Sunday Salon: On Romances of Redemption

At midnight on Wednesday, this was the view from my bedroom window: virtually pristine snow.  Roads untouched by automobile tire, walks untrod by human foot.  Our weather had been remarkably dry throughout the waves of Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon that pummeled the rest of the East Coast and then miraculously missed Nova Scotia on their way to torment Newfoundland.  But then the better part of a foot of the most flawless, fluffy powder fell on us at midweek, as if to say "Why Vancouver, Canadian Olympic committee?  Why, when you could have had the wonders of the Maritimes?".  So I spent the latter part of the week first admiring and then shoveling layer after layer of stunning snow.

And then on Friday, I went to Los Angeles.

My life is nothing if not one of contrasts.

Typical LA story from yesterday's post-prandial ramblings: I was wandering down the streets of Culver City (one of the original studio towns, Culver City features some really classic sites of cinema history, including the original Tara from Gone with the Wind, which now houses the offices of Culver Studios), debating the merits and (rather loudly) demerits of the final season of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse with my partner D and our friend C.  After a not unsympathetic but also not very flattering critique of some of the actors, D said to us "Neither of you caught that, did you?".  "What?", we asked.  "Well, Felicia Day just walked by us."  Felicia Day, star of Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog and, yes, Dollhouse.

I was sick when I left Halifax (and even while I shoveled that vengeful abundance of snow), and waking up to drive to the airport after only 3 hours of sleep certainly didn't help. But when I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, it was to this: the CBC announcer from Nova Scotia was just dedicating the day's programming "To Mrs. Crosby. Thank you, Mrs. Crosby...." for having giving birth to the man who scored the game-winning goal in the previous night's Olympic hockey game.  You see, I (and the rest of Canada) am fanatically in love with the young Sidney Crosby, hero of Halifax and winner (with the Pittsburgh Penguins) of the Stanley Cup.  Now (indeed, at this very moment, since the US v Canada match is on in the background as I type this) he is leading the Canadian Olympic hockey team on a very hopeful (read: stressful) attempt at the gold. This may be the first time I have ever rooted against my home country in the Olympics.  It is strange how little disloyalty I feel for it.  So as I drove by Sidney's suburban hometown of Cole Harbour on the way to the airport, I too said "Thanks, Mrs. Crosby...."

I am interested to see how US Olympic coverage differs from Canadian coverage.  One notable factor is this: the way the positive (rather than belligerent) nationalism of the Olympics is being tied to our civic duty to participate in the census.  I have always been fascinated by the census (and am in fact a little perturbed as I ponder how I will be counted now that I am a citizen but not a resident of the U.S. - will I be counted?  I can't even remember whether I was counted in 2000, when I was a college student), an ancient and idealistic civic and intellectual exercise. But to tie it to the feelings people have about patriotism, duty, and national effort surrounding the Olympics seems particularly interesting.    Especially since many of the ads make it an issue of regionalism rather than nationalism: "You can help your own communities by being counted in the Census...."  Intriguing.

Despite the tumult of snow and travel and illness this week, I did have time for a bit of blogging (a bit of blogging being a pleasure akin to another favorite phrase of mine - a "nip of nappage"):

So, what am I up to this Sunday?  

On the series of long-haul flights I took Friday, I devoured most of Sense and Sensibility, which was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read.   I haven't, in fact, reread it since that first time in 1993.   It is, like all Austen's novels, utterly engrossing - a page-turner of the best possible type.  But now I am stretching out the final chapters for as long as they will last, unwilling to have it end.  

In fact, I had an odd experience: all of the plot points I remembered (from my reading of two decades ago and the screen versions I have watched since) from the novel except the happy ending itself had already taken place when I reached about a hundred pages from the end.  What on earth is left, I asked myself?  How on earth is it going to take her another hundred pages to get these couples together?  But the fascinating thing about S&S is that Austen has to bring two couples together who present different romance problematics: Elinor and Edward are kept apart by their own sense of ethics (to succumb to their love would be to commit a breach of moral duty, which would be to render oneself unlovable), while Marianne and Colonel Brandon are kept apart by the fact that Colonel Brandon is not, at first, the romantic hero.  If this were a modern romance, I can't help but feel, Marianne would somehow have ended up redeeming Willoughby (the dashingly handsome charmer who rescues her in a moment of grave need), because love conquers all obstacles.  The modern romantic temperament leans much more to Marianne's Romantic (in the Byronic sense) point of view, while Austen puts her thumb pretty heavily on Elinor's restained, responsible, self-sacrificing side of the scale in Sense and Sensibility.    More on this soon when I have (alas) finished the novel.

I arrived in Los Angeles to a marvelously large pile of YA and romance novels I had ordered online (they are so much cheaper to buy used in the States than in Canada).  In fact, D put all the books that had arrived for me in a bin under the bed, which he then demanded I heft out from its hiding place as an object lesson in the perils of excessive book buying.  Little does he know this only further filled me with the delight of anticipation.

In an effort to smooth the horrible transition between Austen and the absence of Austen that will attend my finishing Sense and Sensibility, I have started one of this secret cache of novels, Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold, which has been described to me by several wonderful sources as the most controversial romance novel of the last fifteen years.  

You see, Gaffney's hero "rescues" her heroine from prison: he is overseeing her hearing for indigence and vagrancy, a state she has fallen into after she has served a ten-year sentence for her husband's murder (Did she do it? For the longest time, she won't say.), failed to find a position because she is a felon, and been expelled by a series of communities who don't want her cluttering up their local charitable rolls.  So our "hero" (this novel proves how genre-breaking it is by requiring numerous scare-quotes to surround all discussions of genre conventions) thinks to himself, surely it would be best if I offered her a position as my housekeeper, thus removing her from peril, relieving the county of the cost of either supporting or trying her, and solving some of my domestic problems.  And then he, unsettlingly, thinks how extremely erotic it is to have such a woman in his house and in his power.

At 115 pages in, I haven't yet encountered in any sort of forthright way the most controversial aspect of the novel, which is (apparently) this: the hero essentially imposes his sexual will on the heroine, even eroticizing her resistance, despite the fact that she is clearly impelled by her fear of prison and traumatized by the memory of a sexually abusive husband.  So the narrative challenge Gaffney sets herself is one of redemption: is it possible to bring two people together in an ethically as well as emotionally satisfying way when one of the parties is so traumatically much at fault, and when their relationship is suffused to its very foundations with a sinister inequality of power.  Can the heroine's feelings about him change?  Can ours?

Gaffney is a nuanced and literary writer (by which I mean that she pays close attention to questions of language, character depth, and narrative form), so this is the perfect companion and transition piece of Austen, who deals with so many similar questions, in somewhat less... naked form.   Even now, in the final moments of the novel, (spoiler alert?) the responsible Elinor, of all people, is feeling terribly torn between her sympathies for the two men who love her sister. As she sees (with approval) Marianne's feelings about the kindly and devoted Colonel Brandon slowly improve, she actually feels a corresponding pang of regret for Willoughby (Willoughby!!), despite the fact that we (like Elinor) know that he is guilty of, among other things: cravenly misleading Marianne for his own amusement, with little initial intention of marrying her; leaving her high and dry for a richer, more unpleasant woman, whom he has since married; bad-mouthing his newlywed wife and claiming to still be in love with Marianne (seriously tasteless); and, worst of all, knocking up Colonel Brandon's teenaged ward, leaving her without a means of support or a way of getting in touch with him while he went off to woo Marianne.  Ick. And he has the infernal gall to imply that it was the young girl who seduced him, and Brandon who misrepresented the circumstances of the seduction for his own amorous purposes.  

Willoughby is, perhaps, one of the literary originals of the irresponsible, solipsistic sleazebag.   Nonetheless, his claim that (despite his flaws) he came to love Marianne, and that his current, unhappy marriage is punishment enough for all his errors is compelling to our readerly view that the absence of love is the definition of despair, and Elinor (despite herself) is compelled to sympathy as well.  This is how Austen forces us to question the implications of the romanticism (small "r" - we might also call this sentimentalism) and Romanticism (the idealizing of complete emotional "truth" and transparency) that governs our sympathies.  And Gaffney is engaged in a somewhat similar project.

Righto: D and I are off to the theatre tonight for a musical workshop at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City, after a morning of playing "Ticket to Ride" (the game of 19th century train travel) and "Settlers of Catan" (the game of, well, sheep farming and bricklaying) with our friends, and an afternoon of Olympics-obsessing.  I hope you are all having such a pleasant Sunday!

2 Responses so far.

  1. Busy, busy week. How do you keep things straight?!

  2. JoAnn says:

    That picture is just gorgeous... and I enjoyed reading the post, too.

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