Not So Fragile After All

Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904)

Were Victorian women really as fragile as depicted? Take the case of Isabella Lucy Bird, who is described in her Wikipedia entry as follows:

From early childhood Bird was frail, suffering from a spinal complaint, nervous headaches, and insomnia. The doctor recommended an open-air life, and consequently, Bird learned to ride in infancy, and later to row. Her only education came from her parents: her father was a keen botanist who instructed Bird in flora, and her mother taught her daughters an eclectic mix of subjects. Bird became an avid reader. However, her “bright intelligence, [and] an extreme curiosity as to the world outside, made it impossible for her brain and her nature generally to be narrowed and stiffened by the strictly evangelical atmosphere of her childhood.”

So what did this proper lady do for kicks? She traveled around the world for several decades, writing a series of creditable travel classics. I am currently reading Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, amongst the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes (1874), which described her seven-month stay in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Other books and articles describe her travels to Australia, the American West, Japan, Malaya, Greece, Persia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Morocco.

Isabella Bird was by no means the only woman solo traveler of her time. There was also Lady Florence Dixie (1855-1905), who wrote an excellent book about Patagonia; Frances Trollope (1779-1863), mother of novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote of her travels in the United States; and Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), who traveled extensively in the Middle East.

Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Somewhat later, there was Dame Freya Stark, who traveled by herself among the Arabs and lived to the ripe old age of a hundred. I have read several of her books, which are uniformly excellent.

I can only look upon these women travelers with wonder and admiration.

Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.

Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Maria Magdalen in Ecstasy

One of the great Italian Baroque painters just happened to be a woman: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). The daughter of another painter, her father Orazio, Artemisia concentrated on painting women subjects, frequently using herself as the model. She was raped by another painter of her father’s generation and was hurriedly married off to protect her.

Her paintings have frequently compared to Caravaggio in their sense of immediacy and their lushness. Julian Bell describes her painting Lucretia in The New York Review of Books:

Lucrezia (1621)

The half-stripped woman picked out against the dark in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia is viewed from above, yet as I stand before this yard-high canvas, she seems to bear down on me. Light, here, is weight: the gleam on shoulder, knee, breasts, arm, and neck presses on my eye and there is no distance from the presented flesh. I have to do with this stout woman as if I were wrestling or embracing her. For whether you interlock with someone in anger or desire, that person will always possess a separate life, will, mind, and narrative, and so it is here. Lucretia tugs not at me but at the dark above, at God. Her prayer, stab-sharp, convulses not only her temples and the hand that clutches a dagger, but the whole rough thrash of limbs, gown, and sheets that fills this single-minded canvas.

Interestingly, the ancient Roman subject of the painting, Lucretia, was—according to Livy—raped by one of her husband’s kin and committed suicide to assuage her violated honor.

Small wonder that Artemisia is regarded as some kind of proto-feminist! But if you disregard for a moment her subject matter, she is also a great painter. She is more than a feminist: she is a profoundly great artist.

Women of Adventure

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993)

Some of the world’s most intrepid travelers were women. I am thinking particularly of Freya Stark, who tromped all through the Middle East and Afghanistan, in the processing writing a couple dozen excellent books, and died at the ripe age of 100. In her book Baghdad Sketches (1937), she wrote:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

In her book Valleys of the Assassins (1934), she added:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

This woman makes Ernest Hemingway look like a wussy boy in short pants.

And Freya Stark is not the only woman traveler who dared to go solo into the uncharted areas of the earth. There was also Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), who traveled extensively in Asia, and Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), whose destination was West Africa. In fact, Wikipedia compiled a list of female explorers which sets one to thinking. You can find it here.

Ladies of the Road

Another Fun Event at the Automobile Driving Museum: The Women’s Car Show

On Saturday, Martine and I dropped in at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo to see a car show dedicated to the wheels of women auto enthusiasts. This weekend, for the first time I began to detect a spring of hope in this grim pandemic season. Americans are getting vaccinated, and businesses are slowly beginning to open up again. (For the first time in over a year, we ate indoors at Ye Olde King’s Head Restaurant in Santa Monica.)

I was curious to see what a Women’s Car Show would be like, and found that the ladies liked vintage cars as much as men do. The men, however, would not accompany it with a fashion show.

Poster for the Women’s Car Show

Martine has developed a real fondness for the Automobile Driving Museum and its various events. I enjoy going because there are so few things that she likes so much. I also enjoy being with car enthusiasts, because many of the old cars are indeed works of art that I can well appreciate.

The Month of Reading Women

This Month I Am Reading Only Books Written by Women, Such as Virginia Woolf

I read a lot of books, but I feel I have not given women authors their due. So far, I have read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and am within a few pages of finishing Joyce Carol Oates’s The Man Without a Shadow. Ng is new to me, but I have always loved Oates, though I haven’t nearly enough of her prolific works.

Among the books I will be selecting from for the rest of March (in no particular order):

  • Something by Svetlana Alexievich, most likely Secondhand Time [Russia]
  • Rosario Santos’s The Fat Man from La Paz: Contemporary Fiction from Bolivia*
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night* [Russia]
  • Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead* [USA]
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity [France]
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Black House [USA]
  • Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place [USA]
  • Selma Lagerlof’s The Saga of Gosta Berling* [Norway]
  • Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [England]
  • Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star [Brazil]
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow* [Mexico/Canada]
  • Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women [France]
  • Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King* [USA]
  • Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive* [Mexico/USA]

Invariably, I will not read some of the above and likely add some other writers, such as Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Madeleine Albright, or Helen Hunt Jackson. It all depends on how I like the books I have selected.

Books marked with an asterisk [*] are by authors I have not yet read.

Crimes Against Women

I, Too, Have Been Affected by All the News of Crimes Against Women

I am just now beginning to realize that, being born male, I have lived a privileged lifestyle—without fear of being physically and emotionally violated. The closest I ever came was in the late 1960s, when I was on crutches and hitchhiking on Santa Monica Boulevard. One guy who gave me a ride attempted to fondle me, until I jammed one of my crutches hard against his throat and demanded to be let out immediately.

Otherwise, I have never been molested; nor have I ever attempted to molest any woman against her will.

Yet as the #MeToo news continues to unfold, I wonder what percent of women have had to fend off the advances of men who have felt they were in a position to have their way with a woman who was drunk or stoned or somehow in their power. If that percent is as high as I think it is, I feel abashed for my previous lack of understanding.

And that does not even include the women who were abused as minors.

I hope that, somehow, some good will come from all of this. Unfortunately, I am a pessimist. My view of the human condition tends toward darkness. This thing has been going on since man first came down from the trees, and perhaps even before.

 

Move Aside, Men!

Best in the World

Best in the World

Something happened quite suddenly in he last ten or twenty years: American women athletes have proven themselves time and again to be world class contenders. Today, the U.S. Women’s Team beat Japan 5-2 for the 2015 World Cup in soccer.

Although I was not able to watch the game, I am delighted to hear that our women won, and convincingly, too.

I would like to see soccer football replace the so-called American football with its armored players pawing the dirt with their feet during the innumerable time-outs that were no doubt created solely for the convenience of advertisers. Soccer football is the real deal: It goes back and forth in waves until a sudden break-out results in a goal.

Americans will always have problem with the concept of a tied game, especially when the result is a 0-0 tie. But even some of those games are exciting.

Way to go, Ladies!

 

Girls Who Say “Yow”

Icelandic Cannery Workers in Keflavik, Circa 1930s

Icelandic Cannery Workers in Keflavik, Circa 1930s

Actually, all Icelandic women say “Yow,” but only when they’re being positive. It happens that the word for “Yes” in Icelandic is , which is pronounced Yow. I repeatedly cracked up hearing conversations among women in which they kept Yowing back and forth to one another.

One day, while I was eating dinner at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar’s Einsi Kaldi Restaurant in Heimaey, the Icelandic girls’ soccer team walked in, still wearing their field uniforms. (There had been a national soccer tournament in Heimaey, which complicated my getting a hotel booking in town.)  After swooning at the impact of the beauty of so many Viking princesses at one time, I was amused by all the Yowing that went on as they described the game just completed.

Where I Encountered the Icelandic Girls’ Soccer Team

Where I Encountered the Icelandic Girls’ Soccer Team

Ever since Quentin Tarantino made a famous comment about young Icelandic women in a Conan O’Brien appearance about “supermodels working at McDonald’s,” stories and myths have abounded about the legendary beauty of Reykjavík girls. (BTW, McDonald’s pulled out of the country because they couldn’t compete with the local hamburger restaurants, which are pretty good.) Much of what he said is about the party scene in Reykjavík—which can get extreme with young women becoming seriously drunk and (presumably) available—is uncomplimentary and not a little insulting.

With my advanced age and scruffy looks, I did not presume to partake in any party scenes. Instead, I dealt with numerous Icelandic women throughout the island and found them to have a great sense of fun.

When I was in Isafjörður, I met a young guide named Thelma (pronounced “Talma”) from West Tours, with whom I took a trip to Vigur Island (about which more at another time). All the time I was there, I kept running into her at various places—it was a village of only 2,000 or so—and she remembered me each time and stopped to chat with me.

Okay, so maybe they saw “Yow” a lot, but Icelandic women are all right in my book.

Habemus Puellam

Pope Marigold I

Pope Marigold I

At first, the pink smoke pouring from the chimney set up over the Sistine Chapel stunned the thousands of faithful, as well as an equal number of reporters, as to what it meant.

In the end, it was inevitable that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church would eventually elect a female pope. Tradition was overturned in other ways as well: the new pope is not an ordained Catholic priest. (Nor can she be one according to canon law, to which she replies, “We’ll fix that!”.) And she is a lesbian, complete with tattoos and piercings.

Marigold I, originally Marigold Lilibeth Rathbun of Pepper Pike, Ohio, is also the first pope in several hundred years to still be in her twenties. “Yeah!” she comments; “That means I’ll be around for a while, so you all had better be good.”

Naturally, Pope Marigold’s election was not quite unanimous. Silvestro Silvestrini, Cardinal Archbishop of Ercolano, thinks there were some voting irregularities. “Something is fishy around here.” At least, he admits that she is certifiably free of any accusations regarding the molestation of underage altar boys. His colleague, Grandissimo Pipi, Cardinal Archbishop of Gomorrah, chimed in with his broken English: “I resemble that!”

Of one thing we can be sure, Holy Mother the Church is taking a slightly different course. She reminds us, “And remember, youse guys, I’m the pope; and that means I’m inflammable!”