Tag Archives: women writers

Female Monsters and “Bastard Out of Carolina”

The idea of the monstrous female is a pervasive, but relatively recent concept. It’s really only since the days of the conquering, semi-nomadic Indo-European warriors that the female form has been perceived as a monster. The wonder and beauty of reproduction, revered as sacred by many early civilizations, became twisted and seen as deviating from a male norm. From this women became deviant beings capable of hiding things, of being two (or possibly more) people at once, of being recombined. Thus was born the female monster, twisting pre-existing myths into distorted mirror images that have left their mark on our culture well into the twenty-first century.

Bastard Out of Carolina

… is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Greenville, South Carolina. It is narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, and examines the expectations of gender and mother-child relationships; it also explores how those roles and relationships evolve and conflict. Class, race, sexuality and gender play out in Bone’s life and in her relationships with others. The obvious primary conflict of the story is between Bone and her mother’s husband, Glen, but the less obvious conflict is between Bone and her mother.

It is also a novel full of monsters. Some are obvious, some are not. Some are male, some female.

Some of the female monsters are archetypes — the monstrous mother, the silent but knowing opposition and the independent woman.

The Monstrous Mother

Anney Boatwright is one the biggest monsters of the novel. She is the mother of two girls and loves them deeply. However, her love for the girls — and especially her oldest, Bone — pales in comparison to the passion she feels for Glen Waddel. This inevitably leads to conflict, in her marriage, with her daughter and within herself.

When Glen beats Bone, Anney rails and screams but never interferes; she even goes as far as to ask Bone “what did you do?” Even when the rest of the Boatwright clan discovers the extent of Bone’s beatings, Anney does very little. She moves out, but then goes back. And after the explosive final encounter between Glen and Bone, she still chooses her lover over her daughter, even after having witnessed him rape the thirteen-year-old. Despite her motherly love, Anney abandons her daughter to leave with her abusive husband, an act many interpret as wholly monstrous. After all, what kind of woman puts her lover above her children? And yet, Anney is not an entirely terrible person; she is, in some ways, as much a victim as her daughter.

The Silent Opposition

Bone represents a completely different type of female monster. The story is told through her eyes, making her silent observer, the one who watches and listens and gathers information in order to draw her own conclusions. While it’s clear she internalizes messages from her family and society, she still manages to keep her own counsel and form her own opinions.

It is likely her knowledgeable silence, as much as anything else, that enrages Glen — he can’t control her mind and he never really knows what she is thinking. This allows her to read Glen, to decide what she thinks of him, regardless of what he does. He fears this ability of hers could be his undoing, which might explain why he seeks to force Bone into the typical female mold. As long as the dangerous ability is loose and uncontrolled, she has the power to destroy Glen … if only within her own mind.

The Independent Woman

Bone’s Aunt Raylene is another woman who does not fit the mold and is partially demonized. Unlike her sisters, Raylene never married or had children, lived in the same house while her brothers and sisters moved around and has always kept her own counsel. In some respects she could be seen as an older version of Bone, but not entirely. She recognizes that she could easily have become Glen had a past relationship continued; Raylene, more than any other character in the novel, actually recognizes a good many things about herself and others.

Her main monstrosity, however, is her independence. She has no need of a man to protect her and she can take care of herself. As readers we respect Raylene, but we also acknowledge that the independent, unattached, child-free woman is a source of confusion to many in our society. Because she does not fit the mold she is Other – and Other easily crosses the line into monstrosity.

The Takeway

Although we can define monster in many ways — disfigured, recombinant and malformed — in the end it all boils down to Other. And as a society, we tend to see Other as monstrous. Despite inclusivity politics and increased understanding, we still find the Other in those who disagree with our politics, religion, lifestyle and sexuality, to name just a few. Too many still fail to see that we are all Other. Everyone on this planet is recombinant, made of many facets and genes; taken that way, we are all monsters.

And if we are all monsters, then perhaps it’s time we reevaluate what a monster really is.

“… having never a word to answer for myself”

Mid-seventeenth-century England was a time of turmoil and chaos. Political strife and religious unrest were rampant. The Age of

Anna Trapnel, here misidentified as a Quaker

Enlightenment was decades away, but people were already beginning to stop, look around, think and speak out.Sects, some of them radical, formed, each with their own agenda. One of these groups, the Fifth Monarchists, were devoted to the belief that the four kingdoms described in the book of Daniel had passed and the time of the fifth kingdom — that of the returned Jesus Christ — was at hand. They believed they were saints living on the cusp of a new millennium. Several were high-ranking members of Oliver Cromwell’s government after the English Civil War; two even signed the death warrant of Charles I.

However, they soon fell from favor, horrified when Cromwell set up his Protectorate. They tried and failed, twice, to overthrow the regime.

They or any other sect, when caught by authorities, could be charged with witchcraft or any similar offense, including public prophesying. Occasionally these crimes were tantamount to sedition and those accused were either jailed or executed.

One interesting exception was Anna Trapnel. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she knew how to manipulate the social, political and religious constructions that defined English society. She not only prophesied publicly, she dared to write. In her famous Report and Plea — which is fascinating and should be more widely read — she says she seeks only to tell the truth and claims to have merely acted as a conduit for God.

That was clearly not the case. Her subtle use of political commentary is too frequent to believe this to be anything other than, well, political commentary. Still, it allowed her to disclaim any responsibility for her actions, thus theoretically making her innocent of any and all charges the law would bring against her. This is extremely important; because she continually impressed upon her audience that she was only a vessel, what she said while “under the influence” are God’s words and not the opinion of the Fifth Monarchists — of which she was a member.

Trapnel was tried and acquitted of witchcraft in 1654. A great deal of her Report is her first-person chronicle of her trial. Her Fifth Monarchist agenda can be seen throughout, but is exceedingly clear in her arrest. While relating how the constables and other town officials arrived at her lodgings to take her before a magistrate, she casually mentions that one of the justices that arranged for her warrant, Launce, was “now a Parliament-man”. This references the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, which the Fifth Monarchists supported, and the institution of the Protectorate. Through her writing, Trapnel was confronting a fierce political rival.

Likewise she also identifies other areas of popular concern in her narrative, such as Church corruption. When speaking about her initial encounter with the law, when some tried to brand her a witch, she recalls the priest arrived with the officers of the law, because “one depends upon another, rulers upon clergy, and clergy upon rulers”. During her trial she mentions a particular priest with the justices, who had aided in the construction of the indictment against her. She noted “his pulpit wanted him … it being a fast day … which he broke without any scruple that so he might keep close to the work of accusation”. In both instances she attacks the symbiotic relationship between the Church of England and Cromwell’s government, using it to prove that the corruption was due to the lack of an earthly king. Indeed, it is her visions of an England ruled by “King Jesus” that most troubled Cromwell’s political order.

The way Trapnel constructs her text also lends credence to the idea that she was writing political commentary. No doubt drawing on popular crime literature and the rich and varied assortment of theatrical plays available, Trapnel turns her “report” into a drama complete with a heroine, villains and a chorus. At the heart of it all is Anna Trapnel, who portrays herself as naïve and guileless, while at the same managing to withstand when faced with the evil officials of a corrupt and immoral government. She frequently presents herself as an innocent; her characterization of herself is that of a martyr, even becoming Christ-like times. When taken into court, she says the spectators “mocked and derided me … but I was never in such a blessed self-denying lamb-like frame of mind as then”. Immediately, she has set herself up as the heroine who must “endure many trials” in order to “vindicate God’s word”.

Part of her “trials” is the trial itself; allegedly, she expected they would charge her as a “taciturn witch,” so she was as vocal as possible in the courtroom. Trapnel shows herself doing verbal battle with the justices who question her. She alludes to herself as a vessel throughout the proceedings and engages one justice in a theological debate over who has the right to judge another. This witty “judge not” repartee is intended to make Trapnel appear righteous, that she does not judge her fellow human being — God does. This dramatic scene reaches its climax when the “false witnesses” the court “procures” are presumably struck with the “error of their ways” and flee the courtroom. Trapnel goes on to recall more verbal sparring with her accusers, but the final result is an acquittal on the charge of witchcraft, although the court admonishes her to pray only in the place where she resides.

As she leaves the court, she very purposely mentions that the crowd outside was “very loving” and that they were convinced that she was “no witch … for she speaks many good words which the witches could not”. The crowd, then, is her Greek chorus. Their emotions are intended to mirror that of the reader’s, and to provide a vantage from which to view Trapnel’s case.

Anna Trapnel very clearly set out to write the story of her trial with personal vindication and politics in mind. Had done any one thing and not the others, her innocence would not be as questionable as it is. However, she evidently knew how to make her points without putting herself in too much danger — and it can be assumed that she had more motivations in writing and “prophesying” than she ever admitted in her lifetime.

For more on the Fifth Monarchists, see this entry on English Dissenters.

A PDF version of Report and Plea is available from Norton.

Money, Culture and Burney’s ‘Evelina’

Frances Burney d’Arblay
(Portrait by Edward Francis Burney)

Prompted in large part by @GeorgiannaGossip‘s fabulous group read of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, the Bookish Miss is revisiting one of her favorite novels and looking at it in a new way.

Evelina is an often overlooked landmark work. It was one of the first recognizably modern novels, written by a woman, immensely popular in its own time and precedes Jane Austen’s novels by decades.

It’s also a very good read. Even the eighteenth century grammar and rhetoric are easy to adjust to, and its epistolary format makes it good for reading in small bites.

One thing I find fascinating is that, throughout the story, money and culture are constantly in conflict. History reminds us that for a member of the upper class (often called the “ton”) to concern her or himself with money was a serious social faux pas; so was the allocation of a “use value” to any object or idea considered cultured. Burney knew this, she understood this. However, a great deal of her novel deals with incidents where her characters, willingly or not, have to deal with money or the idea that something can have a quantifiable value. This violation of unspoken rules and etiquette, the “social determinants of taste,” often contributes to social confusion for Evelina.

What’s most fascinating is that while Burney exposes the utter hypocrisy of the ton, they gobbled up her book. Of course, there are just as many characters for the ton to ridicule as there are upper class fools for the middling classes to revile. Taken in its entirety, Evelina demonstrates the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that eighteenth century Britons had with actual money.

One of the interesting things I noticed in my umpteeth reread of Evelina is that there seems to be a “buffer zone” between the ton and the rest of society. It appears to be an unspoken idea that there are areas money should not intrude on. This zone keeps people safe; no one but you and your accountant knows how much money you actually have. Anyone could spend lavishly during a season in London, but as to how they lived afterwards … well, that’s their business. Accordingly, when money matters do intrude it causes great embarrassment amongst the characters.

Take the opera scene. Branghton Sr. pays for the opera passes, but complains of the price and even goes as far as to haggle with the doorkeeper. When his daughters remark on his ignorance in the matter, the prices having been listed in the newspaper, he responds by telling them “the price of stocks is enough for me to see after; and I took it for granted it was the same thing here as at the playhouse.” As a businessman, he automatically looks for the usefulness of whatever he pays for. Indeed, he compares the opera to the plays he and his family regularly attend at Drury Lane and comes away from the experience upset, believing he has been “tricked out of his money with so little trouble.”

The reader comes away from this scene feeling sympathy for the embarrassed heroine, who has to put up with someone so “uncultured” he cannot grasp the concept of art for art’s sake. However, the scene not only shows how a member of the elite is mortified at the lack of appreciation for the opera, but how a middling class merchant is upset that the culture he helps finance does not give him his money’s worth.

The “buffer zone” is also crossed when the issue of debts and IOUs are broached. Because finances are not mentioned by polite society the very idea of commenting on one’s “arrangements” is considered vulgar and uncouth. Thus when Evelina first encounters Mr. Macartney she is somewhat shocked to hear her cousins, the Branghtons, openly discussing him and his finances. He is referred to by Miss Branghton as a “poor Scotch poet … [who will] never pay for his lodging.” Her comments are much less nationalistic prejudice as they are economic. A poet can be considered a writer and, as a writer, a producer. For the Branghtons, Mr. Macartney being a poet is not the problem, nor is it his nationality (although that surely plays into their stereotypes). The problem with Mr. Macartney, from the point of view of the Branghtons, is that he does not make money as a poet. Evelina and the ton see poetry for its aesthetic qualities and recognize that it as a product of social consciousness, but members of the middling classes realize that art, especially literature, is an industry. This is epitomized by Branghton Sr., who sees poetry and literature as something produced by writers and publishers and sold for profit.

Unfortunately for Macartney, he has no publisher and so makes no profit. Evelina, who pities his plight and is charmed by the aesthetics of his work, lends him money. Later, when he repays his debt (after using her as the subject of a poem without her prior knowledge), he causes something of a stir. That he chooses to conduct the transaction at an unsuitable time, in a public and inconvenient place, leaves Evelina open to public scrutiny.

However, even the unwritten rules of social expectation and conduct have exceptions. Bad news about monetary situations often got around, legitimately or not, but eighteenth century Britain’s greatest exception to their unwritten rules of monetary conduct was the marriage market. Commenting on the size (or lack thereof) of a young woman’s dowry was considered perfectly acceptable. What would appear to be an instance where the buffer zone is crossed turns out to be normal and a topic for conversation, even in polite circles. Indeed, when all of Evelina’s troubles are resolved and her marriage to Lord Orville is arranged, Mrs. Selwyn quite easily and unapologetically tells her that her father has given her a dowry in the amount of L30,000. This news is not so much shocking to the heroine as it perplexing; the causal mention of finances in everyday, if occasional, conversation goes unnoticed.

This double standard is very confusing and somewhat hypocritical, but can be understood. Evelina inhabits a world almost completely ruled by the elite of society — they create the rules and boundaries, including buffer zone between themselves and the middling and working classes whose work supports them. Burney’s genius is in satirizing her society by subtly (and not-so-subtly) pointing out its faults, vices and hypocrisies. The buffer zone, while a source of constant attack and embarrassment for the characters, allows the reader to see the fascinating dichotomies of eighteenth-century Britain.

All quotes taken from the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Evelina.