A Thousand Words Can Paint A(ny) Picture: Storytelling and Identity in Crimson Petal and the White

Found on Yahoo Images

Michael Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White has is a Neo-Victorian novel that largely follows the fall and rise and shift of Sugar, first introduced as a highly acclaimed prostitute who manages to secure a position as an in-home lover to William Rackham and eventual governess to his daughter Sophie. The narrator for this novel begins the directly addressing the reader, seducing them into the narrative, keeping reader’s attention from beginning to end (at least this reader’s attention). The narrator is never named in the novel, never characterized overtly from the characters we know in the story, but I found consistencies in the text that suggest our narrator could, in fact, be our principal character who intended to write a novel since before we met her.

The first affirmation of Sugar’s likely role as reflective narrator can be found in the first two lines of the text: Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them” (3). The narrator speaks directly to the reader here, a tactic that Sugar uses in the revenge novel she started writing before this text’s plot begins. She uses the second line word-for-word in a draft, as William reads from pages he found dropped by Sugar during her escape with Sophie (876). Sugar also uses the first line to warn William to watch his step as they walk streets she is familiar with but is aware he does not have that same relationship to (115). Though this line can be found throughout the text spoken by other characters, Sugar’s value of watchfulness is significant.

When Sugar first meets William, she quotes Shakespeare to demonstrate her unattachment to names: “What’s in a name, after all?” (110). Sugar also assures him later that his identity isn’t necessary to share either (129), recognizing the likely desire for anonymity to protect his image, something we later find to be of great importance to William Rackham, though he resolves to tell her regardless. Though the identity of the narrator is not the most essential piece of this text, the mystery reigns intriguing to the final page, where the narrator themself acknowledges in the final paragraph of the novel that they “don’t even know [our name],” when we have never acknowledged that we don’t know the name of the narrator either (895). The narrator doesn’t express a desire, necessarily, to know, but they do understand that distance. At least in part, the mystery seems to be a part of the allure

Sugar’s regard for discretion is carried throughout the text as a character who understands the precarity of her circumstances from the beginning of the novel to the end, though there are certainly moments where her careful attention was distracted in her attachment to William and eventual connection with Sophie Rackham. Even so, she successfully, at least from the end of the novel’s perspective, abducts Sophie and begins a journey away from prostitution and gives Sophie a chance to live away from the toxic environment of the Rackham house.

Though Sugar does recognize that her revenge novel would not come to fruition, she does not lose her connection to writing, confirmed when readers told that the verses she wrote for Sophie during their lessons “ignited in [Sugar] a candle-flame of hope that she may yet be a writer” (757). I think her freedom from her identity and her connection to Sophie, together, gave Sugar the freedom she needed to tell her story, to tell their story.

Freedom Rings: Bella’s Autonomy in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things 

Content warning: Mentions of suicide

In the satirical novel about a woman unsuspectingly brought back to life through a brain transplant—the brain of her unborn fetus—Alasdair Gray crafts a story that challenges notions of reality and fiction, freedom and forced dependence. Bella Baxter is the Frankenstein’s Monster of the piece, brought to (new) life by Godwin Baxter, her perceived “God” as she learns life at an accelerated pace, with the help of his guidance. Within this novel’s many layers, including a fictionalized Gray himself serving as “editor” of the work, one persistent theme will be considered in today’s post: autonomy.

Bella, originally Victoria Blessington in the central narrative, committed suicide. At the time, she was pregnant with her fetus at nine-months gestation. In considering the ultimate autonomy of taking one’s own life, Godwin Baxter’s revivification of Victoria’s body was a violation of that very autonomy. In another, potentially more controversial light, Victoria stripped the fetus of a chance to live, as the gestation period meant the fetus had a high likelihood of survival outside of the womb. In this way, Godwin Baxter objectionably provided an avenue of autonomy for that fetus*, its mind living inside its mother’s body. Without question, Bella Baxter’s life began as a moral clash.

When Bella meets McCandles, the narrator of the central story, “Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer,” she takes to him promptly. Upon his sudden proposal during their second meeting, Bella seemingly takes the offer as a given, saying neither yes or no but rather affirming their engagement later when talking to Godwin (52). Despite this engagement, however, Bella runs away with Duncan Wedderburn, chloroforming McCandles to prevent him from preventing her leave (65). Her interest in Duncan was ultimately sexual, and she denies his multiple proposals, as well as the proposals of Harry Aster, as she was to marry McCandles. She successfully rejects these men in their relentless attempts to marry her, and does so with confidence. She chooses to work as a prostitute on the ship that ultimate takes her back to Godwin and McCandles. She even rejects a required vaginal exam by the ship’s doctor for venereal diseases, ultimately quitting her position (183). Consistently we see Bella unashamedly having casual sex with men, to her own discretion, and she unequivocally confirms that she is in full control of herself, her autonomy asserted time and time again.

Later in the novel as Bella determines her future as a nurse, McCandles and Baxter implore her to withhold—publicly—her propensity to provide education and accessibility of birth control for women. Though Bella agreed to wait, “She only agreed with us when we admitted that the length of the waiting-period must be her choice and no one else’s” (198). The deliberate display of self-determination comes after Godwin accusing her of a lack of independence (196). Though we see many instances of her close relationship to freedom, Bella declares her value of independence clearly by asserting that “a life without freedom to choose is not worth having” (232).

Gray, through McCandle’s narrative emphasizes the role that women can and should have in their own bodily autonomy. Through her brain’s unique development within an already developed body, however, her body is connected to active, consensual sexuality sooner than the societal stigma of sex, particularly for a woman, could set in. Victoria McCandles, on the other hand, determines to set her story straight, conflicting with the central story directly.

Even as we transition out of the central narrative and into the (still fictional) letter by Victoria McCandles, an alternative version of Bella and Victoria as mentioned before, autonomy remains a consistent theme. In her letter, while stressing the veracity of her own story, Victoria directly affirms the reader’s own autonomic role: “You, dear reader, have now two accounts to choose between” (272). Not only is the interrogation of autonomy present in the core story, but the novel itself requires readers to consider their own perspective as all narratives come together to make Poor Things.

*To be clear, I understand pregnancy to be ethically and fundamentally at the discretion of the person whose body is carrying the fetus.

Serious George: Perceptions of Racism in Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George 

In Barnes’ (essentially) dual perspective historical fiction novel Arthur & George, we see characters justify racial prejudice in the arrest, conviction, and eventual pardon of George Edalji. George, a real historical figure, is characterized in the book as a Parsee-British solicitor who sees himself as a full-blooded British citizen, not even identifying as a Parsee individual, but who is treated as criminal throughout the novel, in great part due to his Parsee heritage. In the novel we see Mr. Anson—the Chief Constable responsible for George’s arrest—admits to Doyle that his belief of Edalji’s guilt is due to the solicitor’s bloodline:

“I believe the solicitor was at his wits’ end for months. . . Some pathological development might occur, some tendency to evil in the blood might inevitably emerge. . . . I do not doubt that it is the mixing of the blood that is partly the cause of all this. . . . [W]hen the blood is mixed, that is where the trouble starts. AN irreconcilable division is set up. Why does human society everywhere abhor the half-caste? Because his soul is torn between the impulse to civilization and the pull of barbarism. . . . It may well be that Edalji himself did not know what impelled him to act as he did. An urge from centuries back, brough to the surface by this sudden and deplorable miscegenation.” (338-39, emphasis added)

But Arthur Conan Doyle, popularly known for his authorship of the Sherlock Holmes series, believed in George’s innocence and worked to clear George’s name and repeal his detainment, a goal in which Arthur ultimately succeeded. Historically, Arthur is credited with George’s success in being released from prison and his guilty verdict rescinded. Doyle challenges Anson’s prejudice throughout their conversation but to no avail, eventually surrendering the verbal argument to publicize Anson’s “arrogance. . . as boundless as his prejudice” in an official written statement to the press (348).

Arthur fully believed in this prejudice, a prejudice we readers can recognize clearly from the block quote above. But something that Barnes takes great care to emphasize is that George Edalji does not identify racial prejudice as a weapon against his externally perceived guilt. As Doyle attests to Anson, “George Edalji specifically rejects race prejudice as the basis of his misfortune” (337). Barnes also takes great care to emphasize Edalji’s tendency toward full truth-telling from childhood, “because at the Vicarage no alternative exists” and takes his father’s lesson to heart, reflecting before he admits a schoolmate’s culpability in stealing his tie, “Once you start telling lies you are led into the paths of sin and nothing will stop you until the hangman slips a noose around your neck. No one has said this much, but this is what George has understood” (5; 14).

Barnes establishes George as trustworthy, as innocent. Anson criticizes Doyle during their conversation of his Holmes novels that understanding the truth of circumstances, of crimes committed “is what your readers beg, and what you provide so willingly” (335). And Barnes provides that perceptional reality in his novel, leaving no room for doubt in his readers that George Edalji is innocent of his alleged crime. But why does Barnes align his novel to this version of history? Why does he assert any innocence or guilt in his novel, rather than simply playing to the historical uncertainty surrounding Edalji’s case? Furthermore, why is George’s character so personally removed from the reality of prejudice that is so clearly demonstrated in the novel through Anson’s one-chapter perspective?

“George lacks imagination”; Barnes positions George as “fully capable of following the inventions of others. . . but has little such capacity himself” (4). Racism is a social construct, so by this definition alone, readers could assume that George, then, would entirely be capable of recognizing racism, an “invention of others.” But George does not identify with race but instead with his country, with England. He prioritizes land allegiance over skin or blood, based on his upbringing (52). Furthermore, George does not ascribe to racial distortions of character because he, himself, cannot find tangible evidence of such prejudice, and he believes, “To dislike someone you have to know them” (470). Without “imagination,” George seems to be separated from racism, a reality that Barnes likely highlight to parallel the lack of reciprocal ability to be racist toward a white race. In this way, George cannot engage with the construct personally, so he is perceptively removed from its reality, though even that removal does not make him immune to racism’s consequences.

Ultimately, Barnes brings light to the historical relevancy of racism toward mixed races at the time in England, emphasizing the relevancy of such prejudice motivating the case against Edalji and ensuring that readers are not masked to his innocence through their own potential bias by stressing George’s character in validating his innocence. In other words, Barnes disseminates racism as perception, an individual tendency stemming from a misguided social philosophy of racial superiority. George was too serious to ascribe to the possibility, but Barnes knows this thoughtfulness is unlikely without guidance for his own readers. Racism can make one’s innocence nearly imperceptible to others if this person is the construct’s target. Barnes, however, does not want readers to muddle in this area of bias, leaving more time for reflection on racism’s dire consequences, in this case costing a man three years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, a reality we can all verify is paralleled our contemporary justice system.

Just around Reality’s Bend: Snakes and Suppression in Atwood’s Alias Grace

Found at this link.

Grace Marks, the infamous central figure in a real-world mystery, serves as Margaret Atwood’s protagonist in the novel Alias Grace, a fictionalized exploration of Marks and her irresolute guilt.  Within the novel, her controversial conviction leaves readers to consider whether Marks was truly guilty or if she was innocent, in her right mind or unstable at the time of the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, her boss and his maid-mistress.

Sensationalized in the public’s eye, Grace’s story was left to ultimately ignorant assumptions of guilt or innocence, and Atwood maintains this ambiguity throughout the novel, even in Grace’s first-person narration. Readers are inevitably intrigued to play the game of “Did she do it?” but the ultimate lesson of the novel proves to be that in reality we will never know, that she may not have even known, so even if someone does technically declare the truth, that truth can never be verified.

Even so, Atwood’s Grace has an air of knowing, a command over her storytelling that suggests at the very least that she has more answers than may be perceived initially. Often she will note information to the reader and emphasize that she did not share that information with her primary audience in the novel, Dr. Simon Jordan. She also notes information that she does tell Dr. Jordan, a move that suggests she may be altering the truth in some way.

Grace confesses on page 101, “I have little enough of my own, no belongings, no possessions, no privacy to speak of, and I need to keep something for myself,” referring to her selected confessions to Dr. Jordan. Grace wants to maintain her autonomy, and she notices the power that knowledge can give a person. She has no desire to grant someone else more power over her, especially considering her life in a penitentiary leaving her relatively powerless over much of her day-to-day existence. Her own knowledge, however, is hers to share, conceal, or do something in-between.

Early on, Grace confessed to the reader that, if she were to make a quilt for herself, she would certainly quilt a Tree of Paradise, but one different from its inspiration quilt, making an “intertwined border, one light colour, one dark . . . vines twisted together” (98). This plan is not shared with Dr. Jordan, however, and she suggests to him that she is not certain what quilt she would like to make, so readers can assume that this confession is honest. She did not want to be too honest about her desires aloud for fear of them not coming true, but in her textual communication with the reader, she has more room to share.

After her pardon, Grace still plans to quilt a Tree of Paradise, but she has altered her vision: “I intend to put a border of snakes entwined; they will look like vines or just a cable pattern to others, as I will make the eyes very small” (459-60). Her careful attention to detail in communication up to this point is what makes this Tree of Paradise quilting pattern so intriguing. She emphasizes that even though others will not know they are snakes, “they will be snakes to me, as without a snake or two the main part of the story would be missing” (460).

Here, Grace tells readers that the whole story, or at least a vital part of the story is accessible to Grace but not necessarily to anyone else, as she is the only one who knows. What I wonder now is, could this quilt pattern be a kind of allegory for the story presented in the novel? Has Atwood’s Grace confessed that the answer to her mystery is within the text, but she is the only one with confirmed knowledge of that answer? I am reminded of the phrase “if it were a snake, it’d have bit you,” and now I want nothing more than to pick the book up again and continue gathering clues to see what was, perhaps, Atwood’s determination of Grace’s character through the character’s narration and dialogue exchanged with Dr. Jordan and others. I think more than anything, however, that we will never tangibly know, and Grace has made that abundantly clear from her first admission to hold back in her conversations with Dr. Jordan. Reality is really an alias for imperceptibility, just like Grace’s snake border, which exists but only to its designer.

Possessing the Personal: Piecing Together the Past in A.S. Byatt’s Possession

Found on Google Images

“Literary critics make natural detectives. . . I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. . . It isn’t professional greed. It’s something more primitive”

-Maud Bailey, Passion, pp. 258-259

A.S. Byatt takes readers on a journey of intertextual discovery in her Neo-Victorian novel Possession. As we follow the contemporary timeline, readers are left to contemplate the moral ambiguity of seeking information to enhance understanding of the past, particularly one’s personal past, without express permission (or the ability to gain the express permission after their deaths). On one hand, missions rooted in gaining a fuller view of the past’s picture rely on acquiring information, any information available. On the other hand, questions of violation come into play, as we see so vividly when Cropper, with the help of Hildebrand, robs Randolph Henry Ash’s grave to ascertain the contents of a box buried with him. After Cropper is ambushed at the grave with the box in-hand by his academic competitors, everyone decides to return to the inn to discuss their next move. Though Beatrice Nest brings forward the ethical objection to opening the box, asserting, “It shouldn’t be disturbed” (540) and the lawyer Euan begins to ponder the veracity of ownership as an unopened letter, the room ultimately decides that learning more of the story is more important than the ethical circumstances surrounding the possession of that information (541).

Maud reads the letter out loud, a letter by Cristabel addressing her lover. We see so much unfold in this letter; we see Cristabel opening up the secrets of her past to Ash, reminiscing their whirlwind love, identifying what came of their child, and asking for a sign that this letter was received. But Cristabel knew that there was a chance that the letter would never be opened. She reflects, “I write under cover to your wife—who may read this or do as she pleases with it—I am in her hands” (544). And Ellen decided not to open it: “She found she did not want to know what was in the letter” (499). Instead, Ellen places it in a box of treasured items, including the love letters Ellen and Ash exchanged, after choosing to burn Ash’s draft to Cristabel (which was soaked in fear of infanticide). Readers, then, are left to ponder both women’s actions surrounding this letter, to consider for whom that letter was truly written for as well as for whom that letter was preserved.

Ellen contemplates the fate of her love letters as preservations in the box: “Could she read them, where she was going, could he?” (501). She considers the life after death that these letters could harbor, fostering a “demi-eternity,” the opportunity for someone, or something, to see a glimmer of the truth after these secrets are buried with Ash (501). Ellen, then seemingly preserved the letter from Cristabel for the same reason, to keep that part of the story available for witness. Though Beatrice Nest laments at the letter’s ultimate destiny as unopened by the two individuals it was meant for on paper, we cannot overlook the fact that Cristabel acknowledged the letter’s unstable fate and admitted the alleviation of her stress having purged those secrets from her mind and heart to the paper (544). In this way, Cristabel’s letter was likely written for herself, at least in part, with an open understanding of someone else reading it as well. So the letter is left vulnerable (by it not being destroyed) but not unprotected, as Cristabel sealed the envelope and Ellen enclosed it in a box within her husband’s coffin, buried in the ground.

In the end, our academic detectives don’t even unlock the “whole story.” Based on the letter, they misread the lock of hair as Cristabel’s, never knowing that Ash actually met this child before he died, when he obtained a lock of her hair.So then we are left to wonder if the violation of his grave, of the box—and ultimately of this part of their personal lives found within the box—is left to be classified as a useless intrusion, or if the misguided certainty of finishing the puzzle without access to all the pieces is just simply reality. Pure historicity is impossible to reach, because there is always more to the story, and Possession makes that all the clearer.

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