The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

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The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

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“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

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“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.

Quinceañera

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April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.

Quinceañera

My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.

 

A Book About Books

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Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.

A Normal Paranormal

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I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne Du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

Don’t Look Now, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

Not After Midnight is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an  atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, Du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology.

The Breakthrough is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

A Borderline Case is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

The Way of the Cross has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

Classic Love Poems For Valentine’s Day

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Love runs the entire gamut of emotions from a febrile infatuation and a fervent passion to a quiet and loving companionship. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I have selected ten classic love poems written in the English language to share on my blog. I’ve chosen well-known poems and excerpts of poems that you’ve probably read in your English classes in high school or college. Isn’t there something comforting about reading familiar poems? You could even send them to your sweetie. Not everyone has the gift of gab and even if you’re eloquent, love can leave you tongue-tied. I hope one of these romantic poems will make your partner swoon.

Who can forget the experience of falling in love for the first time? John Clare’s poem, “First Love”describes the electrifying effect of love at first sight. The poet/speaker is so awestruck by the beauty of a woman that it leaves him physically weak and drained. Here’s the beginning of the poem:

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

 First Love, John Clare

And then follows the relentless pursuit of the beloved. The poet Robert Browning evokes the thrill of the chase in the beginning lines of “Life in a Love”. Robert Browning was successful in the pursuit of his beloved Elizabeth Barrett with whom he began a secret courtship, exchanged hundreds of love letters and eventually eloped. Their love story is one of the most romantic ones in literary history.

Escape me?
Never—
Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.

Life in a Love, Robert Browning

There’s no joy as fulfilling as reciprocated love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning returned Robert Browning’s affection wholly and truly. In one of the most famous sonnets ever written and also one of my personal favorites, she expresses the depth and intensity of her love for her soon to be husband.The poem depicts an ideal love that’s powerful, all-encompassing, pure, passionate and enduring and that even transcends death.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

When you are in love, you throw caution to the wind as you sail through unchartered territory. It’s not clear whether the speaker is male or female in the erotic poem “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson. It’s probably a male speaker based on the last line. Nevertheless, he or she expresses the desire to spend wild nights of unrestrained passion with the beloved. Enough said!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Wild Nights-Wild Nights! (269), Emily Dickinson

Alas, equal affection is not always possible. Sometimes one person is more invested in the relationship than the other. But to love is worthy in itself, even if unrequited.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The More Loving One, W.H. Auden

Another beautiful poem that deals with unrequited love and regret is “When you are old and grey” by W. B. Yeats, based on a sonnet written by Pierre de Ronsard. It is believed that Yeats penned the poem for Maud Gonne, the love of his life. The speaker is a spurned man who addresses his former love ( or ex in modern parlance) and explains how he loved her to the depths of his soul even when her beauty started fading with age. The lines”But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face..”are undoubtedly among the most romantic verses ever written, at least according to me. He hopes that one day when she reminisces about her life, she will regret that she chose not to be with the person who loved her unconditionally.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When You are Old, W.B.Yeats

Even if the sentiments are reciprocated, the timing was not right or you may have been too shy to acknowledge your feelings for each other, or maybe you discovered too late that you like each other. You are only left wondering ‘what if’ with an immense feeling of regret. This succinct poem by Sara Teasdale conveys the wistfulness evoked by a haunting kiss that never was:

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

The Look, Sara Teasdale

What bliss it is to feel loved and cherished by your soul mate! “To My Dear And Loving Husband” is a sweet and tender expression of married love written by Anne Bradstreet, one of the earliest settlers in Massachusetts in the 17th century. The speaker praises her husband who completes her. In fact, they complete each other and become one. She values his love more than earthly riches and is confident that their love will continue beyond the earthly realm in heaven. 

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

To My Dear and Loving Husband, Anne Bradstreet

Love changes its form with the passage of time but never goes away. The intense passion of the first few years may decrease in a long term relationship but it is replaced by a caring and comforting companionship. The poem “Decade” was written by Amy Lowell to commemorate the ten year relationship with her same sex partner, Ada Russell. However there is no gender specified by the speaker in the poem when describing the transition from the early days of heady passion to a deep emotional bond. 

When you came, you were like red wine and honey, 
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness. 
Now you are like morning bread, 
Smooth and pleasant. 
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour, 
But I am completely nourished. 

Decade, Amy Lowell

Not everyone’s story ends happily ever after. Sometimes the world conspires to keep young people in love apart. But true love can never be destroyed, not even by death as portrayed in this haunting poem about the everlasting love of Edgar Allan Poe for Annabel Lee. I get goosebumps each and every time I read the ending of this poem about the young star-crossed lovers.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love 
   Of those who were older than we— 
   Of many far wiser than we— 
And neither the angels in Heaven above 
   Nor the demons down under the sea 
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side 
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, 
   In her sepulchre there by the sea— 
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe

I hope these romantic poems put you in an amorous mood for Valentine’s Day. If there are any poems you like that are not included in my list, please add them in your comments. If you are in love, or have ever been in love or hope to be in love someday… Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

Bound by Convention

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A Nu shu artwork. (Photo from http://www.womenofchina.cn

 

I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and the Four virtues: “ Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.

Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.

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A woman with normal feet next to a woman with bound feet.

Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.

In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”

The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.

My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”

The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.

The Paris Couple: Love Is A Beautiful Liar

 

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Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson on their wedding day, September 3, 1921

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage during the years of his budding writing career before he was catapulted into fame and fortune. The story is narrated through the perspective of his first wife Hadley who witnesses the nascent writer transform into a legend along with the slow and painful disintegration of their marriage. The young Hemingways move from Chicago to lead a humble life as newly weds in a small flat in the Paris of the 1920s and are instantly thrown into the hedonistic milieu of hard drinking and partying with fellow expats.

Paula McLain, the author, did extensive research studying correspondence exchanged between the couple, reading their biographies and Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. Within this framework of information, she has given a voice to Hadley who was generally relegated to the background in the looming presence of her husband. It would have certainly been impossible for McLain to know every intimate moment and every conversation that took place between the couple and she must have taken liberty with the details but she claims to be as accurate as one could possibly be to their story.

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Hemingway outside of his residence at 113 Rue  Notre-Dame-des- Champs, Paris

McLain has beautifully evoked the atmosphere of depravity and debauchery that characterized the era of the Lost Generation in post war Paris. I felt a voyeuristic thrill as I was transported to Paris with the Hemingways, frequenting the cafés and restaurants along with them, accompanying them on their skiing trips to Austria and bull fighting spectacles in Spain and visiting the glitzy homes of their friends on the Riviera, hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce among others. After finishing the book, I  rushed to read The Sun also Rises and A Moveable Feast to prolong the joy of living vicariously through them in that wonderful bygone era.

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From L-R at the table, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway and Hadley in Pamplona, Spain

 

Both Hemingways entered the marriage with a lot of baggage. Hadley had a difficult childhood where she lost both her sister and her father, the latter to suicide. She herself suffered from many nervous spells. Ernest spent a few years fighting in World War 1 and sustained an injury to his leg. The chemistry between the two is undeniable. They both call each other ‘Tatie’ and have a host of endearing nicknames for each other. He thinks they are essentially alike, ‘the same guy’ but they couldn’t be more different from each other. He has a charming and colorful personality. She doesn’t exactly fit into the bohemian lifestyle in Paris and she refers to herself as ‘victorian’ as opposed to ‘modern’ but she strives hard to please her husband and is exceedingly agreeable and accommodating. She helps establish his writing career, reads through his drafts and even supports him financially. She is his rock but he has a roving eye. He needs her to feel safe but at the same time values his space. Besides, she has to make a lot of sacrifices. She has to live frugally while the other women around her wear chic clothing. An unexpected pregnancy prompts Ezra Pound to warn her that it would be a dire mistake to let parenthood change Hemingway. They have their bonny baby boy and things still go on smoothly. It was not parenthood (although their parenting style would leave much to be desired in contemporary times) but fame that eventually affected their marriage. When Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley remarks: “ He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy.” In their early married years, Hadley loses his valise containing all his work to date. You have to wonder if he ever forgives her for that blunder and if that incident represents a turning point in their marriage along with the entry of the other woman.

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Hadley and Ernest Hemingway with their son “Bumby” in Schruns, Austria

The other woman is Pauline Pffeiffer, a wealthy socialite who insidiously creeps not only into their domestic life by befriending both of them and calling them ‘my cherishables’ but also into their bedroom. What would you do if a beautiful naked woman crawls under the sheets on your husband’s side of the bed? What did Hadley do? She pretended she was asleep. Now suddenly there are three of everything in their lives: three oeufs au jambon, three steaming brioches, three glasses of juice, three breakfast trays, three terrycloth robes, three wet bathing suits on the line and on the rocky path three bicycles stood on their stands: “…You could see how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes on the skeletons of elephants or like love itself.” A ménage à trois forms gradually without either of them realizing or wishing it. What does Hadley get out of the relationship? Is she an enabler? She comes across as an insecure woman madly in love with her husband and tolerant of his wayward behavior. The Paris Wife reveals a lot about the Paris husband too. Hemingway appears to be a needy, narcissistic, jealous and unkind person- in one word, a jerk. He is critical and dismissive of his friends. Yet, you understand where he is coming from and look at him from a sympathetic standpoint. There are a few chapters narrated from his point of view and he does reveal a soft and tender side. The War had a devastating effect on those who fought and survived. Hemingway suffered from what we refer to as PTSD today. The war also brought about a change in values. Gone was the moral rectitude of the Victorian age.  Besides, he was an artist married to his art which leads us to the interesting question if being an artist justifies a bohemian lifestyle. Hadley seems weak but she shows a lot of grace and strength as her marriage crumbles and finally calls him selfish and a coward before leaving him.

 

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Hemingway’s passport, 1923

From the beginning Hadley has a premonition that her marriage is doomed. A passage that struck me in particular in the beginning of the book describes her walks to Les Halles, the open air market where she would linger to admire the lavish meats on display, the bushels overflowing with vegetables and fruits. But in the alleyways behind the marketplace, fruit and meat rotted in crates and reminded her of the gutters in the Place de la Contrescarpe where colored dyes ran freely from the flower vendors’ carts. The lush exterior hides an ugliness underneath and reminds her of the words Ernest had uttered way back in Chicago: “Love is a beautiful liar.” The Paris Wife is a touching and bittersweet love story with some degree of closure in the end. Hadley remarries and leads a contented life and Ernest calls her years later over the phone before committing suicide. While looking back on the Paris years, Hadley remarks: “ Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.” In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway poignantly writes,” I wish I had died before I had loved anyone but her.” The Paris wife or the early or first wife was but one wife in a long line of wives and lovers but perhaps she was the one despite everything and even despite the fact that love is a beautiful liar.

 

The photos are part of the Ernest Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.