Monday, November 29, 2010

sixteen days...

Spending a large amount of time in my teenage room: I have come across the books I used to read and re-read as a teenager. Harry Potter is obviously great - even more fun because there are so many other fanatics out there to obsess with about what is going to happen, and who Harry's girlfriends are and who will die in the end (at this point we would always look unbearably grave and shudder at the pain of one Weasely twin dying and the other being saved, or perhaps that the ultimate terror would occur and Harry himself would die with Voldemort in a horrible twist). It makes me sad to think I know what happens now. A whole part of the fun is not knowing and waiting in ecstatic agony. I am not even over-exaggerating. It was ecstatic. I mean I read the new book from cover to cover in two nights whilst pretending to study for my trials and then read the last one with my wife, Natasja in rehearsals for our opera.

But the books I re-read recently (with whom I have never had obsessive companions, except my beloved Granny Pam) were the books by Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, famous for writing "Little Women" and "Anne of Green Gables" respectively. I bought most of them at Adams and Griggs in Musgrave Centre in Durban. They were all selling off at R20 a book (except a precious expensive few that found their way into my Christmas stocking) and I bought them up quickly and read them greedily. I read them for so many hours that I used to dream I was still reading them, seeing the print and reading new adventures of the characters when I was asleep.

I was trying not to re-read books that I wasn't studying for a long time as there simply is so much to read I will never be able to get through them all. Recently, however, I think nostalgia and curiosity got the better of me and I re-read some.

I love L.M. Montgomery because her descriptions are idyllic and home-y and full of rich and mysterious descriptions of the natural world:
"Emily loved every flower and shadow and sound in it, every beautiful old tree in and around it, especially her own intimate beloved trees - a cluster of wild cherries in the Southwest corner, Three Princesses of Lombardy, a certain maiden-like wild plum on the brook path...Emily was always glad she lived where there were so many trees - old ancestral trees, planted and tended by hands long dead, bound up with everything of joy and sorrow that visited the lives in their shadows" (4).

All her characters nurture their aspirations and have a fascinating and by turns conservative and eccentric neighbourhood in which they grow up. They are also all Presbyterians and know elderly matriarchs who think all other denominations are less righteous than theirs. Finally, they marry their childhood sweethearts (sometimes after some strife) and live happily ever after.

Louisa May Alcott lived about fifty years earlier, and wrote the "Little Women" quartet ("Little Women", "Good Wives", "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys") and then "An Old-Fashioned Girl" (this book, as a reader of many books, particularly the classics and my penchant for long skirts, antiques, old-fashioned morals and all sorts of things "Old-fashioned" was my favourite one) and then "Eight Cousins" and "A Rose in Bloom" (the one follows on from the other). The latter three books all feature strong women who wish to be financially independent women (in the 1800s!), live good lives uplifting their fellow human beings: particularly other women, whether they are orphans or old ladies too poor to live anywhere clean and decent. She advocates equal rights for all: women, servants, African Americans: all marginalised people should have their fair chance.

Most of her heroines also marry their childhood sweethearts, or wise men for whom they have great respect. Jo March marries a German doctor, and together they run a most amazing school where children are taught all manner of things to help them grow up to be good, well-rounded citizens.

Somehow, in all these wholesome lessons, nutritious stories and happy memories I've read for years, I presumed these lady authors had lived happy and fulfilling lives, rather like those that self-help gurus and modern, quaffed chick-lit authors pretend to lead. Reading the books again with my adult eyes, I felt I had fallen short of my childhood ideals. I had wanted to live these lives, making a difference to those around me and reflecting so that I could make my life neat around the edges.

I decided to do some research on my heroines for inspiration: see what they did to become such wonderful artists. I discovered Louisa May Alcott never married. She said she never met any man that she could fall completely in love with, although she admitted she loved many women deeply. Scholars disagree about whether this means she was a lesbian or not. Her childhood was spent moving frequently with her three sisters, mother and philosopher father who - at some point - decided he was a radical socialist and so refused to accept money for any work he did. His friends (among them Thoreau and Emerson) used to leave banknotes tucked away in the furniture for people to find, and his daughters all had to find any work they could to keep the family afloat, including domestic work (Louisa was abused at one of these positions), teaching and laundry.

She served in a hospital during the Civil War (she was an abolitionist) and contracted Typhus, for which she was given mercury as a "cure". She died at age 55 as a result. She still, however, outlived two of her sisters (one of them died of Scarlett fever. Remember Beth of "Little Women"?), her mother and her father (she died just two days after him). She also made sure her family had enough money and a house for the future by writing many novels (the same novels I loved) that she referred to as "moral pap for the young".

L.M. Montgomery married late in life after turning down many marriage proposals in her youth and after spending years looking after her ailing grandmother. From the comments I have read, she actually married because she realised being a single woman in Canada was an unpleasant and alienating life to lead. She married a depressive Presbyterian minister and had three sons, one of whom was stillborn. She also died at a relatively young age (after living for many years with bouts of depression) and there is uncertainty whether she killed herself or whether she had an accidentally potent drug cocktail for her ailments.

As I get older I realise that fairy tales are just that. Life is a messy, circular, woefully difficult business, not a "happy" ending. These women created worlds that I admired but they themselves could never live in them. The nature of stories is that no one can live in them, and yet everyone does. We make our lives by telling ourselves stories about what's happening in and around us, and those intertwine with others' stories until them become our own, or until we think they do. I am reminded of Tennyson's Maud: the melancholic hero continually confuses his memories with scenes from famous books and stories so that his past is surreally interwoven with fictions.

I suppose I can only hope that L.M. and Louisa were writing stories about the beauty and happiness that they did experience themselves, even if in tiny doses or that they had hope that others would live the dreams that they never could. Perhaps that dream was simply to write more honestly and searchingly about their lives through their characters rather than writing "moral pap" to help their families live comfortably. Either way, these women are people I respect deeply for writing about all they did in the midst of their predicaments. Their fictions have marked my past indelibly.

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