All entries for Monday 18 June 2007
June 18, 2007
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We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent feature, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents. (134)
Like O’Farrell’s previous novels, After You’d Gone, My Lover’s Lover, and The Distance between us, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is gripping and full of emotional and psychological twists. As the fragility of various relationships is untangled and interrogated and various time periods are seamlessly woven together, the drama of the narrative becomes increasingly compelling and, at times, disturbing. Placed in a psychiatric hospital as a rebellious teenager and confined there for the next sixty years, Esme invariably lives through memories of her childhood- one that was shared with her sister Kitty who now suffers from dementia. When the hospital is due for closure, Iris, her only living relative, previously unaware of Esme’s existence, is summoned to help. The relationship between these two women serves as the central focus for the novel right up to the powerful cliff-hanger of the conclusion. This novel is worth reading, however, not just for the high drama of the narrative but also to learn about the horrifying treatment and diagnosis of real or imagined mental disorders that many suffered under in mental asylums in the early twentieth century.
Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts, Graduate School of Humanities, Cardiff University, 28-29 June, 2007
The principal aim of this conference is to encourage doctoral researchers from across the humanities to consider how the concept of reading may come to bear on their own subjects of research. ‘Reading’ here is intended to be interpreted in a wide sense, to include the reading of, e.g. images, buildings, inscriptions, theatre or dance performances or other creative productions as well as books and manuscripts. This approach both allows participation by students from many humanities disciplines and topics, and also provides a framework for interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. Beyond this tangible ‘cross-fertilisation’ a secondary aim will be to foster skills and confidence in presentation and communication among postgraduates.
The paper I will give at this conference is entitled ‘Writing and Reading the Rhetoric of Femininity in Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep.’
Written in 1892, The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse is Christina Rossetti’s last published work. Few scholars have taken it seriously enough to conduct a through survey of the ideas presented. Although hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, such dismissal is understandable when the relentless self-mortifying comments that Rossetti makes about her own hermeneutics are taken into account. Certainly, her claim that all she can do is ‘but quote both texts’ is not a great incentive to engage in a comprehensive study of its hermeneutics. Whist Joel Westerholm suggests that the constant reminders of the humility of the author may have influenced the book going through seven editions ; it is difficult for a modern readership to appreciate such self-deprecation.
With a specific focus on The Face of the Deep, my paper will examine the extent to which Rossetti sought to muffle her more controversial and challenging messages within an overtly traditional ‘feminine’ discourse in which she positioned herself as a ‘reader’ rather than an interpreter. Insistently fearing that she was being ‘overbold’ (551) and crossing the elusive line between performing a ‘surface study’ and probing of the depths of the un-revealed mysteries surrounding the nature of God, she resorted to denying any authorial responsibility.
As I expand on Rossetti’s hermeneutical interrogation of the term ‘reader,’ I consider her self-deprecating remarks in the context of her medieval fore-mothers such as St Teresa of Avila. Alison Weber suggests that the use of “feminine” features in St Teresa’s work are to be seen as the means by which she broke the Pauline silence and asserted her authority whist at the same time defended herself against any charges the Inquisition could bring against her. Despite the gap of three centuries between the writings of St Teresa and those of Christina Rossetti, the insights that Weber’s book bring are of an immense help when considering the language of obfuscation that is shared by both writers. Although Rossetti did not have a death threat hanging over her for interpreting the scriptures, her authority was, as this paper will demonstrate, similarly severely hampered by the fact of her gender.
The Hidden Burne-Jones exhibition, on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until July 1st, is definitely worth visiting. I’ve always admired Burne Jones and to see his finished paintings alongside his preliminary sketches heightened my interest in his work. I was especially interesting to see his designs for stained glass windows and tapestries. The size these images in which numerous symbolic meanings could be identified were fascinating.
Nonetheless, I found the most remarkable aspect of Burne-Jones’ work, as displayed in this exhibition, in his depictions of garments. Revealing as well as concealing features of the body, his numerous studies of various forms of drapery highlight the ways in which the garments which appear in his final masterpieces were carefully thought out.
Since I have recently been writing about Christina Rossetti’s 1858 poem entitled, ‘“Rivals”: A Shadow of Dorothea,’ it was interesting to see Burne-Jones’ depictions of the legend which relates how St Dorothea, in AD 303, was mocked on the way to her execution by a young man, Theophilus who had heard her say she would soon be in a garden. He asked her to send him fruits from her ‘garden.’ When Dorothea subsequently knelt to pray, a child-like angel came with a basket of roses and apples, which Dorothea asked to be sent to Theophilus. He was converted to Christianity and later became a Christian martyr (Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems [London: Penguin, 2001], 1139). In Burne-Jones’ sketches of the scene with the dead Dorothea wrapped in her shroud, Theophilus looking down upon the numerous mourners gathered beneath his house, and the child-like angel standing beside him, the focus on the folds of drapery is highly wrought.
Alongside many of the works on permanent display in the Museum, such as two of the four ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ paintings, Burne-Jones’ sketches were on display. Like those of the legend of St Dorothea these sketches help trace Burne-Jones’ composition processes and enable a deeper understanding of his final works.
Since visiting the exhibition last month, I’ve found the Burne-Jones resource site accompanies it a very useful resource.