What’s in a Name? Women, Work and the suburbs

 

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There was a girl at my suburban New York Catholic high school who really seemed to have it all.  She was a cheerleader (natch) – she may in fact have been captain of the cheerleaders, but this was a very long time ago and I could easily be exaggerating her status in retrospect. But she was definitely on the team.  Her boyfriend was a Senior when we were Juniors, and he was the darling both of the basketball coach and the math teacher who were known to hate pretty much everyone. She was blonde and quiet in a snotty sort of way, known to be quite clever, and besides all these god-given riches, she had two more attributes that represented  her unattainably, even unthinkably superior lifestyle: firstly her name was the unspeakably elegant, sophisticated and un-Long Island-sounding Cecelia,  and secondly, it was rumoured that Cecelia’s mother employed a housekeeper.

Looking back from where I am now, I realise that the two extraordinary traits for which we envied Cecelia the cheerleader are linked in an interesting way that has to do with women, work and immigration.  Like many suburbs of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which I grew up in the 1970s and 80s was peopled for the most part by the descendents of the European diaspora that arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century via Ellis Island, and you could generally tell how far removed you were from the shackles of the “old country” of your ancestors by your first name.  So for instance a middle of the road to Americanisation name like Mary, Margaret, Robert, Maria, John, Walter or Anne would tend to signify that your parents had been born in America, but their parents were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc.  while a name like Angelo, Siobhan, Helmut (that poor kid) or Analisa meant that the parents of those kids were what was to us then the most embarrassing of all creatures: relatives with an accent. The way such parents spoke was anxiety- provoking enough, but worse still to our cruel, tribal teenage eyes  were their old-fashioned ways of dressing, of decorating their homes and of course of cooking.  Shame befell the teen whose mother cooked authentic goulash instead of the hamburger helper kind the more Americanised moms were making, and horror belonged to the kid who brought a friend home after school only to have their mom feed them pirogues instead of twinkies for a snack.(Exceptions to this rule were allowed in the case of Italian families for everyone loves lasagne no matter who makes it or what their accent might be).

But generally speaking in my white working and middle class 1970s suburb, being  100% American (that is, just like the people we saw on television) was where it was at and everything else was cringe-worthy. And while most of our names reflected our links to some distant past in a country we never knew, we Margarets and Marys and Helmuts and Angelos longed for a name that represented our true allegiance to the one country we cared about: The United States of Television.  Names like Jennifer and Chad and Marilyn and Greg spoke to an idealised (and non-specific) heritage we wished to be ours, and Cecelia’s name seemed to represent the apotheosis of that form of white-bread Americana for which we had been prepared by the Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction and the Partridge Family (Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Billie Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo, Keith and Laurie Partridge were not eating cabbage soup or latkes at home, that’s for sure).(And BTW, Blonde haired, blue eyed Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie was meant to be Persian).

What’s funny is how the second of Cecelia’s unattainable attributes (the cleaning lady) haunted us just as much as her television-perfect name.  A housekeeper was something we saw on Hazel, on Nanny and the Professor, and of course, on the Brady Bunch (by the way, wtf was Carol Brady doing all day while Alice slaved in her pinafore and longed for a night out with Sam the Butcher? ) Like every kid  I knew (except the cheerleader whose name still arouses my ire) in our family we had just as many kids as the Bradys and Partridges but the idea of a housekeeper or cleaner was as distant and unlikely to us as being renamed Pippa .  And as a result some kid’s houses (like mine) were a continual source of anxiety, dread, remorse and sticky feet (the kitchen floor was rarely clean). And other kids who tended to be deeply afraid of their mothers had very clean houses, of which they (I figured then) must have been very proud, but which (I now believe) they actually couldn’t wait to get the hell out of.  And why is that?  I mean why is it that middle-class parents, many of whom were both working and had two or more cars and sometimes swimming pools and paid the fees for private Catholic education would never have dreamed of paying someone to clean their houses for them? I figure it has something to do with the proximity of many of our parents to the poverty of the previous generation, and in particular, to the poverty of many of their mothers, who, having arrived in the New World as children or young adults had to struggle with their accented English often in menial jobs that offered very little pay for seriously hard work, all so that they could the next generation of their families could have the American dream.  So while our parents enjoyed the relative luxury of only having to clean their own homes, their children, my generation, longed for the part of the American dream that meant we could make as much mess as we wanted and never, ever have to clean it up.  We wanted to be Marcia Brady goddamnit, or at least her cheerleader equivalent in the legendary Cecelia of Long Island. Back when the legal drinking age was eighteen (so half of high school seniors were old enough to go to bars) my boyfriend (who was eighteen) invited me to a party at a bar.  I was still seventeen.  I waited outside while he went in to borrow someone’s ID to bring back out to me.  He came back a few minutes later with – you guessed it – Cecelia’s driver’s license. We were of similar height and coloring, and anyway, in those days the license didn’t have a picture. I was both thrilled at sickened at the chance of pretending to be her and it took several minutes for my boyfriend to convince me to give it a try. I gathered up my nerve and walked brazenly into the bar with my fake id, for a moment inhabiting the Olympic heights of being a housekeeper-employing and television-name-bearing-goddess. But when I handed the id back to the real Cecelia with a thank you and she gave me one of her snotty smiles and I suddenly noticed that she had really bad teeth and her nose was crooked and her hair was actually kind of weird. In other words, Cecelia was really rather a lot like me (apart from my house being dirty and my name being Margaret.) And looking back now the idea that my vision of an ideal life came from Friday nights on ABC is both frightening and kind of funny, particularly as I seem to have spent much of my adult life researching the origins of words, images, and ideas, stripping away the false, the processed, the pre-digested in a variety of forms.  Like many women of my generation, I buy organic (sometimes) search out “authentic” ethnic recipes and ingredients that my own mother would not have recognised (but her mother might) and scoured the baby name books for “original” sounding names that reflect the childrens’ cultural heritage. Hell, I don’t even watch television anymore.  But lest I try to pretend that the Long Island girl has been entirely left behind, I confess that long ago I changed my name from Margaret to Meg.  And recently, I hired a cleaner.

 

I Got All My Sisters with Me: Why BFFs Matter

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‘To yield readily— easily— to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.’
‘To yield without conviction is no compliment
to the understanding of either.’
‘You appear to me, Mr. Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection.’  ≈ Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

‘Nobody sees a flower reallyit is so small it takes timewe haven’t timeand to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’  Georgia O’Keeffe

‘It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.’  Marlene Dietrich

Women are hard-wired to be social in ways that not only reduce stress but help them stay healthier as they age.  In fact, not having strong bonds with family and friends is the equivalent of poison–as detrimental to physical well-being as smoking or being overweight, according to U.C.L.A. researchers.  ‘Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have,’ writes psychologist Shelley E.  Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships. Men typically rely on women for that protective shield of intimacy, often in marriage. But studies have shown that, for women, it doesn’t matter whether they are married or not, as long as they have close relationships. From Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to Sex and the City, where would we be without our girlfriends?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

 

 

To try and shake me out of my sorrow I am reading the book the cures the blues: Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938). This beautiful little novel, given to me by a dear friend (by way of saving my life) on a rainy, dark day when every thing that could go wrong had gone wrong begins with its heroine in much the same circumstances: ‘Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine.  She had, as usual, very little hope…’ Winifred Watson’s enchanting tale was rediscovered and republished by Persephone in 2001 and since reprinted several times with its delicious original line illustrations. The story unfolds over twenty-four hours in the life of unemployed governess and neglected spinster Guinevere Pettigrew – but this is not just any day, and Miss Pettigrew is not just any spinster.  Sent to the wrong address by her employment agency, Miss Pettigrew is mistaken for the new housekeeper by the glamorous and rather amoral night-club singer Miss La Fosse, and this slip brings Miss Pettigrew smack into a world of cocktails before noon, cocaine that must be disposed of, punch-ups between dangerously handsome suitors, and, perhaps most shocking of all to Miss Pettigrew – the wicked thrill of make-up. As first time readers, we worry for the frightened and sheltered Guinevere – will she be found out? how will she cope?  But those who are returning to re-read this joyous story (and you will, you will) know that there is more to Guinevere than meets the eye. ‘This,’ she thinks, ‘is Life.  I have not lived it before.’ Though some reviewers have seen Miss Pettigrew as a Cinderella story – Watson does something much more subtle than simply finding a “beau” for her lonely lady.  Instead, over the course of the day, in a series of deft interventions, witty misunderstandings, brilliant repartee and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her new-found friends, but more importantly to herself, as a life-saver, in more ways than one. (And sadly it was this subtlety that was missing in the recent film version which stuck strictly to the Cinderella theme, largely missing the self-love and sisterly friendship that makes this book so damn good). A delightful, intelligent and naughty novel, which reminds us that it is never too late to have a second chance; it is never too late to live. An important reminder in dark times.

 

Grief

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I have been away from the blog for a number of reasons, some having to do with work (busy time of year for lecturers) but also for a very personal reason: grief. 

 My lovely father passed away in February of this year at the age of 86. I wasn’t there when it happened as I live so far away. I flew back to New York for the funeral and then rushed home to London and my “real life” a few days later. And because I live an ocean away from where I grew up, it has been tempting to kind of “pretend” that he wasn’t really gone.  After all, I often went months without seeing him and in recent years it even became difficult to speak to him on the phone.  So I saved up all my hugs and I love you’s for when I would visit him. Among his many accomplishments, my father’s true talent was simply being there.  At every game, every play, every parents’ evening, at the end of every teenage party to pick up one of his six children, at the breakfast table in the morning and the dinner table at night. And at his home in New York whenever I came to visit. So while I have cried about my dad in the past few months I don’t think I really believed in the loss of him, believed in the possibility of his not being there until last week when suddenly everywhere I looked were signs and posters and television advertisements for Father’s Day.  “For the man who has always been there for me”; “To my hero”; “For the best dad ever,” etc, much of it schmaltzy and sentimentalized and all of it stabbing me directly in the heart as I began to finally realize that he was really, really not there anymore.  That there would be no more saved up hugs and I love you’s. And no more Happy Father’s Day phone calls.

 On Father’s Day itself, strangely, another constant in my life began to slip away: my lovely twenty year old cat Miss Audrey collapsed, and yesterday she had to be put down.  I’d had her since she was a kitten.  And while I am not about to compare these two losses, it is interesting and sad to note how differently I have reacted to these two kinds of grief: one so far away that I could pretend it didn’t happen, and one so close and so unavoidable that there is no escaping it.  We had to make the decision and say goodbye, pack up her kitty litter and cat food bowls, her cat basket and her packets of food: all useless now.  I return this morning to my “real life”, work, meetings, emails.  And when I get home tonight I will cry for the empty spaces in my house, and for the hugs and I love you’s I was too far away to give or receive and for the constants in my life that are no longer simply “there”.

 

Snow White and the Huntsman and why Powerful Queens are Evil (apparently)

 

 

In keeping with my Cinderella post the other day, this weekend I went with my three teens (two girls and a boy) to see the new film Snow White and the Huntsman yesterday on another rainy summer day in London.  This is a beautifully filmed, well acted and cleverly scripted reimagining of the already multiply reimagined story of Snow White and this time – Snow White can kick ass!  And she doesn’t cook and clean for dwarves any more, either.  In fact, this Snow White, despite her tenure locked up in a tower seems to have kept herself remarkably fit.  No sooner does she escape the tower than she rides bare-back on a beautiful white horse (by herself – no man has rescued her) until she reaches the dark forest where she hides from the Evil Queen, her stepmother.  The Queen is evil, we are shown, because of men’s cruelty, which suggests that she is not only evil and single but also bitter against men which Snow White (as her name tells you) is not.  And it is this part of the story that is depressingly unchanged, though the Queen and the magic she wields are carefully portrayed and visually stunning.  Charlize Theron is the Evil Queen (I guess by Hollywood terms she is middle aged) and she needs the hearts and living breath of weak young beautiful things (birds and supermodels like Lily Cole who also appears here) to sustain her power. 

 

Her magic mirror is a cruel thing, telling her the sad truth that being Charlize Theron just isn’t good enough once Kirsten Stewart comes along.  Despite making clever, evocative use of the feminine symbols of drops of blood predicting childbirth and also death, of luscious apples that are also, of course, poisonous, the movie, like the German fairy tale the Grimms and later Disney based their version on, shamelessly pits older women against younger, stepmother against stepdaughter.  (For full disclosure I should point out that I am a stepmother to two of the teens I mentioned, so am sensitive to such portrayals, though less sympathetic with Charlize’s sorrow when she saw her wrinkles. In fact even at the end of the movie when she was dead she still looked better than I do in the morning.) The lust with which Snow White, dressed as a solidier, assassinates this wise, magical, powerful (but childless and so somehow apparently not quite right emotionally)female figure made it seem as if she was, in reality, killing off the feminine within herself. And this was all a bit – well, sickening to me. I had hoped that Snow White and the Queen could find a new way to run the kingdom together.  That they could work out some way for both of them to be immortal without having to consume all those nice girls to do so (maybe Kirsten Stewart could ask that vampire boyfriend of hers for advice here?) It just seemed that this new, kick-ass Snow White instead of embracing and perhaps learning to use the Queen’s power (and by extension, Snow White’s own female power) for good instead of evil, turned too quickly back into traditionally patriarchal ways of settling disputes (ie, inciting your kingdom into war, dressing up in armour and riding a horse into battle, and then inserting a sharp knife into the heart of your opponent).  Surely it was short sighted not to have taken the Queen prisoner at least, found out some of her magic spells?  But it wasn’t really that kind of power that Snow White wanted, was it?  No.  She is happy to be able to tame woodland creatures and capture the hearts of dwarves and men.  In fact, just like Katniss in The Hunger Games and Kirsten herself as Bella in the Twilight Series, Snow White as modern heroine has little interest in diplomacy or good governance, but can kick ass and has at least two men in love with her. The fact that she will, more or less inevitably, break one of their hearts is okay in this context – the point is that they won’t break hers so she won’t become a single bitter woman which is inherently evil (see Queen, above).  Is that progress from Disney and Grimm’s passive princess saved by her skills with domestic chores and her obvious ability to attract true love’s kiss?  Or is it just a trade up (bows and arrows instead of laundry, two suitors instead of one)?  My own sense is that our new Snow White is just the same as the old one but with better hand-eye coordination.  And that’s why the Queen hates her so.  Just when she has Snow White in her clutches, Charlize says something like “I am doing you a favour.  Now you will never know what it feels like to get old!” The moral being I guess that there is no greater horror to be visited upon humanity than to be an old woman.  Even if you look like Charlize.

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

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Happily Ever After

 When Cinderella met her prince it was all so

easy.

Family troubles? The text is not

explicit:

how king and queen felt

when golden boy brought home

a cleaner.

Perhaps the mice resented

Being put in her service,

the dog disgruntled playing

footman.

 

Her tiara—paste

Her footwear—unreliable.

 

Still, against

the fairy godmother,

fat sisters, incantations and court champagne,

pumpkin coach, white dress so

becoming, the allure 

of her disappearance:

He never stood a chance.

 

Last night I came home, past midnight.

Unclear what spell

I’d broken:

my magic has never been strong. 

 

I awoke in dusty rags

arms stretched

across my pillow, shoeless

without you.

Charming.

           

 

 

Women, Writing and Silence: Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier and Me

 

I haven’t written much on the blog this week as I have been working on a new novel whose themes of women, storytelling and silence are fed by my reading and research into these ideas in the writing of other women. So, with the noise and distractions of the Bank Holiday weekend I thought this was a good time to stop fictionalising and return to thinking about women’s voices and women’s silence.  As I suggested in my last post, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is perhaps best described as what it is not: not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man. Such self-definition through negation is an interesting tool many women writers have used to question the value and authority of traditional definitions. But this approach can also work negatively to erase or at least blue the sound of women’s voices.  Perhaps one of the greatest examples in fiction of the woman who is identified by what she is not appears in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca.

There, the heroine of the tale is literally defined, by herself and by those around her by what she is not: this first person narrator has no name – all the reader knows is that she is not Rebecca, not the first Mrs DeWinter. When, near the climax of the novel this nameless figure hears her husband confess to killing his first wife – she tells him “Rebecca hasn’t won, Rebecca is dead, Rebecca cannot speak!” And in this moment calls to mind not only the central theme of DuMaurier’s novel but of many texts written by women writers whose works remind us to be suspicious of the stories of those who claim to speak for women – even if the speakers themselves are women.

Novels, histories, paintings in which women are represented by the voice or vision of another provide suspect evidence of real women’s experiences: We never get to hear Rebecca’s side of the story. Maybe Rebecca was a perfectly ordinary bored wife and Maxim was a jealous madman.  We can’t know because she can’t speak.

 But what if she could? What would Rebecca say? That Maxim killed her out of jealousy and paid off some retired doctor to spin a tale about Rebecca’s illness? The point is, we can never know – and so like the story that Woolf tells in A Room of One’s Own about Shakespeare’s sister Judith, we can only ever guess at what we might have discovered if women had been allowed to speak publicly for themselves. And what of the nameless narrator of Rebecca who colludes in the disappearance of the tale of Rebecca’s murder only to win for herself a grumpy distant broken down husband who must live in exile from the beautiful home now burnt to the ground?  Is this meant to be a happy ending or DuMaurier’s punishment for the narrator’s insistence upon the benevolence of her patriarchal husband, her refusal to acknowledge the violence he meted out to the wife who challenged him? DuMaurier’s disturbing vision offers both possibilities, and demands that we, as readers are left questioning our safe, romantic reading of the plot. Which is, I suspect, just how DuMaurier wanted it.