Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Valley of Horses: And So the Seeds Take Root...

As I mentioned last time, after sucking down The Clan of the Cave Bear in just a few days, 14-year old me grabbed ahold of its sequel.  I was so excited.  The ending of Clan was so powerful and emotional -- what could Auel possibly have in store for us next?  Would Ayla be reunited with her family?  Would we see how Durc was treated once Ayla was gone?  At this point, anything was possible.

I tore open the novel and read the first chapter. "She was dead.  What did it matter if icy needles of freezing rain flayed her skin raw."  Yes, yes!  I read as Ayla forged ahead alone, haunted by her final moments with the Clan, until she ended up in "cool, green, sheltered valley" where horses were grazing.  Then...

Wait -- who were Jondalar and Thonolan?  I skimmed ahead through their chapter, looking for some connection to Ayla, but there was none.  Next chapter, Ayla was still in the valley.  Next chapter, Jondalar and Thonolan and their not-very-interesting adventures.  Next chapter, still in the valley.  Next chapter...

As with Clan, I finished The Valley of Horses in just a few days, but not for the same reasons.  I don't think I've ever skimmed so much through an Earth's Children novel, not even The Land of Painted Caves.  To this day, there are passages that I have no more than glanced at.  Even now, knowing Jondalar's significance to Ayla, I still find his chapters to be a struggle.  And knowing that Ayla stays in her valley for three years makes her chapters a struggle as well.

Yet that is not to say The Valley of Horses is a bad novel.  In fact, many people like it better than The Clan of the Cave Bear.  We finally get to see the "Others" and their different societies.  We watch Ayla survive under circumstances that would kill anyone else; as her reward, she learns that sex can bring pleasure as well as pain.  Auel's writing seems sharper than in the last novel, from her description of survival scenes to her drawing of characters.

As with Clan, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with The Valley of Horses as long as you look at it in isolation.  Yet if you consider the previous novel and especially if you consider the subsequent novels, you see many problems developing.

Plot Synopsis

After being driven out of the Clan by Broud, Ayla goes out on her own in search of Cro-Magnons like herself.  She finally stumbles upon a cave in a valley and decides to remain there through the winter.  That "winter" lasts three years, during which Ayla raises and bonds with a horse named Whinney and a cave lion named Baby.  Meanwhile, on the other end of the European continent, two Cro-Magnon brothers, Jondalar and Thonolan of the Zelandonii, set out on a long "Journey."  Thonolan is an adventurer who wants to follow the Mother River (the Danube) to its end, while Jondalar just wants to be with his brother and avoid mating with Marona, a woman whom he does not love.

Along the way, they meet other Cro-Magnons from different cultures, as well as some Clan, whom they refer to as "flatheads."  Finally they settle with a river tribe known as the Sharamudoi, until tragedy spurs Jondalar and Thonolan onward.  They wind up in Ayla's valley, where Thonolan is killed and Jondalar badly wounded.  Ayla heals Jondalar up in her cave, and after a series of misunderstandings, romance blooms between them.  Finally they leave the cave together and encounter a tribe called the Mamutoi.  

The Good

1.  Some Interesting New Characters.  And I don't mean Jondalar and Thonolan.  Thonolan is pretty generic, showing no evidence of the wit he supposedly possesses in abundance, and Jondalar is more interesting in The Mammoth Hunters.

No, I'm referring to the Sharamudoi.  I thought Auel did a good job fleshing out multiple personalities in that tribe, better than she did in The Clan of the Cave Bear.  While her characterization of Iza, Brun, and Creb was superb, most of Brun's clan received barely a passing mention.  Here, we meet characters like Roshario, Jetamio, Serenio, and Shamud.  I especially liked reading about Jetamio's and Serenio's backgrounds, how Jetamio lived with a disability while Serenio was raising her son alone.  I even found Serenio to be more interesting than Ayla.  So naturally one dies and the other is never seen again.  

2.  Worshipping the Mother.  It's a nice counter-balance to the misogyny of the previous novel, and a nod and a wink to the idea that more advanced societies promote women rather than knock them down.  Best of all, it's grounded in archeological findings and not just something Auel made up (hello psychic Clan).

3.  Some Good Survival Scenes.  As I mentioned last time, Auel's "action scenes" are some of her strongest writing.  I especially liked reading about Ayla setting the pit trap for her first large kill, and about the timing and precision required to ensure that her meat was preserved.

4.  Sexual Healing.  Before "Pleasures" became hokey and trite, the scene with Ayla and Jondalar having sex for the first time was actually a rather sweet one.  Ayla learns a much-needed lesson that sex is as much about her pleasure as it is about satisfying her partner.

The Bad

1.  Tedious and Bland.  While many people don't mind the structure of The Valley of Horses, to me, it sinks the novel.  The end of The Clan of the Cave Bear creates momentum that should have carried over into the next installment.  Instead, The Valley of Horses forces you to wait until page 347 for information that you have wanted since page one.  It would have been worth it had the journey along the way been even remotely interesting.  But instead, we get Ayla talking to animals and Jondalar and Thonolan's info dumps -- I mean "banter."

And as interesting as some of the Cro-Magnon cultures are, they never come close to displaying the depth and richness of Clan culture in the first novel.  Obviously part of the reason is that we don't get to spend nearly as much time with them.  But even cultures that we do spend a lot of time with, like the Zelandonii, don't have that sort of deep-roots-in-the-soil feel.  Compared to Brun's clan, every Cro-Magnon tribe we meet seems like a group of friendly hippies "experimenting" with different ways of living.  They're like "Hey, cool, whassup, Firstname?"  There's no sitting and waiting to be tapped, no formal "This girl wishes to speak to the Leader," no common speech versus ceremonial.  The Cro-Magnons dress in the ancient clothes and use the tools, but don't quite come across as people who actually live their way of life.

Maybe Auel couldn't quite figure out how to convert a goddess-worshipping culture from idea to reality.  Maybe she had an easier time with the Clan because the Clan view of women is so grimly familiar to us.  It's almost as if the Others represent a past that is largely forgotten, while the Clan represent the present -- or at least the more recent past.  Even when Auel attempts to portray a gender-equal society, a lot of familiar gender typing shows through.  

Ayla hunting... or something.
What I wish is that Auel had chosen to do with a tribe of Others what she did with the Clan.  After a few weeks of stumbling around on her own, Ayla encounters people of her own kind and slowly learns about them through years of interaction.  Sure there would be some retread -- Ayla must prove herself worthy of her new people -- but since when is that unusual?  Maybe Ayla would only have average abilities on her new tribe.  Maybe she would end up in the Mammoth Camp with Vincavec.  If Jondalar had to be involved, he could be the Mysterious Stranger from far away.  A different combination of events could have made for worthy follow-up instead of the blandness we got.      

2.  Imprinting.  No matter how perfect Auel made him, no lover of Ayla's was going to escape criticism.  And I really don't mind Jondalar -- he seems like a nice guy who knows how to make Ayla happy, at least in one aspect of her life.  Rather, my problem is that their romance is set up as practically inevitable.  Jondalar is the first Cro-Magnon Ayla has met since she lost her parents.  She will always remember him as the one who taught her how to speak properly, about other cultures, and how to enjoy sex.  After that, who could come close to filling that same place in her heart?  Maybe it's just me, but I think that even if Jondalar had been a lot less exceptional, the result would have been the same.

It seems unfair to Ayla -- not to mention her other would-be suitors -- that Auel never really gives her a choice.  Again, imagine if Ayla had first stumbled upon a band of Mamutoi.  Then an entire group would have informed her views of the Others, and she would have been able to make a real choice as to which person was best suited to her.  Some claim that Ayla had that choice in The Mammoth Hunters, but I don't think so.  Once Jondalar had been "imprinted" in Ayla's mind as the representative of her kind, no other man -- not Ranec or Vincavec -- was going to measure up. 

3.  Blond Like Us.  I didn't mention it in my last post, but this problem has been pointed out by numerous people, and it just gets compounded when Jondalar appears on the scene.  Both Ayla and Jondalar are tall with blond hair and blue eyes.  The Clan are short with brown hair and dark eyes.

Notably, the authors of The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes seemed to believe in white supremacy.  Rudyard Kipling of The Jungle Book wrote "The White Man's Burden," which some consider to be a parody of imperialist attitudes, but other evidence suggests that it expressed Kipling's true feelings.  In Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs portrayed the white Tarzan as superior to both the apes of his tribe and to the tribe of (black) humans in the vicinity.

Should we assume that Auel felt the same way?  Somehow I doubt it -- I suspect the racist connection was completely unconscious on her part.  However, you'd think that she would have some inkling of the connections that could be drawn from her two main characters being white and beautiful and better at everything.  Maybe her portrayal of Ranec in The Mammoth Hunters was an attempt to correct this.  If not, Auel showed remarkable blindness to the way her characters could be viewed -- a blindness that would be evident in other aspects of her series.      

4.  Silence of the Clan.  Except for an episode in The Plains of Passage, we will never again see the Clan through their own eyes.  Instead, they will always be portrayed through the eyes of Ayla or other Cro-Magnons.  Here, despite Jondalar's sense that they are not quite animals, that's mainly how they come across: silent and brutish, without personality.  It will be up to Ayla to teach the Others that the Clan are actually human, but her teachings will be selective.

Seeing how much the Others look down upon the Clan, and with a rose-colored view of her own family, Ayla will leave out some of the harsher realities of Clan living, particularly that men had license to physically abuse women.  In Ayla's alternative portrayal, only Broud was physically abusive, and he was an aberration.

Meanwhile, she treats the Others, who come from cultures that seem to respect -- if not revere -- women, like they are the brutish tyrants based on one or two episodes of bad behavior.  That is not to say the bad behavior should be glossed over just because, on the whole, the Others are peaceful.  Nor does that mean Clan culture should be completely reviled based on its worst aspects.  But there should at least be a conversation about them, a serious debate about the good and the bad of both societies.  Instead all that happens is that Ayla shames Jondalar for thinking that the Clan are animals -- even though based on his own cultural beliefs, some of his views would be justified.

One reason this is significant is because from this novel onward, many people anticipated a clash between the Clan and the Others, or at least between Ayla and the Zelandonii over her Clan background.  The Earth's Children series seemed to be moving in that direction. Yet already in The Valley of Horses, we see Auel seeking to avoid dealing with messy, difficult truths -- something that would unfortunately become a pattern.  So the Clan never again appear before us as human beings, warts and all.  

5.  The Distancing of Ayla.  Even while Ayla's struggles to survive seem so immediate in this novel, the groundwork is being laid for her to become less and less relatable.  Her ability to tame animals -- done to fill the lonely void in this novel -- will be seen as an example of her specialness, and we will increasingly view her through the eyes of others.  In many ways, it is already happening: Jondalar worships her perfect body and dreams about her being the Mother incarnate.  

Other Points Worth Mentioning

In this novel, the stakes are established for the rest of the series.  Specifically, we learn that Jondalar's tribe, the Zelandonii, are highly prejudiced toward the Clan.  As Jondalar cares deeply about returning to his people, he will face the difficult choice between staying with Ayla, who refuses to lie about her Clan upbringing, and his loved ones.  Remember this.

On second thought, don't.  It's not very important.

Next Week:  The Mammoth Hunters, where Ayla finally meets an entire tribe of people like herself.  And Ranec... sigh.

Both images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: Where Have All the Quiet Spaces Gone?

What I hear... and sometimes how I feel.
I have been wanting to write about this topic for a long time, but struggled with how to do it.  So I'm going to forgo the pretty words and just say it: when did people have to start apologizing for wanting other people to be quiet?

Think about it: the quiet person hurts no one.  He or she may as well not even exist because no one else is aware of his or her presence.  The loud person hurts numerous people by imposing him/herself on other people's space, crowding out their thoughts with insistent noise or chatter.

Yet the quiet person is the one who must say time and again: "I'm sorry, could you please keep it down?"  I'm so sorry to have to impose myself on you.  The loud person never pauses to consider whether his or her noise could be hurting someone else.  The loud person just turns up that car stereo, or cranks up that leaf blower, or talks even louder into that cell phone, or plays the television loud enough to be heard across the street.  He or she never says "I'm sorry" to anyone.

And why should this person have to be sorry?  The right to make "your" noise is right up there with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Anyone who attempts to restrict your noise, despite whatever harm it is causing, is nothing more than a joyless harpie who wants to control everyone's life.

And certainly the loud person sees and hears nothing that would persuade him or her otherwise.  Quiet hours and curfews are laxly enforced and routinely ignored.  Public libraries, once sanctuaries for people who wanted to read and work in peace, have turned into community centers, where kids run and shriek with little supervision.  Construction can start as early as 7 a.m. in some locations and last until dark.  Noise has crept into places where there used to be none, such as muzak in cafes, department stores, and outdoor courtyards.        

In this world, the quiet person is the aberration, the one who needs to shut up.  Shut up, bitch.  Shut your fucking mouth.  No one wants to hear what you have to say.  Yes, the loud person only cares about quiet when it means silencing the person who inconveniences him.  While a polite request can sometimes lead to genuine efforts to be quieter, more often the request is met with a snide response, a sharp sigh, an eye roll.

How dare you not stay silent?  

How dare you not sit and stare at the floor with your mouth pressed in a tight line, looking angry and uncomfortable like all the others?  How dare you speak to me.          

Was it always like this?  Who can say?  I seem to recall a time when I could watch football on television without aural bombs exploding during the opening credits.  I remember when cell phone users were an aberration in public places, when irritated restaurant patrons would talk loudly into their hands in imitation in order to shame the cell phone talker into lowering the volume.  Now everyone has a cell phone, and it is the ones who want quiet who have to apologize.

It would be one thing if the problem could be traced to population growth and greater urban density.  I'm sure they both play their part, but I think there's more to it than that.  In Japan, the great urban density has supposedly made people quieter because they respect other people's space more.  And I don't think "progress" explains it, either: progress has led to machines becoming quieter (like the computer) as well as louder.

No, it's an attitude that was acquired I don't know when.  Not even an attitude of projecting dominance, although I'm sure for some people, that's a bonus.  No, it is the attitude of complete confidence that what they are doing is right, and that they never need to consider someone else's needs before they act.

And why should they?  It's just noise, you oversensitive bitch.  It's not earthquakes or cancer or famine or something real, you know?

Maybe I care so much because I'm a writer, and I know how much concentration and effort it can take to dip deeply into the well, even to write posts like this one.  Because I know how sweet a quiet hour can be, how replenishing.

Maybe because I value privacy, and I don't want to know about your boyfriend or your boss, what type of music you like or the color of your son's poop.

Maybe because I know the toll that constant ambient noise takes on our health.  Permanent hearing loss, sleep disturbance, hypertension, increased stress and aggression -- and that's just for starters.  Noise pollution is like global warming: a real threat that too many people think if they just ignore, it will go away.  Instead it just gets worse.

Believe me, as a certified quiet person, I'm not complaining because it's something that I get off on.  Complaining stresses me out.  No, what I really want is to not think about the loud person at all.  I would much prefer to focus on I was doing before the loud person showed up.  The only reason I have complained is because the fan, the earplugs, the noise-canceling headphones, the focusing and ignoring were not enough to block the loud person out.  Only when all other methods have failed do I force myself to confront the loud person.  God forbid I ever try to request in advance that this person not be loud because then I'm just crazy.

And yes, I know that the world isn't just quiet people versus loud people, and that at any given moment, a quiet person can become a loud person.  The point of this post was to consider why there exists this double standard where the one who wants quiet must feel ashamed, while too often the one who wants to make noise never does.   

I don't have any ready answers.  All I know is that little by little, the quiet spaces are slowly ebbing away.  We have the power to bring them back or create new ones, but it requires two things.  First, that people recognize there is a problem, and second, that they learn that other people's right to quiet is just as important as their right to make noise.  It is my goal for balance to be restored, and that is one thing I won't be quiet about.

The photo above comes from Stock Xchng and was taken by duchesssa.  Use of this image does not mean duchesssa endorses the views of this or any other post on this blog. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Clan of the Cave Bear: Sowing the Seeds For What Is to Come

I was just the right age when I received my induction into the world of Jean Auel: 14 years old.  My mother handed me a second-hand copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear, telling me that a friend of hers recommended it, but not telling me what it was about.  At 14, I was reading "grown up" novels, but not novels that had explicit sex and violence.  I was also still young enough to identify with Ayla, the novel's protagonist.  So I sucked Clan down in just a few days, and quickly grabbed its sequel, The Valley of Horses.  I was fortunate that the first four Earth's Children novels had already been published.

As I mentioned last time, The Clan of the Cave Bear premiered with a splash in 1980* and is still regarded as Jean Auel's best novel.  Unlike its widely panned film version, Clan was regarded as a serious work of fiction, using research available at the time to reconstruct a world that was practically forgotten.  That the author herself was not a professional historian made this accomplishment even more remarkable.  Moreover, the novel's feminist message was fresh and much welcomed in literary circles.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla is one of the "Others," a Cro-Magnon and basically a modern human.  At five years old, she is suddenly orphaned when her parents die in an earthquake.  Naked and without food, she comes perilously close to dying after a cave lion claws her leg, until she is discovered by Iza, a Neanderthal medicine woman.  Iza persuades Brun, her sibling and the leader of their clan, to take Ayla with them so that Iza can heal her.  Brun consents, and Ayla goes to live at the hearth of Iza; Creb, her sibling who is also a powerful shaman known as the "Mog-ur"; and eventually Iza's daughter, Uba.  From there, a clash of not just cultures, but of biology and evolution, is inevitable.

Ayla struggles to conform to the rigidly gendered world of the Neanderthals (collectively known as "the Clan"), where women are largely devalued.  Her greatest enemy is Broud, the son of Brun's mate (not of Brun himself -- an important distinction) who despises her on a deep level that goes beyond mere chauvinism.  The threat of him eventually assuming leadership looms over the book.  Even before then, he changes Ayla's life in a fundamental way when he rapes her, leading her to give birth to her half-Neanderthal, half-Cro-Magnon son Durc.  Broud's cruelty eventually forces Ayla to leave and find her own kind, but not before she uses her innate strengths to rise above the Clan's restrictions on women, winning the respect of her adopted people.

The Good

1.  Structure.  First, The Clan of the Cave Bear is Auel's tightest novel.  Not just in terms of size -- a hair under 500 pages in the paperback -- but also in terms of plotting.  Of the six, Clan is the only one that, to me, feels as though it is building to a specific purpose.  The Valley of Horses has a purpose as well, but the road there does not feel as tense or as satisfying.

Why is that?  Maybe because while Auel had the entire series worked out in her mind (she claims that her first draft encompassed all six novels), the first book was the clearest to her, as is often the case.  Or maybe because Clan was influenced by other fish-out-of-water stories, namely The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes.  In the short story "Mowgli's Brothers," Mowgli is an orphaned human raised by wolves; after rising up to protect the aging leader from Shere Kahn, Mowgli is forced to leave and return to the human world.**  In Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan is an orphaned human raised by African apes who wins the respect of his tribe -- and the wrath of their leader, Kerchak -- by drawing upon his uniquely human skills and weapons for hunting.  He, too, eventually leaves to be with his own kind.    

In both stories, the "foundling" is taken in by a loving mother against tribal custom.  One story features a wise, aging leader (Akela), while the other features a leader with a violent hatred of the human protagonist (Kerchak).  Both stories also feature humans learning how to survive in natural surroundings.

While both stories were likely an influence, The Clan of the Cave Bear has so much that is unique that you could not simply claim that it is a female version of Tarzan of the Apes.

2.  World Building.  To me, Clan succeeds better than any other Earth's Children novel in making me feel as though I am in a completely unfamiliar world.  Auel created a vivid, convincing Neanderthal society, from their daily life to their values and religious beliefs.  From cave bear remains in caves, she created a belief system based on worshipping the cave bear, "Ursus," and on valuing the power of spiritual animal totems.  She created a system of social customs, where each person in the Clan had specific ways of addressing each other, both for formal and informal occasions.  She created elaborate rituals and extensive kin networks.  Auel detailed the Clan's way of life right down to what they ate and the tools they used.    

And it's not just a case of her glomming on to whatever was the current research: using mere skeletal remains, she was able to conjure up Creb as a character.  In fact, the holes in existing research seemed to give Auel creative freedom that she would not exercise again.  Take, for example, Ayla's trip into the Mog-ur cave and her "journey" with Creb.  The entire scene has a darkness that Ayla's subsequent "experiments" lack.  Then there are Auel's theories that all Neanderthals were born knowing all that they would ever need to know, and that all Neanderthals were psychically connected.  Okay, that last one is a bit much, but it definitely showed a willingness to test limits.

The result was a world where I understood why the characters acted the way that they did.  It also underscored the depth of Ayla's differences from the Clan, as well as the challenges that she faced.

Also, Clan does not scrimp on its portrayal of what a harsh prehistoric environment would be like, from Ayla's birthing scene (oh God, wish I could wipe that from memory) to blow-by-blow depictions of hunting mammoth.  It is worth mentioning that unlike in the subsequent novels, there is nothing romantic about the sex depicted in The Clan of the Cave Bear.  At best, it is merely servicing; at worst, it is brutal rape.

3.  Appealing Heroine.  Auel made certain that we bonded with Ayla from the get-go by killing off her parents in the first couple of pages.  Then, if that weren't enough, she brought her to the brink of death before Brun's clan even found her.  Auel made Ayla so isolated and vulnerable that not only was she without clothes or any kinship ties, but she couldn't even keep her real name.            

Not so appealing here, though the white
face make up is kind of cool.
And even after she is brought to the loving hearth of Iza and Creb, what does she get?  Told that she should not speak (the Clan used sign language), cry, laugh, or partake of any freedoms whatsoever because she is Only a Woman.  And she is considered to be stupid and ugly to boot.

How could we not root for her?  How could we not sympathize with her from the beginning and hope that she overcomes the sexist obstacles in her path?  How could we not look down upon the misguided Clan customs that keep her bottled up?  It does not hurt that Ayla is at her most human in this book.  She is at turns willful, afraid, envious, and despairing.  She is not yet held up as a Mother-Goddess figure.  In fact, she is an object of scorn for much of the time, until she gradually wins the Clan over.

After seeing how much Ayla has suffered, we want her life story to turn out well.  Long after I had grown tired of her in subsequent novels, I still kept reading based on this initial bond.

The Less Good

The Clan of the Cave Bear merits less criticism than the other novels, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to criticize.  If anything, a reread made me see that many "Auelisms" that I found fault with in later novels were also present in this one.  These include long, dull descriptions of scenery; wooden dialogue; a tendency to lecture; some cringeworthy sentences; and Auel's allergy to the semi colon.  

1.  Tell Not Show.  Despite Auel's impressive job with world building, she has a tendency to lapse into telling but not showing.  For instance, we are constantly told how rigid and unchanging the Clan's views are, how they literally cannot change without great effort, and how they are incapable of creative or abstract thinking.  Yet we repeatedly see the opposite.  Brun might grimace and moan and hold meetings about Ayla's latest impropriety, but within weeks or even days, he alters his views and permits the activity, and soon the rest of the Clan follows.  Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has held onto prohibitions against women for 2,000 years.              

"Tell not show" also includes Auel's constant need to lecture about how Ayla represents the New and Innovative while the Clan represents the Old and Dying.  An example: "His hatred for her was hatred of the old for the new, of the traditional for the innovative, of the dying for the living.  Broud's race was too static, too unchanging.  They had reached the peak of their development; there was no more room to grow.  Ayla was part of nature's new experiment, and though she tried to model herself after the women of the clan, it was only an overlay, a facade only culture-deep, assumed for the sake of survival."  Now imagine that said fifty times.  It will only get worse with subsequent novels.

2.  One Note.  One thing that struck me upon rereading was how one-note Broud's character was.  He is resentful and angry... and resentful and angry... and resentful, violent, and angry... and so on.  Had Auel made Broud a more nuanced character, someone who had a very positive side and struggled to suppress his darker nature, the final outcome might have been more suspenseful.  Instead, I wonder why Ayla didn't make contingency plans prior to Broud assuming leadership, since his pattern of cruelty was only likely to intensify.  I guess I can see why... this was the only family she knew and she had a small son... but it gives the final scene a sad inevitability.

3.  Bad Prose.  Despite Auel's skills for world building and characterization, her prose is often... prosaic.  While she does write decently compelling action sequences (like Broud and other hunters chasing down a mammoth), many of her descriptions are dull and are best scanned over.  Then there is her allergy to proper punctuation.  But what marks her as a fiction writer without much experience is a sentence like this: "It was patently obvious that her behavior was shockingly indecent."  Shudder.

4.  Who's Your Daddy?  In Clan, Auel sets it up so that men and women are unaware of how procreation works.  The Clan think that when a woman gets pregnant, a man's totem defeats hers, and that sexual activity has nothing to do with it.  Therefore, Clan men have sex with whomever they want, believing it has no consequences.  This creates an interesting situation in Clan, in that Broud does not realize Durc is his son, but becomes a big pain in the neck when it is extended to the rest of the Earth's Children universe.  Yes, apparently Ayla is the only one in Ice Age Europe to know where babies come from.

5.  Boxing Herself In.  The fundamental dichotomy between Ayla and the Clan does not invite further scrutiny as long as it is confined to this novel.  In Clan, Auel would present characters who, while bound by tradition, were hardly simple.  Yet when she had to present the Others in the subsequent novels, she ran into trouble.  She had to actually show them being innovative, creative, all of the wonderful qualities that she ascribed to Ayla as a representative of her kind.  But we all know that not every modern human is so creative and amazing.  What to do?  How could Auel present the Others realistically, including the malcontents and sticks-in-the-mud, without blurring the lines between the Others and Clan?   

First, Auel's explanation for Brun's remarkable flexibility in Clan was that he and his people represent the very best of what the Clan has to offer.  So he and his clan are not typical Clan.  In fact, we never find out what is "typical Clan," or how Ayla would fair with a clan that was less special.

On second thought, that's not true.  We do have a baseline for Clan behavior, or at least Clan values -- Broud.  How do I know?  Because of this passage: "The men were convinced that [Ayla's docility] was brought about by [Broud's] tightening discipline.  They nodded their heads knowingly.  She was living proof of what they had always maintained: if men were too lenient, women became lazy and insolent.  Women needed the firm guidance of a strong hand.  They were weak, willful creatures, unable to exert the self-control of men.  They wanted men to command them, to keep them under control, so they would be productive members of the clan and contribute to its survival." (p. 179 paperback)

So while Broud's temper may not have been the norm, his values certainly were.  Brun was the one who was out of step.  Yet in subsequent books, Auel would try to isolate Broud as the exception to the rule, rather than the norm.  Most Clan men were kind, decent providers except for that horrible Broud.  Lost would be the fact that Broud was acting according to the standards of his society.

Second, Auel would make it so that Ayla was not merely a representative of her people, but exceptional.  She would become Saint Ayla of the Others.

Finally, after liberating Neanderthals from the "Ug-ug stoopid" box, presenting them as full beings, Auel would stuff them back in -- at least part of the way.  Other than an unsatisfying episode in The Plains of Passage, we would never see things from the Clan's point of view again. 

While The Clan of the Cave Bear deserves praise for its characters and innovation, it sows the seeds for problems to come.

Next Week: The Valley of Horses.  Ayla finally meets the fabulous Others... eventually.   
* To my ever-lasting shame, I erred initially in stating the date of The Clan of the Cave Bear's release.  It was 1980, not 1981.  That would have been a very impressive feat for Auel to produce The Valley of Horses just one year later!

** Believe it or not, I've never sat through Disney's The Jungle Book in its entirety.

Both images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Earth's Children Series: Not Just Ice Age Romance Novels

Replica of a painting in the Chauvet Cave in France.
The original is thought to be 31,000 years old.
I said in my last update that at some point I would tackle a book critique.  I've decided to think big and do six... Jean Auel's six, that is.

For those who are unfamiliar, Jean Auel's Earth's Children series began in 1980 with The Clan of the Cave Bear, about a Cro-Magnon girl losing her family in the prehistoric era and being raised by a clan of Neanderthals.  Clan became a runaway best seller and quickly established Auel as an author to watch.  Notably, Clan was not only the first novel of the series, but also Auel's first novel ever.  In fact, I think it was the first piece of fiction that she had ever written.  Let that sink in for a moment.  

Within 10 years, The Clan of the Cave Bear was followed by three other door-stopper best sellers: The Valley of Horses (1982), The Mammoth Hunters (1985), and The Plains of Passage (1990).  Then production stalled for 12 years, until The Shelters of Stone (2002) was released.  Then... more stall, before Auel released the purported last book of the series, The Land of Painted Caves (2011).

Each novel advances the story of Ayla, the girl orphaned in Clan.  We watch her grow from five to roughly 26 years of age, as she learns the ways of her Neanderthal family, meets Cro-Magnons like herself, then travels across a frozen continent to meet her sweetheart's kin in what was the Ice Age version of a big city.

Then she becomes God.  Or something.

The appeal of the Earth's Children series is multifold.  First, we quickly become bonded to Ayla, a fish out of water in a Neanderthal clan that is very different both physically and psychologically.  We root for her to find a place in her new family and to later overcome every obstacle that falls in her path.  Second, the series presents a way of life that is practically nonexistent now, except maybe in rainforests or on communes.  A time when woolly mammoths walked the earth, when humans lived in small bands on a frozen tundra, eating only what they killed with spears and knives that they had forged.  A time before television and smart phones, before massive plagues and smog.  A time when people understood what really mattered: family, survival, and lots and lots of sex.

Yes, that.  Much like Game of Thrones's "sexposition" scenes, Auel books after The Clan of the Cave Bear include several graphic sex scenes almost as if required by contract.  What begins as touching and sensitive becomes eye glazing and repetitive by The Plains of Passage.  Jean Auel defended the sex scenes by noting that sex would have been very important to prehistoric society as a way of ensuring its survival.  While that was no doubt true, would it have killed her to occasionally suggest, rather than throw it at us like a drenched towel?  Did she really have to include words like "swollen manhood" and "deep pink petals"?            

Ayla and Wolf in The Land of 
Painted Caves.
While the novels have won much-deserved praise for their portrayal of forgotten cultures, they have also received their share of criticism.  In addition to the abundant sex, the Earth's Children series has been criticized for its repetitiveness.  Events from past books are practically cut-and-paste into successive ones, even though devoted fans would have reread the series several times, and new readers would have the past books fresh in their minds.  Then there is the potent criticism that Ayla is a Mary Sue: so beautiful, so good at everything, and so idealized that she ceases to be a real person.  At several points in the series, she is raised to almost deity status, and by the end, it is clear that she will eventually be the most powerful among her people.

I have mixed feelings about Auel and her creation.  On the one hand, as an author trying to get a novel published, I see Auel as a hero.  In 1980, she was a 45-year old mother who had married in her teens and raised five children before putting herself through college.  She is truly the Rudy of novel writing.  People like her are not supposed to get published, much less be so successful.  And yet not only did she get published, but she also created the prehistoric novel genre.  Before Auel's novels, Neanderthals were viewed as "Ug-ug, I stoopid" creatures with huge clubs that they pounded into the dirt.  Based on the bounty of her local library and some survival lessons, Auel created a portrait of Neanderthals as intelligent, with their own rich culture and traditions.

Furthermore, I certainly can't hate the "You go girl!"-ness of The Clan of the Cave Bear.  Not only is it incredibly gratifying to watch Ayla survive and thrive in Neanderthal society, but in 1980, it was likely also a very powerful feminist statement.  Seeing Ayla's achievements made me root for her even in subsequent books, when it had become much less satisfying to do so.

On the other hand, I have many issues with Auel's writing.  They include Ayla's character arc, the presentation of her blond hunky "soul mate," and the way Auel dodges some very uncomfortable truths that threaten to undermine the power of her first novel.

Over the next several weeks, I will be looking at this series in at least six installments -- one for each book, and one or two other installments for any topics that need to be discussed separately.  For those of you who have no interest in this series, I will be alternating between posts about Earth's Children and posts about other topics.  My very next post will be about The Clan of the Cave Bear, but then the following post will be about a different topic.  I will try to continue posting at least twice a week.  Hope you stick around!

Next Time:  Jean Auel's best novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear.  But is that really all one can say about it?   

The Chauvet image came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.  The Land of Painted Caves image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Across the Universe

This one was, and may always be, the toughest decision I have ever had to make.  Some musicals are just made to be on the Wrong list.  But Across the Universe (2007) does so much right -- so very, very right.  A month from now, I could completely flip and decide that Across the Universe should be on the Right list.  But at the moment, I think that its flaws outweigh its virtues.  The movie starts well and then slowly sinks throughout the course of its 133 minutes.

In the most basic sense, Across the Universe is a jukebox musical that makes good use of the Beatles' song catalogue.  Yet it would be more apt to describe it as a love letter to the Beatles.  Certainly not the first -- that would probably be the much-panned Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- but possibly the best.  As someone with a deep, abiding passion for the Beatles, I don't take that lightly.

The story unfolds much like the Beatles' own trajectory.  During their early suit-wearing period, the Beatles' songs were tight and explosive.  Yet from 1965 onward, their songs became looser and dreamier, incorporating more and more nonsense, until the band broke up in 1969 (officially in 1970).  Across the Universe also begins tight and becomes looser, though not necessarily in a good way.  The story follows Jude, a young lad from Liverpool who hops a ship to the United States to meet the father that he never knew.  It turns out that his father is a janitor at Princeton University, and while a relationship between them never really develops, Jude does befriend a trouble-making student named Max.  Max takes Jude home for Thanksgiving dinner, where he introduces him to his sister, Lucy.  Lucy's boyfriend has just shipped off for base camp before heading overseas to fight in the Vietnam War.  Jude immediately develops an infatuation for Lucy, despite also having a sweetheart back in Liverpool.  Max decides to drop out of college, even though that means losing his draft deferral, and he and Jude go to live in New York's Greenwich Village.  There, they share a space with Sadie, a singer; Jojo, a guitarist; and, eventually, Prudence, a teenage runaway.  Lucy visits them and they all go away on an extended road trip with the "existential drug guru," Doctor Robert, while Lucy and Jude fall in love.  From there, things fall apart, as Max goes off to fight in the Vietnam War, Lucy becomes heavily involved in protests, and tensions develop in Sadie and Jojo's band.  Jude gets deported, but arrives back just in time for a reunion on the roof of a building.      

As demonstrated above, the Beatles' homage goes beyond merely using the band's catalogue of songs.  Across the Universe also incorporates several iconic Beatles' moments, such as the band's final live performance on the roof of the Apple building.  Yet at the same time, it is not simply an obvious parody or a copy of the Beatles' history.  Oh, and since so much was made of Les Miserables being sung live, this is worth mentioning: nearly all of Across the Universe was also sung live.  There were some differences -- I think most of the live singing was to a pre-recorded track, so the music did not fit itself to the actors' singing like in Les Miz -- but it was still in-the-moment live singing.

The Good

As I said, there is a lot of good in this film.  Here is a not-inconsiderable list of its best features:

1.  Good Singing.  It probably matters less here than in a more conventional musical whether the singing is good.  But fortunately, it is good.  Jim Sturgess as Jude has a buoyant singing voice, and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy has especially good chops.  (So good that a rumor persists that she was twice offered the role of Eponine in the Les Miz movie, but turned it down.)

2.  Inventive Use of the Beatles' Song Catalogue.  It would have been easy to fill the soundtrack with the best-known Beatles hits -- and they are there -- but Across the Universe also manages to mine the depths of the Beatles' catalogue and feature the lesser known.  For example, one of the early scenes is set against the backdrop of an early song "Hold Me Tight": the scene cuts between Lucy and her boyfriend dancing at a suburban high school prom and Jude and his girlfriend dancing in the dingy Cavern.  Another lesser-known song, "It Won't Be Long," is used to demonstrate Lucy's anticipation of her boyfriend returning home.  But the best use of a lesser song would probably have to be "I've Just Seen a Face," as shown below:                

But it's not that the movie simply uses lesser-known songs: it also uses well-known songs in interesting ways.  "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" depicts Max's medical evaluation and his departure for Vietnam.  "I Want to Hold Your Hand" features a girl singing about her unrequited love for another girl.  Even "A Day In the Life" is well used, stripped down to a single guitar that forms the backdrop of a tension-filled sequence.    

3.  Inventive Visuals.  Except for the opening scene, it is not all that apparent in the first half of the film, but Across the Universe has some truly mind-blowing visuals.  They kick into gear about the time the main characters go on the bus trip with Doctor Robert, and we're taken into the Psychedelic Sixties.  Director Julie Taymor's visuals in this sequence would make the Fab Four proud: from the kaleidoscope bus trip to the circus with a parade of Blue Meanies to the dreamy unreality of Jude and Lucy connecting underwater.

4.  Nice Homage to Beatles' True Life Events.  Not only does the movie use the songs and names from songs, but it also uses locations that held meaning in the Beatles' career.  Not only the rooftop (though not the Apple one), but also the Merseyside docks, and the Cavern, where the Beatles played before they rocketed to fame.  

5.  It Is Frequently Fun.  Emphasis on the word "frequently."  Across the Universe could have been a lot more enjoyable than it is.  However, there are still many good moments scattered throughout, from Jude's first meeting with Max and his friends to the final call for Jude to go get the girl.  The characters look like they're having fun in these scenes, and that makes it more pleasurable for the viewer.

The Bad

Maybe it would have been too much to expect any jukebox musical to be wholly original, with deep and complex characters.  Or that it would completely resist the urge to showcase songs over story.  But as a viewer, regardless of the genre, I still look at whether the story flows and whether I am invested in the characters.  Unfortunately, Across the Universe fails to deliver on both counts.

1.  The Story Loses Momentum.  It may have been Julie Taymor's choice to pattern the movie after the Beatles' shifting musical style, but it's not one that works well for the viewer.  The first 30 to 40 minutes or so are fairly well paced: we meet Jude and Lucy; Jude meets Max; Jude meets Lucy.  The scenes are tight and burst with energy, especially the aforementioned "Hold Me Tight" and "It Won't Be Long," as well as "With a Little Help From My Friends."  However, even before the gang embarks on the Doctor Robert Express, the momentum starts to falter.

The first misstep happens fairly early, when we meet Prudence, a high school cheerleader, and she sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  The next one occurs during the song "Let It Be," which takes place during the Detroit riots.  Individually, these scenes are great, but within the context of the movie they feel too long, more like music videos than necessary scenes.  I understand that we need to establish Prudence and Jojo as characters -- even though they are mostly inconsequential -- and that it would be unthinkable to cut two iconic songs.  But they are both so drawn out, especially "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  They suck momentum right out of the movie.

By the time we reach the Psychedelic Sixties phase of the movie, the momentum completely stops, and the movie has trouble finding it again.  It doesn't help that the story fails to explain a lot of situations, relying on the viewer to find the clues.  For instance, when and why did Sadie "betray" the band by choosing to go solo?  If the movie shows her reasons, it is blink and you miss it.  Supposedly her motives were better explained in the longer director's cut, but that might never see the light of day.  So we have a situation where necessary scenes have been cut, while slow-paced, overlong scenes remain that fail to contribute much to the overall story.  The effect is that I had to fight off sleepiness more than once before the movie finally shifted to its tenser third act.

2.  The Story Is Cliche.  Why does a movie with Beatles songs need to be set in the 1960s?  That was one of the biggest criticisms when Across the Universe premiered, and I think it is a valid one.  While it is quite possible to view this era from a unique angle, this movie doesn't do that.  Vietnam War?  Check.  Greenwich Village hippies?  Check.  Psychedelic drugs?  Check.  Protests?  Check.  Parents Who Just Don't Understand?  Check.  Moreover, it doesn't really say anything new about the Beatles.  They were born, they were psychedelic, and they died.  I think the movie would have been better received if it had been shaped with a different time period in mind.  It would have been interesting to see how Beatles songs might have served a story focused on the Iraq War, or even a setting that had nothing to do with war.

3.  The Characters Are Cliche.  Despite the movie's efforts to give each character a backstory, the characters never rise above cliche.  Jojo lost his younger brother in the 1967 Detroit riot, yet he comes across as little more than a Jimi Hendrix stand-in.  Likewise, Prudence's storyline comes to a crashing halt once she "comes in through the bathroom window"; from that point onward, she is nothing more than a background character.  Sadie is just the Groovy Chick and possibly a MILF.  Max is the Lovable Loser (and to me, the "lovable" part is questionable).  Even Jude and Lucy fail to rise above their essential "cute boy meets cute girl" characters, despite Jude's backstory and Sturgess and Wood's winsome qualities.  Because I don't really connect with the characters, I care less about their struggles and grow more impatient for them to be resolved.  That also makes a movie that could have been very enjoyable drag on.

4.  The Movie Never Escapes Its Jukebox Musical Trappings.  How do I put this?  It might have worked better if this Beatles musical were not about the Beatles at all.  Yes, I just spent time saying how much I appreciated the way it paid homage to the Beatles, but... it feels as though Across the Universe is too bound by the conventions created by those songs.  Like it has to stage certain scenes in certain ways because that is the context in which we have always known those songs.  Like there must be a psychedelic scene; there must be a band; "Revolution" must be about protesting a war.  I guess I'm just restating No. 2, but the movie missed an opportunity to really explore the lyrics and reveal their meaning in a new way.


Despite its missteps, and despite the fact that it made the Wrong list, Across the Universe is plenty enjoyable and a movie that I would recommend to anyone.  And that is something I won't regret saying, whether two weeks or two years from now.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT

Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  Dreamgirls, Les Miserables 

NOTE: I just watched the movie again last night and made a few minor corrections to the story synopsis.  That's what I get for writing a review based on a memory a few months' old.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Downton Abbey Extra: Why Queen Victoria Was Awesome

Queen Victoria, date unknown.  PD-US
Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
But she doesn't have a lot to say.
Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day.
-- Beatles, "Her Majesty"*

Before I leave Downton Abbey for good until Series Four, I wanted to write a post that I had hinted at writing earlier about one of history's most misunderstood women.  Well maybe I shouldn't go quite that far, but there are definitely some preconceived notions about Queen Victoria that should be put to rest.  That she was a dull, pious person who always said "we" and who spent 40 years mourning her husband.  Well, that last one was true.

But she was also passionate, astute, and remarkably progressive for her time.  And where she wasn't progressive, her five daughters were.  In short, she was awesome.

First, a quick history of Queen Victoria.  She was born in 1819 to King George III's third son, Edward Duke of Kent, and christened Alexandrine Victoria.  When she was born, it was considered possible that she would ascend the throne, but far from certain.  Her father died when she was nine months old, and until she was 18, she was largely controlled by her mother.  Finally in 1837, Victoria ascended the throne, and in 1840, she married her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  They had nine children, and the marriage was very happy until its too-abrupt end, when Albert died of typhoid fever on December 14, 1861, a date that would live in infamy in Victoria's family.  Victoria then put on mourning for her "dearest Albert" and never took it off.  She is currently the longest-reigning ruler in British history, finally passing away in early 1901.

Second, I want to dispose of some common misconceptions about Victoria.

1.  Marrying Her First Cousin Caused Her to Pass On Hemophilia.  A lot of people blame Victoria's first-cousin marriage -- Albert was the second son of her Uncle Ernst -- for creating the defective gene that caused hemophilia in unlucky male carriers.  Victoria's youngest son, Leopold, had hemophilia, as did several grandsons and, most famously, her great-grandson Alexei, Tsesarevich of Russia.  Victoria's children and grandchildren had a tendency to marry their cousins as well, which did not help the perception of the illness.  However, it has been determined that Victoria's hemophilia gene was the result of a spontaneous mutation, possibly passed down from her father.  Edward of Kent was 52 years old when Victoria was born.  He most definitely was not her mother's first cousin.

2.  She Used the Royal "We" All the Time.  I don't have access to all of the records on Victoria, so I can't say how often she did use the royal "we."  However, I do know that she didn't always do so -- letters to her daughters demonstrate that she was very comfortable speaking in the singular.

3.  She Invented Victorian Morality.  Erm, no she did not.

While Victoria no doubt set trends -- she was the Queen -- she also followed them.  She became Queen during a time of reform and reaction to a past era believed to be wasteful and scandalous.  She and Albert were influenced by these trends as much as they helped set them when they married and raised their family.

And while Victoria was religious, that doesn't mean what you'd think it would.  She was the head of the Church of England, in an age where the church you attended was part of your identity.  To be an adult with full rights and privileges in Victorian England meant being a part of the "Church."  In fact, throughout much of the 19th century, even Christians who identified with other sects were discriminated against.  There was no space to recognize atheists, and even the suggestion that life developed differently from the Biblical account was scandalous.  Victoria was religious because it would have been unheard of for her not to be.  But there is no evidence that she was unusually devout or introspective.

So what made her awesome?  To me, it's that underneath her staid exterior, she held some sharp, passionate, untraditional views.  For instance, in letters to her eldest daughter Victoria (called "Vicky" within the family), she discussed her distaste for pregnancy.  Was it because she couldn't bear its association with sex and immorality?  No -- she just thought it was gross.  She complained that pregnancy robbed her of her freedom and that giving birth made her feel like "a cow or a dog."  Perpetually pregnant women were "disgusting," like "a rabbit or a guinea pig."  

Really, the whole marriage and motherhood thing irritated her.  Victoria thought that babies were ugly.  She hated the idea of breast feeding.  She was happiest when she saw her children as little as possible.  Yet if that were all, you could simply call her a crank and move on.            

Victoria's daughters.  From the left: Alice, Helena, 
Beatrice, Victoria, and Louise.
Disappointingly, Victoria never promoted her views to the public, and thus never used her influence to spur a much-needed reconsideration of a woman's role.  However, at least some of her views filtered down to her daughters, for they each seemed to realize that marriage was not the be-all-end-all for women.  They were still products of their time -- all five were married, with Beatrice, the youngest, actually fighting to get married in order to avoid having to care for her mother all her life.  All but Louise had children, and Louise's difference may have been due to medical reasons.  Yet they also pushed against the boundaries of marriage and family.

Vicky, highly intelligent and well educated, expected to influence politics in Prussia before her nasty in-laws and Otto von Bismarck shot her down.  Alice founded numerous organizations, with many geared toward nursing and helping widowed or "fallen" women learn a trade.  Queen Victoria had taken her daughters to visit wounded Crimean War soldiers, where they were also exposed to the revolutionary nursing practices of Florence Nightingale, and it left a great impression on Alice.  She also took an active interest in the human anatomy, and she and Vicky both defied Victorian "norms" -- and their own mother -- by choosing to breastfeed their children.  When Victoria learned about Alice's choice, she went and named one of her cows "Alice" in disgust.    

Helena, the third daughter, was also supremely active in founding charities, as well as a needlework school to give unemployed women a livelihood.  Meanwhile, Louise may have been the most unconventional of them all.  She attended art school and became a sculptor, sculpting a statue of her mother that stands to this day.  She also expressed an interest in politics and controversial movements like Irish Home Rule, while the rest of the family tried to keep a careful distance.
Victoria's daughters were taught to value their minds, unusual for that time.  Vicky was considered to be her brother "Bertie's" (Edward VII) intellectual superior, even though she was female and supposedly possessed a "weaker" mind.  It's difficult to say whether Albert was more responsible for the daughters' education than Victoria -- until his death, she gave him credit for nearly everything -- but if she did not advocate for a more progressive education, at least she never interfered.    

But Victoria wasn't only passionate about hating motherhood.  In fact, when it counted, she just as passionately supported her children and especially her grandchildren.  After Alice died of diphtheria in 1878, Victoria practically adopted her children and kept a very close eye on their development.  When she learned that one of Helena's daughters had suffered cruel treatment from her in-laws, she said sharply: "Tell my granddaughter to come home to me."  When other monarchs were using their children to produce grand marriage alliances, Victoria simply wanted her children to live near her.  That meant even sanctioning Louise's marriage to a commoner, the future Duke of Argyll -- the first royal-commoner marriage since 1515.

Yet that just describes Victoria the private woman.  Victoria the public woman is more difficult to discern because so many momentous things that happened during her reign were either the work of Parliament or were credited to her husband.  And Albert deserved much of the credit he received.  He
Prince Albert, May 1860
was incredibly progressive in many ways, though maddeningly hidebound in others.  He supported science, technology, and innovation at a time when it was the fashion for well-born Britons to spend their school years learning ancient Greek and Latin.  He improved numerous institutions.  However, in giving all of the credit to Albert, it is easy to give none to Victoria, as if she were nothing more than a cipher.

It doesn't help that Victoria spent a decade out of the public eye after her husband's death.  Others could probably do a better job summing up her accomplishments as a monarch, but from what I gather, she was a frequent advocate for the poor and dispossessed.  Among other things, she supported expansion of the franchise so that working-class men could vote, supported a Royal Commission on housing, and patronized numerous charities.  Politically, she was extremely involved in numerous international conflicts, and not just ones that encompassed her empire.  A letter from her to the German Kaiser Wilhelm I was thought to have prevented a second Franco-Prussian War in 1875.  She was deeply concerned about Russia growing too powerful, especially during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.  Victoria generally supported peace efforts, and was horrified as her once beloved grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, adopted the views of the militaristic Prussians.                    
The books on Queen Victoria and her daughters are almost too numerous to count, but if I had to recommend any to start, they would be We Two, Victoria's DaughtersAn Uncommon Woman (about Vicky, later the Empress Frederick), and Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse.  Another wonderful resource is the Alexander Palace Time Machine Forum, which is centered around the last Russian Tsar and his family, but which features a section on the British royals and their ancestors.

When I say that Victoria is "awesome," I don't mean that I would like her as a person.  I would probably dislike her -- she could be very controlling and selfish.  I also don't think she is awesome because she masterminded the expansion of her empire, because she didn't.  What I like and admire about her is that she was just an incredibly real person.  She thought unconventional things and was very frank about her thoughts.  It helped that she was the Queen, of course.  Though not the best mother by any means, she still rose up when it counted and defended her chicks, and their chicks, from international reproof.  She "had their back," so to speak.  In short, the real Victoria was a far cry from the dull matron that so many think they know, and that is a shame.        

* "Her Majesty" is, of course, not about Queen Victoria, but about Queen Elizabeth II.

All photos are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The copyrights have expired and all are in the public domain.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 6: End of An Era

So here we are on the final days of the Manor House project.  Let me start by saying that I understand the appeal of spending three months living upstairs.  John and Anna Olliff-Cooper have gotten some flack for their comments about how they regret having to leave that world for the modern one, and while some of that flack is deserved, I feel that some of it misses the mark.

For three months, "Sir John" and "Lady Olliff-Cooper" got to put aside their cares and be catered to every hour of every day.  While we might scoff, is that not what most of us secretly aspire to?  Isn't that what most of us secretly wish for -- to become rich and not have to deal with the petty stupidities of life like waiting in line at the bank, or listening to the neighbor's leaf blower?  So for three months, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper got to be exactly what they had always worked so hard to be: so rich, they no longer had to deal with day-to-day cares.  And best of all, they did it while they were still young enough to enjoy it.  Their post-show comments demonstrate that they viewed it as a holiday, like going on an extended trip to the spa.  They seemed aware that this would never be their world permanently.  And if they had to do it for a year, I suspect they would have had more problems with the lifestyle.  Anna Olliff-Cooper would certainly become uncomfortable with seeing so little of Jonty and Guy.  John Olliff-Cooper would probably get bored with shooting.  They would both start craving modern conveniences like computers and televisions.  So in a sense, while they lived the life, they didn't really live the life -- it was just an extended fantasy to them.

THAT SAID, what this show illustrates is that people once did live that life every day for years.  While they got to put away their cares, at least in theory, it came with a very steep price.  So that they could have no cares, other people had to care for them at the expense of their own happiness.  Manor House does a good job showing that this simply was not sustainable.  That the fantasy life we all seek of moving beyond petty everyday human crap means that someone else has to assume the burden.  It doesn't just vanish. 

Anyway, back to show.  Not only is the project in its waning days, but so are the Aristocrats' Glory Years.  For the year is 1914, when World War I began and Innocence Was Lost Forever.  Hmm, not dramatic enough?  When Innocence Was Lost Forever.  That's better.

Sir John summons all of the servants into the hallway and announces that in the grand tradition of country houses, there will be a servants' ball on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day.  The servants will eat on china normally reserved for the family, and then a bonfire and fireworks will be held outside.  The servants are naturally thrilled with this idea, until Edgar informs them that the family will be invited as per tradition.  They then get to work creating a life-size human dummy to burn on the bonfire.  With its moustache, it is easy to see which member of the household it resembles.

We watch a lot of miscellaneous bits of Manor House life that may not have fit into the other episodes. In one scene, both upstairs and downstairs play card games while Edgar does lots of opining about how gambling was a big thing among the careless Edwardians, as if it started with them.  We also see both upstairs and downstairs watching themselves in "pictures" projected onto a wall.  It is pretty funny: in one, Monsieur Dubiard's shadow creeps up behind Kenny, and in the next scene, Kenny's head is on a platter.  For those who had their fill of Kenny's "honesty," this probably provoked quite a laugh.

Oh look, there's Erika.  I'd almost forgotten she was on this show.  She just does her work without complaining and hasn't hooked up with anyone, so she merits only the occasional shot in a group scene.

The servants are also having some qualms about leaving their Edwardian lives.  Yes the work is hard and the family often unappreciative, but they have created real family unit downstairs.  There is some comfort in the predictable lives; even though they may have more freedom in real life, it also means having to make more choices, and being unsure if each choice was the right one.

Finally it's Guy Fawkes Day, day of the servants' ball.  The servants get to ditch their uniforms and sit at a long, elegant table.  They wax nostalgic about their very first meal together, which was eaten in complete silence.  Kenny had not yet arrived -- if he had, I doubt that would have lasted more than a few minutes.  Regardless, it's clear that Edgar no longer needs to resort to such stern discipline to keep the other servants in check, that they respect him enough to follow his directions on their own.

After dinner comes the dancing.  The Olliff-Cooper family heads downstairs, Sir John seeing it for the first time.  The other servants pretend to be glad to see them, except for one.  Monsieur Dubiard has been quietly fuming for some time now over the way Sir John has deviated from Edwardian norms when it suited him.  First he rejected a dinner of pig cheeks, and later he objected to being served fois gras because he thought it was brains.  So when Sir John appears downstairs, Monsieur Dubiard decides to give him a piece of his mind.  He explicitly refers to him as "Mister" John and tells him that he is a fake Edwardian.  Only his speech is a bit jumbled, so Sir John dismisses it easily and carries on as if he never heard.  Later, he and the family gather with the servants outside to watch the fireworks, and to watch his likeness burnt in effigy.      
Despite whatever comforts they've (unexpectedly) derived from their positions, the servants know all too well that the past is better left behind.  During this period, many servants would have volunteered to fight in World War I, or might have even been "volunteered" by their masters to serve as batmen, the way Bates was Lord Grantham's batman in the Boer Wars.  The narrator notes that many men would have been barred altogether from joining up due to health problems caused by malnutrition... but that those who did were quickly slaughtered.  That includes even the upper-class Jonty types, who had a one-in-four chance of being killed on the front lines.  We saw in Parade's End how bad combat could get.  Jonty notes that even if he survived, he would have trouble coming back to a system like Manderston after having fought alongside his servants.

The narrator then embarks on a bleak assessment of where the servants would end up if this really were the World War I/post-war period.  If Kenny and Ellen stayed together, Kenny might be war fodder and Ellen might have to put their kids in an orphanage.  Edgar and Mrs. Davies would fare a bit better, with retirement cottages and a small government pension.  That's if they weren't victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 150,000 Britons.  Meanwhile, a woman in the post war might see one of her sisters get killed by George V's horse in an effort to advance the cause of women's suffrage.  And although women over the age of 30 got the vote in 1920, for those like Miss Anson, it was "too late" to enjoy any newfound freedoms, thanks to her limited education.

This last one I have a quibble with.  Miss Anson, 50 years old in 1914, would have probably been young enough in the 1890s to be a "New Woman" if she chose.  Moreover, women were starting to get university educations as early as the 1870s -- it's not like she reached adulthood in the 1860s, when educating women was still a largely foreign concept.  Again, advancement back then depended upon many factors, including critical family support, but it's not like she was doomed simply for being born too early.

At least Antonia, Becky, and Jess are young enough to have bright futures.  Jess might have trouble finding a husband with so many men dead, but hopefully her father won't prevent her from marrying a man with whom she is entirely compatible simply because he is older and has a bad arm.  If they remained in service, they would see their wages and rights increase, while their daughters got better educations and advanced to better careers.

Even the Sir Johns of the world would feel the change of the post war period.  The narrator proclaims: "The extravagant lifestyles that their owners thought would last forever would not survive."  Oh really?  You mean there are no more extremely wealthy people in this world?  People who drink wine like it's water and who burn through their fortunes for the sake of pleasure?  Who have completely lost touch with reality and have no concept of who their helpers are or how hard they work?  Those people no longer exist?

While it may be true that aristocrats lost power relative to the rest of society, in some respects, they were just replaced by people with newer fortunes.  And contrary to the narrators' claims, many aristocrats were aware of how fragile their lifestyles were -- hence the rush to marry wealthy American women that was highlighted in Downton Abbey.

Finally we reach the last day of aristocratic living for the Olliff-Coopers.  Lady Olliff-Cooper says darkly that she has come to feel at home in the more leisurely, grandiose Edwardian period, so when she returns to 2001, she "won't be going home."  When Sir John calls the servants into the hall for a last prayer, he cannot stop the tears from flowing.  The family then passionately thanks the staff, many of whom know far more about them than the other way around, and many of whom don't share their affection.

Then boom.  The Olliff-Coopers walk out the door wearing their 21st century clothes.  I understand where Lady -- now Dr. -- Olliff-Cooper was coming from when she lamented leaving the life because damn, those styles suited her much better than the current ones.  The one who has the fewest regrets about leaving is, of course, Miss -- now Dr. -- Anson.  After the family leave in one modern car, she turns around, gets into a little red sports car, and drives off in the other direction.

But then, in a moment I really wish the show had captured, Dr. Avril Anson returned and went downstairs in her modern clothes to thank the servants.  It took them a few seconds to even realize who she was, but when they did, they were finally able to really talk for the first time as equals, which meant a great deal to all involved.

Now Manderston belongs to the servants, who are leaving the next day.  And the first thing shown to highlight their newfound freedom?  Sigh, Kenny and Ellen snogging in an upstairs bedroom.  Though what elevate the scene are Edgar and Mrs. Davies' "pretending to be shocked" reactions to finding them.  Meanwhile, Becky mops the floor of the grand downstairs hallway, wanting to enjoy the one time it would stay clean instead of being immediately muddied by the upstairs' footprints.

Then, one by one, the servants return to the modern world.  Some clean up very nicely, others not so much (Charlie looked better in a suit).  Last one to leave is Edgar.  He was the one who opened Manderston to the project, and Edwardian butler to the end, he will be the one to close it down.           

Downton Observations

A Last Point of Comparison.  
So as I noted in the beginning, Manor House is Downton Abbey's mirror image.  While Downton projects the loveliness and certainty of the pre-World War I era, Manor House highlights its disadvantages.  The truth may lie somewhere in between, though I have a feeling it lies closer to the Manor House portrayal than the one on Downton.  If anything, even Manor House may have sugarcoated some aspects.

In any respect, I don't mind Downton's concoction of pretty fantasy intermixed with the occasional jarring death so long as no one takes it for representing how Things Were Better Then, when more people had fewer rights.  That's why I am glad that a show like Manor House exists, apart from other qualities that make it addictive viewing entertainment.

One final, more serious note: we like to think that we're better than the people of the earlier era, that now everyone is free and equal, and no one need endure the servants' hardships any longer.  While that may be true in theory, in reality it happens all the time... and we all benefit.  Many people wear clothes made in sweatshops, or employ nannies who are given virtually no time off, or eat food that was picked by people working 14-hour days for low wages.  While much of this treatment is illegal, it still happens all the time, as employers exploit loopholes and rely on the public's ignorance.  The next step in progress will be shining light on such exploitation... as well as other workplace abuses that happen every day.

So on that note, thanks for following!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 5: Not Like Us

We're nine weeks into the project, and it's time for a history fast-forward.  The year is now 1911, the year that Edward VII's son, George V, took the throne.  It's nice to see Manor House acknowledge the changeover, instead of pretending that Edward VII lived until the beginning of World War I as so many historians do.  Ah yes, the Edwardian Period, that sun-dappled time of innocence and splendor before Everything Changed Forever.  Since George V was to be crowned Emperor of India, as well as King of the United Kingdom, the Olliff-Coopers are going to hold an Empire Ball, as well as a separate "Raj Supper" with an Indian prince as one of their honored guests.

That is the cue to focus on Mr. Raj-Singh, Guy's tutor and a background figure up to this point.  The narrator notes that in 1911, most Indians in Britain would be high-ranking civil servants or the sons of the Indian upper class.  In real life, Reji Raj is a primary school teacher and presumably used to a highly active life.  On Manor House, much like anyone not at the very top of the totem pole, he seems to be chafing under the life thrust upon him.  Though a servant, he spends most of his time upstairs and eats meals with the family.  He rarely interacts with the other servants, except to make rather frivolous requests for his window to be opened.  The other servants strongly dislike him, even the normally restrained Edgar.  Mr. Raj-Singh does come across as something of a priss-pot, but I suspect one reason for these requests is a simple desire for human interaction.  Sir John told him that he shouldn't go below stairs because he is like a member of the family, yet he never gets to relax with the upstairs the way he would with a family member.

So the resentment simmers between Mr. Raj-Singh and the downstairs servants, boiling over at one point when Edgar informs him that the downstairs servants will be celebrating Rob's birthday, so Mr. Raj-Singh will need to feed Guy while Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper dine alone for their anniversary.  Instead, Mr. Raj-Singh departs for a night on the town, forcing Sir John and "m'lady" to postpone their dinner until after Guy has gone to bed.

Before relations can erode further, the day arrives when the Olliff-Coopers hold the Raj Supper for Prince Moshin Ali-Khan and other luminaries.  The idea was born from an attempt to make Mr. Raj-Singh feel more accepted upstairs, and he is given the task of inviting Indian dancers and musicians to Manderston for entertainment.  As they are considered servants, they enter through the back way and eat downstairs with the other servants.  In a voice-over, Mr. Raj-Singh laments that many Englishmen will never accept him as one of them, that he will always be seen as Indian.  To his credit, Sir John voice-overs that such attitudes are unfortunate because Mr. Raj-Singh represents the best of English values.  Though one wonders if he would be so accepting of Indian descendants without Mr. Raj-Singh's polished manners and delicate speaking style.

Anyway, hours before dinner, disaster strikes.  Monsieur Dubiard has a massive case of diarrhea and has been ordered to stay in bed, leaving the rest of the servants to cook an authentic Indian dinner for the honored guests.  Antonia, Ellen, Mrs. Davies, and Kenny get to work rolling the dough for naan bread and cooking curry and other dishes.  Now and then, Kenny goes up to consult with Monsieur Dubiard, who even tries the food (uck -- who could do that in his condition?) and who eventually defies doctor's orders to come downstairs and continue directing the staff.

Meanwhile, not only has Prince Ali-Khan arrived, but also two other guests of Indian descent, television newscaster Krishna Guru-Murphy and writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.  As usual, Mr. Raj-Singh is invited to partake in the upstairs dinner, while the footmen serve and Edgar stands watch.  The mixture of guests adds a bit of spark to the gathering: whereas Prince Ali-Khan is demure about the destructiveness of the British empire, Guru-Murphy and especially Alibhai-Brown do not hold back.  They criticize Ali-Kahn's ancestors for failing to take a stand against imperialism, noting that Indian royalty accepted it because it gave them knighthoods and other privileges, even though they were not considered equals.  They also express disgust for the Edwardian great house hierarchy, which Sir John defends, and Guru-Murphy asks him if the lower servants are happy.  He confirms that they are, before admitting that he and Lady Olliff-Cooper don't actually talk to them.  "So how do you know they're happy?" Guru-Murphy asks.  Sir John replies that he gets reports from the upper servants and from the smiles on the servants' faces.  At this, Guru-Murphy and Alibhai-Brown burst out laughing, knowing as well as anyone how easily happiness can be faked.

Alibhai-Brown then turns to Mr. Raj-Singh and asks him if he is happy within this system.  No doubt Sir John expects him to say that he is, given how generous the family has been to him.  Instead, Mr. Raj-Singh launches into a series of complaints about how constricted he is and how he doesn't get along with the other servants.  When Alibhai-Brown asks him if he has ever gone downstairs to talk to the other servants, he is forced to admit that he has not, that they are basically invisible to him.  "You are made for this role, then," she says, as Mr. Raj-Singh smiles uncomfortably.  The exchange leaves Edgar fuming, though he is in no position to respond.  He notes that Mr. Raj-Singh just stabbed Sir John in the back after being made an honorary member of the family, and that he made it sound as though the servants were excluding him due to his race.        

After that bit of tension, it's time to prepare for the Empire Ball, where aristocrats pat themselves on the back for conquering one-fifth of the world's population.  Elaborate costumes will be worn, honoring Britons of the past who contributed to the empire (such as Sir Francis Drake), and elaborate dishes from all parts of the empire will be served.  Miss Anson has returned from her food poisoning -- I mean, from recovering her nerves.  She commiserates with Mr. Raj-Singh over the feelings of isolation, of having no one with whom to have a normal conversation.  Was that really the case back then?  I'm sure in that setting, things were more formal, and maybe in 1911, Miss Anson would not be speaking to Mr. Raj-Singh, but accounts of Victorian life are filled with really close friendships, especially between women.  Did things change so much in the Edwardian period, or was the project trying to draw distinct lines that, in fact, would not have been so distinct?

Finally, when Charlie appears to clear away the glasses and china, Mr. Raj-Singh works up the nerve to thank him and the other downstairs servants for the work they've done.  His gratitude causes Charlie to rethink his attitude toward Mr. Raj-Singh, which had been understandably hostile.

Shortly before the Empire Ball, another guest arrives: chat show host Darcus Howe, who grew up in a part of the Caribbean that was once part of the British empire.  Sir John and family invite him into the house for an informal dinner on the sofa.  Like Guru-Murphy and Alibhai-Brown, his purpose for being at Manderston seems to be to gawk at the Edwardian aristocrats in their gilded cage.  Howe cannot suppress disbelief at some of Sir John's statements, including that he will be devastated when he has to leave to be ordinary John Olliff-Cooper again.  He manages to get Sir John to admit that he is the son of a printer and presumably of working class origins.  When Howe asks Sir John why the son of a printer would be devastated to leave Manderston, Sir John emphasizes that it is because he is not the printer, that he was taught to look upward -- seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is embracing a class system that would never tolerate him aspiring to a life above his station.  That the entire house is built on a system of keeping people in their place. 

It's Empire Ball day!  Miss Morrison has stayed up all night sewing the costumes, and though she does not have the privilege of attending, she at least gets to delight in watching other people put them on.  At the Ball, little Guy gives a prepared speech to Britannia (Miss Anson) about what makes Britain mighty, and all of the assembled guests in costume begin singing some variety of Britannia is Awesome song.  Howe stands in the crowd, looking uncomfortable.  Then it's time for the eating and dancing.  As they do so, the episode cuts between them and the servants reacting to a report of the Titanic sinking.  The narrator proclaims that "the Edwardians couldn't believe their floating palace would sink, or that their glittering world could end."  In case that was too subtle for you: "In their manor house fantasy world with its treasures and feasts and empire balls, the privileged danced blindly on."  If you wanted confirmation that despite the hours of hard labor, it is better to be a servant on this show, there you go.

Downton Observations

Diversity...?  Apart from Pamuk (and even that's debatable), have there been any non-white people on Downton Abbey?  The closest to multiculturalism that I can think of was any episode that featured the strife in Ireland and... well.  So I find the discussion of race and empire on Manor House to be rather refreshing.  Whether Downton will follow suit in Series Four remains to be seen.

Conversely, that this show has said little about Ireland is also noteworthy, though I'll excuse it due to time.  Whereas Downton has had three series to do the conflict justice and we're still waiting.

Next Week: Episode Six and the last.  The Olliff-Coopers' glittering world comes to an end.