Friday, April 20, 2018

Castafiore: An appreciation

So, the other day I was in the grip of my periodic Bianca Castafiore appreciation, and when I asked on Twitter if anyone else on the planet felt the same way, well...

Yikes, you people. I am not alone. That makes me so happy.



The Adventures of Tintin is a wonderful series of Belgio-French graphic novels which I’ve written about elsewhere, probably most famous now for its film adaptation by Stephen Spielberg in 2010. I pretty much cut my teeth on Tintin (and Asterix), and as a kid, I loved the series’ sole recurring female character, Bianca Castafiore. As an adult, I still love her. If you only know her from the Spielberg film, you’re kind of missing out.

Bianca Castafiore...where to begin? Well, as an internationally-famous opera singer (whose only hit seems to be The Jewel Song from Faust), Castafiore first turns up in King Ottokar's Sceptre helping our hero, Tintin, by giving him a lift through some mildly fascistic army checkpoints in a small Eastern European country. As the series progresses, this flamboyant, larger-than-life middle-aged diva continues to recur, mostly as a running gag. Tintin’s sidekick, the crusty old Captain Haddock, can’t stand her; she makes the most of this by flirting outrageously with him while mispronouncing his name. In The Castafiore Emerald she takes a leading role, unveiling new shallows of ditzy self-absorption. No wonder some Tintin readers can't stand her.

I love her.


She's a beaky blonde with a Wagnerian bosom, but even at my youngest and princessyest I was mesmerised by Castafiore's fashion sense, her jewels, and her ability to get the upper hand in every situation, even her own trial by a kangaroo court in a totalitarian banana republic. (Solution: belt The Jewel Song until the court is cleared. Then hurl badly-cooked pasta at the jail warden on a daily basis). These days, I find her even better, if possible. This post is my long-deferred attempt to explain why.

If there was one phrase to describe Bianca Castafiore, it would be "subversively feminine." She breaks pretty much every rule. She's not particularly young, not particularly beautiful, not particularly clever, and (it must be admitted) not particularly angelic. Even as a child I could identify with that, and I identify with it a lot more these days. Yes, despite existing completely outside the usual mold for female supporting characters in boys' adventure stories, Castafiore is one hundred percent feminine awesome. Neither young nor beautiful? Fascist dictators still swam to her dressing-room with champagne after her performances to spill state secrets, and that's not counting the megalomaniacal tycoons and absent-minded professors she charms. Ditzy? Quite, but that would be to overlook her solid streak of old-fashioned cunning: even if you overlook the fact that she's a world-famous diva who makes millions in a job at which she's clearly excellent (if you like opera), you have to be impressed by how she uses her femininity as a weapon, including scolding wilting, abject men for cruelty to "a poor weak woman". And insensitive? As a bulldog, but watch carefully and you'll realise that nearly every time she shows up in person (her voice is ubiquitous), she winds up saving the day.



Vintage fiction has one way of seeing women, and contemporary fiction has another. In vintage fiction, women are often helpless, sweet, young, and pretty. Castafiore shattered that by being middle-aged, rich, and cunning. In contemporary fiction, women are more often tough, hard-bitten feminist role models, and Castafiore doesn't find much purchase here either: she's a ditz, she's a flirt, and she's a fashionista.

This isn't to say that there aren't some tremendously feminine characters in contemporary storytelling, or that vintage fiction couldn't give us strong female characters. But Castafiore is everything a woman isn't supposed to be, whether you look to the 2010s or the 1950s. And she gets away with it, because deep down inside, although she maybe isn't the kind of woman we hope to be, she's the kind of woman we suspect we really are.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I once started reading The Thin Man, years ago, before getting distracted and leaving it aside. The film, of course, is a favourite, a perfect blend of film noir with domestic comedy in which the dark, sour tone of the storyworld is kept at bay with the crackling, affectionate snarkery between its two main characters.

Unfortunately, the book is nowhere near as cozy.

I knew to expect this from having read Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, which devotes a chapter to Hammett's long-term mistress, Lillian Hellman. Intellectuals is by way of being a hall of infamy, and neither Hellman nor Hammett come off very well in it.
Hammett was a very serious case of alcoholism. The success [The Maltese Falcon] enjoyed was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him; it brought him money and credit and meant he had little need to work. He was not a natural writer and seems to have found the creative act extraordinarily daunting. He did, after many efforts, finish The Thin Man (1934) which brought him even more money and fame, but after that he wrote nothing at all. He would hole up in a hotel with a crate of Johnnie Walker Red Label and drink himself into sickness. Alcohol brought about moral collapse in a man who seems to have had, at times, strong principles.
Johnson goes on to discuss Hammett's sporadic neglect of his estranged wife and children, who depended on him for support, his financial difficulties despite having made over two million dollars from his writing, his regular use of prostitutes, and the abuse and violence towards women ("Shortly after he met Hellman, he hit her on the jaw at a party and knocked her down"). Intellectuals is never a pleasant read, but its thesis is that knowing something of the seamy personal lives of influential people goes a long way to helping us interpret their works.

The Thin Man, which is dedicated to Lillian Hellman, is not a pleasant read either. Like the much better movie, it revolves around the efforts of Nick Charles, a retired private detective now enjoying a hard-drinking Christmas holiday in New York with Nora, his smart and wealthy young wife. As a private detective, Charles once handled a case for Clyde Wynant, the titular Thin Man, an eccentric and reclusive inventor. When Wynant disappears, his secretary is found murdered, and his daughter appeals to Nick for help in finding him. Who killed Julia Wolf? What secret is Wynant's ex-wife trying to hide? And will Nick ever succeed in convincing the entire population of New York that he's not working on the case?

The Thin Man is written as tersely as an Icelandic saga (which you'd better believe is jolly terse), but it focuses on dialogue rather than narrative. Something about this very understated, dialogue-heavy style makes it very difficult to recall much of the plot, which is complex. Then, the book is very dark. Despite being made before the Hays Code was introduced, the film brightens up the story considerably. For instance, in the film, young Dorothy Wynant wants to find her father because she's about to get married. In the book, she's depressed by her unbearable home life, thinks she might be going insane, has a destructive fling with a married man, and is looking for her father out of sheer desperation.

Another interesting, though subtle difference between book and film is the character of Nora herself. In the film, Nora is very much an equal partner to Nick in the investigation, and the whole secret of the film's charm is how the leads interact, their evident affection for each other masked by snark and slang. Some of their most memorable exchanges turn out to have been written for the film. Nora is much less important in the book, and though she's still a smart, attractive character, she seems less competent, and the relationship between her and Nick seems far less close-knit. The result is that in the film, while Nick and Nora were an island of boozy sanity in a dark world, in the book, they seem very much part of that same world. (In this, it reminded me of the difference between the film and book versions of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).

One character, however, is far more vivid in the book, and that's Wynant's ex-wife, Mimi Jorgensen. I hadn't realised until I read the book that Mimi is the traditional hard-boiled femme fatale for this particular story. She's by turns violent, seductive, and sweet, but she's never, ever, honest. There's a fascinating description of her:
"The chief thing," I advised them, "is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people - even women - get discouraged after you've caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you've got to be careful or you'll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you're tired of disbelieving her."
The "even women" crack may be somewhat revealing of how Hammett felt about women in general. Listen to this Paul Johnson quote:
It is a curious fact that the devastation caused by lies, particularly female lies, fascinated both Hellmann and Hammett; the lies of the woman are the threads which link together the brilliant complexities of The Maltese Falcon. When drunk, Hammett lied like any other alcoholic; when sober, he tended to be a stickler for exactitude, even if it was highly inconvenient. While he was around, he tended to exercise some restraint on Hellman's fantasies. She, by contrast, was both obsessed by lies and perpetrated them.
I note that this particular chapter of Intellectuals is titled "Lies, Damned Lies and Lillian Hellman" and chronicles many of them. It might be interesting to wonder if by dedicating The Thin Man to Hellman, Hammett was memorialising the way he felt about her by casting her as the smart love interest for its alcoholic ex-detective hero, or as the congenital liar whose obfuscations drive much of the plot, or both - or neither. But that's all speculation and only Hammett could tell us the truth of that.

I didn't particularly enjoy The Thin Man. It was too dialogue-heavy and complex, too dark and embittered, to make a pleasant read. And it was too insubstantial to make a challenging read. The movie is much more pleasant and a good deal wittier, but there's one thing I can definitely say for the novel: it makes a Gatsby-esque case for not romanticising the past. The movie is a charming fantasy, but the novel is probably a lot closer to the real thing, and it certainly does a better picture of showing you exactly what kind of person its author really was.

You can find The Thin Man on Amazon or the Book Depository.

The film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy is a lot of fun, and you should definitely watch it!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Wow, where to start. OK, how about this: sometimes you read a book, and it meets you exactly where you are. It enunciates everything you've been thinking about and expresses everything you've been feeling. Gaudy Night 2018 was that for me.

Gaudy Night 2008, however, was not. I'm not actually entirely sure it was in 2008 that I read this book first, but it can't have been any later. I didn't appreciate or sympathise with the book at all that first time, with the result that I spent a lot of time giving Dorothy Sayers the sidelong squint-eye. Well, better late than never, right?

This is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, but it focuses on, and tells the story from the perspective of, Harriet Vane, the woman Peter has (at this point in the novels' continuity) been pursuing stubbornly for five years. A successful mystery writer and sometime assistant to Peter in his investigations, Harriet is an alumnus of Shrewsbury, an Oxford women's college (fictional, of course). When someone starts sending threatening letters to the staff and students of Shrewsbury and vandalising the grounds, the professors worry that any scandal might injure Shrewsbury's reputation and women's education in general. So they ask former student Harriet to investigate.

With Peter on a Foreign Office mission to Europe, Harriet has only her own wits and resources to call on. As the situation in Shrewsbury threatens to become fatal, Harriet senses that the time has come to make a final decision regarding Peter Wimsey. But nagging questions persist. Should a professional woman take on personal responsibilities? Can the life of the heart coexist with the life of the intellect? Is vocation and calling more important than marriage and family? Will marriage to Peter destroy her as an individual, or can it truly be a union of equals?

A lot of this went over my head when I first read the book. In 2018, though, I'm reminded what a different person I am now. These days, I'm roughly the same age as Harriet Vane. Like Harriet, I'm somewhat of an intellectual. Like Harriet, I'm an author (though not as successful!). And like Harriet, I've come to realise that for a woman--and perhaps for everyone--being single means being single-minded in the pursuit of a calling. (Yes, this identification with Harriet is very new to me. She gave me the irrits as a teen).

The whole book is very tightly-knitted in terms of theme, and the theme has to do with women and calling. Gaudy Night is a book populated with professional women in a way that very few books are, especially those written in the 1930s. There's something, by the way, that feels fresh and faintly subversive (or perhaps I should say superversive) about how Sayers depicts these women. They may spend hours discussing philosophy and ethics, but are equally at home debating a dress or a hat.

But all of them are busy trying to find that elusive "work/life balance". Early in the book, Harriet meets an old fellow-student who has married a farmer and spends her life helping him farm.
What damned waste! was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better. The thing had its compensations, she supposed. She asked the question bluntly. 
Worth it? said Mrs Bendick. Oh yes, it was certainly worth it. The job was worth doing. One was serving the land. And that, she managed to convey, was a service harsh and austere indeed, but a finer thing than spinning words on paper. 
"I'm quite prepared to admit that," said Harriet. "A plough-share is a nobler object than a razor. But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn't it be better to be a barber, and a good barber--and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough? However grand the job may be, is it your job?"
In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers insists that women, as much as men, may have specific callings. I know why I might have found this hard to swallow as a teen. Genesis 2:18 describes the first woman as designed to be "a helper fit" or "suitable" or "meet" for the first man. From this, Christians have accurately deducted that wives are intended by God to assist their husbands in their callings. But in doing so, many have erroneously concluded that calling is not important for women as it is for men. A man may be called to anything, but a woman is only called to help whatever man is most important in her life at the moment. The result may be a refusal to treat women as individual members of the kingdom of God.

There are a couple of problems with this, and Sayers pinpoints them unerringly in this book.

First, and most powerfully, men can be wrong or even wicked. Ethics must always trump personal loyalty. One does not stand by one's man, right or wrong. A woman must have a strong sense of personal principle, which means that she cannot be defined by her relationships to other sinners.

Second, women are quite as capable as men of important cultural work, whether as intellectuals or as farmers or mechanics or as family women. As a Christian, Sayers would of course have been aware that the dominion/cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 was given to mankind as a whole, not specifically to men. Dominion work--the work of cultivating and tending the resources of the earth and its inhabitants--is something which each individual in the kingdom of God is called to. It's an ethical question as well as a practical one, and I think Sayers shows keen insight in linking professional integrity with basic ethics.

This dominion work, while it obviously includes family, is not limited to family. Indeed, the two may in certain cases come into conflict. Jesus specifically told us to be ready to give up family for his sake in Matthew 19:29. And if we have a robust view of individual calling in the kingdom of God, then we'll see that it has to extend to women as well as to men. Bojidar Marinov's comments on Proverbs 31 are excellent:
The woman described here has a purpose for her life, an individual purpose that is only hers and no one else’s. She is not described as a passive participant in a collective; not even her family is described as a collective where she participates in some collective actions. Under some well-meaning but misplaced views of the family and the relationships within the family, some modern commentators are trying to present her as acting under the constant direction and supervision of her husband, as his errand boy or servant. But the text describes an independently-minded, self-motivated woman on a mission, an individual, personal, actively and aggressively pursued mission within a covenantal framework, not just simple obedience to someone else’s commands.

From this perspective, Harriet's question becomes increasingly urgent: "However grand the job may be, is it your job?" Sayers isn't, of course, denigrating either marriage or Genesis 2:18, which is one of the truly refreshing things about this book. While Mrs Bendick is an example of a woman whose individuality has been "devoured" by her husband's calling, Harriet refers to her friend Phoebe's marriage as something else: a "collaboration". More examples abound. An overworked student, Miss Newland, is warned to get away from her work and find rest and companionship. A don, Miss de Vine, explains how she once broke her engagement after realising that she was more invested in her academic career than in her fiance. Another faculty member, Miss Hillyard, bitterly reproaches a married secretary for being unable to keep her mind on her job, and the secretary, Mrs Goodwin, ultimately agrees with her, giving up her job so that she can focus on the needs of her sickly young son. And obviously, this book is the book in which Harriet finally realises that she can find an equal match with Peter Wimsey--which becomes evident when despite his worry for her personal safety, he assists rather than hinders her investigations.

There's a very good reason why Harriet finally accepts Peter's proposal while they're walking home from a concert. They have been listening to counterpoint music, and Wimsey makes the metaphor explicit. Marriage should be counterpoint, not harmony. It should be two individuals with different, but complementary callings, who find that they are more productive together than they are apart. And if you can't find someone who you will be more productive with, then perhaps you're called to be alone. It isn't wrong to be someone's helper, but it is wrong to ignore questions of fitness and suitability.

Another of the refreshing things about Gaudy Night is the fact that Sayers steadfastly resists to limit this question, of intellect/principle/profession versus heart/loyalty/family, to women. In one of the most important scenes in the book, Harriet and Peter have a long conversation with the Shrewsbury College faculty about exactly these questions. Their discussion revolves around a hypothetical man. The fact is, men also have family responsibilities that may interfere with their callings. They may feel called to do something which doesn't provide enough income to feed a family or which interferes with private life in some other way. The question, then, is so much bigger than feminism. It's the question of calling versus relationship, work versus life.

Of course, the two shouldn't be disentangled and pitted against each other. The dominion mandate makes no wide difference between working the earth and populating the earth. Somehow, most of us are supposed to do both. Both work and relationships are to be ruled by ethics. But the dominion mandate was given in a perfect world, a world without death, a world of limitless time.

As I was thinking it over after staying up late to finish Gaudy Night, I couldn't help thinking of JRR Tolkien's wonderful, heartbreaking Leaf by Niggle, which attacks the very same questions, only without the question of gender, and with more attention to the question of time and mortality. The reason why the question of calling versus family has any urgency at all is because of death. We aren't just cursed with pain in labour (of both kinds)--we're cursed with a very limited time in which to get anything done. But that should also remind us of our hope. Ultimately, those who submit themselves to the grace and ethics of God know they can look forward to an eternity of uncursed work and uncursed relationships. We can't get it all done in this life. But we can try, and we can wait eagerly for the life to come.

Needless to say, I couldn't possibly recommend Gaudy Night enough. I'm afraid that this has been less a review of the novel itself than an extended discussion of the thoughts I had while reading it, but I hope that whether you're reading it for the first or the manyeth time, you'll be inspired to push this one to the top of your reading list.

You can find Gaudy Night on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dune by Frank Herbert

A few months ago I was meditating upon the fact that while many of my favourite novels are fantasy, most of my favourite films are science fiction, when I realised that part of the reason for this might be that I haven't actually read a lot of science fiction. 
So I decided that was 2018 would be The Year I Dug Into Sci-Fi. Or specifically, my favourite subgenre of science fiction: space opera. You know space opera, of course, from Star Wars - TV Tropes summarises it like this:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women. 
Historically, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations. Planetary Romance was more or less Heroic Fantasy In Space. [...] 
Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in a Cool Starship, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.
Space opera is often rather light on the science part of science fiction, though it doesn't have to be - John C Wright's Golden Age trilogy is a good bit harder than Star Wars. What space opera always should be, is awesome. Peirce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, especially the two later books, are another excellent example of the genre. I had loved these books, so I decided to hunt up a few more, and finally decided to read Frank Herbert's 1966 space opera/plantetary romance classic, Dune.

The deadly desert planet Arrakis is the galaxy's only source of melange, an addictive spice which grants the user undefined mental enhancement. When the Padishah Emperor grants the planet as a fief to Duke Leto Atriedes, however, it doesn't take the duke long to figure out that this is actually part of a complicated plot by the planet's previous lord, Baron Harkonnen, to destroy House Atreides once and for all. With the whole galaxy stacked against his family, young Paul Atreides realises that his only hope of survival lies in the desert, with the secretive, nomadic Fremen people...

I don't know why I left this book so long, although in hindsight reading it now was a good choice. The main star of Dune is not plot, characters, nor theme: it's the setting (or worldbuilding, as the term is in speculative fiction). Most of the book takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is almost a character in its own right, and Herbert constructs his fictional cultures from a fascinating web of elements taken from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Islamic and even Jewish culture, with just a pinch of ancient Rome for good measure. Obviously, all this means much more to me now, after three years researching the medieval history of the Near East. 

Additionally, this level of worldbuilding - the politics, the ecology, the backstory - is something that usually takes a good deal of exposition to bring readers up to date. And there is a lot of exposition in this book. One of the things that astonished me was how brilliantly Herbert handled it, using one simple trick: suspense. Early on in the story, we learn the baddies' plot in full. Meanwhile, the Atreides are going about their business with no cloud on the horizon, while the reader is on tenterhooks for the backstabbing to start. But perhaps the most stunning example of this technique comes in one chapter which is basically an extended lecture on ecology. Herbert takes something that would otherwise be rather dry and uninteresting, and he puts us on the edge of our seats for it. How? Well, the person giving the lecture is a hallucination, and the person listening to the lecture is lost in the desert, aware that he is lying directly on top of something that could blow up any minute. It wasn't just a dramatic moment within the story - it was a brilliant and even audacious move on the part of the author himself.

Another of the unique aspects of this book was its female characters, especially Paul's mother Jessica. As I was reading the book, I was thinking, "When was the last time I read a story about a boy and his mother having adventures?" And then, "When was the last time I read a story about a pregnant woman fighting a nomad chief and winning?" Lady Jessica was unusually prominent in this story, especially for a book published in 1966. Even for today, she was an awesome character - level-headed, practical, and three-dimensional. It wasn't just that she got to have adventures: it was that Herbert treated her with every bit as much respect and attention to detail as he treated his male characters. While CS Lewis's Orual from Till We Have Faces will probably always be my favourite example of men writing women well, Herbert's Lady Jessica was excellent too. 

It's surprising, then, to see how, well, badly the women in this story are treated. Both Jessica and another prominent female character are smart, competent women who remain the concubines of powerful men who decide not to marry them because it's possible that in the future, there may be an opportunity for a more advantageous political marriage. It made the book rather depressing to see these excellent female characters voluntarily accepting less than they deserved.

In fact, this whole book has something of a downer ending. It's not one of those series where the individual books work well as standalones; this is clearly just the first instalments of a much bigger story, which is by no means over yet. So the ending is not very conclusive to begin with. I think the depressing aspect of the book has more to do with its theme.


Paul Atreides, our protagonist, turns out to be the fulfillment of not one but two prophecies. The Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood with awesome Jedi powers (it didn't take long to figure out that Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune, which is so much fun) have been overseeing an extensive breeding program for centuries in order to produce the Kwisatz Haderach - a man with all the Bene Gesserit abilities, but without their blind spot. Meanwhile, the Fremen desert dwellers are waiting for the Lisan-al-Gaib who will transform their wild desert planet to a garden paradise. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Paul Atreides may be both. With advanced mental powers including the ability to see present, past, and future, Paul is the galaxy's smartest individual and well on the way to becoming the most powerful. 

But his messianic status is far from being a good thing. First, he can't change the future no matter what he tries to do. Despite every attempt, he still realises that in the future his followers will kill and destroy their way across the galaxy in his name. Second, despite the partial insight given by his powers, he still doesn't know everything and when he can't see what's about to happen, he's paralysed by the unaccustomed uncertainty. Third, he quickly discovers that being a messiah is murder on personal relationships and the people around him. As messiah, Paul has worshippers, but not friends. "Will I lose Gurney, too? Paul wondered. The way I lost Stilgar - losing a friend to gain a creature?" It's the same dilemma Jessica faces - she can use the Voice, a sort of Jedi mind trick, to force the people she loves to obey her - but then they will no longer be the people she loves and who love her. They will be her slaves. 

The theme of Dune therefore has to do with the dangers of deification. And while the message is presented in a pessimistic way, I think it's actually a very important one. Humans aren't God, and any assumption of divinity will only bring destruction. And here's where I could dig into theology and talk about how it makes all the difference to have God become man as opposed to man becoming God - but instead I'll just point you to RJ Rushdoony's excellent book The Foundations of Social Order.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a terrific science fiction adventure with much to think about, which takes a uniquely tragic look at the old "Chosen One" trope. Recommended for teens and up.

I haven't seen any film adaptations of Dune, but I'm pretty excited to hear that Denis Villeneuve is going to direct a movie shortly. Villeneuve has done some terrific work recently and if anyone can bring Arrakis to life, it's him.

Find Dune at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

In 2017, after having mostly avoided them all my life, I surprised myself by falling head-over-heels for Shakespeare's history plays. I made it through both the Major and the Minor Tetralogies last year, but didn't get around to reading the two 'standalones' - Henry VIII or King John - before the year's end.

And so I pick up again with Henry VIII, which seemed a logical place to start after having finished with Richard III last year. A rather impressionistic, telescoped version of the history, Henry VIII begins with Henry's nobles in the midst of a power struggle with Henry's Lord Chancellor and chief advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey neither has noble patrons, nor was born noble, nor has earned nobility through service to the crown: but (gasp!)
he gives us note
The force of his own merit makes his way.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Our Villain for Tonight, Cardinal Wolsey. Shakespeare (and possibly his co-writer John Fletcher) faced a rather nasty conundrum in this play, in which he attempts to tell the story of Henry VIII's divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn in the most diplomatic way possible, without throwing shade on either Anne (mother of the beloved Elizabeth I) or Katherine (herself a deeply beloved queen). His solution seems to have been that he was going to blame Wolsey for everything.

This is actually a fairly time-honoured tactic. The divine right of kings was a hangover from ancient paganism that had never been fully challenged by medieval Christendom, but the assumed primacy of the Church in all of life ensured that for most of the medieval period, the divine right wasn't exercised with full freedom. Not only did the Reformation shatter that assumption of the primacy of the Church, but it revived the divine right of kings doctrine in the attempt to do so. For many reformers, the primacy of the state was a major argument against the primacy of the Church and Henry VIII, a power-loving tyrant if ever there was one, was not slow to take advantage of this. In effect, he used the English Reformation as a way to neuter the church, which had once been a powerful counterbalance to the crown's power in England, and transform it into a mere arm of the state. In doing so, he ushered in an age of absolutism in England which would not end until 1688 and the (not-so, but we can discuss that another time) Glorious Revolution. Anyway, the point is that during this period, during which Shakespeare was writing, the divine right of kings meant that the king could do no wrong. The closest you could come to crying foul play was blaming the king's bad advisors - a nice legal fiction that tended to get various earls and dukes beheaded without ever actually touching the king.

Cardinal Wolsey, then, was the ideal scapegoat for the desperate playwright, and this play is an excellent example of how the divine right of kings worked in practice. In Richard II, Shakespeare had made some very subtle criticisms of the doctrine with the result of waking the Queen's ire - and that was a king from two hundred years previous, not the rather more recent Henry VIII, who would therefore have to be handled with kid gloves.

The Henry in this play, then, is exactly how his own propaganda depicted him - a rather jolly and heroic figure sincerely conscience-stricken by his marriage to his brother's widow (although Shakespeare can't resist having someone crack that it's not his conscience that bothers him - it's his desire for Anne). Meanwhile, Wolsey is the villain; right up to his fall from the king's grace, that is. I loved what happens next: Wolsey discovers humility. Shakespeare depicts him in a mildly Flannery O'Connor way as a man whose soul is finally saved by his own downfall, and his final scene is one of the most memorable and moving things in the play.

Another of the notable things in this play is the character of Katherine of Aragon herself. As mentioned above, during her lifetime she was intensely popular, and as far as I can tell she thoroughly deserved it. Whether sticking to her guns throughout her divorce, or rallying them very literally that one time when Henry was away and Scotland invaded and she rode north to oversee the defence - well, Protestant I may be, but I admire Katherine. I didn't expect Shakespeare to treat her as well as he does, however, given that her claim to be Henry's lawful wife threatened Elizabeth I's claim to the throne. But he does. Katherine of Aragon almost dominates this play, arguing her case with lines taken directly from the historical record. And it's awesome. Anne Bullen/Boleyn, by contrast, barely appears in the play, and her treatment is far more ambivalent: her biggest scene is one in which she claims to feel sorry for Katherine, while a shrewd old lady in waiting accuses her of shedding crocodile tears while waiting for her own chance to become queen. There's enough plausible deniability in the scene to prevent the playwrights getting in any trouble, but there's more than enough to make the audience nod knowingly.

The play drops any attempt at subtlety whatsoever in the final scene, which turns into a panegyric to the praise of the newborn Elizabeth I and closes on that happy note, before anyone can pop up to accuse Anne Boleyn of anything. Wikipedia tells me that there's been some historical debate over when Henry VIII was actually written, but my assumption on reading the play was that it dated after Elizabeth's death, owing to a few lines that refer to James I. Despite this, Henry VIII remains a testament to the utmost care renaissance authors had to use when writing about their kings.

This is not to look down my nose at the play. I do think that if Shakespeare had been in a position to take more risks, Henry VIII might have been more than what it is. This is not a Richard II or a Henry V (indeed maybe it says something that one of his greatest history plays, Richard III, deals with its title character as a usurper and criminal) and probably its greatest drawback is the somewhat fuzzy depiction of the central character. But Henry VIII is still Shakespeare, and as a result, it's still well worth reading and thinking about.

Find Henry VIII on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or as an audio recording on YouTube.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard (re-read)

When I first read this book ten years ago, I realised that it was utterly unique in my experience. There was classic literature that featured black protagonists - Othello, for instance. There was classic literature set in Africa - many of Haggard's other novels about stiff-upper-lipped European adventurers discovering lost civilisations ruled by white queens of Egyptian or Arabic stock who presided over the rites of long-lost deities. But this was the very first historical romance I'd ever read which was about a documented period of premodern African history and featured an all-black cast.

I loved this book because, as I mentioned in my previous review, it brought an often-neglected history and people into the limelight and made them swashbuckling barbarian royalty. It really did give African history that sense of colour, adventure, nobility, and romance which drew me to other historical periods and places. It wasn't a social-issues book or a slavery-history book or a white-people-save-the-day book. I'm not saying those stories are illegitimate somehow. I love Rider Haggard's other books. But those books can't avoid having a certain perspective and a certain focus which excludes other perspectives and foci. Nada the Lily had a different perspective, and a flavour all its own. I adored it, but I never found it again.

Until Marvel's first Black Panther trailer popped up and looked exactly like my best memories of Nada the Lily turned up to eleven in the modern day with superheroes. It was like a pure shot of adrenaline to the imagination, and I hadn't even realised this book had had such a profound impact on me. And so, I thought now might be a good moment to take a second look at this unique Rider Haggard novel...

Mopo is a chieftain's son and an apprentice medicine-man, but when he kills his jealous mentor in self defence he's forced to flee with his sister Baleka to the kraal of Chaka, the powerful young king of the Zulus who once swore friendship to Mopo - and vengeance on the rest of his tribe. Chaka cuts a bloody swath across southern Africa, building a mighty empire - but when Mopo and Baleka conspire to keep one of the king's sons alive, they lay the first foundations for Chaka's fall.

This book is quite the epic, starting in Mopo's youth and ending in his old age. And don't let the title fool you: Nada, the titular character, is barely in the thing and isn't remotely the most interesting person in it. This is even less a "kissing book" than The Princess Bride, and it's significantly gorier. Haggard starts the book out in the Preface by calling it "a wild tale of savage life", and indeed it's full of murder, mayhem, genocide, polygamy, infanticide, and the like. It's got magic, betrayal, ghost wolves, legendary weapons, intrigue, epic battles, and a star-crossed romance with just a whiff of incest. I mean...I haven't ever read George RR Martin's books and I don't intend to, but this book is pretty gaudy. Haggard absolutely runs with the "savage" theme, but it actually manages not to come across as self-righteous precisely because there are no significant white characters in this book. Instead, it's basically Conan the Barbarian with black people.

In addition, one of the things I found fascinating this time around was Haggard's portrait of Chaka, whom he depicts as a mad, evil, but generous and brilliant autocrat. I did a quick read of Chaka's Wikipedia page, which suggested that some of Chaka's crazy actions as mentioned in this book were actually historically founded: his mourning after his mother's death, including killing any couple who conceived a child in the year following the death, for instance. He was certainly a ruthless conqueror responsible for the deaths of millions. But in his fictional version of Chaka, Haggard somehow creates a compelling picture of an Ancient Roman or modernist dictator. A volatile cocktail of fear, manipulation, and propaganda, Haggard's Chaka makes you think of Stalin, Hitler, or Shakespeare's Richard III. I don't know whether reading this book after the twentieth century makes these parallels more obvious now than when the book was written, but what struck me about the "savagery" depicted in this novel was not how far we'd come, but how far we haven't. We've just had a century in which the heads of state of some of the most "civilised" nations on earth behaved just like "savages". Again, this book isn't conducive to feelings of self-righteousness.

Victorian Femininity and Race

Which is not to say that there isn't a problematic aspect to this book. There is. One of the things I remembered finding quite offensive about the book the first time I read it, was the treatment of the heroine. It wasn't just that there was a pivotal moment at which she became too stupid to live, although I realise now that the two things are related. But I really, really didn't care for the fact that Nada is said to be part white. To put it into perspective, Nada's whole shtick is that she's So Beautiful, It's a Curse. Her beauty is like magic and inevitably brings death, and all because of her unusually fair skin, straight hair, and so on. Even ten years ago, I didn't see why conforming to white Victorian ideals of beauty should make someone the reigning beauty of Zululand. To put it into perspective, would Victorian England have gone crazy for a young woman who conformed to Zulu ideals of beauty? Ha! 

So the implication is that African women are objectively less beautiful than Europeans. But reading the book this time, I thought it was actually worse. Nada is also depicted as conforming to European standards of modesty and is heavily implied to be more enlightened, gentle, and civilised largely as a result of her European ancestry. I do actually sympathise for Haggard labouring to make his heroine appropriate for conventional Victorian tastes. I get what he was doing there and as an author who's also laboured to make things appropriate for a specific audience, I don't want to condemn him so much as his culture. I also am all for standards of modesty and Christian ideals of mercy and gentleness. But these things aren't transmitted by blood, they're transmitted by the Word and the Spirit, regardless of blood.

Haggard's treatment of Nada also implies a double standard when it comes to white women versus black women, his heroine versus the other women in the book. One of the magical effects of Nada's beauty is that although she's often captured by various warring tribes, she's never mistreated by them. She's never forced into an unwanted marriage, and while the regular black women work hoeing fields, she's never asked to work. She's the closest thing in this book to a conventional white Victorian woman, and she's treated like one. But as ex-slave Sojourner Truth pointed out, this honour was not rendered to all women:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
I recently read a post from Jasmine Holmes on "Growing Up Black in the Purity Movement" which perfectly articulated the problem here: 
For me, dignity must be won, not only through my chastity but also in spite of the fact that I was black. ... Ironically, I’m starting to learn that the purity culture we had inherited was highly racialized. The seeds of the movement were fraught with social Darwinism masquerading as theology and assumed that sexual purity could best be exhibited by the “Anglo-Saxon race.” As it began during the Victorian era before sprouting up in my 21st-century evangelical teenhood, that shouldn’t come as a shock.
Now, the real irony in all this is that, as I pointed out in my first review, Nada is the least interesting character in the book. The other, less "white" women - Baleka, Unandi, even Zinita - are allowed to be savages and are therefore tough, hard-working, and cunning. Well, they also tend to be treacherous and murderous, which is a different sort of problem, but my point is that they are much more three-dimensional and interesting characters with far more agency in the plot and far more in common with real women.

In Summary

Re-reading Nada the Lily was fascinating. And while I've spent a lot of time discussing what I felt was wrong with the book - and I've always believed that bad storytelling and bad messages are irretrievably linked - I'm grateful for stories like this that help me understand lies that our culture has believed in the past (and how they continue to affect us today). 

This time around I felt the plot could have been tighter, but this is still a rollicking epic which whet my appetite for premodern African history. Some of the scenes in this book - Mopo and Baleka's footrace to Chaka's kraal at the beginning, or Umslopogaas and Galazi's last stand on Ghost Mountain - are unforgettably awesome. This book is that unique blend of history, fantasy, and adventure which Rider Haggard was so good at writing, and it continues to be one of my very favourites of his books.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon

From time to time, I review some non-fiction, usually history, on this blog. I wouldn't normally review something like this book on Vintage Novels, but I feel that I've made it necessary. Four years ago in this forum I gave a very positive review to John J Dwyer's book The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War. Over the last couple of years, however, I've been forced to re-evaluate a lot of what that book presented. Today I hope to set the record straight with a review of Joel McDurmon's new book The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. This review may not be an easy read, especially if (like me) you've espoused what we might call the John J Dwyer side of the story, or if (unlike me) you've had a front-row seat to American racial tensions. So I want to start by asking the reader to read this review, and interact in the comment section, with as much graciousness as you can muster.

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America describes itself as an ethical/judicial history of slavery in the US. That is, its primary focus is on the civil laws and church teachings as regards slavery (and, related, race) from the early 1600s up to the US Civil War and into the twentieth century. It's also, I should add, written from a conservative, Christian perspective.

The Book

Part 1 of the book focuses on how civil governments promoted, regulated, and institutionalised slavery throughout US history. There is a great amount of legal and statistical detail here: for example, that for a time it was illegal to free a slave unless the former master deported the slave from the colony at his own expense. Or that in some areas slaves made up as much as 90% of the population, and that in the 1700s trade with the Caribbean slave economies supplied a boggling two-thirds of New England’s wealth.

Then, in Part 2, McDurmon retraces his footsteps to look at what the church, through denominational assemblies and prominent churchmen, was saying about issues of slavery and race throughout the same time period. For a committed, conservative Christian, this may actually be the most horrifying part of the book, as it shows - again, through the very words of demominational documents and influential clergymen - how persistently the church either excused slavery, or in many cases actively promoted it, often arguing from natural law premises to do so. And, at best, even where they did condemn it, how often they excused themselves from taking action: "As men and Christian Ministers, we are bound to seek not the freedom but the salvation of our race." Of course there were voices crying in the wilderness, but the majority of the church seems to have turned a stubbornly deaf ear.

The History

I want to make a quick note about something that McDurmon is not saying in this book. He is not picking sides when it comes to North versus South. He is every bit as hard on the North as he is on the South, and he's careful to note that a lot of abolitionist activity in the North was actually motivated by the same racism that motivated Southern slavery.

That said, he does directly engage a lot of the arguments that have been used in the past to excuse the actions of the Confederacy. For instance, many would argue that while there were cruel slaveowners, there were also kind slaveowners whose slaves were not treated too badly. McDurmon provides convincing evidence that this was not the case: if anything, slaves complained that their more devout and "Christian" owners were harder taskmasters than the dissolute ones. Another common argument is that slavery was due to disappear from the South altogether within a few decades, without the need of a war. Even before the war, prominent Southerners promised that slavery wouldn't last. However, the very same men at other times argued that slavery was the foundation of the Southern social order, and that abolishing it would also destroy the South. Southerners also envisioned expanding US slave territory not just into the western frontier but also into the Caribbean, to form a future "Golden Circle" of slave states. Given this vision of a glorious slave-backed future and much other historical evidence, McDurmon is also critical of the notion that the war was not fought primarily over slavery.

However, even if all these pro-Confederacy arguments could be proved to stand up to McDurmon's criticism, reading this book confronted me with a fact which I believe much pro-South material tends to gloss over, and that is that any system which permits evil men to commit outrageous injustice with impunity is abusive by definition. The legal structure itself was horribly oppressive even for the best-possibly-treated slaves: they couldn't learn to read, their movements and gatherings were severely regulated and restricted, their marriages and filial ties could be broken at any moment for the benefit of the domestic slave trade. In addition, you also have the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human souls suffered under this system for two hundred years, hopelessly, in most cases with no hope that they or their children would ever escape. And then on top of that, you have the racism.

Australia isn't completely devoid of racism, but racial tensions here are nothing compared to the US, and after reading this book I think I understand why. With the rise of American slavery in the 1600s, the medieval caste system was fading away following the downfall of its intellectual foundations in the Reformation, and slavery needed a new justification. McDurmon's book shows how racism became a new tool to justify slavery. He traces the development of racism through laws intended to drive social wedges between poor whites and black slaves, because the southern aristocracy feared what might happen if the two classes joined in revolt. Later, racism also became institutionalised in the church as well: theologians like Thornwell and Dabney argued from natural-law grounds that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and that without the benevolent institution of slavery to curb their impulses they would run amok. In other words, slavery was such a huge part of American culture for such a long time that the justifications underpinning it became deeply, deeply ingrained into the minds of everyone in it.

This is why, although slavery itself was abolished after the war, quasi-slavery arrangements as well as a vast and entrenched attitude of racism persisted well into the twentieth-century and have yet to be completely eradicated in the twenty-first.

The How and Why

As previously mentioned, Joel McDurmon has written this book from a conservative, Christian point of view. The stirring Epilogue is an exhortation based on the parable of the Good Samaritan (which is explicitly about racial reconciliation), in which he gives a practical outline for healing these old wounds through personal and private service, giving, and fellowship.

As I was reading The Problem of Slavery in Christian America earlier last month, I had a friend ask if I thought this book was really necessary given how much has already happened to redress the evils of slavery and racism. Do we really need this book? Naturally, as an Australian, I'm not completely qualified to answer this question. But here's what I think.

The US has always prided itself on being a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all comers, the place where you could go from being born in a log cabin to dying in the White House. That is the American dream. But for the majority of its history - let's say from 1660 to 1960 (still within living memory), or three hundred years - that dream was only for white people. For a huge number of black people, the US was "the land of the not-free and the home of the slave." For black slaves and far too many of their descendants, it was a dystopia where they were exploited, segregated, and silenced. While some things have improved, I'm willing to bet that a huge number of black people have never had a conservative, Christian person look them in the eye and say, "What happened was indefensible, and it grieves me that it was done to your people." But even just knowing the history documented so painstakingly in this book will, I believe, open the way to greater empathy and understanding.

And that's why I think this book is important: because I honestly believe that reading it, and taking it seriously, will lead to greater love, service, and fellowship. This is not an attempt to stir up strife, it's an attempt to lance and clean a festering wound. I hope this book travels far and causes great reconciliation.

I'd warmly encourage you to buy The Problem of Slavery in Christian America at Amazon.

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