Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

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A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.

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George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.

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The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

“From London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan”: How travel guidebooks manage to gain our trust

By: Julia Hieske 

Whenever someone plans a trip nowadays there is a good chance they get a guidebook first. The Lonely Planet’s travel books, to name one of the genre’s most famous publishers, have guided generations of tourists across the world from destinations as well-travelled as Rome and Paris, to plenty of fairly remote places like Cape York in the North of Australia.

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Guidebooks fulfill a number of functions: they prepare the soon-to-be travellers for their trip, giving valuable advice on when to go (for Cape York it is June to October as you will want to avoid the Wet), what to pack and how to dress. They help travellers to plan their trip and make decisions about the inclusion or exclusion of places from their itinerary. Other than that, they also function as culture brokers. Just like a personal guide on the spot, the editors of guidebooks have to know their audience’s culture as well as the culture of the destination. They have to “speak both fluently,” so to say, in order to translate and interpret the signs of a place to its visitors; think hand gestures, conventions of dress, haggling, the (in)famous siesta, to only name but a few.

So, without guidebooks – and their modern little siblings, travel blogs on the internet – we would basically all be lost, literally, in translation.

gWe would stumble about blindly in a foreign place not knowing we have just missed out on our probably only chance to see Mallorca’s best hidden beach or get a taste of Napoli’s best Pizza Margarita, by turning right instead of left. Without a guidebook in our pocket, we might not even realise we are guilty of a foolish faux pas in France or be peeved to find out we are the first, by far, to show up at a birthday bash in Mexico City. But in order to be guided by them, first, we have to trust them.

Clichés are never far away

It is a tricky business, this culture broking. As guides and guidebook writers look for ways to make a foreign culture intelligible to visitors, cultural stereotypes and clichés are never far away. Some of them are so sticky, they are repeated over and over again, all the while shaping the fantasies people have about a certain country or region and its people. After a while, though, these stereotypes are hardly questioned anymore but taken for facts or common knowledge. In Orientalism, Edward Said reminds us that the attempt of describing a culture in often heavily simplified terms from an outsider’s perspective is always a matter of power.[1] And so is travelling. That is why, just like in journalism, description and reporting in travel guides can never be entirely objective. It is interesting, then, that the prefaces or “about us” sections of guidebooks, from the very first examples to the present day, insist on telling things as they are. Yet, take one destination, see how it is described in a variety of guidebooks published in different countries and languages, and you will end up with stereotypes as different as chalk and cheese.[2]

“At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is”

Now, on the textual level, guidebooks count with a very specific narrative situation, which is most visible in the pioneering nineteenth-century ones published by John Murray or Karl Baedeker.

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On the one hand, guidebook writers are keen to exude authority. The handbooks should appear to the readers as a mimetic description of the real world and so their authors vow to stick to the truth. Murray et al. saw themselves as mere “transcribers of facts,” who reported on every detail there was. So, contrary to personal travel accounts, their tone was supposed to sound scientific and objective.

 

Today we would say that there is no such thing as an objective representation. Yet, take a phrase like this one: “At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is.”

It is taken from their website only a couple of days ago.[3] As we can see, the nineteenth-century claim of objectivity is still around. Curiously, despite their all-encompassing pseudo-scientific style, guidebook writers needed – and still need – to achieve credibility. Whereas a guide hired on the spot could create trust using personal skills like empathy, individual explanations or nonverbal communication, guidebooks can do none of those things. Instead, they have to count on other strategies in order to make up for this deficiency.

Been there, done that

Prefaces – or “about the editors” sections on publishers’ websites – play an important role in the development of a reader-publisher relationship that is the basis for the creation of credibility and trust.[4]

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There, the writers support their truth claim using a number of recurring techniques. For now, I call the first the been-there-done-that factor. The writers or publishers are presented as travellers, thus, creating a bond of shared experience between themselves and the readers. While the personal touch is deliberately missing from the main text, the paratextual means, that is the preface or self-describing information on a website, compensate for it by making the writers relatable human beings and the product of their journey an authentic one.

In the same vein, almost all guidebooks flaunt some sort of founding myth.

It has become a default move to describe the origin of the books in almost heroic terms, telling the story of a traveller who, facing the odds of his journey, was struck by the genius and benevolent idea of creating a guidebook. Compare, for example, the story of how Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, and I quote from the website, “drove from London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan.”[5] This way, an emotional bond with a fellow traveller is fostered. In case that was not enough, though, publishers use yet another strategy that is supposed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the information at hand.

A necessary evil

Back then, as well as today, guidebooks had to be true to the latest developments. Say, if a hotel suddenly changed its owner and its standard went from first-class to mediocre, a responsible publisher would not want his readers to get disappointed and, then, blame the guidebook. So, naturally, the been-there-done-that factor is complemented by some sort of up-to-date factor.

Because in order to “tell things as they are” one not only has to have been there but to return frequently so as to check whether “things” still are as they were a year ago.

Regular revisions are a necessary evil if publishers want to keep their audience’s trust. The preface, then, is also the place where readers are assured the book in their hands is as up-to-date as possible. Publishers know, however, that complete accuracy of information is impossible to achieve. Therefore, deliberately stating their duty to revisions, they kill two birds with one – rhetorical – stone. Firstly, they admit to possible shortcomings, thus, anticipating criticism and mitigating the readers’ reaction to it. And secondly, they invite readers to participate by sending in comments and corrections, thereby strengthening the author-reader relationship of – supposedly – mutual trust. Whether these suggestions have ever been taken into account remains unclear but the publishers’ apparent openness to criticism certainly serves to enhance their credibility.

Not for Tourists

Last but not least, guidebooks frequently mention an issue that has been a staple of the tourism industry for a long time and which, for the sake of continuity, I will call the us-versus-them factor. To see what I mean, have a look at this photo I have taken myself on a vacation on the island of Mallorca. It shows a bus displaying the logo of a tourist agency that takes large groups of tourists to touristic spots in order to carry out touristic activities.3 Yet, their advertising slogan begs to differ. Or take the case of a series of guidebooks which is aptly called Not for Tourists.[6] The whole concept of alternative tourism, or backpacking, and its bible, the Lonely Planet, is based on the idea of its distinction from regular, or mass tourism. But the philosophy of travelling off the beaten track was not only born in the seventies with Tony and Maureen Wheeler. In fact, it was the us-versus-them factor that was responsible for the coming into being of commercial guidebooks altogether. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Cook’s commercial tours had gained momentum and given more people access to travelling than ever before. Cook sold pre-planned and guided group trips that would take tourists to popular destinations all over the globe. The concept was such a success that Cook’s tours were soon associated with mass tourism that left little space for individuality. Guidebooks offered their readers a radically different travel experience. One to which only they could give them access. Equipped with a handbook, travellers were now able to explore places by themselves and independently from large groups and personal guides. Publishers like to highlight this distinguishing feature because, then and now, they hope to find a niche in the market by setting themselves apart.

Implicitly, though, the authors and publishers of guidebooks bought into a distinction whose development might as well be traced back to the relatively new phenomenon of mass tourism and the reactions to it: the traveller versus tourist binary, which is still present in popular discourse. If it was not, there would not be so many publications in print and online dedicated to real travel as opposed to practicing tourism. Yet, as James Buzard so accurately observes, it is hardly possible to escape tourism altogether.[7] Or how would you explain that all too often alternative routes or ways of travel soon become well-trodden paths and common practice?

Paradoxically, thus, those who do not want to be ‘tourists’, contribute to the formation of new areas developed for tourism, a phenomenon Buzard calls “anti-tourism.”

It is “anti-tourism,” then, that describes best the Lonely Planet’s ideology and their advice, for example, to visit the aforementioned Cape York, which, supposedly, is still unspoilt by tourists and one of the most remote places in Australia.

“Guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors”

Back in the nineteenth century, in a wonderfully ironic turn, Murray’s and Baedeker’s handbooks had become such a global success, that they, too, were seen as a symbol of mass tourism. This “anti-tourist” and travel writer, for example, was anything but enthused by the users of such guidebooks:

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“When the journeying cyclist or motorist quits the tourist-infected route on which Singapore is the East Indian rest-house, and sails across the equator towards the rarely visited island of the Dutch Archipelago, new pleasures unadulterated by crimson-colored guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors await him at every turn.”

The quote is taken from an article about Java and was published in 1903.[8] It was written by a U.S. American who, only five years later, went on to write and publish a “crimson-colored guidebook” – not to Southeast Asia, that came later, but – to Mexico. His name was T. P. Terry, he was a traveller, a businessman, as well as a writer, and he is the subject of my current research. Fascinating stuff, but I will leave that for another time.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism [1978] (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003).

[2] Jennifer Bender, Bob Gidlow, David Fisher, “National Stereotypes in Tourist Guidebooks: an Analysis of Auto- and Heterostereotypes in Different Language Guidebooks about Switzerland,” Annals of Tourism Research 40 (2013).

[3] www.lonelyplanet.com/about, accessed 21/11/2016.

[4] Ana Alarcova, “Legitimacy, Self-Interpretation and Genre in Media Industries: a Paratextual Analysis of Travel Guidebook Publishing,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 18, no. 6 (2015).

[5] www.lonelyplanet.com/about, accessed 21/11/2016.

[6] www.notfortourists.com, accessed 21/11/2016.

[7] James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

[8] T. Philip Terry, “The Good Touring Roads of Java”, Outing 43 (1903), p. 45.

Holding Out for a Heroine: Women in Folktales of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Language Group

by Ikhlas Abdul Hadi.

Folktales are told across all known cultures throughout the world. We are familiar with a few, mainly through Disney’s popularisation of tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. This well-known list of female-oriented stories may lead some to believe that folk stories are dominated by female characters. The opposite is true however, when we look at international collections of folktales that have appeared in print. With women making up nearly 50% of the world’s population, it may come as a surprise that there are not as many folktales about women as there are about men. In a quantitative study led by Jonathan Gottschall, it was found that this phenomenon is prevalent worldwide; that ‘male main characters […] outnumbered female main characters by more than 2 to 1’ (100).

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The table above is taken from Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (2008)

‘Male main characters…outnumbered female characters by more than 2 to 1’

At present, there are no conclusive answers to this conundrum – some speculate that the blame is to be laid on the male editors who chose to include more male-oriented stories in their folktale collections; but Gottschall is unconvinced. He found that this discrepancy between male and female characters occurred even in collections edited exclusively by women. He suggests that the ‘missing tales of women’ could have been caused by a lack of folkloric access to storytelling women; this hypothesis imagines the existence of women who possess more female-oriented stories, but they were inaccessible due to past societal restrictions on interactions with male collectors (151). Another possibility is that there just weren’t as many stories told about women; that early female-led stories centring on a pre-industrial life are more home-based, and are less interesting than men’s. This is a rather problematic suggestion, and shows that there is still room for further research in this area. But the aim of my studies is not to answer why there aren’t many female-led stories. I decided to take on a route similar to the motivations of the founders of Women are Boring: approaching the problem by showcasing female-led stories that have made it into printed folktale collections through research.

Even though there are not as many folk stories about women as there are about men, there is still plenty of potential in working with the materials available and shedding light on these female-led stories. I believe that the more they are studied, the more they will become known around the world. Following this line of thought, I decided that while I was bringing light to little known female-oriented stories, I might as well focus on a group of women whose folk stories had never before been collectively studied – those from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group. This language group consists of languages spoken in southern Vietnam, the Philippines, the island states of western Micronesia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and my home – Malaysia.

Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand.

My initial scope of research was on Malay folktale texts, but this was widened to the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group as it was difficult to find a sufficient number of female-led stories for analysis. Selection of tales was further complicated when searching for plots that featured female characters who shaped the outcome of a story. If the women were not active characters, these stories would not yield sufficient information for further analysis. Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand. Upon scouring online collections and libraries in the University of Leeds and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), I managed to obtain only 100 printed stories that contained active female protagonists from Western Malayo-Polynesian societies. To illustrate how difficult it was to obtain these 100 stories, take a look at Mable Cook Cole’s collection of 61 Philippine folktales: in this collection, only 4 tales contained plots that features active women and thus were included in my thesis.

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The Western Malayo-Polynesian language group

We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an arsenal of stories from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group, I use findings from evolutionary theory to better understand why they have managed to survive. Because folktales are a universal phenomenon, it has been argued that they are an inherently human activity. The persistence of their existence provides a hint of their importance to humans, and evolutionary literary theorists argue that stories can implicitly help humans with navigating both their physical and social world through simulated events. We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an evolutionary understanding of human drives, I began looking through the stories for common themes that may confer evolutionary benefits. I saw that an overwhelming number of stories were focused on searching for a partner (approximately 50% of the collected stories), and another large theme was focused on women’s roles in the family (approximately 40% of the stories). It’s a staggering number; almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species. It is a number that seems to suggest that we (or at least Western Malayo-Polynesian societies) were telling stories that held evolutionary-beneficial themes, implicitly designed to help us survive better.

Almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species.

It could be argued that viewing these stories from such a perspective limits the potential of women; if ‘beneficial’ stories were ones that promoted reproduction, it would stand to reason that they would promote the tired idea of women as mothers. Indeed there are plenty of stories that promote motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, it can make sense that we tell such stories. Childbirth is necessary in order for humans to continue to exist, and thus there is always a need for mothers. But this heavily simplified analysis of folktales needs to take into consideration that folk stories normally rely on a fairly conservative, heteronormative storytelling tradition that may be serving a patriarchal idea of womanhood.

This is why we should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers. There are Western Malayo-Polynesian stories of mothers, when lacking support from their family, who abandon their children. This may seem to run counter to the idea of the ‘natural’ mother, a mother who is ‘naturally’ able to give birth and raise a child into adulthood on her own. But it has been shown across evolutionary psychology that the ideal mother figure can only be attained if she feels that she will be supported upon giving birth. If not, history and oral stories show that mothers will cease investing in their children when they find themselves in poor circumstances. There are also stories of women who reject marriage and motherhood, preferring instead to rule kingdoms or sacrifice themselves to bigger cause. These stories imply that there are other options besides motherhood, other paths in life that may benefit a woman from an evolutionary perspective other than reproduction. Thus there are various adaptive ‘lessons’ that can be reaped from the fictional depictions of womanhood, ones that are not necessarily based on patriarchal ideas.

We should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers.

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Anna and Elsa from Disney’s (2013) Frozen

I would also suggest that the lessons derived from folktales are always changing. When comparing stories that have been accepted in the past, to the ones that have been popularised today, there is a clear distinction in values. Bringing in Disney again, a company that is arguably the largest distributer of modern folktales, we see a difference between the ‘lessons’ to be derived from Cinderella and her stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia (1950), and from Anna and Elsa, sisters of the immensely successful movie Frozen (2013). The female protagonists of Frozen are not competing with each other to win the attraction of a Prince, or in evolutionary terms, a reproductive partner. They have other concerns – an aspect that is reminiscent of findings from my own research, where approximately 10% of the Western Malayo-Polynesian stories focused on themes beyond searching for Prince Charming. It is a small percentage of stories, but it may be an indication of a change in women’s priorities, and perhaps a change in the way women can obtain evolutionary benefits for themselves.

Throughout my research on Western Malayo-Polynesian stories, I had been introduced to many different types of women; mothers who are patient with their unhelpful children, mothers who despair and abandon their children; sisters who protect each other from monsters, sisters who fight and attempt to murder each other; wives who sacrifice themselves for their husband, wives who dream of better husbands; princesses who are given away in marriage, and queens who turn down offers of marriage. And there are more folktales out there; tales that tell of implicit evolutionary advantages, which have yet to be considered. Further research is thus always needed to assist in re-evaluating the evolutionary underpinnings of how and why women are portrayed in certain ways, and also to recover more of these ‘missing tales’ of women.

 

MINA LOY’S DECORATIVE, DOMESTIC MODERNISM

by Lottie Whalen

‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’ Virginia Woolf famously suggested, as she considered the radical changes in art, everyday life, and human consciousness and perspective that appeared at the start of the twentieth century.

Likely 1910 stood out to Woolf as this was the year of Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which showcased work by Cezanne, van Gough, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso to a largely unimpressed London audience. However, many other dates stand out as significant moments in the cultural shift that we now broadly define as modernism – that radical, experimental turn taken by artists determined to break with the past and ‘make it new’. Three years after Fry’s exhibition, in 1913, the first Armory show – or International Exhibition of Modern Art – caused shockwaves in New York and marked a true watershed moment in the history of modern culture. The show brought works of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada to America for the first time, including ‘shocking’ pieces such as Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Art critics, the media and the general public were all utterly baffled, bemused, and captivated by the spectacle. For literature, 1922 proved to be the crucial moment that high modernism truly came into its own: that year saw the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

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Portrait of Mina Loy, by Man Ray

We might also add 1915, the year when Others: a Magazine of the New Verse was first published in America. A modest edition at just 18 pages long, the first Others may have gone largely unnoticed if not for an experimental and daring sequence of verses by a certain Mina Loy: ‘Love Songs’.

Loy had already begun to make a name for herself, after her innovative poetry had appeared in a various notable avant-garde little magazines. Yet this poem provoked a scandal that propelled both her and the new forms of ‘free verse’ poetry into the public consciousness; suddenly everyone was talking about – and puzzling over – modernist poetry. Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ was variously praised and parodied in the press, and it even prompted the noted poet Amy Lowell to withdraw her involvement with Others in disgust. Unsurprisingly, Others’ editor Alfred Kreymborg was delighted with this publicity. The opening of the poem may have lost some of its shock value over the century since it first appeared, but its mix of earthy eroticism and sublime lyricism remains striking:

Spawn of fantasies

Silting the appraisable

Pig Cupid    his rosy snout

Rooting erotic garbage

“Once upon a time”

Pulls a weed    white star-topped

Among wild oats sown in mucous membrane

I would   an eye in a Bengal light

Eternity in a sky-rocket

Constellations in an ocean

Whose rivers run no fresher

Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

Two years later, in 1917, the New York Evening Sun newspaper declared Loy to be the archetypal ‘modern woman’: intellectual, sexually liberated, well dressed and cosmopolitan. She had arrived in New York via several stop offs at various European cities. Born in London in 1882, she left to study art in Munich, and then Paris. After moving to Florence, she became involved with the Futurism movement and had affairs with their leaders F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. When she moved to New York in 1916, she was already known to avant-garde circles thanks, in part, to the ‘Love Songs’ scandal; as such, she quickly found herself mixing with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams in the art collector Walter Arensberg’s Greenwich Village salon.

She would leave the city to marry the enigmatic Dada poet Arthur Cravan in South America (in 1918) and, after his mysterious disappearance the same year, spend the 1920s in Paris, a regular face among the avant-garde crowd. As the outbreak of World War Two became inevitable, she returned to New York, where she wrote poems and made assemblage artworks inspired by the homeless bums who congregated around the Bowery.

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ca. 1926, Paris, France — Peggy Guggenheim (standing), well-known American society girl who recently joined the ranks of young American business women in Paris, opened a lamp shop with famous British artist Mina Loy (seated) in the heart of the French capital. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Over the course of her travels through the capitals of modernity, Loy mixed with everyone who was anyone: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, and Joseph Cornell – to name just a few. Yet Loy was much more than a beautiful and witty guest at modernist parties and salons: as well as her talent for poetry, she was a skilled painter and a member of Paris’ prestigious Salon d’Automn, she made clothes and hats, wrote a novel, acted as a gallery agent, and designed lampshades, objet d’arts, and household objects. In 1920s Paris, she ran a short-lived but successful lampshade design business, with the financial backing of Peggy Guggenheim.

This leads me, finally, to my own research, which takes as its starting point the response to Loy’s ‘Love Songs’. In his autobiography, Kreymborg reflects on the scandal that the poem provoked, and suggests:

‘Had a man written these poems, the town might have viewed them with comparative comfort. But a woman wrote them, a woman who dressed like a lady and painted charming lampshades’.

He felt that the question that had perplexed the disgusted public was simple: ‘if [Loy] could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?’. Kreymborg’s comments reveal much more than simply the public’s reaction to a poem by Mina Loy. By highlighting the seeming incompatibility between the writer of sexualised, masculine free verse and the well-presented lady decorator, Kreymborg highlights the dichotomies that increasingly began to define the arts in the twentieth century. Applied arts and interior design were understood to be quaint, staid feminine activities, linked to bourgeois housewives and those concerned with taste and fashion – far removed, then, from the serious business of masculine high-art. It was not, Kreymborg suggests, the words on the page that offended people; after all, the same poem attributed to a male poet would have been accepted with ‘comparative comfort’. As modernism began increasingly to define itself, in critic Christopher Reed’s words, as ‘an heroic odyssey on the high seas of consciousness’, critics, artists and writers rushed to distance the defining work of the period from domesticity and the decorative. The serious business of modernism was men’s work and it did not happen at home.

Kreymborg’s patronising adjective, ‘charming’, also clearly points to the inferior status of the applied arts. Loy’s lampshades are seen as pretty trifles, the result of a quaint feminine hobby that one would expect a lady to engage in. This critical attitude has persisted: in a 1997 review of a biography of Loy and a new edition of her poems, Mark Ford claims that her ‘dilettantish approach to the various arts that appealed to her’ – that is, poetry, painting, collage, novels, and a ‘commercially successful’ design business – make ‘assessing her work a hazardous business’.

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Assemblage by Mina Loy titled “Househunting” c.1950

Although Loy was by no means unique in her experimentation with different media, here the combination of gender and commerce prevent her from being considered a serious artist. Ford appears to fall back on the traditional stereotype that connects feminine craft to the trivial, the superficial and the merely decorative. Eighty years on from the ‘Love Songs’ scandal, Loy is still the beautiful, well-dressed creator of pretty lampshades who, consequently, cannot be assimilated in to the modernist canon.

However, this view overlooks the significant ways that these two creative practices (writing experimental poetry and making lampshades) interact with and inform one another. In Loy’s vision, light was synonymous with modernity: her early manifesto ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ declares that ‘the Future is only dark from outside / Leap into it – and it EXPLODES with Light’. Her lampshades functioned like magic lanterns or cinema screens; they harnessed the power of electricity in order to transform domestic spaces in to the strange, enchanted scenes created in ‘Love Songs’, or the ‘stellectric’ illuminated cityscapes described in later poems. More than simply a way of making money, Loy’s lampshades expressed her creative vision in a different medium. In this way, we begin to see how Loy’s various activities (writing, painting, designing) form part of a wider aesthetic project that cuts across high art and middlebrow culture in an effort to bring art in to everyday life.

Through the process of reassessing Loy’s body of work, my research aims to reveal the peripheral spaces of female creativity – and the alternative strains of modernism – that existed outside of the dominant, masculine realm of high art.

Alongside Loy, I consider women such as Anni Albers and Sonia Delauney, pioneers of textile art, whose work influences aesthetics and art practises to this day; and the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, whose subversive work disrupts typical ideas of domesticity and homeliness, and foregrounds powerful forms of female creativity, collaboration and magic. Perhaps just as significant are the countless ordinary women who brought modernism and modern art in to everyday life through the clothes they wore and the way they decorated their homes. Although it continues to be an overlooked and underappreciated area, interior design and decorative arts provided women with an opportunity to shape the spaces of modernity and, in the process, forge new artistic identities. Understanding Loy’s transgressive artistic identity allows us to understand decoration and domesticity as vital yet hidden facets of modernity, and to move towards a greater appreciation of the female contribution to twentieth century art and culture.