcock, of course, is a genius, but this film is truly a work of art and an excellent, excellent adaptation. What did you think? Rebecca truly made me want to devour everything DuMaurier has written.


“Dear Reader, I married him.”

Now don’t get excited. I’m not married – or getting married (at least any time soon). The title is one of my favorite lines from Jane Eyre. A little backstory here: I read Jane Eyre for the first time in 4th grade when I had no clue how to pronounce the word rendezvous, but I completely fell in love with this novel. Over the years, I read and re-read it, along the way linking the pronunciation ron-day-voo with the word rendezvous. I am almost embarrassed to say I have read this novel over a dozen times. In the last few years, I just go back to my favorite passages. I have six copies of Jane Eyre, and I am always, always on the lookout for more interesting editions.

I still remember in high school a Channel One (high school news program) commercial break where they previewed Jane Eyre the movie (from the 90s). I was ecstatic; unfortunately, the movie was not everything I had hoped it would be. Honestly, I haven’t seen a single version I have really approved of and enjoyed. So imagine my joy on seeing a trailer for a new vision of Jane and Mr. Rochester – one that looks quite beautiful:

And I have to wait until MARCH!!! I may even be more excited about this than HP7 – different kind of excited, but still…

Much to my delight, it seems Jane Eyre‘s allure has spread like wildfire across the blogosphere lately. Raych at books i done read had a great series with intertextual comparisons here (with The Crimson Petal and the White) and here (with Rebecca) and here (with Wide Sargasso Sea). The gal might love Jane nearly as much as I do. Simon had his say wherein he says he didn’t hold high hopes for Jane Eyre after reading her sister’s ugh, yuck, gah novel Wuthering Heights. [Sorry for those of you who love it.] Fortunately, Simon and I can still be blogging friends, as he loved Jane’s story.  Then Iris fell in love with Jane Eyre as well. Here she discusses prejudice in Jane Eyre and debates Bertha’s treatment in the novel, and several commenters popped in to say they liked Mr. Rochester less after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s supposed prequel to Jane Eyre. [ For those interested in Wide Sargasso Sea, I read it last summer (before I was blogging). It tells the story of Bertha, or Antoinette as she is known in Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel depicts Antoinette’s descent into madness, and the book can be a difficult read because of that. However, it’s short and gives insight as to why Mr. Rochester locks Bertha away.]

Particularly since there are so many posts out there at the moment, I will leave you quite simply with why this novel has dragged me back into its pages year after year, time after time: It is a true love story – and not just in a romantic sense. It is painful, heart-wrenching really, and hopeful. I cry ugly tears when Jane thinks she hears Mr. Rochester’s voice, knowing it cannot be. I cry when I see how Rochester changes, how he realizes what he has done to himself, Bertha, and Jane. Jane Eyre is about ordinary people who find small moments of the extraordinary within their lives. When Helen, Jane’s young friend at Lowood, dies of consumption, the scene with Helen’s arms wrapped around Jane, comforting her even as Helen lies dying, is majestic. It is these moments in which Bronte works her magic, luring me yet again to the dog-eared pages of the 50 cent copy of the novel I’ve had since 6th grade.

Perhaps a readalong is in order; strike while the iron’s hot and all that. It would be a perfect companion to the approach of the film. Let me know in comments if you’d be at all interested.


Madame Bovary, Part Two

I am sorry for posting this a bit late. I meant to do it early this morning, but A. I had a lot going on and B. I had no idea what I planned to write. I was tempted to write: “Emma, shut up and stop bitching” but thought surely I could come up with something more literary than that.

I have stewed most of the day about it and have come to a conclusion. The older Emma gets, the more angry she becomes. Her anger bubbles over, and she snaps at her child, her husband, her maid, everyone around her (that’s not the conclusion part). Frances focuses on the web of lies Flaubert spins for his characters, and though I think it’s a significant part of the book, I think the worst lie is the abstract one Emma focuses on. Emma thinks the world has lied to her, and she hates life because of it (there it is).

Life isn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Every moment leading up to her marriage, she lived in anticipation of that fulfillment, that idea of love she has carried around. She tries to discover “just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Tucked away in a convent as a young girl where she is rewarded for her spiritual ardor, all the while sneaking highly-romanticized novels, Emma lives in an alternate reality. It is a mystical place, and Emma embraces it fully. When her mother dies, she writes a letter to her father, and the contents of the letter so worry him, he visits her, and

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel that she had, at her first attempt, reached that rare ideal of pallid lives, which mediocre hearts will never attain. And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf … [until] [s]he became bored with this, did not want to admit it … and was at last surprised to find … that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.

Her dramatic nature has never been curbed, and through the ever-disappointed Emma and her love of novels, Flaubert swiftly eviscerates romanticism and its dangers. Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it. When she attempts to be a good mother and wife, it’s draining, yet she feels better having almost (at least on pretext) been a loving wife and mother. Flaubert does not allow the reader any illusions, though. When Emma pushes her daughter Berthe away from her and Berthe cuts her cheek, Emma seems suddenly maternal. She insists on remaining with the child, but in her quiet moment she looks at

a few large teardrops … gathered in the corners of her half-closed eyelids, through whose lashes one could glimpse two pale, sunken pupils; the adhesive plaster, stuck to her cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side.

“How strange,” though Emma. “The child is so ugly!”

She is detached, even in that second, and cannot make herself feel as she should. She is an actress, never fully involved in her own life and therefore, she is unable to enjoy it as well. Upon receiving a letter from her father, she becomes nostalgic, and again, it’s almost as if she’s viewing her life on a stage:

How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in illusions! There were none left now! She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love; — losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.

But what was making her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that had overturned her life? And she lifted her head and looked around, as though seeking the cause of what hurt her so.

Here she recognizes the illusion and in almost the same instant, pushes the blame away from herself, looking around to identify who or what is to blame for her intense displeasure. Finding no one, she places the blame squarely on her husband, who, to her, represents her entrapment. Flaubert tells us, though, to be prepared for this. In Part One, he describes Emma as

Accustomed to the calm aspect of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, — being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Emma seeks something fleeting, something on the air she cannot quite grasp. I fear it will remain ever elusive and that Emma’s hatred of her life and the world can only turn inward.

*But that’s just what I think. Check out Frances at nonsuch book and all the other links to see what other readers thought of Part 2. And thanks, Frances! I am finding the conversation most interesting.


Madame Bovary, Part One

Charles Bovary – the monsieur to the madame, can be summed up in seven pages. That’s the length Flaubert devotes to Charles Bovary’s life, from childhood to adulthood. The young boy is nothing of note; neither is the man, though a doctor, until he meets Mademoiselle Emma. Flaubert gives the distinct impression that nothing has ever really interested Charles. His mother has orchestrated his life, and he has allowed her machinations. However, when he goes to set a well-to-do farmer’s broken leg, he certainly notices the farmer’s young, pretty daughter Emma.

As the book is named after the second Madame Bovary, I thought it curious she is not mentioned sooner. She begins her life as a character almost as an aside in this novel. It seems appropriate as (at least my prediction) is that she will never come to the glory the reader sees she seeks in her quiet moments. Emma seems quiet and subdued, but we get glimpses of her true character; she’s utterly bored with her life.

It seemed to her that certain places on earth must produce happiness, like a plant that was peculiar to that soil and grew poorly in any other spot….Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how does one express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage.

Her naiveté here is very apparent, as it is wholly unlikely a change of scenery is the true problem with the young Madame Bovary. Charles, on the other hand, thrives with Emma by his side. He came, in fact, to

respect himself more because he possessed such a wife. In the parlor, he would proudly show off two small sketches of hers, done in graphite, which he had had framed in very wide frames and hung against the wallpaper with long green cords.

But his behavior only grates against Emma’s already-thin nerves, particularly after she has a small but delectable taste of the life she has read of and dreamed about in sensational novels. Attending a ball with its requisite excitement and glamour, Madame Bovary is bereft at its close. She comes home and

reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satin shoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.

She bought herself a map of Paris, and, with the tip of her finger on the map, she would take walks in the capital. She would go along the boulevards, stopping at each corner, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. Her eyes tired at last, she would close her lids…

The more I read (and I read much farther than Part One), the more I felt conflicted. Charles is, as mentioned, a bit of a bore, but he’s just a simple man who takes pleasure in simple things. Emma, though, is not simple. She may be the daughter of a farmer, but novels or something much more basic has placed wanderlust in her heart. As irritating as I found her at times, I could also relate to that. She feels trapped, and I can almost guarantee as I keep reading, she will find a way around that – whether it ends well or not.

*Sincere thanks to Frances at Nonsuch Book. Without her fabulous giveaway, I would not own such a gorgeous copy of this novel. Check out her site for other initial views of Madame Bovary.

Other posts:

Dolce Belleza


Will we still have this argument in another 153 years?

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants, and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickes, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends…

These words begin Fanny Fern’s article “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” first published in the New York Ledger in 1857. 1857. 153 years ago, and if you need a little perspective, it was prior to the Civil War. Fern was one of the most commercially-successful writers during this time period, and at the height of her career was the highest paid journalist – male or female. Again, I’ll put a little perspective on that. Most of us my age or older didn’t study many female writers in school. They weren’t included in the textbooks for study. In my American Literature class, we discuss this article, and when we got to it this week, the parallels were blatant between that time period and the current controversy over whether or not the New York Times is biased toward male writers.

I haven’t said much about #franzenfreude, as the argument has been dubbed on Twitter. If you haven’t heard, two female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, publicly discussed how the Times seems to favor the white male darlings of the literary world. At the time, Jonathan Franzen’s name was absolutely everywhere. He was the first writer to be on the cover of Time magazine in the past 15 years (Stephen King was the last). His book was pre-selling like crazy. Reviews abounded. Even President Obama got a copy, causing a rush on an unpublished book (and headache for the publisher).

Picoult and Weiner both agree they are not on the same plane as Franzen (they are considered commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction), but they do not argue for themselves alone but for all the women writers whose names seem to remain in obscurity. Now I’m not a huge fan of Franzen as I have read The Corrections, a novel, and How to Be Alone, a collection of essays, but I have not yet read Freedom. Neither of the former reads blew me away; in fact, the essay collection was a bit pretentious. Ultimately, though, Franzen is just the vehicle for the current issue: do white male authors receive more attention than female authors and authors of color? I don’t think anyone is really even trying to claim otherwise.

In fact, the Times is not alone in the pomp and circumstance. I read an excellent blog post at Color Online about how even Oprah has bowed to Franzen. I don’t have a problem with her adding him to her Book Club as that is her right and choice (even though he snubbed her in 2001, citing previous “schmaltzy” picks behind his reasoning). But as the article points out, it’s about who Oprah’s list leaves off: women. But again, is it really Franzen’s fault? No. Obviously, this is much larger than the Times or Oprah. (I’ll leave the chick lit discussion for another day and time).

Why are we so dismissive of women’s voices? To me, good fiction is good fiction. I just find it ironic and sad that we have not really evolved past the problems with which Fanny Fern takes issue. Male writers at the time were criticizing Fern’s commercial success, which is a slight shift, but you could certainly view J.K. Rowling in a similar light. In fact, part of the reason no one knows her first name (Joann) is her publisher encouraged her to be a bit androgynous on the book cover so male children would pick up Harry Potter as well. This is discussed in a Salon article here, though the author seems to get a bit off track. Jodi Picoult is also a commercially-successful writer, having most recently had her novel, My Sister’s Keeper made into a movie. Hunger Games is written by a woman, Suzanne Collins. Are these books less important or less literary because women wrote them? Harry Potter is certainly in a league of its own, but I would argue Rowling knows her craft and is extremely literary. Does her popularity mean she cannot be a good writer? Lorrie Moore, on the other hand, is not a well-known name. Similar to Franzen, she writes quiet novels of family and home. Her face, though, has not graced the cover of Time; she was not chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. There are frighteningly good women writers out there, but we tend to marginalize them or use their popularity as a bar to their “literary” status.

Fanny Fern knew and understood this, and she ends her small column from 153 years ago with a stinging retort to all those who have written her off (and I couldn’t say it better myself):

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books …. Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers, is a matter of history …. Granting that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and, above all, respectfully? or –what would be a much harder task for such critics – write a better book!