Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and the Gendered Nature of Perception

Well hello there boys. (This has nothing to do with the post. I just wanted Eddie Marsan's pigeon toes in here somewhere.)
Susanna Clarke didn’t really address gender issues in Jonathan Strange. Perhaps the closest she came to doing so is a fiery speech of Lady Pole's. To recap: Mr Norrell, newly arrived in London and eager to begin building his reputation as the greatest—and only—magician of the age, summons an ancient and powerful faerie, known only as the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, to bring the recently dead Lady Pole back to life . . . in exchange for her life, pretty much. Lady Pole, resurrected but enslaved to the Gentleman, is summoned nightly to his castle, where she must dance til dawn. Over the years, exhaustion wears her down to a shadow of her former self. Everyone can see that something’s wrong, but no one knows exactly what—every time she tries to tell someone, the Gentleman’s spell snatches the words from her mouth, replacing them with stories about a man named Mr Redeshawe who awoke one night to find two armies of tiny soldiers wearing gold and silver armor, riding white rabbits, and about to fight a battle on his brand new Turkish carpet. When the spell is finally broken, an enraged Lady Pole vows "a woman's vengeance" against Strange and Norrell's "cold, masculine" magic. I always thought this was a little unfair of her—but Clarke’s 2007 short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, has made me reconsider.


Ladies is a decidedly feminist text, one that might have been written by Lady Pole herself. Surely she would have delighted in "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," in which England's most formidable military commander is brought low by his abysmal embroidery skills. She would also, no doubt, have felt a kinship with the women of this book, who are a determined, resourceful, and occasionally bloodthirsty bunch. The titular ladies, a coven of three in a time when women aren't supposed to use magic, are literal man-eaters, turning two murderous male interlopers into mice, swallowing them whole, and spitting out the bones. In "Mrs Mabb," a gender-swapped damsel-in-distress story in which the dogged Venetia Moore must save her lover, Captain Fox, from the faerie woman who's holding him prisoner. Venetia's clashes with Mrs Mabb culminate in a bloody battle with Mabb's butterfly-soldiers, after which Mabb concedes defeat and returns the captain to her. Fox—who spends the entire battle asleep in the back-parlour—has no idea what's taken place.

Ladies acts as an alternative history within an alternative history, laying bare the world of women's magic that has always existed parallel to that of men. Only two women appear in the magio-historical records of Clarke's world: Lady Catherine of Winchester, Martin Pale's teacher, and Maria Absalom, Gregory Absalom's daughter. When one of the Ladies tries to tell a male acquaintance about them, he brushes her off, just as historians have for hundreds of years. This man’s disinterest, plus the obliviousness of both Captain Fox and another male character, the doddering Mr Field—who passes many a pleasant evening dreaming about socializing with his wife while she's off studying magic with her friends—suggests a broader pattern. Women are missing from magical history not because they weren’t doing anything worth noticing, but because men neglected to notice them.

Which brings us back to Lady Pole. I always thought her wrath, while entirely justified, was a tad misdirected. "Masculine magic" wasn't the issue; Norrell, my reasoning went, sold her out to the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair not because he's a man, but because he's a dick. As for Strange, how could he be at fault? He had no idea what was happening. However, "Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower" indicts male inattentiveness in a way that makes me reconsider.

Allesandro Simonelli—a Cambridge student "too long accustomed to the rigours of scholarly debate to feel much enthusiasm for female conversation"—accepts the position of Rector of Allhope Village. Not soon after arriving there, a parishioner calls him to the bedside of his wife, who is in labor. The parishioner's home is "a most extraordinary muddle" of squalor and splendor: "over here a greasy apron embraced a volume of Diderot's Encyclopédie; over there a jewelled red-velvet slipper was trapped by the lid of a warming-pan; under the bed a silver diadem was caught on the prongs of a garden-fork . . . " On the filthy bed lies a fifteen-year-old girl, wracked with pain, "bones shew[ing] through almost translucent skin which was stretched, tight as a drum, over her swollen belly" and attended by a "tiny old woman . . . [with] long, coarse hairs that grew upon her cheeks and resembled nothing so much in the world as porcupine quills." The spell laid on Lady Pole prevented her from telling anyone what had happened to her. When John Hollyshoes' child bride tells him exactly what happened to her—to whit, she was "taken by force to a place where she was watched day and night by a hideous jailoress," aka Porcupine Quill Face—he concludes that "she was like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged about inside her head." The girl's words aren't even words to him; just meaningless noise.

Strange and Simonelli’s obliviousness, taken together, begin to look like part of a larger pattern. Many of the stories in Ladies deal with the different ways that different people perceive the world around them. Venetia Moore thinks she’s battling a faerie host; the local children see butterflies. Venetia passes out and wakes with a fistful of their crushed wings, which she sends to Mrs Mabb, wrapped in paper; Mrs Mabb receives bloody faerie bodies. Such duality is present in John Hollyshoes’ house as well; while he sees luxury all around him; Simonelli sees a filthy mess. When Simonelli licks his finger and cleans the blood from a captive girl's eyelid, she’s finally able to see her surroundings as they truly are, enabling her to escape. With the examples of Simonelli and Strange, Clarke suggests that blindness can be gendered. Male inattention perpetuated Lady Pole’s enslavement and caused an entire country to omit women from centuries of magical history. Ladies is a licked fingertip to the bloody eyelid of Jonathan Strange's alternative English history, scrubbing off the male narrative that has predominated for so long to reveal the female one that had been unfolding alongside it for centuries—had men only eyes to see it.

Stray Observations: 
  • I didn't really talk about the collection as a whole, which I mostly liked quite a bit and occasionally loved. Some of the shorter stories ("On Lickerish Hill" especially) felt lightweight (and goddamn did the dialect in "Lickerish" set my teeth on edge), but "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" (and "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner") is a perfectly crafted little champagne flute of a fairy tale. 
  • "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" is a total Jonathan Strange trial run: not only does it have footnotes chock full of faery lore, but its protagonists, Jewish doctor David Montefiore and fairy Tom Brightwind, have a bickery affection for each other that prefigures the Strange/Norrell relationship. The introduction to this tale mentions other "Tom and David stories," which were popular for a time in both Faerie Minor and England. Clarke clearly loves the buddy movie dynamic—and part of what makes the fact that she may never publish again so painful is that her next book was basically going to be a buddy movie starring Vinculus and Childermass :(
  • Fun note about Clarke's footnotes: she fully expected the publishers of both "Tom Brightwind" and Jonathan Strange to make her take them all out. She said in a 2004 interview with sfsite.com that she wrote Jonathan Strange solely for herself, without "consider[ing] the reader at all." (Which is probably why the book was so hugely popular and widely beloved.)

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