(Fra Angelico, Noli me tangere, 1442, fresco on the wall of the Convent of San Marco, Florence; from here)
(Fra Angelico, Noli me tangere, 1442, fresco on the wall of the Convent of San Marco, Florence; from here)
In Turnhout, a large Belgian town near where I live, if you walk a little way from the busy marketplace you will find a gate, and through that gate a green edged with cobbled streets, a church and pretty little old houses with painted shutters. It is a begijnhof, a feature of many Belgian towns (begijnhof in Flanders or béguinage in French-speaking Wallonia). One of the earliest is that of Mechelen, founded in 1207. Until recently, they were the homes of semi-monastic communities of women called begijnen or beguines.
(The begijnhof in Turnhout; photograph from here)
Begijnen (begijn in the singular) were usually unmarried women or widows who gathered together to devote themselves to prayer and pious works, such as helping the poor. They underwent a novitiate with their Grand Mistress but, unlike nuns, they took no vows, were able to keep their own property and could leave the community at any time. Those without private income supported themselves, perhaps through teaching. Some had servants; all had their own homes. Some communities restricted the social status of their members, allowing in only wealthy ladies or those in humble circumstances, but the largest begijnhoven admitted women from any social order. The movement spread through northern Europe, but started and was strongest in the Low Countries; it survived accusations of heresy, suppression and the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation. You can read more about it on Wikipedia here.
On this day last year, the last begijn, Marcella Pattyn, died, and with her ended a religious tradition which stretched back more than eight centuries. The begijnhof offered women a life of purpose outside the family, a combination of socially useful activity and spiritual contemplation, in times when they had few options outside marriage. It is easy to romanticise the begijnhof – easy for me, anyway – as a less intense version of a convent, one which encouraged a sense of sisterhood and vocation but with a great degree of self-determination, and I wonder what it was really like. Improvements in the lot of women have made redundant many of the functions of the begijnhof, but there seems a spaciousness and beauty around such a life which I do not think have been replaced, at least not yet.
(Marcella Pattyn reading braille; from here)
Have you read about Shiny New Books yet? It's the new 'quarterly online magazine focusing exclusively on new and forthcoming publications that will help you decide what to read next and why', set up by four bloggers whom you might already know: Victoria, Harriet, Annabel and Simon. There are reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprints – although they're recommendations rather than reviews, which sets Shiny New Books slightly apart from most other book magazines. But that is not all! There are also competitions, and in the BookBuzz section you'll find interviews with and posts by authors about their latest books and the writing processes behind them. In this issue there are interviews with Helen Oyeyemi, Jill Dawson and Sebastian Barry, to name just three, an article on translating Tove Jansson's biography and the editors of Slightly Foxed talking about what goes on behind the scenes of that lovely magazine.
Are you still here? Do go and check it out – it looks great! But I would say that, wouldn't I, because I have contributed a review. It's of Nanni Balestrini's novel Tristano and here's a snippet:
To give the reader the greatest creative freedom, Balestrini denies us a continuous narrative. The text circles round certain images, scenes and phrases, whirls away from them, rejoins them later. Some sentences connect to make a snippet of story, others are fragments isolated from each other. There’s a mixture of dialogue, domestic detail, scientific or technical information. Journeys which are usually interrupted, books which are endlessly being unpacked. Balestrini has also eliminated all punctuation bar full stops, apostrophes and hyphens, so that the reader decides on the emphasis, the tone of a sentence. The characters and place names are all indicated by the letter C. This sometimes leads to ambiguity: who crossed the room? who just spoke? The lines between the characters thus can become blurred. The narrative voice flickers between first, second and third person, perhaps to show characters, author and reader as complicit in creating the story and part of that story, as inseparable from each other.
If that hasn't put you off, you are a real die-hard and you can read the rest of the review here and find the publishers, Verso, here. I have to say, it's a novel that makes you work very hard to read it and writing about it was difficult too, but I thought it totally worth the effort. The book, I mean; I do seem to have wittered on rather in the review.
(Meredith Frampton, Winifred Radford, 1921, oil on canvas; National Portrait Gallery)
I was looking for some portraits to use in one of my English classes, and came across this one in the National Portrait Gallery. And I like it very much, so I thought I would share it with you. It seems that Winifred Radford (1901–93) was a very well-known singer before the Second World War and sang at the first ever Glyndbourne Festival. Subsequently, she became a specialist in French mélodie, performing the British premieres of some of Poulenc’s songs. She also taught singing at the Guildhall for sixteen years. You can read more about her life in this obituary from the Independent.
The artist Meredith Frampton (1894–1984) was the son of a sculptor. (And Radford was the daughter of a singer, Robert Radford.) He was a realist painter, who numbered George VI among his subjects. Apparently his reputation was resuscitated by a retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery in 1982, but I don’t think that he any more than Radford is well known to most people now.
The picture was commissioned by Radford’s husband, Captain Douglas Illingworth, who was a friend of Frampton’s. Apparently he was very supportive of Radford’s career, but died in 1949. Here is a photograph of Illingworth and Radford on their wedding day in 1920, also from the National Portrait Gallery:
The portrait of Radford was painted after about a year of marriage and you can see that she still looks very young, girlish and fragile. The bird in the cage is an obvious and sad metaphor since the door appears to be closed, and the landscape behind her, a lake and mountains, is bleak and emphasises her delicateness. But Radford doesn’t look sad at all: to me she seems resolute and with a certain clarity about her. It’s a portrait which strikes me as full of hope.
And here is a final picture of Winifred Radford, a photograph from 1982 by Brian Harris for The Times, now held by the NPG. You can see her in the foreground, with her portrait in the background, and leaning on his cane is Meredith Frampton. They are at the retrospective at the Tate Gallery. It’s a nice circle.
I have just been reading Frances Crook’s article on the British Government’s new plan to restrict prisoners’ access to books and I am deeply shocked and horrified.
No I’m not, I’m absolutely, steamingly, hoppingly furious.
I’m equally disgusted to discover that children are no longer allowed to send Christmas presents to parents in gaol. That is just jaw-droppingly inhumane. Here is an article about it in the Guardian – and here is Chris Grayling’s (feeble) response. Is Chris Grayling highly educated and in fact himself an author? Why yes he is. You might think he would understand the value of reading. Perhaps he does.
I read a lot (!!!) and I believe in the importance of reading, to inform, to stimulate, to challenge and to give pleasure. Shouldn’t prisoners be encouraged to read as much as possible, in order to deepen their understanding of other people, to acquire new skills and learning? I mean how are these things inimical to rehabilitation, which is surely a fundamental aim of prison? Aren’t many prisoners in gaol due to a failure in education or empathy in the first place?
If you too are outraged by this, there is a petition you can sign here. It doesn’t matter whether or not you live in Britain.
(This photograph was doing the rounds on Twitter with the caption ‘Nick Clegg and Chris Grayling prevent prisoners from getting to the books’ but I can’t find that original; this is from the London Evening Post)
(Woman not reading but doing something else instead: unknown artist, ‘Autoportrait sur bois’, from Giovanni Boccaccio, Le livre de femmes nobles et renomees (anonymous French translation of De claris mulieribus), France c. 1440; British Library, found here)
I first saw this game played by Tom at Wuthering Expectations. He wrote a list of ten authors whose work he had not yet read, but felt he should have done. He supplemented this with a list of authors he had read instead. It’s fascinating to read, but I have decided to play the Jam and Idleness variation, as has Desperate Reader, and modify it to authors I have not read but whose work I already own. This is because there are so many authors I haven’t read but ‘ought’ to have done that I can’t decide on just ten, or twenty, or more... Also there is no one book or author I read in place of the neglected authors. For me, every time I don’t read Nightwood I’m reading something else instead, whether I actually think of Nightwood or whether, ahem, I forget that it exists for years at a time.
A further caveat: were this books I have not read, it would be rather more embarrassing, but while I confess I haven’t yet read Ulysses I have read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and some short stories. Perhaps Joyce should be on this list in spirit, but the rules bar him. Ha ha. The same is also true for most poets; that includes you, Dryden.
Oh, and this list could have been much longer!
1. John Aubrey
Not having read Brief Lives yet doesn’t, I admit, give me sleepless nights. However, it’s been hanging around for a long time and I suppose that my idea of myself is of a person who has read John Aubrey, otherwise I’d have given the book away by now. (And perhaps it’s standing in for Pepys, whom I have read, but rather patchily, and I do keep meaning to remedy that, although I have no idea where the hell my copies of the diaries are.)
This is a particular embarrassment since I bought Nightwood when I was writing a dissertation on Virginia Woolf in 1993, and in fact I have picked it up a couple of times over the years and read the first few pages. Yet I still want to and mean to read it. Time to revive my flagging Modernist reading challenge, perhaps?
3. Miguel de Cervantes
How long has Exemplary Stories sat on the shelf? Who knows? Not me.
4. Francesco Colonna
Colonna isn’t terribly well known – nor even certain to be the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is the book at which I’m now looking. I bought it after seeing an exhibition on Sienese art in the National Gallery, and I bought it with great enthusiasm partly because at that time I was planning on starting a PhD and this was background reading, well it wasn’t really but I wanted to read it anyway. It seems a great pity that that enthusiasm has never translated into sitting down and reading it. And it has pictures! So, despite its obscurity, no excuses.
5. William Golding
I have amassed a small collection of Golding’s work without ever once yielding to the temptation to read any of it. And yes, I am perhaps the only British person of my age who didn’t study Lord of the Flies at school. Although that is an exaggeration, the rest of Upper IVS didn’t study it either. We read Of Mice and Men instead, which gave me my deep and abiding hatred of Steinbeck.
6. George Mackay Brown
When I first moved to London in the middle 1990s and had a proper job in publishing which paid me a salary – and how I laughed for the first few days to think that someone was actually paying me money to do this stuff – and how quickly that laughter wore off – I went a bit mad regarding books. I had more money than I’d ever earned in my entire life, there was lots of space in my manky bedsit because I had left all my books at home with my parents and I was in a city full of bookshops. Whoopee! When George Mackay Brown died in 1996 I felt it was an appalling omission in my reading life that I’d never heard of him, so rushed out and bought a copy of Beside the Ocean of Time. It was only when I was looking for Authors I Have Not Read that I rediscovered it. Sorry, George.
7. Robert Musil
Another great embarrassment: the work of Musil’s I own isn’t even the honking great Man Without Qualities cycle whose sheer size might be understandably offputting, but a slender volume of his short stories: Tonka and Other Stories. I bought this from the wonderful Oxfam bookshop in Canterbury. If you’re ever within 20,000 miles of Kent, go to this shop, you will not regret it.
I bought Bruges-la-Morte (in translation!) when I knew I was moving to Belgium. Did I hope it would reveal some of the Flemish national character to me?
9. Jose Saramago
A dear friend gave me A Year in the Life of Ricardo Reis two years ago after I expressed an interest in Saramago. Yes, I am blushing.
10. Bruno Schulz
Technically, Bruno Schulz shouldn’t be on here since I have read the first few stories in The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories. But I didn’t finish the book, I forget why, and I feel very bad about him. Having seen the Théâtre de Complicité’s wonderful production of it in the 1990s, I feel even worse. Momentarily, anyway.
What is the point of this list? It made me spend some time with my books and really, need one justify that? It’s also a good way to remember what I have, because I don’t keep my unread books apart in a TBR pile. I know. But that TBR pile would be so big I would just cry every time I saw it, and reading shouldn’t involve weeping, should it? Well, unless it’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Until very recently, I used to buy books which looked interesting and trust to the future to bring the moment to read them. It’s a policy which isn’t terribly efficient and leads to forgetting of what has and has not been read and wailing from K about messy heaps of books everywhere, but I like it. Perhaps I should look again at this list in a year’s time, and see who still qualifies to be on it... Or I could just turn all my unread books into artworks, like Mike Stilkey.
Which authors haven’t you read (yet)?
(Another woman not reading: unknown artist, ‘Artiste préparant une fresque’, from Giovanni Boccaccio, Le livre de femmes nobles et renomees (anonymous French translation of De claris mulieribus), France c. 1440; British Library, found here; I have just included these pictures of mediaevel woman artists because I like them. Photographs of Djuna Barnes, 1905, from here and Georges Rodenbach, 1898, from here)
(Illustration by Walter Crane from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane. London: Macmillan & Co., 1882; from here)
This is another of the better-known of the Grimms’ tales, and I do remember it quite well from my childhood. You can read it here, although it refers coyly to the fisherfolk’s home as a ‘filthy shack’ whereas Joyce Crick in the Oxford University Press edition translates it more robustly as a ‘piss-pot’. Mmm. No wonder the fisherman’s wife is a pushy opportunist. Who wouldn’t want to escape that?
In her endnotes Crick explains that a painter, Philipp Otto Runge, was the Grimms’ source for this story. His first version was in Pomeranian dialect but this was later replaced by another he had written in Hamburg dialect. He didn’t invent the story, there were quite a few variants in circulation including at least one in which it was the fisherman who was the demanding character rather than his wife. So it’s an interesting hybrid even before the Grimms receive it, a story which has been deliberately shaped by an educated man to retain the flavour of the ‘volk’ and its oral nature, even as it’s been changed into a written piece of literature for the more educated members of society.
(Luise Neupert, silhouette illustration in Märchenhafte Papierschnitte, Kassel : Brüder Grimm-Gesellschaft, 2002; found here)
This version is pleasing, despite the misogyny lurking behind the characterisation of the wife, because it is funny and elegant. The increasingly outrageous and improbable demands of the wife – to be king! emperor! pope! God! – are reflected by the state of the sea, which grows murkier, stormier, each time the fisherman returns with a fresh request. The obvious moral of the story is to beware of over-reaching, of being too greedy and discontented. Discontent feeds upon itself; the wife becomes more and more frenzied in her demands until at the end, when she’s declaring she wants to become God, she completely loses self-control:
Then she flew into a rage; her hair flew wildly round her head, she tore her stays and gave him a kick with her foot and screamed: ‘I won’t stand it and I won’t stand it any longer! Will you be off!’
But I think that responsibility for this lies with the fisherman as well as his wife. In the Grimms’ telling, it is clear that unlike his wife he has a moral sense and he understands that acceding to her demands is wrong. However, he is too weak to seriously oppose her and obeys her against his better judgement. Thus she grows into a monster. Did this have extra resonance when the Grimms were first assembling their collection, in a German kingdom occupied by the French under the emperor Napoleon? Certainly it lends itself to political interpretation: Crick writes that a version was printed in 1814 which turned it into an allegory of the fall of Napoleon.
An amusing element of this story is that the characters seem conscious that they are in a fairy tale. The fisherman’s response to the flounder is exactly the response one would expect of a reader of fairy tales:
Then the flounder spoke to him. ‘Listen to me, fisherman. Spare my life, I beg you. I’m not a real flounder. I am a prince under a spell. What good will it do you if you kill me? You wouldn’t enjoy eating me. Put me back in the water and let me go.’ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘you don’t need to make such a fuss about it. I’d have let a talking flounder go anyway.’
And his wife knows the rules that we readers know: you help a magical character, you are rewarded:
‘Didn’t you make a wish for anything?’ said his wife. […] ‘Go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a little cottage. He’ll do that for sure. […] For heaven’s sake, […] you did catch him after all, and you did let him go. He’s sure to do it. Go down right now.’
Perhaps this shared consciousness of being characters in a story brings them a little closer to us, who are on the outside looking in.
And what about the enchanted flounder? We never know his story. I hope he either enjoys being a fish, or is freed from the spell…
(Illustration by Kay Nielsen in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; found here)
(Image used on the current Penguin Classics edition of The Romance of Tristan; found here)
In the introduction to his translation of Béroul’s Romance of Tristan, Alan S. Fedrick warns us:
[…]Beroul’s poem contains much that will startle and baffle a present-day reader who judges it by the modern aesthetic criteria of fictional narratives. There is no doubt that Beroul’s poem is sadly defective by modern standards; for it is far from easy to imagine that a piece of narrative fiction can exist as a serious work of art while dispensing with elements as fundamental as a coherent plot, an ordered flow of events with a clearly discernible causal nexus, and convincing characterisation.
If that is a little offputting, postmodernism has interposed itself between the contemporary reader and Fedrick, whose words were published in 1970. I don’t think that we now apply those aesthetic criteria to all fiction, and in fact this passage seems more dated than Béroul’s poem, written down in c. 1170–90. It is true that the poem is studded with contradictions – for instance, several enemies are killed off more than once, gleefully – so that it can occasionally feel as if you’re reading several palimpsests laid one over the other rather than a single poem. These may be accounted for by the oral origins of the poem, the inattention of the scribe who copied it down into the only surviving manuscript of it or its author being not one but at least two poets; they may also be deliberate aesthetic choices. In any case, the poem is held together by its central concern, the love affair of Tristan and Yseut.
‘Sir, I love Yseut so much. Because of her I cannot sleep nor even doze. My decision is soon taken: I would rather be a beggar with her and live on herbs and acorns than possess the kingdom of the rich King Otran. I beg you not to ask me to leave her, for I cannot do so.’
Still, while this version of Tristan and Yseut may be the earliest written one still in existence, any reader expecting a wonderful romance of noble, star-crossed lovers will be surprised. The narrator of the poem is cheerily partisan, vituperating the lovers’ enemies (‘Whoever would think of such a low trick?’; ‘May God curse them!’) and exclaiming excitedly at moments of high tension (‘God, what folly! He was too rash’). What is odd is that Tristan and Yseut do not seem to justify such support. They suffer no qualms of conscience over their illicit relationship and deceive with both outright lies and, more usually, with ambiguous oaths. Tristan, who even before meeting Yseut has amassed a lot of experience in disguise and deception, repeatedly avows that he will prove his innocence in trial by combat, well aware that he is such a great warrior that nobody will dare challenge him. This is not the spirit of trial by combat, during which God is supposed to support the virtuous, not the strong. Tristan’s reasoning seems to be he is strong so therefore must be virtuous and supported by God, and he’s certainly right that nobody will risk fighting him. He is really little more than a bully, and not averse to murdering unarmed opponents either. And Yseut? Having persuaded her maid, Brangain, to take her place on her wedding night, Yseut tries to have Brangain murdered to safeguard her secret. She also swears on the holiest relics in Cornwall that ‘no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark’. The leper is Tristan in disguise, so while Yseut’s vow has one meaning for us, the readers, it intentionally deceives the other characters. In fact, there is no moral heart to the story: the only religious character, Friar Ogrin, advises the lovers to lie to the king in order to be pardoned. King Mark himself is not at all sympathetic, quick to violence and easily persuaded by whichever of his barons has his ear at any one moment. We may not be able to approve of Tristan and Yseut’s behaviour, but we can’t feel in the least sorry for the cuckolded husband. Powerful as Mark is, especially compared to a foreign knight and a woman, he is easily outwitted by their resourcefulness and courage.
(Illustration used for the cover of Joseph Bédier, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, translated by Hilaire Belloc and completed by Paul Rosenfeld, New York: Random House; found here)
So what is going on here? Well, it seems to me that Béroul has chosen this legend, which would already have been in circulation orally for many years, to undermine mediaeval ideas about courtly love. Although their love for each other is strong and they willingly suffer for one another, and although their ingenuity is admirable, Tristan and Yseut are portrayed by Béroul as selfish and deceitful adulterers. They play with words and distort the truth (even in the quote above, in which Tristan claims he cannot sleep for love of Yseut, he is fibbing for effect). Courtly love is, like the lovers’ language, just a disguise for a rather less glamorous truth, a pretty dress to cover selfishness. Is Béroul also criticising an equivocal Church and a violent feudal society? That I don’t feel qualified to answer. However, I do urge you to settle down with this ambiguous, lively and often funny little book one evening and draw your own conclusions.
Yes, it’s true, Helen has been slack about posting here this week. She’s been making us, for instance, for her daughter’s birthday present. It’s lucky that four-year-olds are so easily pleased (we are carefully posed so you see us in our best light). We’re Rapunzel and the Three Bears (according to the recipient). (How would that story work, I wonder?)
Helen’s also been making us. We’d like to be able to tell you that we were made with love, but there was a lot of cussing involved, especially over the making of Pink Fairy’s wings. We’re all based on or inspired by Margaret Bloom’s book Making Peg Dolls.
Now we’re all having a party in the Three Bears’ cave (this was made by Helen’s aunt, who is very clever and creative). We’ve got gin out the back. We can’t pass on any bookish news, but we thought we might tell you the story of the rat, or Rat Saga, as it became. This occurred on Wednesday. Don’t worry if you are sensitive! We can assure you that it’s a story with a happy ending for all concerned! See – we are all smiling!
During the night Helen was awoken by the thunder of tiny cat paws and a loud squeak. She realised immediately what had happened. That thug Puss had caught a rat and brought it indoors to scoff in the bathroom, only to discover that the rat was not dead; and the rat had made a break for freedom into the sitting-room with Mister Puss in hot pursuit. Not fancying rat guts all over her manky but still serviceable rug, Helen got out of bed to investigate. Before she could conduct a proper search, her daughter had bounced out of bed to find out what was going on. Preferring her child not to witness blood and violence just before she went back to sleep, Helen stopped, put her back to bed and returned to bed herself. She couldn’t hear any munching sounds so hoped for the best. A few hours later there was a big scuffle and a lot of squeaking. She got out of bed again, closed her daughter’s bedroom door and switched on the light.
Beside the sofa sat Mister Puss looking unusually angelic. No sign of a rat, so Helen guessed it was hiding beneath the sofa. Her sympathies at this point were with the rat. In any case the siege of the sofa could conceivably continue indefinitely and she didn’t think it practical or desirable to conduct daily life with a rat in her sofa. So she picked up Mister Puss and shut him into the kitchen, deaf to his cries of rage. Then she opened the front door a bit, as it’s handily next to the sofa, hoped the rat was as clever as rats are reputed to be and returned to bed. At six she rose to discover she’d forgotten to raise the door shutter. As she started winding it up, she saw the rat stroll past her and creep back under the sofa. She poked about under the sofa with an umbrella until she felt quite confident the rat had got the general idea and left. A little later she let the furious and swearing Mister Puss back into the sitting room. He went to the sofa but displayed no interest in it thereafter, so Helen decided that the job was done and the rat was gone.
But was it? [ominous music]
That evening, Helen was out teaching and her partner K and Mister Puss were ensconced on the sofa by the fire, watching the television. At one point K casually looked down and there, on the floor beside him, sat the rat, also watching the television. K moved and the rat retreated under the sofa. So K heaved the sofa over onto its side, and there was the rat and there also was a heap of cat food. At some point the rat had crossed the sitting-room, entered the kitchen and helped himself to the contents of Mister Puss’s dish – and unless rats carry lots of food in their cheeks like hamsters, he must have done this several times. Without anybody noticing.
The exposed rat didn’t seem terribly frightened and sauntered under a nearby table. K called to Mister Puss, who ignored him. He picked up Mister Puss and placed him in front of the rat. Mister Puss examined his toenails, looked at the ceiling, spotted something interesting on the other side of the room... K fetched him again but again Mister Puss immediately walked off. The rat was impassive. So K put on a pair of thick leather gardening gloves, picked up the rat and carried him outside. The rat was very cross about this and bit the gloves a lot and shrieked. K shoved him out into the garden and closed the door. He removed his gloves, set the sofa back on its feet and settled himself down to watch the television again. Then he heard a scritch, scritch, inside the sofa... He upended it again and there, peeping out of the hole in the bottom of it (it’s a second-hand sofa and a bit battered) was Mister Puss, who had crept in there to play and now didn’t want to come out again.
The end. Pass the gin!
What do you think of when you think of fairies? A dead ancestor? A household help? Something tiny in a sparkly pink skirt? Fairies have been all of these, and in this fascinating book Diane Purkiss traces their biography in British culture from their origins as child-eating demons right down to Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies and little girls’ fancy dresses.
‘Human nature’, writes Purkiss:
seems to abhor a blank space on a map. Where there are no human habitations, no towns, where villages dwindle into farms and farms into woods, mapping stops. Then the imagination rushes to fill the woods with something other than blank darkness: nymphs, satyrs, elves, gnomes, pixies, fairies.
But what exactly are fairies? To answer this, Purkiss advises us to look at what fairies do. Her conclusion is that:
A fairy is someone who appears at and governs one of the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death. She presides over the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another. […] She is a gatekeeper, and she guards the entrance to a new realm. Like all gatekeepers, she is Janus-faced, ambiguous: she has a lovely face, a face of promise, and a hideous face, a face of fear.
Broadly speaking, Purkiss’s thesis is that fairies are what we create to fill the dark places during times of transition, anxiety, uncertainty. They are identified with the Other: demons, ghosts, foreigners. And when people talk about fairies, it’s not necessarily because they believe in them but because they offer ways of speaking about the unspeakable.
The origins of fairies, Purkiss proposes, can be found in the ancient cultures of lands bordering the Mediterranean, to the nymphs, Lamiae and Gorgons of Greece, and even further back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian child-killing demons. These are the creatures of nightmare, the explanations for unnatural deaths. Many of them have died prematurely, or are infertile, and are compelled to visit their circumstances on others, slaying the young, sucking the life from babies even as they appear to suckle them. The fairies of mediaeval and early modern Europe continue to be associated with birth, sex and death, and prey on humans – handsome young men and babies especially. But they can offer occult knowledge or gold to those who dare to deal with them, and some fairies – hobs, brownies – will even clean your house if you leave out a dish of milk in payment. I’m still looking for those fairies.
Fairies provide ways of talking about and even justifying infanticide, incest, sexual deviance and sudden death. They also become associated with colonialism. Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream get the blame in Purkiss’s eyes for the beginnings of the tiny, ‘cute’ fairy, whose apogee is in the Victorian era. The threat of the fairy dwindles with its size: it becomes possessable rather than possessing, an object to be purchased, consumed. While the scary fairy is more or less squashed by the Enlightenment, the pretty little fairy scampers around the stage in tights and spangles, popping out of trap-doors and flying on wires as theatres embrace new technologies. No longer a seductive revenant dressed in black, the fairy becomes childlike and innocent and Purkiss shows it as contributing to changing ideas about childhood during the nineteenth century. Fairies are linked to nationalism and war at the beginning of the twentieth century and thereafter lose any remaining cultural resonance for the majority of the population. Now that our planet is mapped, Purkiss argues, ‘Aliens are our fairies’.
As you can guess from this very crude outline, this book covers an enormous amount of ground and Diane Purkiss has done an admirable job in creating a clear, coherent ‘biography’ from masses and masses of information including a couple of thousand years of literature, court records including Scottish witch trials, newspapers, folkloric research and philosophy. Because of fairies’ association with the Other, their history becomes a history of attitudes to difference and objects of fear. It is also fun because, while I wouldn’t and couldn’t pick a fight with Purkiss over her scholarship, she is unafraid to reveal her biases and thus invite discussion of her interpretations. And that is an attitude I like, although her wit is often barbed. Cruelly she mocks teeny tiny sparkly fairies, the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, middle-class mummies, Puck, the now-defunct chain of shops called ‘Past Times’, do-gooders, which is amusing if you’re not included in her scorn, perhaps less so if you are … And she doesn’t have much time for people who do actually believe in fairies. They might want to avoid reading this book.
My copy of Troublesome Things is second-hand. The book is still in print, but like its subject, since its beginnings it’s changed its name (a couple of times: At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs and Other Troublesome Things seems to be its US title and Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History is its current British title) and its appearance: the original cover illustration of a detail of Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Fella’s Master Stroke has been updated to something pink and Flowery Fairyish which I rather think Purkiss must loathe…
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