It Suits Me: The Importance of Naming – Stacy

In her Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith had to choose her character names and attributes with care to avoid offending those who served as models those characters. By selecting to use events from her actual life, she risked the threat of libel. Smith had to learn to refashion and blend fiction with fact to create alternate tellings of her real life stories and events. In showing so much care to protect herself from those who would sue her, Smith shows she would go to the same amount of care in crafting for her alter ego, her semi-autobiographical self, an interesting and provocative name to suit not only herself but the events she’s recreated in her novel. Smith created for herself a name to hide behind and create subtle and not so subtle differences in real life events and fictional events, and in a way, she treated herself as a character within her own novel, protecting her own name and life events against libeling herself. In creating her own likeness, Smith is able to show those aspects of Pompey’s life which matter the most to both the author and character.

In Novel on Yellow Paper, great importance is placed on the name of protagonist Pompey Casmilus. In his article “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”, Stephen James call Smith’s moniker choice “a sheer oddity of using two male names for a female protagonist (a gender bending tendency that persists through the work of ‘Stevie’ nee Florence Margaret Smith)” (243). However, it’s not simply important that Smith chose for the protagonist two male names, but the names of two males whom Smith considered powerful through history and mythology. By selecting two powerful males, Smith is, in a way, harnessing for herself the power of not only the male gender, but that of the two individuals: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a respected Roman military general; and Casmilus, an obscure name for the Greek god Hermes, who a quick internet search informs us is the Greek god of boundaries, merchants, travelers, and thieves, served as a messenger of the gods, and acted as an intermediary between the divine and mortal. Armed with this knowledge, the first word in Novel on Yellow Paper, Casmilus, takes on deeper meaning. The name first comes to the reader in the form of one of Smith’s poems, and as such recalls the feeling of one invoking a Greek muse. The calling of Casmilus feels like a petition for intercession to that realm between fiction and reality.

In looking at the words of Smith’s poem, one can see the importance of the aspect of hiding one’s identity. Smith’s poem begins with the lines “Casmilus, whose great name I steal, / Whose name a greater doth conceal” (Smith 9). By admitting that she’s stealing the name, the speaker of the poem reveals a sense of dissatisfaction with her own name and an interest in hiding or concealing her own identity by sidling herself along with the “name a greater doth conceal”. In disguising her identity with Hermes, the god who travels between, we can see the importance of Pompey’s concealed identity and gender from the reader, and possibly from herself. Pompey conceals her identity through her clothing choices and through the words she uses to describe herself, a girl and a woman. Even Pompey’s choice to remain unmarried and immersed in the male-dominated corporate world could be seen as a screen to conceal her gender. Pompey clearly traverses the in between realm just as her namesake.

As important as the names are which serve as Pompey’s new suitable name, the name Pompey replaces (and conceals) is equally important: Patience. Pompey states, “Patience I was christened, but later of when I got grown up and out and about in London, I got called Pompey. And it suits me” (Smith 20). Not only does a refusal of the name Patience go against the very act of being patient, it goes against her christened name, and, therefore, against the patriarchy of religion. However, the name does show passivity in that she “got called Pompey” rather than the stealing of her surname as the beginning poem claims. In this instance, Pompey does not inform the reader of the circumstances of how she earned the nickname of Pompey and does not disclose the person who gave her the nickname. It may not seem important; however, if the giver of the nickname was a male, she could just as easily be falling under the rule of the patriarchy again by allowing one of its members to name her. However, in true Pompey fashion, she might have given up the virtue of patience in order to claim the name for all its meretricious decay and elegance that suits her just fine (20).

James, Stephen. “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”. Essays in Criticism, vol. 66, no. 2., 2016, pp. 242-259. Project Muse. www. http://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/2/242.full.pdf+html.

Smith, Stevie. Novel on Yellow Paper. Virago Press Ltd. 1936.

 

Accidentally a Witch? – Naomi

When we were reviewing the literature for the semester, I was very excited about Lolly Willowes. Some of my favorite literature includes Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, so the concept of a woman trading her soul for a quiet life in the country was compelling. While the novel itself was fine, I was disappointed by the turn of events with Lolly and her “connection” to Satan, and it seems as though Lolly was as well.

Lolly Willowes moves to Great Mop to escape her family obligations and meddling family. She wants to live a quiet life without feeling as though she is responsible for those around her. Lolly is initially pleased with her move, but becomes agitated when her nephew, Titus, moves to the same small town. Her quiet life has been hijacked by her family once again. Enter, the devil … sort of.

Lolly goes to the woods in frustration and muses on the turn of events. She cries into the night, “No! You shan’t get me. I won’t go back. I won’t … Oh! Is there no help?” (151). And that is it. We are to believe that that single cry for help has damned her soul and locked her into service with Satan. The book goes on to explain that, “She stood in the middle of the field, waiting for and answer to her cry. There was no answer. And yet the silence that had followed in had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge. If any listening power inhabited this place; if any grimly favorable power had been evoked by her cry; then surly a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given” (151). Upon returning to her home, Lolly finds a kitten and realizes that it is her familiar and that she has made a pact with the devil.

This is where I disconnected, and remained disconnected. How could Lolly Willowes trade her soul without acknowledging it? Without full knowledge? It seems as though the most accepted concept in the trope of a literary character selling his/her soul to Satan is foreknowledge, and I find that to be blatantly lacking here. To further complicate this, when Lolly finally meets with Satan at the end of the text, he admits that, “No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise. You may be quite easy, Laura: you will never escape me, for you can never wish to” (210). Again, this seems to remove her freewill and desire to contract with Satan. And freewill is vital to the concept of pledging to either God or Satan. This statement also removes the potential for contrition and forgiveness, both of which are found rampant throughout Christian mythology.

Ultimately, I was left wanting more. More from Satan claiming a soul, more from Lolly aligning herself with the devil, more discussion of what it means to trade a soul for a quiet life.

Rusti, Olav. Woman with cat. 1876, oil on canvas, Bergen Art Museum,  Norway.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. 1926. The New York Review of Books, 1999.

Female Affection – Naomi

I’m going to need some help developing this idea (if there is anything here at all). It seems as though there is allusion to or acknowledgement of sexual attraction or connection between female characters in each of the novels we’ve covered so far: The Return of the Soldier, Mrs. Dalloway, and Lolly Willowes.

It struck me that there was a brief moment of (perhaps) lesbian affection between Lolly Willowes and another witch with whom she was dancing at the Witches’ Sabbath. At the dance, Lolly is moving from partner to partner and finally connects with Emily. “Laura liked dancing with Emily … They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. A strand of the red hair came undone and brushed across Laura’s face. The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness …” (175). Previous to this interaction, Lolly does not have an intimate connection to anyone she comes across; even to the several men whom her brother tries to set her up with. Although, I understand that writing is not strictly autobiographical, knowing that the author herself found companionship with a woman makes me wonder if there is perhaps some nod to that in the text.

In Mrs. Dalloway, the title character also has a moment of self-reflection as she remembers her love of another woman, Sally Seton. While at first, Clarissa’s internal monologue reflects that “on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man” (33), she goes on to describe how Sally “kissed her on the lips” (35). The feelings that stirred in her were profound: “The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!” (35). Again, this writing is done by an author who had a female lover.

The female connection in The Return of the Soldier is very different. After concluding that the truth must be told to Chris, Jenny and Margaret share a kiss: “We kissed, not as women, but as lovers do” (116). This seemed to come out of nowhere as I read the book, and indeed did not come up again. In this instance, Jenny and Margaret both loved the same man, perhaps mirroring West’s love affair with a married H.G. Wells.

Most of my classical reading from this time period is by male authors, so this is some of the first exposure I’ve had to early twentieth century British female authors. This trend is interesting as it may connect other things going on socially (ie. women’s suffrage). I’m interested to see if others found this as well, or if it is coincidence.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. 1926. The New York Review of Books, 1999.

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. 1918Broadview Editions, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.

For the Birds

There are so many interesting aspects of this novel that I still want to discuss. One that I am still not completely sure what to make of, and one we didn’t address in class, is the bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway.

As I was reading, I noticed bird imagery and descriptions of people as birds constantly.  Two birds are mentioned on the first page alone—A lark and a rook. I figured this would be a topic that had been written about at length, but I couldn’t find much in the library databases, or even by doing a general internet search, that discussed the use of birds in the novel. Eventually I uncovered a couple of sources that discussed the bird imagery, but not in very much detail. One source, a blog post on Blogspot,  tracks the instances of bird imagery in the novel.

In trying to decipher these images, I  thought about what birds can represent. The obvious things that come to mind are the juxtaposition of freedom in flight and life in a cage, the migratory nature of birds, the use of the term “bird” to refer to a young girl, and the fluttering nature of the smaller birds. The metaphor is complex, though,  because of the variety of birds used. Clarissa is described as a jay, Septimus as a hawk, Sir William Bradshaw as a swooping bird of prey, and Lucrezia as a little hen. The most obvious distinction here is between the male and female characters. The males are powerful, large birds of prey and the women are fragile little birds. The birds, I think, represent the character’s place in society.

 

jay_tcm9-17346

Illustration of a Jay from the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSBP).

There is so much I could say, but for now I want to focus on Septimus as a hawk. The idea of danger seemed to come up in this novel a few times. One of my favorite lines in the novel is “she [Clarissa] always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8). I love this line because, to me, it serves as a commentary on the novel itself–which takes place over the course of just one day and becomes quite dangerous at points. The day could be seen as dangerous to Septimus since he doesn’t live through it, but Septimus can also be seen as a danger to the society he is part of. He sees things for what they really are and ignores the conventions of his society. Septimus, thus, represents a threat to that society.

Another interesting aspect of bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway is the beak imagery. I’m not sure I want to venture down this road, but this  (on p.47 of the google book) excerpt from The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness by Thomas C. Caramagno discusses the implications of a “beak.”

My final guess as to the reason for all the bird imagery may be far-fetched, but the birds may represent the meaningless of (most) of the characters’ lives and their society.The use of the phrase “for the birds” was used during the first half of the 1900s, according to The Free Dictionary, and it was used to refer to something worthless or something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. This seems an apt description for the London society Woolf paints in the novel.

-Rebecca

Those Secret Exquisite Moments – Stacy

rose_redandwhitestripe

 

I wanted so badly to enjoy reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. This novel was my first encounter with Woolf’s work, and as such, I was excited, I was ready to be enticed, I was ready to be enchanted by the words of the celebrated author. However, I did not have that experience.

I recognized immediately that page one contained no chapter heading. I was not concerned at first; however, after I read for several pages, twenty or more, I realized there are no separate chapters. The novel is written as one long chapter. I found this phenomenon to be vexing as there were no natural stopping points. I felt as though the book should be read in one long frenzied, and frantic sitting. The frantic need to reach the end of the work increased to the point I felt as though I were anxiously experiencing moments of Woolf’s madness imprinted on the pages the further I read.

From our classroom discussion, I knew of the tunneling through multiple consciousness style of writing, and I expected I would enjoy reading from the multiple personalities. As I began, I expected a visual shift as a cue to a change in consciousness, but as such clues are not always present, I often felt I could not follow the swift changes. At several moments, I felt as though the characters were experiencing thoughts of obsessive-compulsive disorder through the listing of items. At first, I felt the listing was all in the mindset of Clarissa Dalloway as a matter of thought organization when she begins by stating the names of flowers available at Miss Pym’s: “delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises” (12). However, the repetition of the listing so quickly on the next page felt as though it were not so much an organization, but a problem. The action is repeated once again in the consciousness of Lucrezia Warren Smith in the form of a multi-step sequence: “Her words faced. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and tower; bleak hillsides soften and fall in” (23).  Through the purposefulness of this action, I felt more anxious.

Other moments, I felt as though the characters’ thoughts felt extraordinarily fragmented within the same paragraph. Though Clarissa Dalloway appears to recognize this fragmentation, she makes it appear more purposeful as facets of the whole. She explains the difficulty and exertion it takes to put oneself together as “[. . .] she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman [. . .]” (36). Though I did not feel the joining together of myself in the way of a faceted diamond, I feel as though I did experience a fragmentation of my thoughts alongside the pages which led me to a feeling of isolation which was reflected  in the thoughts of Septimus Warren Smith when he claims “he could reason; he could read, Dante for example, quite easily [. . .] he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then—that he could not feel” (86). Because I know nothing is wrong with my brain, hopefully, much like that of Septimus, I must find fault elsewhere in the world of Woolf.

Though I did not enjoy the reading of Mrs. Dalloway in its entirety, I felt I glimpsed the “secret deposit of exquisite moments” (29) through lines which were truly remarkable moments of literary ecstasy. These were moments in which I could see the landscape of London unfolding in waves before my eyes, the many colors of nature (especially through the multiple red and white flowers) blossoming across the pages, and the lives of the characters unraveling like seams.

 

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.

Starship Troopers Paradox

In the novel Starship Troopers, the characters are dealing with an intergalactic war with giant bugs. I read this novel several years ago and I prepared to teach a class on science fiction and fantasy literature. Ultimately, I decided not to include this text in the syllabus, because I found it to contain very little actual science fiction. My argument to a colleague was that the giant bugs could simply be replace by Russian soldiers and very little of the text would change. The novel is more a military book than it is anything fantastical.

The same could be said for The Return of the Soldier as a piece of war literature. The structure of the text would remain intact if Chris were suffering from amnesia due to a bump on the head or Scarlet fever. As a reader, we hear very little about the war itself with the focus being on Chris’s love for Margaret and Kitty’s desire to return to the status quo. Even at the end of the novel, the decision to cure Chris was due to the idea that the truth must be told rather than his duties as a soldier or possible return to the Western front.

Thoughts?

 

–Naomi Johnson

Some Big Picture Queries

  1. What is Britishness and how does it change or amalgamate over time? How do notions of Nation, Nationalism, and duty inform our comprehension of Britishness?
  2. What impact does Empire and Imperialism still have on our readings of British Literature? What implicit ideologies must we make ourselves aware?
  3. How do attitudes about and constructions of femininity and masculinity feature in the works we read? How do they change or stay the same across the decades?
  4. How does literary style change and what informs those changes?
  5. What themes/political issues/social concerns persist across the literature we read this semester? What becomes less important, de-emphasized? What becomes more vital?
  6. What needs to happen within the critical conversations (scholarly debates) to widen our understanding and interpretations of these works, especially those for which there is little critical attention?

Feel free to use these questions as starting points for your thinking about the content. You may use these questions to springboard your posts, response papers, and projects. You may also add to this list by contributing more questions and comments to this post, and I hope you will.