Witch-Wife

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It is that time of the year when we think of supernatural creatures-goblins, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves. Perhaps the most fascinating of them all is the witch. When we picture a witch, we are most likely to conjure up an image of an old hag with crooked teeth and a hook nose dressed in a black cape and pointed hat, flying on a broom. But the witch who comes to my mind is not an evil or sinister creature. She is a sorceress too but a magical and mystical creature who is also alluringly feminine. She is the witch-wife.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she will never be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she will never be all mine.

The Witch-Wife is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated American poet and playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. At first glance, it is a simple and straightforward rhyming poem. We are intrigued at once by the dichotomy of the title. A witch and a wife are diametrically opposite beings. The wife is a married woman who takes care of her home and hearth and is grounded in her domestic duties. She is tied to matrimony and thereby automatically restrained while a witch is a wild and magical creature who knows how to fly and cast spells.

As you start reading the poem, you notice other contrasts. She is neither pink nor pale. She is neither robust and healthy like the average wife nor wan with a deathly pallor like a witch. She belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. And she never will be all mine. This line is quite ominous in tone as we know at the outset that this woman whom the speaker is talking of will be unattainable and outside his reach. The poem is written by a woman and describes a woman but the speaker is most likely a man and probably the husband. The word ‘all’ implies that she could belong to him to some extent but not belong to him completely or wholly. Otherwise he simply would have said that ‘she never will be mine’. The words ‘neither’, ‘never’ and ‘nor’ are negations used to emphasize the elusiveness of the woman. She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine. She is not a practical woman. Maybe she was taught or raised to be practical but everything she does or says-the hands -on knowledge and wisdom that she has acquired is all colored with her idealism. She is flighty (she is a witch after all ) and lives in a parallel universe different from the reality that her husband occupies. It is a realm of romance and imagination to which he has no access or which he simply does not comprehend. The lady seems to straddle these two worlds all at once.

She has more hair than she needs; In the sun ‘tis a woe to me. She has long, lustrous locks but why does her hair cause great distress to him in the sun? Is it because the sunlight reveals her witch-like hair? Maybe her voluminous hair is matted or tangled or does it show another aspect of her mien or another side of her nature? And her voice is a string of colored beads, Or steps leading into the sea. We have the lovely metaphor of her soft and gentle voice similar to a string of colored beads. Her voice makes her real, alive and of this world. But this line is immediately followed by another alliterative metaphor accentuating the fact that although her voice seems real and charming, it can ensnare you. Her voice is akin to steps leading into the sea which imply drowning or death. Her voice is of this world and of the other world. The colored beads remind us of an incantation or spell. She is like the legendary siren-part woman and part bird who lures men to their death by her seductive singing. The witch- wife like the siren is part wife and part witch- a beautiful  woman but also an enchantress, a beguiling seductress who uses her feminine wiles to entrap men.

She loves me all that she can; And her ways to my ways resign; These two lines momentarily give us the impression that she is the ideal woman in spite of the fact that the speaker has already stressed on her intangibility and elusiveness. She loves him “all that she can” could mean that she loves him to the best of her ability. She is a compliant woman who submits to him willingly. But she was not made for any man, And she never will be all mine. This is the let down after the build up of the previous line when she seems like perfection incarnate to a man. However, it is not really an anti-climax as he has already indicated in the beginning that “she never will be all mine.” The word “never” reinforces the fact that there is no possibility of her belonging to him totally.  The line “But she was not made for any man..” could indicate that she was not made for any sort of ordinary man but for a special kind of man. Or could it mean that she was made for a woman?

It was no secret that Edna Vincent St. Millay, known as Vincent to her close friends and family, was bisexual and had several affairs with both men and women. She was happily married to her husband, Eugen Boissevain and they had an open marriage. I normally like to separate the poet from the poem but it is hard to overlook Edna St. Millay’s unconventional lifestyle and feminist activism in analyzing her work. We have to remember that even discussing heterosexuality, let alone homosexuality, was a taboo subject in the 1920s and that she was a trailblazer who made possible the writing of many future gay men and women. By evoking polarities in the poem, I wonder if she is also highlighting polarities of human nature and sexuality. The poem is written by a woman about a woman. The witch-wife could be a self-portrait or any one of the women the poet knew in her life or someone from her own imagination. There are so many ways you could read the poem but I still feel strongly that the speaker is a man. But does it matter? The speaker could very well be a woman too. In any event, the witch-wife will never belong completely to any man nor to any woman for she is in control of who she is and in charge of her own sexuality.

Hope your Halloween is as spellbinding as this otherworldly poem! As for me, I am beWITCHed!

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A Writer By Any Other Name

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Naples, Italy

The literary world is abuzz with the news of the unveiling of the identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author of the tremendously popular and successful Neapolitan quartet of novels. The person responsible for unmasking the reclusive and private author is Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist who used Ferrante’s financial and real estate records to reveal her real name. Not only has his conduct been viewed as an intrusion of the artist’s privacy but as a sexist act of violation by her millions of fans around the world. I will respect her wishes and not divulge her name in this post. Her identity had been shrouded in mystery for many years and needless to say piqued the curiosity of many readers. Some speculated that the author was a man writing under the name of a woman while others thought that there were two writers and even made the assumption that she collaborated with her husband in writing the books. Why did the author feel the need to conceal her identity in this day and age when it is very difficult to stay away from the public eye?

Many authors have written under assumed names including male authors like Stephen King, Voltaire and George Orwell to name a few. Often writers wish to distance themselves from their previous work and take on a different pen name while attempting a new genre. The works of women writers have historically been viewed as inferior compared to the writings of their male contemporaries prompting many of them to either remain anonymous or to take noms de plumes in order for publishers to think they would be a commercial success. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, A Room of One’s Own explains how the patriarchy has suppressed women and states: “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The Brontë sisters wrote initially under the pseudonyms of three brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and only revealed their identity when they were confused with Jane Austen. Colette, the highly acclaimed French author, published her first four novels of the Claudine series under Willy, the nom de plume of her first husband. And then we have the two Georges of the 19th century, George Eliot and George Sand whose real names were Mary Ane Evans and Amantine-Lucile-Aurore- Dupin, respectively. We don’t even have to go back that far for examples. Even in our contemporary era, we have J. K. Rowling who dropped her first name Joanne and made it an initial to become less gender specific. She also wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith to make the work appealing to both boys and girls but it didn’t take long for her identity to be uncovered. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante assumed a female pen name for writing her novels. She believed that her anonymity facilitated the creative process and she shunned any kind of publicity whether in the form of book signings, interviews or a social media presence.

The fact that the protagonist- narrator’s name is Elena in the Neapolitan novels adds to the conjecture that the novels could be autobiographical or semi- autobiographical in tone. The four books in the series, in flash-back form, follow the trajectory of Elena and Lila, two friends growing up in the working class neighborhood of Naples in the fifties and sixties. Both girls are brilliant but couldn’t be more different than each other. Lila is bold, feisty and mercurial whereas Elena is more reserved and timid. Elena’s education allows her to break free from the confines of her restrictive upbringing whereas Lila cannot escape the neighborhood of their childhood. I’ve read My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the bildungsroman quartet, translated by Ann Goldstein who deserves as much if not more praise as Ferrante herself for creating ‘Ferrante fever’ with readers all over the English speaking world. My Brilliant Friend is the story of an intense and enduring friendship. But it is not just a sweet and touching account of friendship. It is also a complex and antagonistic relationship fraught with jealousies and insecurities. It is definitely not chick-lit but a dark and disturbing book. Early on in the novel, Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” With searing honesty and passion, she describes dysfunctional families with their macho culture, sexual harassment, family feuds and class conflict amidst the poverty and violence of post- war Naples. It took me a while to get into the book. For one, there are too many characters with multiple names. Secondly, reading a book in translation however well-rendered requires a little bit more of an effort from the reader. The unexpected cliffhanger of a denouement and the fact that my friend urged me to be patient with the first book made me eager to read the next book in the series. The writing is raw and brutal, almost visceral in parts which I suspect led many to believe that the author might be a man. Somehow my instinct told me all along that Ferrante was a woman but does that even matter?

Do you think a work of art should be an entity by itself or seen in relation to the author? I personally like to keep the author separate from the book. A reader’s relationship is with the book and not the author. I have trouble reading Ezra Pound or Hemingway objectively after reading so much about their lives and exploits. With living authors it is even harder to separate the person from the work. Readers tend to interpret everything as autobiographical especially if it is a female author. According to Gatti, knowing the identity of an author is important to understand the fiction. He feels Ferrante misled her readers in La frantumaglia , a collection of letters, essays and fragments where she describes herself as a daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress and believes that he did a favor to her readers by exposing the truth about her. It is very difficult to be anonymous these days and an author who is deliberately mysterious will always ignite curiosity. Was Gatti right in ‘outing’ her under the guise of unveiling the truth? If she has consciously sought privacy, then why unmask her? Before the publication of her debut novel, Ferrante wrote to her publisher: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Let’s leave Elena Ferrante alone. She deserves a room of her own.

To Edit Or Not To Edit, Enid?

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Enid Blyton, the immensely prolific and widely read children’s author who enthralled generations of children with her escapist fiction, has been in the news lately. Her popularity waned in later years as her works were not only considered outdated but also replete with racial , sexist and elitist undertones. Many versions had already been edited over the years to soften the racist implications. For instance, the golliwogs of the Noddy books were replaced with goblins. Six years ago the publishers decided to go one step further and made revisions to the books to cater to the vocabulary and mentality of modern children. Old-fashioned interjections like ‘jolly good’ and ‘golly gosh’ were eliminated. Dame Slap of The Magic Faraway Tree became Dame Snap as corporal punishment is now frowned upon and even viewed as abuse. ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ were replaced with ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad”, ‘You Bet’ became ‘Definitely ’and ‘frocks’ changed to ‘dresses’. The word ‘queer’ morphed into ‘strange’. Unsurprisingly, the revised versions were not popular with the public and in a welcome move, the publishers Hachette (yes, they have decided to spare the hatchet) are going to revert to the original language of the texts without revisions or edits.

I grew up immersed in the world of Enid Blyton and constructed my own little world around her world. I spent many happy hours of my childhood reading the delightful books which introduced me and countless other children in the Anglophone world to the joys of reading. I envied the children who discovered secret passages and solved mysteries, went on hiking and camping adventures without adult supervision and to posh boarding schools where they played hockey and lacrosse and had midnight feasts in the dorm. How can I forget the sumptuous summer picnics of The Famous Five who feasted on crusty loaves of bread, currant buns, scones and jam tarts, tomato sandwiches with ‘lashings’ of boiled eggs and guzzled home made lemonade and ginger beer? The descriptions made me so ravenously hungry that I salivated at the thought of eating a pot of shrimp paste even though I was a die- hard vegetarian. It was a world alien to my own but provided plenty of fodder for my imagination. I devoured The Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers and The Secret Seven series and even formed a club called “The Exciting Eight” with my neighborhood pals, which later, with the addition of more members, became “The Thrilling Ten”. We had our own secret password like the members of The Secret Seven. At home, my siblings and I enacted the boarding school stories envying the lucky girls at Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I particularly longed to attend the fascinating Malory Towers to join the girls to make fun of the strict and inquisitive Nosey Parker, the second form mistress, and to play pranks on Mam’zelle Dupont, the gullible French teacher. We weren’t alone. Apparently Enid Blyton received scores of letters during her lifetime from wide- eyed girls asking if the schools were real and if they could enroll there.

I didn’t detect the inherent sexism and xenophobia in the books when I was reading them through the eyes of a child. But as an adult I can see where the criticism comes from. There’s no denying that there is a dismissive and derogatory attitude towards girls. Let’s take the example of The Famous Five series. George is a tomboy who not only wants to dress as a boy but think and act like one too. But the boys are condescending. In Five On A Hike Together”, Julian tells George : “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” The girls are the ones who wash and cook when they go on adventures. They are depicted as envying boys and as not being as good as them. Peter of The Secret Seven Series is bossy and domineering towards Janet, his brave and sensible sister. The stories abound in stereotypes. Gypsies are dirty creatures who steal and kidnap children. Foreigners are more likely to engage in criminal activities. The N word has also been used on occasion. Some of the stories featured golliwogs. In Here Comes Noddy Again, golliwogs attack Noddy in the woods and steal his car. A ‘golliwog ’had no pejorative connotation in the beginning and was just a nursery toy but over time it started representing negative racial stereotypes.

Is there a danger of children internalizing the messages they receive from the stories? How do you handle books that are anachronistically racist and sexist with your children? Do you think publishers should make changes in keeping with modern thoughts and sensibilities? In my opinion, if we re- examine every story through our politically correct lens, we wouldn’t be reading anything at all. We wouldn’t be reading other children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Tintin. We wouldn’t be reading Roald Dahl or Dr. Seuss. These stories were the product of their time and reflected the ideas and values of the society portrayed. Most children don’t pick up on the racism and misogyny but assuming they do, why change history? Let them know of the attitudes that existed at the time. I believe in reading the books without censorship as long as we have a conversation with our children about uncomfortable or offensive passages. Blyton herself stated she wasn’t interested in the views of any critic over the age of twelve. And as far as the outdated language is concerned, why should we assume that children will not understand or appreciate its charm? After all, we adults read Shakespeare.

Somehow Enid Blyton’s books haven’t been popular in the US even with past generations, let alone modern children. My children read a few of them and found them interesting but they were not captivated as I was. They couldn’t relate or retreat to her world with the same sense of excitement as I did. They prefer the fantasy world of Harry Potter. As for me, I’m grateful that I fell under the spell of this marvelous storyteller who turned me into a book addict. And golly gosh, I’m no more racist or sexist than I’m likely to dig into a pot of shrimp paste!