Sunday, 16 September 2012

Marianne, Dickens and Kate

“The maidenly bosom bared to this …”

This, here, is not a paparazzo’s telephoto lens; it is a reference by Charles Dickens to the Carmagnole, the revolutionaries’ dance around the guillotine which so terrifies the heroine of A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette:

a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry – a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost child’s head, thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Book the Third, Ch.5; Everyman edition 1994, p.281

The uncoverage of the Duchess of Cambridge in the French press this week has been accompanied by some attempts at humour in the Allo Allo vein. One picture caption in Closer chortles, ‘Les français ont le buste de Marianne. Maintenant, les Anglais ont celui de Kate!’ Actually, I think Dickens had Marianne in mind when he wrote about the ‘maidenly bosom’, because a little later in the novel he returns to the Carmagnole and this time he describes how a young woman was lifted into a chair by the dancing mob and carried shoulder-high ‘as the Goddess of Liberty’ (p.288).

Now Marianne, usually (but not always) bare-breasted, is the personification of the Goddess of Liberty, and a French national icon. Think of Delacroix’s celebrated painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) which depicts Marianne storming the barricades, the tricolor streaming in the wind as she holds it aloft. This picture, and Marianne herself, have been powerful representations of la République ever since, though Marianne made her first appearance during the French Revolution, at least as early as 1792.

I have argued elsewhere* that the figure of the young woman in the foreground of Phiz’s wonderful illustration of the Carmagnole for A Tale of Two Cities is not just a discreet depicting of ‘the maidenly bosom bared to this’. She is actually Delacroix’s Liberty with her back to the viewer – no doubt because the mid-Victorian readers of All the Year Round  (in which A Tale of Two Cities was serialized) would have been shocked by a full-frontal Marianne. Given that Phiz brought into this picture elements of the story from both before and after the actual event depicted, I now think we are to understand that the young woman introduced by Dickens, whose delicate foot is faithfully drawn by Phiz  (real name: Hablot K Browne) ‘mincing in the blood and dirt’, is also the young woman later carried aloft as the Goddess of Liberty.

I have been re-reading A Tale of Two Cities this past week, and as it happens I have been doing so in France, on holiday. This is how I’ve been able to obtain a copy of the infamous Closer, of which I had never heard until yesterday. I must say, it treads a fine line between sleazy innuendo and sanctimonious twaddle. Contrasting the pictures of Kate sunbathing (“Elle a épousé le prince des Anglais, mais elle aime bien aussi le roi soleil”) with Prince Harry’s recent embarrassments, Closer’s Samuel Cannes glozes:

Il n’est pas question ici d’alcool, de strip billiard ou de positions équivoques, mais simplement d’une épouse bien dans son corps [“Geddit??”, as Glenda Slag use to demand in Private Eye] qui n’a strictment rien à cacher à son mari .

The disingenuousness is staggering.

Back to Marianne.  In Normandy this week we have been visiting chateaux. I wanted to see if they would add to my sense of Dickens’ mastery of fact and detail in the chapters of A Tale of Two Cities set in and around the chateau of the fearsome Monseigneur. (I’ll write about this another time.)  I’ve also been studying French war memorials, in preparation for a lecture I’m to give in Oxford next month. Yesterday, on the way back to the Portsmouth ferry from Caen, we drove through the small town of Trevières and came unexpectedly upon what must be one of the most provocative images of Marianne in all France – though not in any sense Closer would understand.

The town’s First World War memorial depicts Marianne as a French poilu, an ordinary foot soldier. On her head she wears an adrian, the distinctive French infantry helmet; over her dress she bears the soldier’s kit, with ammunition pouches etc. Her belt and bayonet sheath are slung over the arm of a cross against which she rests, but her sleeves are rolled up and she is ready for action. . Like Delacroix’s Marianne, she brandishes a weapon (her sword) in one hand and her other is outstretched to hold the tricolor.

 So far so good, but I have omitted the most shocking thing about her. She has only half a face. At some moment between 6 – 9th June 1944, when Allied forces were fighting their way inland from the Normandy beaches, the Trevières War Memorial was struck by shrapnel from a shell and Marianne’s jaw and neck were blown off. She stands now, a ghoulish mutilée de guerre, a memorial no longer to one world war but to two. On the plinth beneath, an inscription describes her in uncompromising but highly ambiguous terms:

DU 6 AU 9 JUIN 1944

Whereas Marianne in her earlier incarnations had triumphantly represented France, personified as the goddess of Liberty, now (the inscription implies) she represents the image of that same France murdered (‘meurtrié’) by the allied forces in the process of ‘liberation’. No longer a goddess, she has been made a victim.

You could say the same about Kate.

Adrian Barlow

* I have written about ‘The Sea Rises’ in World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp.214-218)

Illustrations: (i) ‘The Sea Rises’ by Phiz (Hablot K Browne) 1859; (ii) War Memorial at Trevières, Normandy. Photograph © Adrian Barlow 2012

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Ruth Etchells remembered

The Lent Term course on 18th century English Literature was not going well. No one seemed keen on the Augustan age. One lecturer assured us that ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ was the only poem by Dryden worth reading; the speaker on Swift got hopelessly bogged down in the Battle of the Books, and Derek Todd, lecturing on Pope, broke off in mid-sentence and announced, his face contorted into a memorable grimace, ‘I fear I’ve been grappling with the problem of satire for far too long.’

This was Durham, 1969, my second year reading English there. Towards the end of the term few of us were still putting ourselves through the weekly agony of the course. But then everything changed. Ruth Etchells (whose death occurred last month but whose obituary I only read in The Guardian yesterday) gave a memorable lecture on Robinson Crusoe.  It was a masterclass, both on lecturing itself and on a novel most of us had never thought of taking seriously before that moment. She began with the idea that making huts, dens, camps – creating secret kingdoms – is a profound childhood instinct, a fantasy of adulthood created by children.  She explored with us the reasons why Defoe’s novel appealed to young readers, and even looked at the way the novel had been adapted as a Ladybird book. Disillusioned no longer, we were hooked. And once she had hooked us, Ruth reeled us in with an exhilarating discussion of the imagery of the novel, and then of its significant contrasts: a book, she argued, that turned a desert island idyll into a tory treatise on middle-class social self-reliance. She showed us how the narrative worked. It was the sort of analysis we were learning to admire in The English Novel: Form and Function, Dorothy van Ghent’s guide to English fiction we all bought, and bought into.

Ruth was one of those lecturers, rare at any time, worth listening to whatever their subject. And her seminars were never those slightly awkward events where one or two eager speakers hog the discussions and everyone else hangs back: she involved us all, and made each of us feel our ideas mattered and were worth her serious reflection. She never condescended. I remember her classes on E.M. Forster, and the later conversations on A Passage to India she invited one or two of us to continue back at her flat at Trevelyan College. She loved Forster’s novels and his essays, and gave me a perspective on his importance I have never lost.

We knew some of her colleagues in the English Department disparaged her: hadn’t she come to higher education via school teaching and teacher education? And wasn’t her best-selling book, Unafraid to Be (1969) not strictly academic, a book unashamedly approaching modern writers from a Christian perspective? Actually, her ability to lecture on very recent literature - Pinter, Golding, Hughes, as well as to champion writers like Charles Williams already going out of fashion - showed a blend of imaginative and scholarly engagement with literature we admired in her and missed in her contemporaries. To hear her talk, and to talk with her, about writers and writing was to be convinced that literature mattered profoundly, and never just as an academic exercise.

By my third year at Durham, I knew I wanted to stay on to do research before starting to teach, but doubted I could afford to. Ruth persuaded me to take my PGCE first and then start my M.A, if I could get funding for it. She would supervise me for both years, even though my research (in those days at Durham a Master’s degree was by thesis only) was technically just for twelve months. I wanted to work on Ezra Pound’s early poetry, but wasn’t sure what approach to take. Characteristically, she suggested too many people were working on Pound just then and that I should choose a road less travelled. How about one of the Imagist poets, she asked, since to write about Imagism would still mean writing about Pound? That was how I came to study Richard Aldington, of whom no one in the British literary establishment had anything good to say at that time and on whom no one else in Britain was working at all. Ruth taught me the importance of approaching everything I read with an open mind. ‘We’ll work on him together,’ she said, and we did. I have never regretted my choice.

By the time I officially began my M.A., with the help of a State Studentship that made me self-supporting for a year, my preparation for the research was already well under way. We met once a fortnight to discuss Aldington’s poetry and once a month to submit my latest chapter (hand-written and carbon-copied; I had no typewriter) to her strict but always cheerful scrutiny.

What I learned from Ruth in that year became the foundation for much I have gone on to do since. When Ezra Pound died in November 1972, she suggested I write a 15-minute talk on him and send it to the Third Programme. The BBC turned it down but the producer wrote me a letter encouraging me to keep writing about writers. And later in the year, she arranged for me to give a lecture - at the end of a course on modern writers - on the poetry of Basil Bunting , whom I had got to know well while he had been Northern Arts Poetry Fellow at Durham. This was the first lecture I ever gave. I had an audience of twelve, mostly friends who had turned up out of loyalty or for a laugh; only towards the end did I realise Ruth too had slipped into the Elvet Riverside lecture theatre and was smiling in the back row.

‘That’s just the beginning,’ she said. And she wasn’t wrong.

Adrian Barlow

Read Ruth Etchells’s obituary in The Guardian and Church Times.

[Illustration: Ruth Etchells’ book Unafraid To Be, (IVP 1969)