Sunday Salon: On Independence

From the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC (August 2008)

(This is quite a chunkster of a post - my apologies.  Look what happens when I don't Sunday Salon for a few weeks -- bottleneck.)

Several meditations on the theme of independence

I have just arrived in Washington, DC - sans my partner D - to spend a couple of weeks with my grandparents. It seems appropriate, in all sorts of obvious ways, to spend the Fourth in my home town.  On Saturday night, as I write this, the sounds of fireworks are already filling the city, drawing me out onto the porch into the warm evening air.

But I am also thinking quite a bit about the nature of independence, as this is the only two weeks of the summer (between Canada Day and Bastille Day in this July string of national holidays) that D and I are spending apart.  During the entirety of the winter, we live on opposite sides of the continent and in different countries, and I have become (after lots of suffering and whinging) something of a connoisseur of the independence this weaves into our romance.  But now that I have had several months to take the poor fellow for granted, I am having trouble getting used to being solitary again. At first there was the thrill of absolute freedom to do whatever I pleased, within reference to anyone else's wishes or needs, but this quickly dwindled into a sort of aimless anxiety.  Solution?  A more rigorous work schedule, I think.  And seeing my Washingtonian friends as much as possible.

So: independence.  A trait to be courted and exercised and guarded.  A really keen sense of self is something that is easy to lose in even the best relationship, and it is one of the seldom-sung virtues of long-distance love that it forces you to find enjoyment and confidence in your own company.

Righto: what am I up to nowadays?

On familial outrageousness

Well, I am spending as much time with my grandparents (age 88 and 90, whippersnappers that they are) as I can during my two weeks here.  Their best traits among many are 1) their capacity to find humor in any situation and 2) an increasingly unfettered outrageousness.  Last year, my grandmother tripped on something and, catching ahold of a chair to keep herself from toppling hard, shattered the legs of this vital (or so it seemed) piece of furniture.  Naturally (hmm), she set to work fixing it herself, but found it was difficult to get the tools at the right angle with an octogenarian's (in)capacity for crouching.  So she asked D to come over and help wield the screwdriver when she and my grandfather had done all they could with the project.  When we arrived, her voice came ringing out of the living room:
"Oh, D!" she cried, "I am so glad you're here.  We are completely exhausted - we've been screwing all morning!"
Now, this would seem to be an innocent, if hilarious, slip of the tongue if it weren't for the frequency with which she gives voice to this sort of saucy punnery or malapropism, and the eye-twinkling that so often accompanies it.  This is, after all, the same woman who once asked the man who cleans out the radiator pipes how much he would charge for "a quick blow-job," and who, on another occasion, swept into a doctor's office for routine test with the words, "Don't worry, its nothing serious - I'm just here for a hysterectomy."

On sports and obsessiveness

Today my grandparents had their first experience with both HD and the DVR when I had them over to my absent parents' house to watch some recorded Wimbledon and have a bit of lunch.  As always, the seeming time-paradox of Tivo caused much novice perplexity ("Serena Williams plays tomorrow?  But we just saw her play the final today!" "No, dear, this was recorded yesterday: this morning is still in the future."), but as a whole the day was a tremendous success. So was yesterday (Wimbledon-missing aside) , when we drove in a rambling sort of way out to Great Falls and had a lovely al fresco lunch at the Old Angler's Inn.  The small-scale revelation of the meal came from my grandfather: in Egypt, where he grew up, the American and English emigrés (including his Edwardian mother*) played a lot of tennis.  But naturally, they had neither grass nor clay courts in a land where it never rained.  So they played on concrete.  Ouch.

What with the World Cup and Wimbledon moving into their final throes, and the Tour de France (which I have vowed I will finally understand this year) just beginning, I am in slightly-obscure**-sports-lover's heaven.  When the Tour is finally over, what will I have to replace it?  Will I finally have to start studying the strategies of Aussie-rules football*** and hurling****?


Besides this I have just begun the fourth season of The Shield (the first season to involve Glenn Close as the new, aggressively competent captain of the fictional LA precinct of Farmington), and am already filled with delight at the prospect of former-toadie Shane as the show's new villain. We are stuck for the duration of the summer (until I return to Halifax and my own Tivo) just a single episode from the end of the (engrossing but not cohesively meaningful) first season of Treme, HBO's post-Katrina drama. Let it be said that the penultimate episode contained (after a lackadaisical, pointedly unimpressive start) an event so shocking and cannily presented that D and I discussed it obsessively for several days.  And that's what we looked for from the creators of The Wire - a world so rich and ethically complex that you find yourself able to do absolute, literally nothing else but pore over its implications and permutations.  And, of course, I am deeply in thrall to the current seasons of True Blood (bless its trashiness, it had an abysmal season opener, but is improving rapidly with more Eric the Viking Vampire and the addition of the brilliant stage actor Dennis O'Hare as Russell Edgington, vampire king of Mississippi) and Friday Night Lights, which taught me last night that Texas is the purgatory where ambivalent Baltimore gang members go to negotiate redemption.*****

I also have my predatorial sights on my next "1001 Films You Must See Before You Die" prey - Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow.  The problem is that I anticipate a drainingly melancholy film about an elderly couple who are neglected to the point of betrayal by their offspring.  Something along the lines of Tokyo Story.  And I just don't know if I can bear it during my grandparent-intensive fortnight.  So instead I am watching (with only limited comprehension, as of yet) the Prologue of the Tour de France.


Of late I have been spending a lot of time with two of my favorite new Maritime musical discoveries, Matt Anderson (a Canadian who won the top solo performer's prize at last year's Memphis Blue Challenge.  I know.) and Old Man Luedecke.  They're phenomenal.

I am also contemplating splurging on a couple of albums from my wishlist - things like Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine and Michelle Shocked's Short Sharp Shocked.


While I was down in NC with D's family, I did a fair amount of cooking, hoping to take the burden off of other, more exhausted members of the household.  This foray in the huswifery****** culminated in a meal for 15 people, some of them lactose-intolerant, some tomato-avoiding, and some skeptical of everything except unadorned buttered pasta.  Blessedly the gluten-averse had already departed, for I have no culinary talents that can cope with that. I ended up making two pastas in tandem (a major source of anxiety, since my great weakness in the kitchen is timing) - one vast bowl of penne in pink vodka sauce and one immense platter of farfalle with goat cheese, lemon, and fried capers. The capers, when fried, burst into little blossoms (being, as they are, pickled flower buds) and lose some of their off-putting intensity of flavor.  I think it was, by and large, a success.

Today, with my grandparents, I made a cold summer soup, since I have been avoiding turning the AC on in my parents' house.  It is a base of Clamato, of all things, with various peppers, avocado, Vidalia onion, cucumber, lime juice, and shrimp sauteed with garlic. Yum.  Spicy Wimbledon luncheon.  So spicy that my hand burned for hours after cutting up the Jalapeno.


Ah.  And what of the true concern of the Sunday Salon - my reading?

Well, I had been endeavoring to read my first Georgette Heyer in many a year, A Civil Contract.  I was struck by the genre-flouting aspect of this classic romance, which some people claim as their favorite Heyer. In it, the hero and the heroine make a marriage of financial convenience - he is titled, she is rich, both of them know he is actually in love with her flamboyantly beautiful best friend.  She constantly says things like "Well, I'm not beautiful or accomplished" and he replies with something in the vein of "Well, that's true, but you've made the house very comfortable."  The putative message of the novel is an intriguing one: that we shouldn't confine our understanding of love to the melodramatic transports of ecstatic joy, but should rather value the more mundane (and lasting?) enjoyment of daily kindnesses and laughter.  When you get to a certain point of longevity in a relationship, you can respect this literary move - a move that values the romance of the quotidian, the normal, rather than setting up obsessive passion as the only model of love.  Because honestly, ten years of obsessive passion (enjoyable as it may intermittently be) would be rather exhausting - not all of us want a beloved who watches us as we sleep, Ms. Meyer. (Cf. independence, above, as a basis for both romantic respect and self-respect.)  Why not have a romance that celebrates, instead, the realities of actually being married, of being together for a long, soothing, chore-doing, argument-having time.  Surely this model of romance is the one that is most likely to yield a sense of satisfaction in its readers, rather than a sense that it is all downhill from the honeymoon.

The problem is that there isn't any romance in the portion of A Civil Contract I have read, and no sign of any on the horizon.  There is just the respect born of mutual endurance.  The admiration and affection we are meant to develop for our heroine seems to be entirely based in her self-abnegation.  She is never offended and never complains when her husband affirms that she is homely, when her friend swoons over the hero and declares that he will never love our heroine, or when said husband rushes to his fainting beloved's side with obvious alarm and passion.  She just worries about how to provide him with the perfect cup of tea or breakfast sausage -- how, in her own words, to make him comfortable.  If he can't have the woman he loves, she thinks, at least she can make him comfortable.  Bloody hell. It is unbearable.  So I have finally given it up.  If you have words of promise and wisdom to renew my faith that Heyer is up to some narrative inventiveness rather a deeply anti-feminist bourgeois project, please send them my way.

I am, however,  keeping on keeping on with Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, which has turned out to be quite the page turner, with more than a trace of Turn of the Screw eeriness. It concerns a Japanese women who looks back on the post-Nagasaki years after her elder daughter commits suicide.  When she was pregnant with this daughter, she befriended a prickly woman and her unnerving child - a little girl who keeps insisting that she has seen and talked to a woman who has been dead for some time.  A woman whom they saw drowning her own baby in the shattering aftermath of the bombing.

I have also picked up Bangkok 8, a detective novel that I put down about eight months ago (which doesn't bode well for it), but whose details I remember with shocking vividness (which bodes very well indeed).  And I have just started Poison Study, about a prisoner who is spared execution on the condition that she become a poison taster for the Commander of her region.  She is given a fatal poison in the first stage of her training and told that her survival depends on reporting to her superior every morning to receive the antidote.  Thus life becomes a choice between fleeing to a certain death and staying for a probable one.


Every year on the Fourth, I like to read over the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, to remind myself of the facts of our founding principles, so easily lost in political bombast.   I am often struck by the powerful ambiguity of the early amendments, and this helps shore up my sense that what I do for a living (teaching people how to interpret sometime cryptic texts) actually serves a civic purpose.  A couple of years ago, I began my course in "Reading and Writing the Modern Essay" with an examination of the drafts and revisions the Declaration had gone through - look at how clumsy some of these hallowed phrases were before they were subjected to workshopping with Adams and Franklin, I would say to my students.  If Jefferson's prose could be improved by a rigorous revision, who are we to say that we don't need advice and rewriting?  And if these revisions matter - in vital, real ways for the development of our nation - how can anyone deny the importance of language, and the need to make your words do exactly, precisely the job you set out for them?

So, after this post, epic in its scope, I'll leave you with the final draft.  Happy Independence Day....

We hold these truths to be self-evident, 
that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, 
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness....

* Quick side note on my great-grandmother: she had trained to be a teacher before marrying my doctor great-grandfather and heading off to a mission hospital in Egypt, and she was an avid reader.  There are pictures in my possession of her with her two wee sons on her lap, engrossed in the story she is reading to them.  She very much enjoyed Robert Graves's I, Claudius when it was first published.  I now realize that it was rather a saucy read for an early 20th-century missionary wife.  Years later, my grandfather's job took his young family to Paris, but my mother had to stay behind to finish out the term at her London school.  When he delivered his daughter to the friend's house where she would be staying in the interim, my grandfather handed a huge stack of paperbacks to the potentially lonely girl.  I, Claudius was one of those paperbacks.  When I was a teenager, I picked up that very paperback, as far as I know, and became the fourth generation to fall in love with it.

**But only to Americans.

*** Where the field is elliptical and the players are all stunningly beautiful.  This last is almost a requirement for my enjoyment of any sport, I am abashed to say.

**** D and I tried to learn the rules of hurling while we were in Dublin this summer, but the commentary on TV was entirely in Gaelic, so all we know about it today is that it is terrifying.

*****Not to worry - this comment is intended to be cryptically spoiler-free for those who haven't seen both FNL and a certain Maryland crime drama.

****** Did you know that the word hussy comes from hussif (or housewife)?  That hardly seems fair.  But then buxom originally meant obedient (Jesus spends some time in the York Crucifixion play telling people to buxom be), so go figure.

6 Responses so far.

  1. "If you have words of promise and wisdom to renew my faith that Heyer is up to some narrative inventiveness rather a deeply anti-feminist bourgeois project, please send them my way"

    Off the top of my head, here's an alternative explanation of Heyer's project. I'm working purely from memory, but I think one could make a convincing argument that A Civil Contract is a deeply conservative, pro-aristocratic project about the civil contract (civil being used here in the sense of civis, or 'citizen') between the classes. Adam goes from fighting for his country, to cultivating it, but the two can in fact be seen to be linked if one considers the twin duties of the aristocracy to be the defence and stewardship of the land. In carrying out both these tasks well, he reaffirms the right of his class to govern.

    Re the romance, it seems to me that Adam's true love is his land. That's partly why he makes the initial choice to marry for money, but it becomes clearer as the novel progresses and he falls deeper and deeper in love with the land.

    Since the woman he's married is of peasant stock and shows an interest for the land, they are shown to be relatively well matched. She "knows her place" both as a woman within marriage, and as a member of the yeoman class, by assisting her lord and master.

  2. Brilliant reading, Laura - although one that was still only partially accessible at the point that I flung down the novel in disgust. I didn't even touch on the issue of the representation of class in the novel, which I kept hoping would move in an Austenian direction, saving equal satirical vitriol for both the bumbling of the nouveau riche and the baseless rigidities of the upper classes (or their fringes), but that was futile. Instead, there seemed to be merely an acknowledgement that the mercantile (and speculative) wealth of Britain was a necessarily evil (or less than this - awkwardness) for the survival of its great traditions. Romance, in this schema, is about educating and assimilating this new wealth into old, landed traditions - into *authenticity*. And thus the heroine's maternal lineage - her peasant stock - is crucial to her hope of assimilation, as you say, because it proves that she is part of a more authentic British past, as well as its assimilative, wealth-suffused future.

    Just: blech. Interesting for what it does to the romance as a genre, but an unbearable read for me. I couldn't help but compare it to the subversive, delicate satirical touch of Austen's treatment of some of the same themes in P&P, and thus was continually dismayed. In skimming ahead (I blush to admit) to see whether there was any hope of an outcome that demanded more of Jenny Chawleigh than self-abnegating forbearance, I was amused and enlightened to see a mention of Mansfield Park as the only novel that one or the other of the main characters had made it through (alas, I can't find the place now). That does seem to be the Austenian tradition she is working within - a romance tradition in which the heroine is forgotten or overlooked by the hero, and which shows a profound, almost structural distrust of the lively, sharp-tongued model of feminine attractiveness. A tradition in which being the most patient, rather than the most forceful, personality gets you the guy.

    So, a question for you: is there some Heyer I should pick up instead that won't repulse me with its politics? The last one I read was "Venetia," when I was a young teenager, and my records say that I adored it, but now I wonder (uncomfortably) if I was just deaf to some of the more politically repressive undertones.

  3. I was amused and enlightened to see a mention of Mansfield Park as the only novel that one or the other of the main characters had made it through (alas, I can't find the place now).

    Has Mansfield Park not raised questions about Austen's attitudes towards slavery, because of the way that the family's wealth depends on overseas plantations?

    To go off at a slight tangent, a while ago I read a couple of novels from the 1950s/1960s by a Mills & Boon author from South Africa, and set on plantations/farms in a couple of African state. They had heroines who were paired with extremely domineering heroes, who also behaved in paternalistic ways towards the infantilised Black field and house servants/workers. Those novels were markedly more sexist and racist than a couple of novels written in the same period by a New Zealand Mills & Boon author who had her heroines being adventurous and independent, and making friends with Maori secondary characters. It made me wonder about the ways in which racism and sexism can reinforce each other.

    That doesn't happen in Heyer's The Grand Sophy, which has a rather independent heroine, but although lots of people love it for that reason it's got a very anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish moneylender as well as an indolent Spanish lady. These Old Shades hinges on the idea that some differences between the social classes are literally bred into them. The class distinctions are there in all of her novels, I think, but they're far more obtrusive in some than in others.

    Maybe you'd like Sprig Muslin because, like A Civil Contract, it's got a hero who decides to make a marriage of convenience and doesn't feel any passion for his relatively nondescript prospective bride. The way their relationship develops, though, is very different from what happens in A Civil Contract, which I think makes it work much better as a romance.

    I also think you'd probably still like Venetia. It's perhaps a bit anti-academic inasmuch as the heroine's brother is a bit of an absent-minded-and-therefore-selfish-because-single-minded-about-his-studies type of academic (although he's still a student). But the hero and heroine are both very bookish - they flirt by quoting things at each other, which I find fun.

  4. Have I sent two identical comments? I'm getting a message from Google saying something's gone wrong with sending my comments, but I'm not sure if one or other of them got through anyway.

  5. Blogger/Google gave me the same odd message - but both comments did indeed go through. I have just cleared one of the two identical posts for publication, however.

    I have much more to say about "Mansfield Park," but it will have to wait till later, as I am off to brunch with the grandparents. Thanks so much for the Heyer advice - it was much needed!

  6. So, yes, as I remember it, Mansfield Park raises a number of fascinating questions about Austen's views on the colonialism that funds the wealth of her insular domestic novels - Edward Said has a brief discussion of it in "Culture and Imperialism," I think, though I also vaguely remember that he gets the plot slightly wrong (or mixes up the characters).
    It is the absence of the pater familias that allows all sorts of shenanigans to go down in the novel, and that absence (and Sir Thomas's generally fraught role in the household) is tied up with the precariousness of his position as a plantation owner in Antigua. And of course absent or emotionally disengaged fathers are a primary source of problems in virtually all of Austen's novels, it seems to me. So it all casts an interesting light on paternalism that seems to be part of what Heyer is taking up, with Adam's profligate father and Jenny's absurdly interfering one.

    (Austen's unfinished novel "Sanditon" contains a major character who is creole - leaving us tantalized by how she might have treated colonialism even more directly, had she had the opportunity to finish it.)

    "Mansfield Park" is beloved to me for many reasons, despite the downtrodden nature of Fanny Price, not least of which is the fact that it is the most sexually forthright of the novels, addressing the possibility of sexual infidelity as well as premarital dalliance, and containing what really might be a really pretty hilarious and unexpected anal sex joke.

    Re: Heyer - perhaps I should return to Venetia. I can enjoy a good anti-academic satire as much as the next gal. After all, the reality of what we academics are like is so often more ridiculous and extreme than even the satirists dare to venture!

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