Posts Tagged gender

Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012
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Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of “North and South.”

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain.

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion.

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The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 

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Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie

12 November 2011

Betty Balfour appeared in the 1922 silent film version of Mord Em'ly

Published in 1901, William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly opens to a pitched battle between rival girl-gangs on the mean streets of south London. Hair is pulled, faces are scratched, and innocent hats are senselessly trampled. If you have ever succumbed beneath the tedium of a Dickens novel, here is something a bit more lively. 

The story follows its charismatic, working-class heroine, Mord Em’ly (“Maud Emily”), as she is arrested for shoplifting at the age of twelve and sent to an industrial school. Later, she escapes and returns to London only to find that her gang has moved on, and that the old neighborhood has lost some of its luster. In the intervening years, she has grown up a bit, and she continues to grow as she is forced to confront a new set of conflicts, including an abusive, heretofore absent father who turns up to demand money. 

Mord Em’ly is no damsel in distress, however, nor is she a hapless victim of social conditions. She has a strong, self-reliant personality, and an eviscerating, razor-wit that permit her to maintain her independence in spite of a cast of characters and institutions who are alternatively out to rescue or enslave her. Her story is colored by ironical descriptions and amusingly sharp, caustic dialog—as in this exchange between Mord Em’ly and an aggressive stranger who bullies her girlfriend, Ronicker, at a boxing match: 

“Make her shut her head, then,” said the lean-faced man aggrievedly. “I don’t want no truck with her. Make the—”

“Less language,” commanded More Em’ly. “Don’t forget you’re in the presence of ladies.” The lean-faced man laughed ironically.

You!” he said vehemently. “You call yourselves ladies! You’re what I call—well, I won’t say what I call you. I’ve got gentlemanly feelings beneath a ‘omley exterior, and I know how to be’ave as well as anyone.”

“You cert’n’y are ‘omley.”

“If I meet with ceevility,” said the lean-faced man, in a dogged way, “I give ceevility back. If I meet with inceevility, I give inceevility back. If I’ve got a single fault—”

“Who’s been telling you that?” 

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The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism

3 September 2011

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870’s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.

In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics. They could be gallant, flirtatious, aggressive, or playful, as suited them.  

Florence Cook’s child spirit Pocha “stole money and trinkets from the sitters, climbed on the laps of gentlemen, stroked their whiskers, and allowed herself to be kissed and cuddled.” Annie Fairlamb’s male familiar Sam repeatedly boxed a sitter on the side of the head until the man guessed his name right. Elizabeth d’Esperance manifested Yolande, a sensual, oriental girl who kissed and caressed her sitters, and made gifts of exotic flowers that she materialized into the room. 

These encounters often took on highly sexual overtones. Clad in loose-fitting garments, liberated from extraneous corsets and underwear, spirits sometimes invited sitters to explore their corporeal forms and prove to themselves just how very real they were. Florence Cook was famously purported to have carried on an affair with one of her investigators, whom she allowed to enter the materialization cabinet with her. The seance room was a liminal space where participants were afford greater license to transgress the ordinary norms of Victorian society.

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Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

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The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

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