Philobiblon: March 2005

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Greetings from Singapore

Posting from the free internet at Singapore airport. Why can't Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle be like this? Everything is clean, easy-to-find, and it all just works! Checking in with BA at Heathrow was its normal bedlam - haven't they noticed there are never enough staff?

Anyway, please excuse any infelicities in this post - after a 12-hour stopover in the airport hotel I'm not in too bad a condition for the onward leg to Australia in general, except my stomach thinks it is dinner time, even though the sun is just rising over the airport (not that you can see it through the mist) and my head isn't sure what time it is. Blogger's slow, so does that mean it is US peak time? (Not sure any more!)

Plane reading was Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver - 900 pages of well-reviewed historical novel seemed about right for 12 hours. It wasn't quite, however, since it is a bit too slow and discursive for that job, although a fine novel in many respects. I'll be reading the next two volumes, but at a more leisurely pace.

There are lots of wonderful details. A couple I wrote down:
* Bewilderment, in its ancient and literal sense of being cast away in a trackless wild ... (p. 47)

* The origins of the cravat were apparently "Louis XIV's Croatian mercenaries had made a practice of tying their giant, flapping lace collars down so that gusts of wind would not blow them up over their faces in the middle of a battle or duel" (p. 179

* But on p. 649 there are dacoits in India, isn't this a bit early for the world have made it to Europe?

The main female character Eliza, later "Countess de la Zeur", is an absolute delight - she spends her youth in an eastern harim, and has the wits and knowledge to prove it, plus a healthy dollop of physical courage. Her sometime companion, a self-declared Vagabond, is also lovely - seemingly heavily based on the picaresque novels of the time.

The tying-togther male, if not central character, is Daniel Waterhouse. I don't know if he's historical, I guess so? He's left at the end having the operation for "the stone" that Pepys had, and we know he survives. But he does seem a bit flat: maybe in the next volume?

For those unaware of the novel is the 1660s to 1680s (although it also ventures into the early 18th century, starting with a Boston (US) witchburning, the significance of which has yet to be established. This book also leaves one of the main characters on a boat pursued by a determined pirate - I don't mind multi-volume works, but I do think each should stand on its own.

This is a minor quibble, however. I do feel that Quicksilver took me out of 747 cattleclass into another world. It is great on descriptions of cities, and vignete character sketchs. I enjoyed the time with Liebnitz (presented as a rather decent character), Isaac Newton (rather less so) and Robert Hooke (unusually sympathetically treated, although perhaps not if you are a dog-lover).

I wasn't really in the mood to get heavily into the intellectual history, but there's plenty there to ponder, and a prodigious amount of research. Tougher editing might have benefitted this book - there is perhaps a 600-pager in it struggling to get out - but it is well worth sticking with the slow patches.

Next, The Da Vinci Code. Everyone I respect has slated it, but for the second-half of a 24-hour journey the intellectual level seems about right, and I do have an alternative if it drives me mad.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Net nuggets No 5

vesuvius, originally uploaded by natalieben.

* Above is Sir William Hamilton's drawing of an eruption of Vesuvius in the 1760s or 1770s - something to think about next time you are visiting Pompei. It is from a lovely little online exhibition from the University College London special collection. There's also images from original texts by Copernicus, Gallileo and John Wilkins' (then anonymous) 1638 conclusion that there was life on other planets.

* Just when you think America is going back to the 19th century, you come across an article like this, about "big business" providing transgender employees with medical expenses and unisex bathrooms.

* Every woman (and man) in journalism should read this piece. And television is just as bad.

* Humans are programmed to co-operate. There's now evidence to take on the Right's Hobbesian views. (Via Arts and Letters Daily.

* An argument for racial, but not racist genetics. And some fascinating information about the "Sonic hedgehog" mutation. (Via ditto)

* Islamic women (at least in the West) are making a move to lead prayers, seemingly an extremely radical step. Which reminds me of the brave woman in Bahrain on whom I posted in November. I haven't been able to find out what happened to her. Anyone know?

*If you fancy dining with a knight and his lady in a medieval castle, the recipes are here, together with a great deal of other fascinating material on medieval life. (Hat-tip to Bibe's box.)

Monday, March 28, 2005

I'll be the Viking

I'm frantically busy, so what am I doing, taking internet quizzes. (Only while eating breakfast, honest!)

So thanks to Scribbling Woman, I've found out via this quiz that my ideal historical job would be to be a Viking warrior. The other suggested alternatives included an "arming squire with its potential to become a knight", "topman" (sic), "powder monkey", "Riding officer", "Petardier's assistant" or "Guillemot-egg collector". But Viking sounded best.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The immigrant experience

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a collection of poems inspired by the writer on whom I posted yesterday. I was particularly taken by the piece called "The Immigrants".

... "I see them coming
up from the hold smelling of vomit,
infested, emaciated, their skins grey
with travel; as they step on shore

the old countries recede, become
perfect, thumbnail castles preserved
like gallstones in a glass bottle, the
towns dwindle upon the hillsides
in a light paperweight-clear.

They carry their carpetbags and trunks
with clothes, dishes, the family pictures;
they think they will make an order
like the old one, sow miniature orchards,
carve children and flocks out of wood

but always they are too poor, the sky
is flat, the green fruit shrivels
in the prairie sun, wood is for burning;
and if they go back, the towns

in time have crumbled, their tongues
stumble among awkward teeth ..."

(pp. 32-33)

It struck me that what is different about the immigrant experience in the late 20th and early 21st century, compared to the 19th, is that no one now is heading for the countryside. You get enormous migration within countries from rural to urban areas (but almost never the reverse, except for comfortably-off people "downsizing", which is not the same thing at all), and when people cross borders they are almost always heading for the capital city of their destination state.

What does this mean? I suspect it makes the whole experience less innocent, more frightening and daunting, for there are all of the social obstacles, as well as the practical ones.

But although today it would be different, I couldn't help imagine being in those "infested" holds, or trying to smuggle myself into the back of a lorry. It would do us all well to remember that, however unlikely it might seem, one day it could be us.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Women and learned helplessness

I've been pondering lately how women were, and it seems in some cases still are, taught to be, and rewarded for being, utterly helpless and hapless, as though this were an admirable trait.

The topic came up one night when I had a lot of ironing, which I did while watching a rather inane British commercial television show, Midsomer Murders, set in stereotypical current-day home counties villages in which every male is a solicitor or in the City, or a retired minor TV star, while the women are "homemakers", spending all that money on huge fancy homes, mostly set around the village green on which cricket is being played.

It is not quality television, but nonetheless one scene really left me fuming. The main detective and his young sidekick are locked in a cellar with a woman of the "homemaker" type. (Her husband has been involved in a scam; she thought there was something wrong, but "thought it better not to ask about it".) There's a bit of discussion about whether there's enough air, will they die etc, then the woman lies down and goes to sleep, leaving it to the men to try to saw their way out through the door.

Now, yes, this is a silly show, but some writer must have thought that this was believable behaviour for this sort of character. (And she wasn't central to the show so no particular point was being made about her as a character.)

Then I had cause to meet (and I'm anonymising here because I don't want anyone to be identifiable) a woman who must be in her early 40s, married to a considerably older man in a socially important well-paid job requiring a very high degree of education. Her manner could only be described as fluttery - in the best Victorian form - and when confronted with even a minor problem her reaction was to ask me, who she scarcely knew, to solve what was really quite a personal familial issue. I couldn't help feeling that if faced with a real crisis her reaction would probably be to faint gracefully.

These incidents coincided with my reading of Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852), an account by one of the sisters of Agnes Strickland of being a gentlewoman pioneer (and eventually a very poor one) in Canada.

She has to do at times quite rough work, and cope with extremely difficult circumstances, yet she reports, indeed celebrates, her helplessness in many situations.

Fairly early on, Moodie, now probably in her late 20s, reports she "found myself at night in a house entirely alone. [Actually her child is sleeping, but I don't suppose that counts.]

"Hour after hour wore away, and the crowing of the cocks proclaimed midnight,and yet they came not. [Her husband and their servant] I burnt out all my wood, and I dared not open the door to fetch more. The candle was expiring in the socket, and I had not the courage to go up into the lost and procure another before it went finally out. Cold, heart-weary, and faint, I sat and cried. ..." (p. 196)

Later she reports of her fear of walking through the woods alone with her sister, although she admits there is no rational basis for this. "This foolish dread of encountering wild beasts in the woods I never could wholly shake off, even after becoming a constant resident in their gloomy depths ... The cracking of an old bough, or the hooting of the owl, was enough to fill me with alarm, and try my strength in a precipitate flight." (p. 260)

And she never gets over her fear of cattle. After some years in the woods one day she is forced to do the milking, "when a very wild ox we had came running with headlong speed from the wood. All my fears were alive again in a moment. I snatched up the pail and, instead of climbing the fence and getting to the house, I ran with all the speed I could command down the steep hill towards the lake shore; my feet caught in a root of the many stumps in the path, and I fell to the ground, my pail rolling many yards a-head of me." (p. 370)

Now maybe Moodie was just conforming to Victoria stereotypes of womanhood here, but I don't think so; the passages just ring too truly. But it does demonstrate what damage learned helplessness can do in making people live a life of fear.

How many women are living this way today? Probably more than I've previously imagined, I've now concluded.

(Quotes from Virago edition of 1986)

Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 2

"Where are all the female bloggers?" HERE, in my weekly "top ten". Why "femmes fatales"? Because these are killer posts, selected for great ideas and great writing, general interest and variety.

* Pinko Feminist Hellcat suggests that while the religious Right complained about Bill Clinton's narrow definition of "sexual intercourse", their own much-loved abstinence education programmes are producing the same ideas in their offspring. (Warning: not for the easily offended.)

* On Blogcritics Yvonne DeVita commemorates Women's History Month with a post on the Women's Rights National Historical Park that focuses on Amelia Bloomer and her courage in standing up against one of the most painful human weapons - ridicule - in promoting the garment that bears her name.

* Would you like a cup of tea? Shaula Evans, writing on the Canadian group blog Tsuredzuregusa, explores the complexity of that question in Japan, Korea, the United States, Canada, and that special, and she thinks unattractive, state of Starbucks.

* Personal political takes a quick skip across the British election campaign (the vote hasn't been called yet, but the campaign is on) before settling in to ponder how Britons expect children as young as four years and two months to cope with a formal classroom setting.

* Media girl defines, bluntly and angrily, why "women's issues" are majority issues.

* Petite Anglais celebrates the joys of a Paris spring, including white blossom, cheerful birds, sunlight filtering through the shutters and a toddler learning to count.

* Dawn Olsen concludes that the Right might be right, as she calls for "zero tolerance" for crimes against children.

* Give me spirit fingers finds some Chinese leopard "porn" (safe for the office; they really are animals) and muses how it relates to aging men, aphrodisiacs and young mistresses.

* If you think you're snowed under with work, study or life, consider the task facing Molecular Revolution, who before an April 8 exam plans to relearn Old English and read Vanity Fair, among scores of other texts.

* All accounts I've read of high schools in the United States, and the horrific events that so often seem to happen in them - as again this week - suggest they can be terrible places for those who can't or won't "fit in". I am Dr Laura's worst nightmare reports on how such attitudes most usually work out, however, with the "odd one out" harming themselves - in this case a 14-year-old girl who killed herself. Read it and weep for a wasted life.
(This post dates from early March, but I've only just found it and thought it worthy of as wide an audience as possible.)

If you missed last week's inaugural edition, it's here.


Please: In the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger and think "that deserves a wider audience", send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

Disclaimer: the views here might not reflect my own. I'm trying to choose from as wide a range of female bloggers as possible.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Two pounds well spent

london, originally uploaded by natalieben.

An impulse purchase at the London Review of Books bookshop turned out well.

This little publication is packed with articles, stories and pictures of the less-fashionable parts of London and interesting facts, surprisingly well edited and put together*.

The contents of Smoke: a london peculiar include

* a history of elephants in London - the first was in 1255, a present from Louis IX to Henry III.

* "Rodent Rovings" - in Philpot Lane there is apparently a 19th-century building bearing a carving of two mice nibbling cheese - apparently a builders' initiative to commemorate the plague they had to work through. (Have to go looking for that.)

* There's a warehouse of the north circular between Walthamstow and Edmonton that has a regularly changed feature "Veneer of the Week". Apparently there's 70 to circulate among.(I used to drive this road quite often, but never noticed this "feature".)

* I learnt about Northolt, on one of the ends of the Central Line: "It's not even a non-place, to use Auge's term, just a bus stop on the way to Heathrow. Northolt has good company in the excised remains of the county of Middlesex, though. JG Ballard's Shepparton is on the other side of the airport catchment area and somewhere in the Enfield enclave is a place called Ponders End, from where Norman Tebbitt hails. And I'm sure Stevie Smith was talking about Northolt when she made the jibe about what Town Hall terms "greater metropolitan areas" being all sub and no urb. It is enough to make Henri Lefebvre weep into the lap of one of his secretaries." (From "Flight Paths", Paul Castro)

*No I don't know the editors, nor am I being paid by them.

More here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Soane's renaissance

Yesterday afternoon to Sir John Soane's Museum on Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is one of those wonderfully idiosyncratic, personal collections, maintained much as he left it in the early 19th century, that have a charm no professionally curated exhibition can match.

My favourite area was "the crypt", done up to feel like a mausoleum, packed with mainly Roman funerary monuments and plaster models of "modern" graves, but at its centre is the spectacular stone sarcophagus of Seti I, carved from a single piece of calcite.

It is enclosed in its own glass carriage, complete with wheels, which is presumably how it arrived in 1824, when Soane bought it after the British Museum declined to pay the discoverer, Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strongman and "archaeologist" (they don't make 'em like that any more), the £2,000 he wanted for it.

You can just imagine it being formally wheeled into place, with Soane and his invited guests (1,000 came over three evenings) watching by the light of candles and lamps - more than a little spooky.

You'd think someone would have painted the scene, but the museum attendants didn't think so. A web search produces a catalogue of the museum, which indicates there is a folder of 53 drawings of the sarcophagus by Joseph Michael Gandy, an employee of Soane's, but I have a feeling these may be recordings of the item itself, rather than of its arrival.

Soane died in 1837, so living, just, into the Victorian era. It is interesting, however, that this is very much a Renaissance house - everything is assembled on the basis that the ancients, particularly the Greeks and Romans, are the model from which all inspiration should spring. I suspect by the time of his death Soane was very old-fashioned, but it is still a reminder how close we are to a time when the past was seen as more advanced than the present.

A touch of Orientalism

india, originally uploaded by natalieben.

I blogged a few days ago about the postcards I am buying as presents (for several people now; if you have a good idea why not use it more than once.)

Above is one of the results, a lovely little piece of Orientalism produced by "The Phototype Company Bombay", labelled "wood cutters",
and posted from India in 1915 to Miss F. Birch, 6 Rockingham Parade, Uxbridge, Middlesex.

Part of the discussion that arose around my last post was how such cards were used as a cheap form of communication for prosaic matters, and this one certainly lives up to the billing.

It reads:
Dear Flo, Have run out of PCs. [presumably postcards] Will send them as usual next week when I shall have obtained a fresh supply. Love to all, Perle (?).

You'd reckon the recipient would be a bit disappointed with that, although perhaps they really just wanted the picture.

The other thing that leaves me wondering is the shape of the saw. I've used a (straight) cross-cut saw, worked by two people, which is a very effective tool, but I can't understand why you would want to make it this shape. (Yes I do ponder some peculiar things.)

Net nuggets No 4

Making babies
* describes how the idea that life begins at conception is a misogynist one, assuming that what is important about the child comes from the male contribution of chromosomes, thus ignoring all of the work that the woman does with her body to produce the baby.

News is all a matter a perspective
* From Iviews - "Christian Suicide shooter Kills Innocent Americans: Experts also believe that the inspiration for the terrorist act came from the belief that the killing would be forgiven." (Hat-tip to Slit.)

In the House, but why?
* Women now hold a quarter of the seats in the Australian House of Representatives, and a third of those in the Senate, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. What a pity its headline is "Women the power behind the PM".

No bag thanks
* Also in Australia, supermarkets have cut the number of plastic bags they hand out by 30 per cent, although other shops have barely started on this blindingly simple, obvious, and even cost-saving environmental measure. So why has this move not even started in Britain? I spend an amazing amount of time telling shop assistants, often two or three times: "No bag thanks. No, really. No bag!" Most look as though no one has ever said that to them before.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Me, ambitious? ... nervous giggle

Towards the end of True North, the second volume of her memoirs, Jill Ker Conway gets to her research work on American women who pioneered access to tertiary education and the professions, which was later published as The First Generation of American Women Graduates.

My post on the first part of the memoir is here.

She writes of her subjects, who include Jane Addams, Florence Kelley and Ellen Gates Starr:

"Every one ... had been a rebel, either refusing marriage or insisting on a very unconventional union. They had all founded institutions or professions for women, and ... they had all been powerful social critics. ... Some were privately conscious of a drive to power. ...
In real life their language was pungent, their schedules were enough to daunt a professional athlete, and, for those who worked with them, their force of character was something of primal dimensions.
... but when time came for each of these women to write her memoirs, each presented herself as the ultimate romantic female, all intuition and emotion, tugged by the heartstrings to random encounters with the important causes, which, in reality, this group of women had discovered and led."

She looked to other periods and found the same pattern. In the 1960s, she says, the explanation she devised was that "the social system operated not merely to repress libido (as Freud thought), but to repress other powerful human feelings, and to prevent them from being brought to consciousness. That would mean that a woman could live her whole life seeking power and influence for the causes she favored, but not be conscious of any but the approved spectrum of emotions allocated her in the patterning of gendered temperaments."

Later, she says, educated by her own experience, "I also learned that in American society, a woman who does not fit the romantic stereotype of the female has difficulty mustering public support. Then I understood that it was possible my subjects told their story the way they did because they didn't want to damage the public response to their reforms." (p. 151-2)

After all of that, how does she describe her entry into public life, as vice-president of the University of Toronto? "Although I thought of myself as a mature professional, with aspirations to make a difference in the scholarly profession in whish I had worked. it had never entered my mind that I had any talent for running things." (p. 205)

As she takes on the role, "I was startled to discover that I was also a symbol for legions of other women ... Without planning to I'd become a public person." (p. 215)

Again, when she goes to Smith College, it is because a friend nominates her, and so out of politeness she goes to see the "Search Committee". Then, what do you know, she has the job.

You'd think an academic would see the pattern, but then again maybe I am being too hard on her. Maybe it was her Freudian explanation, maybe it was because even in 1994, when she was writing True North - and maybe still in 2005 - it is unacceptable for a woman to declare ambition, for fear it might harm her cause.


In my posts on Ker Conway I may not have provided an overall coherent biography - my aim was rather to speak of the elements of her life that interested me most; there's a good summary overview here. And I discover from this there is a third, relatively recent (2002) volume, A Woman's Education covering the Smith years. Standby for a commentary.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

True university life

I've already posted on how much I identified with the first volume of the memoirs of Jill Ker Conway, a historian probably best known as the first female president of Smith College here and here.

After taking the slow boat from America, the second volume, True North, has just arrived, and while I directly identify with it less - since she gets married and to some degree "settles down" in this one - I still found it a riveting read.

She starts off being perhaps unsurprisingly gushy about Harvard when she first arrives: "Within weeks I began to see myself as perfectly normal, like all the other lively people around me. These people weren't the alienated left intellectuals of Australia, or the wistful exiles from Oxbridge I knew in Sydney. They were young, lively and ambitious, and I was like them. (p. 23)

But she does eventually arrive at a more balanced view, especially when one of her housemates is denied the cherished lectureship at Harvard because she is female, despite winning the prize for the best English thesis in her year.

And she has a further rebuff for Harvard's current, clinging-on-by-his-fingernails, boss, about the perils of being a female grad student, which I know haven't changed at all:

"Women negotiating this Herculean set of tests encountered another hazard by the mere fact of being female. There was no way to expiate the invitation refused, however gracefully, or the sexual innuendo deliberately misunderstood. A woman's work had to be just that much better, more theoretically daring, more brilliantly researched to shame naysayers with ulterior motives. As I watched my friends run the course, it was clear that the tenderest male egos were in the sciences, and that those of us who were humanists lived in a world where chances of giving offence were fewer than for those who worked day in and day out in tight-knit laboratory teams." (p. 31)

Then there's some good advice on research topics from her supervisor: "I told him I had decided to do my research on one of America's great Progressive women reformers, Jane Addams. When I said I wanted to study how she had led her generation of American women to solve the problem of gaining access to higher education ... he was approving. We both knew that experience had been my own personal dilemma in Australia. 'One's research should always involve some element of therapy,' he said smiling. 'It only count if it's really close to the bone.'" (P. 34)

Agreed: although I'd add that it only counts if you also understand that it is close to the bone.

With her new husband -- married perhaps unsurprisingly just before she was about to have to go back to Australia to confront her terrible mother again (Ker Conway seems a bit short of self-awareness here) she then moves to Canada, which she is determined to find much better than Australia.

Although she does admit one similarity:
"We both drank too much. We had come honestly by the excess as part of our British inheritance. England, the font from which both Canada and Australia drew their inspiration, was a culture of drink, rather than food and sex. Transposed to the colonies, this cultural theme conspired with the deprivations of pioneering to produce a world more reliant on booze than music, art or dance to foster the Dionysian side of life." (p. 78)

To be continued ...

Saturday, March 19, 2005


I had been reading over on Pratie Place about the wonderful 17th-century Mexican nun Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz, her life, and a lovely poem about, well, about the general stupidity of men.

Then, this evening, deciding, probably unwisely in light of the day I'd had, that I could manage to make it through a play without falling asleep, after a browse around the half-price ticket place in Leicester Square I concluded that the only show that appealed was a Royal Shakespeare Company Spanish season play House of Desires. (By the way if you are visiting don't be fooled; the proper ticket place is a standalone building in the middle of the square; don't go to any of the joints located in various rows of shops around it or you'll pay for the mistake.)

I had no idea what it was, but you seldom go wrong with the RSC, so I trotted down to the theatre and picked up a £10 seat there. (This is often cheaper than even the legitimate ticket booth.)

Then, what do you know, I was reading the programme over my neighbour's shoulder*, and I realised this was a play by the said Sister.

It is on one level a madcap farce - a variation on the English drawing room scamper with mistaken identities and hidden people overhearing conversations all over the place - and frequently genuinely funny, if sometimes a bit obvious, but it is also a scathing comment on the Sister's society, and particularly the honour culture that weighed so heavily on women.

This becomes particularly evident at the end of the second act, in which the men are concerned not with the fate of their supposedly beloved daughters and sisters, but only with their own honour, and they can't get them married off under "shotgun wedding" conditions fast enough.

Not that the women are saints by any means. The Sister appears to have identified with Doña Leonor, a beautiful learned, if horribly vain girl - the staging has the nun watching the initial action before stripping off to reveal her identity. (Although I doubt that can have been so clear in the original script.)

This play is beautifully directed by Nancy Meckler, doing her first shows for the RSC - more here. The staging of scenes in which the lights go out - actually up - and the actors grope around on stage while the audience can see every move could be silly, but works brilliantly.

The acting is evenly good but I'd have to agree with Michael Portillo that Simon Trinder, in a long-winded transvestite gag, does steal the show, producing gales of laughter with the mere flick of an eyebrow.

In some ways perhaps this helps to bury the politics of the play - but then the politics of 17th-century Hispanic societies probably don't mean an awful lot to most of the audience, and judging by overheard comments on the way out they'd all had a good evening, entertained by a 17th-century nun, albeit a pretty cynical one.

*Call me a cheapskate, but I never buy programmes - they are ridiculously expensive, but more importantly my flat is already overflowing with books and papers and I can't face adding any more.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Friday femme fatales

In answer to that endlessly circulating question "where are all the female bloggers?", I've decided to make a small weekly collection that answers: HERE!

Why "femme fatales"? Because these are killer posts.

This week's is drawn from my own blogroll, but in the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger (and no I'm not doing chromosome tests so I can only do by self-identification) and think "that deserves a wider audience", send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

I'm trying to get a wide sample of subjects and approaches, as I hope this selection indicates. This is not only about blogging on "women's topics". I'm going to limit it to ten, to make it manageable.

So this week's ten (in no particular order - this isn't a competition):

* Shakespeare's Sister directly, and passionately, addresses the refusal of male bloggers to link to women.

* Green fairy has an unpleasant encounter with the "old" media, in the form of her appearance in Marie Claire, in between "Murder in Suburbia" and "Sandra Bullock".

* Veiled4allah briskly dismisses the claim that jihad means simply "holy war".

* Echidne of the snakes sees how the US Budget debate has exposed the fact that "some Republicans really are Democrats and some Democrats are Republicans".

* In response to the claim that women don't like to get into arguments, Bitch PhD leaps up to say: I DO!

* On Break of Day in the Trenches Esther describes her role in the naming of a bus after a local war hero.

* On Early Modern Notes Sharon explores what Women's History Month does and should mean.

* Real E Fun is a non-religious funeral celebrant who is an absolutely inspiring, unmissable read. (Really!) In this post she's attempting a little neighbourhood match-making.

* Patia Stephens, in a heart-wrenching post, describes what it has been like to "struggle with beauty for what feels like my whole life".

* Melinama recalls a disastrous St Patrick's Day, in which her idea of Irish music was found to be not in concord with those of Florida partygoers, then how a visit to a funeral parlour led her to change her mind about "Danny Boy".

P.S. My hit level is only modest (60 to 80 a weekday, since you asked), but I am also going to post this on Blogcritics, where it will hopefully garner a much wider audience.

Eight words for smell

I finally got around to reading the second half of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, which takes first a ethnographic turn, skipping across Asia, Africa and South America, before going sociological about the last century in the West. (See posts one and two for the earlier historical approach.)

In a way it was disappointing because I'd been expecting a clearer methodological and theoretical approach in this part of the book and it never came. Overall this book is a collection of anecdotes about smell from all parts of the world, with the thesis that smell is as much a cultural as a biological construct, but it never gets beyond its parts to make a real whole. If it was an undergraduate essay you'd say the sources were under-digested.

Nonetheless, they are good anecdotes.

* Quechua, the language spoken by the Incas and still used in the Andes, had at least eight words for the act of smelling, including ones for "to smell a good odour", "to smell a bad odour", "for a group to smell something together", "to let oneself be smelled," "to come across a food odour", a word that also meant "to inspire". (That word is camaycuni, BTW.) Smell was obviously important to the culture. (p. 112)

* For the Dogon of Mali, onion is the loveliest fragrance. Young men and women fry the plant in butter and rub the result all over their bodies as a perfume. (p. 124)

* European languages still contain a value-judgement of women by scent. The Spanish puta and the French putain, both meaning whore, are derived from the Latin for putrid. (p. 162)

* Halitosis was an old almost obsolete medical term when recovered by some bright advertising spark in the 1920s. Its succession in advertising Listerine mouthwash - company profits from $100,000 in 1920 to $4 million in 1927, led to the development of many other diseases, including "homotosis", the lack of attractive home furnishings, and "accelerator toe". (No it doesn't explain what that was, and Google couldn't help.) (p. 183-4)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Net nuggets No 3

History Carnival No 4
It is up now at Blogenspiel, written by "Another Damned Medievalist". (She doesn't explain that term, but it sounds like it has a history of its own.)

The framework is histographical, looking at what history is and should be -- including a student who finds that her Women's History course is almost too relevant -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't also point you to some great stories. These include ritual transvestism and an unmissable account of a 17th-century nun, a pillar of learning and knowledge. Don't miss it! (This humble booklover makes a small contribution.)

A nice cup of tea
A central part of English* life, particularly for women, through much of the 20th century seems to have been the J.Lyons & Co teashop - the Starbucks of their time. There's a lovely little online history here. There are lots of pictures, price lists and lots of other potentially useful info.
*There's no mention of Wales or Scotland so not sure if they got that far.

It makes me think of the spectacular looking Hat and Feathers Restaurant on Old Street in London, which I often cycle past, which is sadly boarded up and apparently derelict.

French-American distrust
There's nothing new, it seems, about the French and the Americans getting stuck into each other, according to this review of, among others, the translation of the French professor Philippe Roger's The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism. An extract from the review:

Before the founding of the United States, for example, one reaction to the Romantic idealization of the New World came in a series of scientific studies of the continent's plant and animal life. In 1768, the naturalist Cornelius De Pauw called America a "vast and sterile desert" whose climate nurtured "astonishingly idiotic" men. The natural historian Buffon claimed that its animals were stunted miniatures of their Old World counterparts. These assertions were so widely believed in France that Thomas Jefferson devoted considerable energy to their refutation.

The London Library
I was raving earlier about how wonderful the London Library is, but for the full story, check out this article by the president for some great anecdotes, including the one about the founder, Thomas Carlyle, collecting up volumes on the French Revolution for Dickens when he was writing A Tale of Two Cities. (From the Telegraph, free registration required)

A world fallen apart
Anyone who whines about asylum-seekers should be directed to this blog post, an Afghan woman's account of her decision to flee her country.

A tag:

Scent or stench

So is our sense of smell socially determined?

Thais is a woman Martial obviously didn't fancy.

"Thais smells worse than a grasping fuller's long-used crack*, and that too just smashed in the middle of the street; than a he-goat fresh from his amours; than the breath of a lion; than a hide dragged from a dog beyond Tiber; than a chicken when it rots in an abortive egg; than a two-eared jar poisoned by putrid fish sauce." (p. 30)
*a pot filled with urine

While I have never smelt a lion's breath, I'm prepared to believe it mightn't be great, and from this description, and many others in Aroma, it seems clear that the ancients found many of the same smells offensive as do we.

And they were particularly concerned about bad breath, presumably for the same reason certain sex acts were poorly regarded - see earlier post. Aristotle was particularly puzzled: "Why is it that the mouths of those who have eaten nothing, but are fasting, have a [strong] odour?" p. 31)

As for "good" smells, it seems the ancients thought you could never get enough. Theatres (traditionally with saffron) and ampitheatres were scented, incense and perfumes were used at, and sometimes in, dinner parties. Pliny again: "some people actually put scent in their drinks and it is worth the bitter flavour for their body to enjoy the lavish scent both inside and outside". (p. 23)

Broadly, that seems to continue into the 18th century, when, it is suggested, rising personal cleanliness was accompanied by declining perfume use. There's an obvious end of the need for a cover-up there, but perfumes themselves came increasingly to be seen as unhealthy, excessive, particularly by the middle classes. The poor were associated with filthy stench, the aristocrats with flippant perfume excess, themselves with clean "olfactory neutrality". (p. 83)

Fashions in scent also changed. During the Renaissances strong scents of animal origin, including musk, civet and ambergris, were popular, but by the late 18th century these were consider too strong, too beastly. (Although the Empress Josephine bucked the trend by adoring musk.) (p. 71-73)

There was also a sudden gender division. Previously, the same scents had been worn by men and women - George IV of England first smelt his personal favourite worn by a princess at a ball, then adopted it as his own. But over the century sweet, floral smells came to be gendered as female; woodsy, outdoor scents such as pine and cedar as male. (p. 84)

So it seems while there is some innate division of good/bad smells, beyond that most of our views are culturally determined.

And I can personally attest that some time in the 20th century the use of scent by women definitely reached down into the working classes. I live in a block of council flats occupied primarily by elderly women - sometimes the perfume in the lift is suffocating, even after the user has left the building.

(See post below for reference.)

A tag:

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


... for intermittent service at present. Blogger after a week of instability seems to have gone totally haywire and I'm having great difficulty posting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Have a good sniff

I'm one who always tends to the nurture side on those endless nurture/nature child-raising arguments, so I like to think I'm pretty well switched on to an awareness of cultural constructs, yet I was pulled up short by the following paragraphs:

"Smell is not simply a biological and psychological phenomenon ... Smell is cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon. Odours are invested with cultural values and employed by societies as a means of a model for definiting and interacting with the world. The intimate, emotionally charged nature of the olfactory experience ensures that such value-coded odours are interiorized by members of society in a deelpy personal way...

"The devaluation of smell in the contemporary West is directly linked to the revaluation of the sense which took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The philosophers and scientists of that period decided that, while sight was the pre-eminent sence of reason and civilization, smell was the sense of madness and savagery." (p. 3-4)

This is from Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott, Routledge, 1994. Good smells and bad smells it seems, are not just a biological fact.

The first half of the book -- all I've managed to read thus far -- is an historical survey, with some great details, e.g.

* The Persian king Darius III had in his retinue 14 perfumers and 46 garland-makers. (p. 16)

* There's nothing new about what we think of as one of our latest extravagances, perfume for dogs. For a favourite dog, a prescription from Athenaeus: "Strew then soft carpets underneath the dog ... and with Megalian oils anoint his feet." (p. 19)
(Megalium, the great creation of the Roman perfumer Megallus, was made of balsam, rush, reed, behen nut oil, cassia and resin.") (p. 15)
For much, much more, see Pliny.

* "Queen Elizabeth I (of England) preferred her apartments to be strewn with meadowsweet ... Rosewater and sugar boiled together made the room of Edward VI smell ' as though it were full of roses', while rosemary and sudar perfumed the chambers of Queen Anne. George III is said to have used a pillow filled with fragrant hops as an aid to his slumber." (p. 65) (Nothing new about all of those microwave wheat pillows then ...)

* When the Great Plague sent the price of herbs and other perfumes soaring, the poor had to make do with what they could, a well-tarred rope, perhaps, or "socks from's sweating feete". (p. 61) Eau de Cologne was too originally a plague preventative. (p. 73)

... to be continued ....

Monday, March 14, 2005

Postcard history

I've recently been venturing into a new area of Ebay, "collectables, postcards". What sent me there was a brainwave for a present, so I won't mention the front of the cards I'm buying, but what I have found interesting is the back. Seemingly the majority of cards on sale are, as the jargon goes, "postally unused", but it is the used ones I find most interesting.

There's a sense of pathos, but also fascination, in a tiny insight into a moment in the lives of people of which you otherwise know, and probably can know, nothing.

I've got one postmarked Pocklington, 6PM, April 28, 1911. It reads:
Dear Floiry,
Sorry I cannot meet you at Pock tomorrow as Baby is poorly it is a bad cold and his teeth I will see Maud (?) and then I will meet you next Sat as she will get you it done hope you are well we are all well at home except Baby.
Love to you from all at home from Mother AR.

It is addressed to Miss ? Robinson c/o Mr E Pearson Manor Farm Mellonily (?) Pocklington.

Pocklington describes itself today as: "a classic English market town situated at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds, about 15 miles from the city of York, in the East Riding of Yorkshire".

The writing to me seems reasonably educated, and the spelling correct, despite the entire absence of punctuation, and I'm imagining maybe a local family of perhaps the yeoman class in which the oldest daughter, perhaps in her late teens, is working as a governess or companion with the local gentry family, and having perhaps her monthly day off, when she would normally meet her mother in the market town ...
Sound feasible?

I'm also curious whether much academic work has been done on postcards. I was musing that you could do some fascinating stuff say from the Seventies when the British (I gather) started going to Spain in large numbers on package holidays. Analysis of the postcards home, if you could assemble a collection of them, might be very revealing.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Net nuggets

An atheist martyr

This review of How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh introduced me to Thomas Aikenhead who, in 1687, aged 18, was hanged for his beliefs.

On the scaffold, Aikenhead declared that he had come to doubt the objectivity of good and evil, and that he believed moral laws to be the work of governments or men.

It looks like a must-read book, but the review is a good place to start.

Forgotten woman

"Will you walk into my parlour? said the Spider to the Fly."

I suspect that line was a part of many people's childhoods, yet I hadn't realised either how old it was or that the poem was by a woman, Mary Botham Howitt (1799- 1888), who I learnt about from the Women writers group.

She had an adventurous life, in which she and her husband sought a variety of outlets and venues in which to make money from writing, in contact with Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Tennyson, Wordsworth and others, finally settling in Rome.

There's a short biography here, and the poem, if you're trying to remember the words, here.

Women's justice

As if I didn't have enough to read, I've recently signed up for the Taylor & Francis journals daily keyword searches (although don't ask me exactly how, the website being rather less than user-friendly), which is throwing up all sorts of interesting things, or at least the abstracts thereof, e.g. "Contemporary feminist writers: envisioning a just world" in the Contemporary Justice Review.
"A vision of feminist social justice emerges in the writings of contemporary American women writers Toni Morrison, Joy Harjo, Barbara Kingsolver, and Adrienne Rich. Their collective bodies of work envision a world that does not devalue and separate people, a world connected to ideals of justice grounded in the interrelationships of words and deeds. These writers argue that we need to create a new way of seeing and interacting with the world around us, recognizing our individual responsibilities for creating better communities, questioning government actions, and seeking, above all, a society that sustains people regardless of gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, or access to resources."

Odd routes

Thanks to the assistance of David Smith I've now got my Sitemeter referrals working, so I've been collecting some of the odder ways people reached Philobiblon.

* "The legend of Cat Women" via Google, which threw up my Not for cat-lovers monstrous births post, which must have been a bit of a shock.

* "Molton Brown handwash" searched for on the BBC site, which directed someone to my sarcastic comments about a Buckingham Palace exhibition.

* I don't know what the person who asked Google to find "W.I.T.C.H." Once you'll meet him Caleb and Cornelia images wanted, but I doubt they'll find it on my blog.

* And as for the bloke looking for "naked girls" and Iran, I'm glad he was disappointed.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Yourcenar the outsider

I've recently read Marguerite Yourcenar's The Abyss and her Alexis, and was very interested in this account of her life. Oddly enough, she strikes me as having quite a bit in common with Michel Houellebecq, both being very much outsiders in the literary world, and French people living in Anglophone environments, although one looked to the past and the other to the future.

Yourcenar's Alexis, however, was emotionally sophisticated for a work written by someone aged 24, and bravely amoral for something written in 1929. (It is in effect a soliloquy from a gay man of 24 explaining why he is leaving his young wife and their child.)

In the preface in my edition, dated 1963, she writes: "I have sometimes thought of composing a response from Monique ... But for now I have abandoned that project. Nothing is more secret than a woman's existence. The tale of Monique would probably be much more difficult to write than the admissions of Alexis."

This strikes as a very odd thing for a woman to write, and reminded me that I was struck in The Abyss by the way that the male characters in general seem much more developed than the female, who don't often proceed beyond a sketch.

She seems to have tried for most of her life to be as "unwomanly" as possible. She also wrote in what must have seemed at the time in an unwomanly way, not being emotionally involved with her characters. In fact she often, particularly in The Abyss, kills them off enitrely pitilessly.

I have to say that I quite like Yourcenar's distance, I suppose because what I perceive as "sentimentality" often puts me off novels. And I do think in The Abyss you get inside the head of Zeno, the main character who was something of a mix of Da Vinci, Paracelsus, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno, just that he tries to approach himself and his own life from a distance, not to throw himself emotionally headlong into things.

Both of these factors probably have quite a bit to do with her being the first woman inducted into the Académie Française, as well as her astonishing erudition.

Now I REALLY have to find time to read The Memoirs of Hadrian, since at least on this account it is supposed to be even better than The Abyss.

Literary resurrection

As I've mentioned before, I'm a Dorothy L Sayers fan, so when Sharon on Early Modern Notes mentioned a new Harriet Vane novel, I was on Amazon in a flash. It turns out that Thrones, Dominations is a fragment written by Sayers in 1936 and worked up by a modern writer, Jill Paton Walsh.

Now I know: this is unPC, it is not really a Sayers, dead writers should be allowed to rest in peace etc, etc ... but Harriet Vane, and Lord Peter Wimsey, are two "people" you just want to spend more time with.

So does it work? Well I'm almost sorry to admit that it does.

The book starts a bit slowly, and is rather too overtly "psychological" in places, but it has settled down well by the middle section. And the end is Peter's mother, the Duchess, writing in her diary in a way that I find greatly endearing.

For those who like "closure", it also completes the story by telling of the couple's Second World War and after.

This is apparently carried in the next book, produced in the same way, A Presumption of Death.

Even if slightly guiltily, I guess I'll have to buy that too.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Back to the Fifties

All over the UK papers yesterday was the story "Desperate to be housewives: young women yearn for 1950s role as stay-at-home mums", this version from The Independent:

They are the generation of women who grew up expecting to have it all. No longer forced to choose between children and a career, they were set to embrace superwomanhood by doing both - while holding down a perfect relationship and keeping a spotless home in their spare time.

But modern woman has taken a reality check. The average 29-year-old now hankers for a return to the lifestyle of a 1950s housewife. The daughters of the "Cosmo" generation of feminists want nothing more than a happy marriage and domestic bliss in the countryside, according to a survey.

Research into the attitudes of 1,500 women with an average age of 29 found that 61 per cent believe "domestic goddess" role models who juggle top jobs with motherhood and jet-set social lives are "unhelpful" and "irritating". More than two-thirds agree that the man should be the main provider in a family, while 70 per cent do not want to work as hard as their mother's generation. On average, the women questioned want to "settle down" with their partner by 30 and have their first child a year later....

For suggestions of why this is a bad idea, they might want to consult Purple Pen's account of the position of her sister, or read The Women's Room, which made me realise at age 16 why what my instincts told me was right, you always need your independence.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Stroke symptoms

This isn't usually a medical blog, although I do have an interest in medical matters arising largely from one of the few worthwhile science courses I ever studied - second-year physiology, which involved doing hideous things to pithed toads and anaethetised rats that weren't going to emerge from their sleep. This made it hard to forget the lesson, even if understanding what is happening when you are in pain is not always a positive thing.

But I got this in an email today and since it doesn't seem to have got lots of publicity, certainly in the UK, I thought it worth promulgating.

Sometimes symptoms of a stroke are difficult to identify. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness spells disaster. The stroke victim may suffer brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke. Now doctors say a bystander can recognize a stroke by asking three simple questions:
*Ask the individual to SMILE.
*Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS.
*Ask the person to SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE
(Coherently) (ie. It is sunny out today)

If he or she has trouble with any of these tasks, call an ambulance immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

There's more detail here.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

In the recent light reading category has been this JK Jerome "popular classic". I get the impression that every British person read it at school at some time, but it didn't make it on to the Australian curriculum.

It is in a curious way like reading 1984, because many of the images and ideas have already been encountered elsewhere. As this site suggests, Jerome's hapless, impractical males falling into endless ultimately harmless scraps can now be seen in every second sitcom. What was perhaps original at the time (1889), now falls curiously flat. But perhaps it was innovative - I can't think of an earlier set of contra-heroes as these.

I'm afraid my favourite character was the dog, a fox-terrier, who did not appear nearly often enough. But I did enjoy the following scene, which very much reminded me of an incident with my dog Beanie.

"Half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy -- the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands -- the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill -- and flew after his prey.
His victim was a large black Tom. I never saw a larger cat,
nor a more disreputable-looking cat. It had lost half its tail, one of its ears, and a fairly appreciable proportion of its nose.
It was a long, sinewy-looking animal. It had a calm, contented air about it.
Montmorency went for that poor cat at the rate of twenty miles an hour ; but the cat did not hurry up—did not seem to have grasped the idea that its life was in danger. It trotted quietly on until its would-be assassin was within a yard of it, and then it turned round and sat down in the middle of the road, and looked at Montmorency with a gentle, inquiring expression, that said; "Yes ! You want me ?"
Montmorency does not lack. pluck,; but there was something about the look of that cat that might have chilled the heart of the boldest dog. He stopped abruptly, and looked back at Tom.
Neither spoke ; but the conversation that one could imagine was clearly as follows :—
THE CAT : "Can I do anything for you ?"
MONTMORENCY : "No—no, thanks."
THE CAT : "Don't you mind speakng, if you really want anything, you know." ^
MONTMORENCY (backing down the High Street) : "Oh, no—not at all—certainly—don't you trouble. I—I am afraid I've made a mistake. I thought I knew you. Sorry I disturbed you."
THE CAT : "Not at all—quite a pleasure. Sure you don't
want anything, now ?'
MONTMORENCY (still backing): "Not at all, thanks—not at all —very kind of you. Good morning."
THE CAT : "Good morning."
Then the cat rose, and continued his trot; and Montmorency, fitting what he calls his tail carefully into its groove, came back to us, and took up an unimportant position in the rear.
To this day, if you say the word "Cats!" to Montmorency, he will visibly shrink and look up piteously at you, as if to say:
"Please don't."

(p. 128, JK Jerome, J.W. Arrowsmith, 1948 edition)

I was also directed to the reading by a recent purchase, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, which is billed as:
"a science-fiction fantasy in the guise of an old-fashioned Victorian novel, complete with epigraphs, brief outlines, and a rather ugly boxer in three-quarters profile at the start of each chapter. Or is it a Victorian novel in the guise of a time-travelling tale, or a highly comic romp, or a great, allusive literary game, complete with spry references to Dorothy L. Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle? Its title is the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's singular, and hilarious, Three Men in a Boat. In one scene the hero, Ned Henry, and his friends come upon Jerome, two men, and the dog Montmorency in--you guessed it--a boat. Jerome will later immortalise Ned's fumbling. (Or, more accurately, Jerome will earlier immortalise Ned's fumbling, because Ned is from the 21st century and Jerome from the 19th.)"

I read a good review of it, but we'll see ...

P.S. Doesn't it seem odd now the way in older books punctuation marks are all set off by spaces. (I OCRed this and haven't changed it.) I wonder when, and why, the change occurred? World War II paper shortage perhaps?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

International Women's Day

Having been tied up with other things, I haven't managed to put together an appropriate post for International Women's Day, but then there's so many great ones out there I hardly need to.

So choose your reasons to say thanks to a feminist

or, check out some women's history links, or a selection of quotes.
(My favourite was Soujourner's Aint I a woman?. )

or, read the web edition of a book covering the History of International Women's Day.
(Hat-tip to Thoughts of an Average Woman.)

LATE ADDITION: Detrimental postulation has an excellent commemorative post on Alexandra Kollontai, the "the Bolshevik feminist writer, politician, activist and diplomat". Don't miss it, even though the poster is a bloke.

On that note I thought I should check my blogroll. There are as I write 183 blogs on it, of which about 60 are clearly written by women, about 80 by men, and the rest either joint blogs or written in a way that the gender of the blogger is not obvious. (I haven't gone hunting around to work it out if this is the case.)

That statistic surprised me a little, since I would have thought women would predominate, since my interests do have a distinctly feminist slant. But I think where the tilt towards men comes is bloggers about some of the obscure countries in which I have an interest, and also from people in interesting workplaces. (I don't have a female nurse or female doctor's blog for example - anyone know any good ones?)

So come on you women in farflung parts of the world and in interesting jobs - blog away!

Sitemeter technical question

Quick question: does anyone know why my Sitemeter "By Referrals" sections is just one long lists of "unknowns"? Is there a button you have to press somewhere there or on the Blogger to make the feature work?

(I've been enjoying so many other people's posts on "weird Google searchs that brought people here" I'd like to see for myself on my site.)

All help gratefully received!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mona Lisa: the hands not the smile

I've never really got into the Mona Lisa; its iconic status seems so much a matter of historical accident rather than any reflections on its merits, and trying to actually see it in the Louvre is such a scramble that it hardly seems worth the effort.

But I was fascinated to learn that, at least on one account, we've been looking at the wrong aspect of the painting. In "Poses and passions: Mona Lisa's 'closely folded' hands'," Zirka Z. Filipczak dismisses the smile in the few paragraphs, saying that it is a reference to the name of her husband, Giacondo, which means "jocund, merry, glad, joyous". (p. 70) "The faintness of her smile would not have puzzled contemporaries. No respectable adult smiled broadly as to display teeth, that would simultaneously reveal one's vulgarity."

What is interesting, the article argues, is the position of the hands, which broadly follow the conventions of the time in having hands crossed over the abdomen. e.g. Decor puellarum, a handbook for maidens published in 1461: "Whether you are standing still or walking, you right hand must always rest upon your left, in front of you, on the level of your girdle." (Quoted page 72) In paintings, however, fingers are seldom shown intertwined, for that was a sign of grief.(p. 86)

Leonardo wasn't precise about the right on left, but he did believe: "Women must be represented in modest attitudes, their legs close together, their arms closely folded." (p. 73)

That this convention made it across Europe is shown by Haec Vir: or The Womanish Man, 1620: "Because I stand not with my hand on my belly ... am I therefore barbarous or shamelesse?" The error lay, she says, not in behaviour, but "in the fashion, in the custom". (p. 73)

The most favoured pose for men in paintings, by contrast, with elbows projecting outward, which "proclaimed a man to be physically vigorous and to possess bravery, the virtue and feeling deemed as essential for men as chastity was for women". (p. 83)

Of course it got more complicated than that - a woman might be shown "elbows out" if she practices a "masculine" profession or was being depicted as a virago, while men sometimes were shown with hands folded when they were scholars or clerics, or trying to show they did not engage in manual work. (p. 85)

And Mona is more sophisticated and does deserve at least some of her fame: ""The decorum of modesty ... incapacitated a complying woman's activity; her gestures as we;; as her walk, talk and glance. Constraint is hardly the overall effect of the Mona Lisa, however. ... The pose stands for restraint, whereas the forms, especially the smooth rhythms and softened full surfaces, suggest only ease. In earlier portraits women's hands joined in a stiffer, tighter way to confirm their modesty, but Mona Lisa's come together with the apparent effortlessness ... her body seems gently animated because the head turns more than the torso and the eyes more than the head. By 1500 this type of implied mobility had become part of the Italian portrait tradition for men, but it was still novel for a woman." (p. 87)

I can feel a trip to the National Gallery coming on ...

(From Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, Paster, Owe and Floyd-Wilson, Uni of Penn. Press, 2004)

Animals and humans

Barista reports on a fascinating experiment involving selection of Siberian foxes simple for friendliness, which has produced social intelligence within about 30 generations. (The foxes follow a human gesture and gaze to find food, something their "wild" cousins can't do.)

This might have implications for human evolution - if you became calmer, less aggressive, more friendly to others, then social intelligence might follow. It is a bit of a jump but it seems feasible to me.

I've read many books trying to imagine early communities of Homo sapiens sapiens (and indeed Neanderthals) and have always thought that those, such as Jean Auel's, that posit a basically co-operative society are far more believable than those the Hobbesian ones (eg the Gears People of the Wolf).

And indeed I believe that anthropological studies suggest that humans who live in small bands are very seldom physically violent.

* You'll never look at a bee in the same way again after this article.

Did you know that for many centuries it was believed that bees practiced "Christian chastity", and that Christopher Wren and John Evelyn together tried, and failed, to produce the perfect hive?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Net nuggets

(Since alliteration is the last refuge of the sub-editor out of ideas.)

* Voltaire's Garden: The philosopher as a campaigner for human rights, which contains the lovely paragraph ...

"Ferney watches became the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream of the later Enlightenment, a luxury good that was also a sign of progressive values."

There's nothing new about FairTrade, it seems. It has also inspired me to go in search of Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love, since I really must learn more about Mme du Châtelet.

* Freemasonic Symbolism and Georgian Gardens, which makes me wonder about the architectural drawings by the future George IV in the recent palace exhibition.

* The issues in translation. An explanation of how lecturers choose translations - particularly of Homer and Herodotus - provides an interesting contrast of styles, and a challenging Humanities 101 reading list.

* Women's role in technology: Did you know that Florence Nightingale invented the pie chart? (I confess that I didn't.) And the article doesn't mention Harvard once, for those who've got a bit sick of the Larry Summers argument. If you haven't, here's a lovely piece that gives his comments a C-minus grade, which seems to be about the guy's intellectual level.

* A list of George Bush's killings before he became president; you never know when it might come in useful. (Hat-tip to Media girl.)

* And a terrifying account of the behaviour of the world's rogue superpower.

Burke's old lady

I couldn't resist sharing a little more Thomas Burke, for the following character sketch reminds me very much of my grandmother, not for reasons of class, for she clung resolutely to all possible signs of middle-class respectability, but for the narrow horizons and the determination to see the best in even the most apparently awful circumstances ...

I also know exactly the spot on Wanstead flats that he is talking about, although there are no trams there now. I used to walk Beanie there sometimes - in fact it is where she had her last country walk, and it hasn't changed much - although it does smell rather nice when the gorse is in flower.

Granny Simpson was just such another, but in a softer key. She never stood up to life. She accepted, without complaint and without appreciation ; and she is now in "the house."

But her afternoon out is a Great Adventure, and sometimes she may be seen down our street. Her whole life has been bounded by narrow streets, lowering roofs and cramped rooms.

Her horizon, physically, was the other side of the street; mentally, to-morrow. She dared not look farther. From childhood her life has been without distance or " views." She was born in Hoxton, and lived and slaved in Hoxton, fighting always for the present. Even her rent was collected daily, for her landlord knew how hazardous was to-morrow. Her life was without much sorrow or much joy ; just a dreary struggle. No man had chosen her ; no romance, which she called " nonsense," had come to her.

Single she had lived and toiled. She had little to give in the way of friendship, and therefore received none, for she wanted that vital something that inspires interest and feeling. When she could no longer hold a needle, she knew that it was The House.

Neighbours commiserated her descent and her miserable sentence, but she saw it otherwise. She was beaten, but, though she lost her spirit, she did not lose her trust in the essential goodness of things.

" 'Tain't so bad, when you look at it prop'ly. We all got to sink our pride sometimes. 'Tany rate, it'll be me first real rest. I shan't 'ave no more worry about anything."

She is a bit of a character in the district, and on her afternoon out receives many greetings. Old age and open misfortune have given her a more definite character and loosened her early reserve. People smile upon her now, though before she could not command a nod.

One outing is much like another. It proceeds something like this. She potters from the gates of The House, in its evil-grey uniform, and peers up and down the street. The sun shows a pallid face through the smoke, and falls on littered streets, ragged roofs, unkempt doorways, and greasy shops. Its rays beat up the accumulated odours of cellar and alley-way, and, to most noses, the air is bitter.
But Granny sniffs it, and approves. " Lovely day again. I always 'ave the luck. I always 'ave King's weather!"

A dockman, passing, stops. " 'Ullo, Gran. Your day orf again ? I wish I was you. 'Ere!— that'll get you a drop o' something." A few coins pass.

" Well, I never. Now, if that ain't kind. Real kind. Well, well. . . . There's a lot o' good in the world, if you only knew it.

Fourpence! Now with that I could 'ave a nice tram ride. And yet a little drop o' something'd be nice, too. It'd 'ave to be beer, though."

She pads away, debating the matter—tram ride or a little drop o' something. Then a young girl, dressed in the flashy cast-offs of the second- hand, observes her.

"Cheero, Ma ! Orf on the loose again ? 'Ere—I done a good bit o' business last night. 'Ere's something to spend at the Church Bazaar —that'll get you a glass or two."

"Well now, dearie, if that ain't kind. You've got a 'eart, you 'ave."

Granny marches on, with firmer step now. "A nice ride and a drop o' something. Well, well . . . God is good, bless 'Is 'eart, if we only knew."

Then, except on the occasions when the casual benefits of good hearts have failed her. Granny follows her regular programme. She boards an East-bound tram-car, with much mighty back-chat to the conductor, and takes a ticket for Wanstead Flats; and on the journey looks keenly about her, seeing everything and enjoying everything.

There isn't much doing that escapes her. At the Flats she leaves the car, and stands for some moments, looking upon the " view." She looks upon an open space of
withered grass and tired, bald turf. The turf is usually littered with oddments of paper. Behind the broken bushes the tram-cars clatter, and the horizon offers ash-heaps and factories sending smoke across the brown grass.

The stunted trees give it an air of desolation. Granny stands and sniffs and sniffs. “Different air out here altogether. Country air, life. And what a fine view. Well, God is good, bless ‘Is ‘eart, letting me get out ‘ere. And, if I was a real lady, I’d come and sit out ‘ere every day!”
(pp. 143-6)

(On mothers see also my post on Rachel Speght's poem.)

Thomas Burke's London

Just discovered the writer Thomas Burke, through a random selection at the London Library of his The London Spy, 1922.

It is a wander around the streets, with a strong focus on the East End and the seamier sides of life, typical of his work - in fact he was the perfect "hack" - said in an entirely non-pejorative way - he reworks the same material four times: as fiction, as essays, as poetry, and as a flaneur. This site has a short biography and a complete copy of his The Song Book of Quong Lee (poetry).

His topic and tone can be very "modern", as in An Upright Man and Exchange of Compliments.

Also a nice piece of prose, The Russian Quarter (which was Brick Lane). If you fancy a bit of classical melodrama there's The chink and the child.

As those suggest, much of his London is long gone, although it seems every bit as multicultural as today's.

Some snippets that took my fancy:

The Ivy
(which seems to be in the same place as today's restaurant of that name)
"Even when I can afford to lunch or dine there (and I seldom can) I miss the welcome that was mine when it was in its beginning days. Only the very regular or very expensive customer gets that now.
Instead of being ushered to the old corner-table on the ground floor, by the window, I am sent upstairs. You see, the Ivy is now successful and famous, and I do it no credit. When it first opened, under the original ownership, it was only one room with a bare floor and a few mural decorations and you could dine there for two shillings.
Now it has acquired the whole corner block and wears oak panelling, thick carpets and shaded lights for each table. Formerly it was the haunt of hard-up gentlemen of the theatre; now it is crowded with plutocratic 'stars' and the smart people who affect that company." (p. 28)

Lovers' lanes
"Wherever there is a square or alley or remote corner, they discover it, and make it the scene of their last caresses; and most couples have a special corner of their own ... These spots you may locate in the morning. Clues are left for the observant, and the chief clue is -- hairpins. On this evidence I judge the Mall to be the favourite spot for dalliance, for often, in a morning walk from the Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace, I have counted, under the trees, over a hundred hairpins, not to mention some half-dozen scraps of ribbon; relics of the abandon of the night." (p. 56-7)

Ham-and-beef shops
"Any ham-and-beef shop had that effect on me, then. You may have noticed, if you have had hungry days, that it's the ham-and-beef shops that always exasperate ... with its genteel and titillating display ready to the eye, that makes you look round for that 'alf-brick. It's the sight of the decked and garnished dishes - the ham in cut and its pink and cream slices and its pink odour -- that makes a Communist of a hungry Tory."

Leather Lane market
"A happy hunting-ground for those who find amusement in the foibles of their fellows is afforded by the midday bazaar of Leather Lane. There the hungry office-boy may feed, and the odd minutes of the clerk's luncheon-hour may be most pleasantly, though, unprofitably, spent. Nothing is here of solid value, but much to tempt the eye. In this narrow lane with its lasting odour of vegetable refuse, elderly professors will sell you the Elixir of Life at a shilling a box; shabby young men will sell you the Secret of Success in Business; venerable and eloquent seniors, whose equally venerable linen is eloquent of a misspent youth, will give you (yes give you) the winner of the Big 'Un tomorrow...
Elsewhere, you will find brisk young gentlemen who have apparently taken a course of lessons in 'How to Become a Convincing Talker', and now, in tones that ring with sincerity, offer you one guinea fountain-pens at two-and-six, or gold watches, sleeve links, solid leather wallets, at the price of a lunch. These do good business; but the boot-stalls, the haberdashery stalls, and the broken-iron stalls, having little excitement to offer for the splendid shilling, suffer by this insidious competition. ...." (p. 164-66)

On Prohibition/Temperance
"One of these days there will be a great public occasion in England - the hanging of the two enemies of civilisation - the millionaire and the missionary. They live, hand in hand, and it is fitting that they should swing together. Until then, my child, live sanely; interfere not with others, nor let them interfere with you." (p. 204)

The 'court missionary'
(who seems to have been the forerunner of the probation officer)
"He touches on every angle of human nature. He has to patch-up husband and wife quarrels, to placate landlord and lodger, to get work for the first offender who has been 'driven to it' by unemployment, to admonish naughty boys and girls, to keep in touch with offenders released on probation, to take charge of attempted suicides, to reclaim the old offender, to talk with prisoners on remand and seek to help them; and generally to be father, guardian, pastor, teacher, uncle and good friend to the helpless and broken creatures of the highways and hedges." (p. 216)

The baby board
"Most of the street doors were wide open, and through them I stepped straight into the front parlour. Where there were babies, the doorways were wedged with a protecting board, about two feet high, and over the top of the board peered Master Baby. This is a common custom of poor streets. It enables baby to amuse himself with the sight of the street and take in the 'fresh' air, while mother can get on comfortably with the washing or the fish-curing, knowing that he cannot adventure into the perilous gutter." (p. 259)

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Mongols: angels or devils?

I've been enjoying a lovely row - conducted of course with the politest of stilletos - on H-Asia over the nature of the Mongol conquest and empire.

Posters fall roughly into three camps:

* There were total barbarians who killed even the cockroaches (roughly the Chinese camp, or those relying on Chinese sources).

* They were only behaving according to the norms of the times, and the dictates of real politik (the Mongol camp)

* They were pretty bad, but then so were Chinese rulers (which you might class as the "you can't trust any ruler" camp)

It also pointed me in the direction of an interesting review of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford, which made a bit of a splash recently, and it seems presents an alternative to the book on which I recently posted which attributes the Renaissance to the Arabs.

Another pointer was to an article on Attitudes towards Conversion Among the Elite in the Mongol Empire.

I have what I might describe as a mild interest in the Mongols, having visit the supposed burial place of the great Genghis, one of the most fascinating days of my life. (There's an article I wrote about it here.)

Other recommended reads, included Thomas Allsen, Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia(Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Nicola Di Cosmo, ed. Warfare in Inner Asian History 500-1800. Neither in the London Library, but you can request purchases ...

If I could only give up sleeping, how much time I'd have to read.

Bibliophile heaven

Back in January I posted a request for info about the London Library and received a most helpful response. So I've now joined, and the description "bibliophile heaven" hardly does the place justice.

I haven't really checked it out fully yet, but a quick dash around before I came down with the lurgy showed that I could happily spend the rest of my life in there: there are some 1 million books, mostly on the humanities, nearly all on open access - in fact the back of the building is just a metal frame filled with books, with grilled floors, I assume for air circulation. If, like me, you suffer from vertigo, you can't look down, but then you don't want to because there are so many books in front of you to open.

It has a classification system that might be best described as eccentric - I love the fact that "witchcraft" comes under "science" (and conveniently right beside "women"), but I'm sure it is an arrangement that will produce lots of glorious juxtapositions and links.

Yesterday's post on melancholy cats was my first from a London Library book, and I'm sure they'll be many, many more.

The same book made a link back to an earlier post this week, on the classic Romans' attitude towards pity and compassion:

"Calvin, in his commentary on De clementia, counters Seneca's attack on the feeling of mercy by asserting that a man who does not feel pity is 'certainly not human'.
This attack upon the Stoic notion of clemency ... is a common theme in early modern writings on the passions, whether Protestant or Catholic ...
Although Christian writers frequently admire Seneca's moral teachings and even his advice on when it is wise to remit punishment, they cannot accept his dismissal of a passionate mercy ... since that passion is at the heart of their conception of Christ's incarnation and sacrifice." (p.99)

This from the chapter "Compassion in the Public Sphere of Milton and King Charles", which focuses on the Earl of Monmouth's translation of Senault's The Use of Passions, 1649, Charles's (ghost-written - really!) Eikon Basilike and Milton's response, Eikonoklastes to discuss "the political roles the passions played in the 17th century".

It argues, broadly, that despite the frontpiece of Monmouth's work, which had reason enslaving the passions, each side accepted that passion and reason were interlinked, and that passion - and compassion - did have a proper role in public life. Perhaps they should be republished in America now.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Friday's cat is melancholy

mcat, originally uploaded by natalieben.

... or at least so it seemed to Shakespeare.

I've just been reading a fascinating article built around Falstaff's response to the prince's suggestion that the jolly gent might become the official hangman in Henry IV, Part 1.

Falstaff's response is "I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugg'd bear ..."

It seems odd, since melancholy is one of the last emotions I would have thought we'd be inclined to lay on cats today - haughty, perhaps, playful for kittens, sleepy for some - but not expressions of sadness. (Even if gib seems to have meant gelded.)

But the article puts up a convincing case that what is "bodily or emotional figuration for us, preserved metaphors of somatic consciousness, was the literal stuff of psychological theory for early modern scriptors of the body". (p. 116)

Everything was made up of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air, and their linked qualities of cold, wet, hot and dry. Cats were cold, for as Edward Topsell, in the Historie of Four-Footed Beasts, 1607, from which the above image comes, said: "Cats are of divers colours, but for the most part gryself, like to congealed yse, which commeth from the condition of her meate." ("Yse" I assume means "ice", although please correct me if I'm wrong.)

"A cat's melancholy is a humour - hence a temperature, a temperament, a disposition and a liquid of specific consistency organizing its relations to the world." (p. 119)

As so if you think of "icy" as "haughty", perhaps our two points of view are not so far apart.

(The lugg'd bear, by the way, was being dragged out to be baited by dogs, which gave it plentiful cause for melancholy.)

From "Melancholy cats, lugged bears and early modern cosmology: reading Shakespeare's psychological materialism across the species barrier," Gail Kern Paster, from Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, Paster, Owe and Floyd-Wilson, Uni of Penn. Press, 2004.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Only in America

Only in (fill in the blank): this is a whole category of news story, the sort of item that usually ends at the bottom of a column of briefs. Witchdoctors make men's genitals disappear, town believes world is flat, centipedes are worshipped here ... They used to originate from Africa, or the further reaches of Asia.

But increasingly these seem to be coming out of America, that land of the unfree and deluded. Today's examples:

1. I read on Slit that an 18-year-old has been charged with planning a terrorist act for writing a story about zombies taking over a high school. I doubt even the wilder reaches of al-Qaida have considered the use of zombies, although of course you can never be sure about the CIA ...

2. I dread to imagine what a "Chuck-E Cheese" all-you-can-eat restaurant that seats 562 might be like, but you wouldn't think eating there, even if you've lost the receipt, would lead to police officers using the human equivalent of a super-powered cattle prod on you in full view of your children. (Hat tip to Popping culture.)

3. And I was reading on And then I stepped in gum about her most commendable effort to teach her young charges that other countries existed, only to find that her co-leader was unaware that Canada was not a US state.

If that has left you with a mild case of depression, I offer the cheering, if slightly odd, news that you can brush up your classical Mongolian at a website based in Aberystwyth, Wales. That's what you call "good globalisation".

I thought learning to read Thai was hard, in part because vowels can be placed in all different positions around a consonant and also because words are not split up, but this looks a lot worse:

"All Mongolian words are based around single straight line which the Mongols call the spine (Mong. nighurun). All individual letters are then represented by flicks and dashes away from this central line." (From Script Tutorial 1)