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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Plot Maps for The Woman in White

What About The Woman in White

I love this book because it is one of the best-written novels I’ve ever read. It’s obvious that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were such good friends: they were writing in a similar style. This book has a cast of extremely fully developed characters. Each character has her or his own fully developed plot, which makes this novel so densely complete. You cannot skip, or you miss important points that contribute to the elucidation of the entire mystery.

If you’ve already read the book, or if you just want to know where you’re going with it and need a map to keep track, here’s my list of character plots. Don’t read these if you don’t want spoilers.

Character Plot 1: the Woman in White

When the mysterious woman in white appears on the road where young Walter is walking after midnight, she becomes the central motif for the novel, the key to the mystery, and the point at which all plots intersect. She is Anne Catherick, an illegitimate daughter of Phillip Fairlie, born before Phillip married Laura Fairlie’s mother and two years before Laura’s birth. Anne was abandoned most of the time by her mother and was reared mostly by a woman named Mrs. Clements. Anne’s mother knows the full secret of Sir Percival Glyde, and in a moment of extreme anger at him, once spoke in Anne’s presence that she could threaten him with ruin if she told his secret. Because Anne is incapable of understanding things fully, she repeats her mother’s words as if she too knows the secret, which she doesn’t, and Sir Percival has her committed to the insane asylum before the novel begins to keep his secret safe. Anne escapes, meets Walter outside the asylum, and a little later goes to Limmeridge, where she had once been happy when her mother had brought her there as a youngster on a whim. Anne had then been taken under Mrs. Fairlie’s wing and her remarkable similarity to Laura Fairlie had been seen, but her true identity as a daughter of Phillip Fairlie had not been suspected. She had been there only a short time, but during that time Mrs. Fairlie had told her she looked especially well in white, so Anne has always been determined never to wear any other color. Anne reappears near Limmeridge when Laura is to marry Sir Percival, to warn her about him. Then she reappears near Blackwater to take revenge on Sir Percival. But because Anne looks so much like Laura, Count Fosco decides to use her to make Laura disappear by switching their identities. But before Count Fosco and his cohorts plan to kill her, Anne dies of heart disease, one very important day before Laura comes to London. She is buried in Limmeridge under the name of Laura Fairlie, Lady Glyde.

Character Plot 2. Walter Hartright

Walter Hartright, an artist, is hired by Frederick Fairlie to teach his niece Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe drawing. Before he leaves for his employment there, he helps to rescue the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from the insane asylum. During his time at Limmeridge, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and upon being informed by Marian that Laura is engaged to be married, he leaves his employment and goes to Honduras to forget. He survives numerous adventures and near-death experiences to return to England in time to help Marian hide Laura after Marian has rescued her. He investigates the secret that Sir Percival Glyde is hiding and thereby discovers the full story of the Woman in White and the guilty secret of Sir Percival Glyde. He is a witness when Sir Percival dies in the attempt to destroy the all-important church record. He returns to London and marries Laura. He and Marian and Laura return to Limmeridge for the finale. Walter arranges for each piece of the story to be told by its principal witness. He writes his portion and collects all the others to make the book, a legal case for the full story of the mysteries surrounding Anne, Laura, and Marian.

Character Plot 3. Villain Number One

Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet, is strapped for money. He has become informally engaged to the daughter of a rich friend named Phillip Fairlie, the lovely young Laura Fairlie. Sir Percival is about 45 when the novel opens and has been maligned to Walter by Anne Catherick, and with Marian Halcombe’s poor opinion of him, we are immediately suspicious of his oily character in his courtship of Laura. He “forgives” Laura’s confession to him that she loves someone else and holds her to the engagement; his real reason is that he needs her money too much to let her out of the informal agreement. They marry and he takes Laura off to Italy, where he mistreats her (the evidence is that Laura adopts complete silence on the subject of her husband in her letters to Marian where before this they had been full of every detail). He brings Laura back to Blackwater with his close friend Count Fosco and Fosco’s wife, a Fairlie aunt of Laura. Glyde immediately sets about trying to force Laura to sign over her money to him to pay his debts. When Laura resists, Glyde punishes her but relents due to Fosco’s intervention. Fosco counsels him to adopt a different scheme for paying his debts until they can swindle Laura out of her money. Glyde agrees to Fosco’s plan and leaves Laura alone, intent on tracking down Anne Catherick, who is in the neighborhood and whom Glyde believes knows his full secret and further believes that Anne has told Laura. Fosco and Glyde get Anne to London, where she dies a day before they get Laura to London. But they swap the two women’s identities anyway, hoping nobody discovers the missing day, and install Laura under Anne’s name back in the insane asylum from which Anne had escaped. Glyde knows that Walter Hartright is back from Honduras and is on his trail (he has spies following Walter), and in guilty fear of discovery, he goes to the little parish church near where his parents had lived before he was born. In the parish register he had long ago inserted a forged marriage for his parents at the bottom of a page the right number of months before his birth--this is his secret, that he is actually illegitimate and has no right to the Blackwater Park estate nor to the baronetcy. Walter has copied the parish register just before Percival Glyde arrives back in the village, and Walter also sees the copy of the register that had been kept by the solicitor’s father at the time, which has no forgery in it. Glyde breaks into the vestry to destroy the parish register page, not knowing there is a copy, and somehow he sets the whole place on fire. Walter tries to rescue him but fails. Percival Glyde dies in the fire.

Character Plot 4. Heroine Number One

Marian Halcombe is the elder half-sister of Laura Fairlie on their mother’s side. She is beautiful except in her face, and she is forceful, resourceful, devoted to Laura, clever, brave, self-sacrificing, and physically agile. She and Laura live at Limmeridge House, Laura’s father’s ancestral place, with Laura’s paternal uncle when Walter Hartright comes to be their drawing master. She shows a strong adherence to choosing the right in telling Walter he’ll have to cut short his employment and go when she learns about his and Laura’s mutual attraction. She doesn’t like Sir Percival Glyde but behaves in appropriate ways for the times in treating him with politeness to ensure her ability to remain at Laura’s side. After the marriage between Laura and Glyde, she stays at Limmeridge until the Glydes return from Italy, and then she goes to Blackwater Park to live at Laura’s request to live with Laura. She will not leave Laura if she can help it; she defies Glyde, ignoring his ill treatment of herself to remain with Laura. She supports Laura in defying Glyde about signing the paper that the sisters suspect is not in Laura’s favor. She shows considerable courage and agility in getting out on the roof that frosty night and creeping between the flower pots along the ledge to overhear the dastardly plans between Fosco and Glyde, below on the terrace. And despite her stiffness and cold, she manages to get back inside without mishap. She does her best to protect Laura even while overwhelmed by the fever she develops from the exposure to the extreme cold on that roof.

But Marian suffers from the incompetent treatment of a country doctor not up on the latest research and methods, however nice he is. She develops typhus and is moved to the unused wing of the house in a trick by others to make Laura believe Marian has been taken to London. Count Fosco gets the right treatment for her and she recovers. She hates it that Fosco fancies her, but she is clever and strong minded enough to use it against him in effecting Laura’s escape from the insane asylum, with a nurse’s help. She takes Laura to Cumberland, and they meet Walter there and decide to return to London together. Later when she finds that Fosco knows where they are hiding in London, she takes immediate evasive action and escapes with Laura yet again. She works well with Walter, becoming a complete partner to him in everything they do for Laura. The sad thing about Marian is that her economic reality is that she must remain tied to Laura in order to have a decent life, because otherwise she is destitute. It is her luck and to her credit that she is so devoted to Laura that she wants to be with her sister; and it’s also lucky that she develops a purely sisterly love for Walter. Marian seems like a very modern type of woman, not passive at all.

Character Plot 5. The Other Heroine

Laura Fairlie is the younger half sister of Marian Halcombe on their mother’s side, and Laura is also the younger half sister of Anne Catherick on their father’s side (this is revealed late in the novel). She is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde when Walter Hartright, the drawing master, meets her and they fall in love. She thinks Sir Percival will release her if she tells him she has fallen in love with someone else, without revealing exactly whom. He doesn’t, and she marries Sir Percival. She is mistreated by her husband and is accused by him of being unfaithful with the drawing master, which for the time is about the most terrible thing he could accuse her of. She inherits a lot of money upon turning 21, which happens a few months after her marriage. Sir Percival tries to trick her into signing a paper giving him control of the money, but she won’t sign it without reading the whole thing, which of course he can’t let her do. He shuts her up in her room and forbids her to see Marian or to be let out. But Count Fosco makes Sir Percival let her out. Because Laura’s marriage articles give all the money to her husband if she dies, Count Fosco says they can make sure that she dies (or so we think, because of what Marian overhead on that roof). Actually Percival tricks Laura into leaving Blackwater by saying she’ll be following the very ill Marian Halcombe to London and on to Limmeridge House. Once in London, Laura is drugged and taken to the insane asylum under the name of Anne Catherick. At the asylum, Laura begins to lose heart, but when she is found by Marian, she retains just enough strength to enable the escape to be effected without detection. Marian takes her back to Limmeridge, but Uncle Frederick refuses to believe Laura is not Anne. They meet Walter at the cemetery and return with him to London to a secret location where they live safely for a time, where Laura recovers her spirits to a great degree. She is sheltered from the truth of their circumstances by Walter and Marian who think she can’t handle the truth. But Fosco finds the place. In the nick of time, Marian spirits her away to a second hiding place. After her husband’s death, Laura marries Walter. Finally she gets to go home to Limmeridge, her true identity is restored to her, and she and Walter have a son. Charles Dickens liked passive, decorative heroines, and Laura comes closest to his ideal, especially when she is recovering from her incarceration. But Wilkie Collins couldn’t have agreed with his friend that women should be so passive, because Laura had some strength of character that makes us think she could develop more, especially if she can keep from being drugged or shut in an insane asylum.

Character Plot 6. Awful Uncle

Frederick Fairlie, the single uncle in possession of Limmeridge for his lifetime, is a hypochondriac and is so apathetic, self involved, and selfish that he cannot be bothered to do the right thing for anyone unless he is threatened with noise and bother. He thinks he suffers from his nerves. He engages a drawing master for his niece and her half sister, Laura and Marian. He has one interview with Walter and then asks that Walter’s reports to him be delivered by proxy or in writing to avoid personal contact. He is angry that Walter has asked to leave early, but he lets him go because he cannot be troubled to make him stay. He allows his niece’s marriage articles to be written in such a way as to make her an easy victim for an unscrupulous husband, very much against the advice of the solicitor acting for Laura. But uncle Frederick cannot be bothered by the exertion it would take to do the right thing. Later on when Walter needs information from him (including a piece written for the novel), and when Marian needs to force him to allow them back to Limmeridge House with Laura’s true identity restored, they both use his weakness against him to get him to do the right thing.

Character Plot 7. Villain Number Two, the Master Villain

Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco is the huge Italian who had been a member of some underground criminal gang in his homeland, but he betrayed them and is perpetually on the run. He is extremely intelligent, wily, suspicious, cynical, controlling but self-controlled, manipulative, greedy, cultured, eccentric, urbane, and ultimately terrifying. He is magnificently depicted; by far the most compelling character in the novel. He uses people and has no conscience about it. He understands people but does not empathize. Perhaps he is a narcissist. He uses Sir Percival for money and power. He comes to England with his wife, the sister of the late Phillip Fairlie and Frederick Fairlie, and resides at Blackwater with the Glydes. Madame Fosco was reportedly somewhat soft in the head and flighty, but then she married Fosco against her family’s wishes and was cut off from her inheritance. Fosco wants that inheritance, and part of his scheme against Laura ensures that the money comes to Madame Fosco and through her to her husband. Madame Fosco seems to be a victim of some kind of abuse in her abject obedience to and adoration of her husband.

Fosco intervenes when Percival punishes Laura for not signing the paper, having a better plan. He develops the plan to use Anne Catherick to create a substitute identity for Lady Glyde. He tracks down Anne Catherick and has her kidnapped, and he’s not above murdering Anne if necessary, but he is simply philosophical, not relieved, when Anne dies of natural causes instead. He admires Marian Halcombe, to her dismay, but he is instrumental in saving her life and getting her the treatment she needs to recover her health. He helps Glyde switch Anne’s and Laura’s identities so that Laura becomes Anne Catherick in the insane asylum. Marian remains his only weakness until confronted with little Professor Pesca at the Opera. Before that Fosco tracks Marian and Walter to the place where they are hiding Laura in London; before he sends the asylum owner to recapture the lost patient (Laura in Anne’s identity), he makes the mistake of allowing Marian just enough time to escape with Laura. After he sees Pesca at the Opera, he attempts to escape with his wife to the Continent, where he is killed.

Character Plot 8. The Puppet Master

Professor Pesca, Walter’s delightful little Italian friend, teaches in the city. Walter saves him when they’re out swimming and Pesca sinks to the bottom. He repays Walter by finding him the extremely lucrative position teaching the Fairlie girls at Limmeridge House. Then at the end of the novel he goes with Walter to the Opera and sees Count Fosco. Pesca doesn’t recognize Fosco, but Fosco definitely recognizes him as a superior member of the Italian criminal fraternity who has the power to have him killed. But Pesca doesn’t have to do it himself, because Fosco escapes to the Continent where other agents of the fraternity kill him.

Character Plot 9. The Heartless Woman

Jane Catherick is the mother of the woman in white. In Jane’s earlier life, she worked as a ladies’ maid in the household of the Donthornes, and she had become pregnant by their friend Philip Fairlie. At the same time this happened, a local man named Catherick had been courting Jane who had treated him with contempt. But after she became pregnant, she went to Catherick and told him she would marry him after all. Mr. Catherick doted on her, but she treated him badly even after the marriage. She was vain, selfish, and stubborn about always having her own way. Her husband got the position of clerk at the Welmingham church, and Anne was born there the next June. But in April, Sir Percival Glyde appeared in the neighborhood and he and Jane Catherick soon were causing a lot of evil gossip among the neighbors. Catherick got mad and started a fight with Sir Percival and got beat up by him. After that Catherick felt disgraced and left Jane, settling eventually in America. Jane Catherick stayed where she was, declaring it was all a mistake, and gave birth to her daughter. She lived on an income from Sir Percival Glyde, for the truth was that she had helped him gain access to the church parish records in which he had inserted a bogus marriage for his parents, forging it using ink she had helped him to mix, in return for expensive gifts. Jane found out too late that as an accomplice she would face the death penalty in those days, so Sir Percival could blackmail her into accepting his terms for her never to move away from her house, never to go anywhere without his permission, and never to tell the secret, in return for an income from him. Jane hated her baby, and she gave her to Mrs. Clements to bring up. From time to time Jane would take Anne back, but never for very long. The longest time Jane took her was the time she took her to Limmeridge and Anne met Mrs. Fairlie. Jane went there to nurse her dying sister, hoping to inherit a legacy, but it turned out there was no money. She kept Anne with her from that time on, until she angrily says in Anne’s presence that she could bring down Sir Percival Glyde if she told his secret, words that Anne repeated to Sir Percival next time they saw him. Jane Catherick tried to convince Sir Percival that Anne knew no details, but Sir Percival insists that she be shut up in an asylum. Jane specifies that it has to be a private asylum, one outside of London, and so it is. Jane lived in her town with the bitter goal of forcing all the respectable people to restore her reputation and character, and by sheer determination over time she has done it. When Walter tracks her down and asks her to help him bring down Sir Percival, she refuses. After Sir Percival dies, she writes Walter a letter and confesses to her part in Sir Percival’s fraud, and how it was that she came to allow him to shut Anne up in the private insane asylum. She never admits Anne’s true parentage.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Musings on a Royal Engagement

Today Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s upcoming wedding was announced. Not that this is super important news in my circle, but I confess that since the wedding of Prince William I have become interested in British royals, somewhat unaccountably so.

When I was a college student and went to Britain for the first time, my friends and I were on a particular street one day when we saw a lot of police gathering and walking around. We asked one of them what was going on, and he told us Prince Charles was coming along to rededicate the Covent Garden opera house and that we should wait and see him. We were interested enough to hang about and do just that. Prince Charles drove past us as we stood on a curb (kerb if you’re British), and if his car window had been open, we could have touched his shoulder. A few hours later we happened to be back there just across the street from the Opera House entrance when the prince and his party emerged. My friends were screaming “Prince Charles!” and I had my good camera at the ready. He seemed to look right at me, waving, and I took several photos. I was caught up in the excitement.

Then we went to tour Windsor Castle. I was overwhelmed by room after room of opulence to the point that I emerged a firm anti-monarchist. It seemed so very unfair that these people had amassed such wealth for generation after generation on the backs of the vulnerable and suffering poor people of their nation and other nations that they had conquered and enslaved in the past. That they still lived like that when the economy was dismal and so many people were out of work. That they seemed so out of touch with equality, liberty, and democratic and republican ideals that I wholeheartedly believed in (and still do).

The idea of a monarchy surviving into the end of the twentieth century seemed like something out of a fantasy world. Why keep an institution that had outlived its political purpose? A monarchy is supposed to govern; this one did nothing but figurehead duties and I thought how silly it was in today’s world to keep it, to spend people’s hard-earned tax money to support it. I couldn’t believe (and still don’t) that tourists spend enough on monarchy-related things to pay for all the expense they cost the country.

But there was the excitement and charm of seeing something totally different and somewhat alien to my culture—seeing Prince Charles, reading about him and Diana, listening on the radio at some crazy hour in my time zone to their wedding—it was something out of an old tale. And then the fairy tale went sour and the reality was that these were troubled people who were wildly mismatched and there were children who were suffering through their parents’ war, and I thought again how the monarchy ought to just go away.

Diana died, the young princes grew up, and Queen Elizabeth went on and on and on, doing what she had defined for herself as her duty through decade after decade, with single-minded determination to get it right and pass it along to her wayward children. They seemed to fall in line after all and now mimic her sense of duty. Prince William found a lovely young woman and married her. She seemed to be everything Queen Elizabeth could possibly want—someone who apparently wanted to recreate that old life. It was anachronistic, interesting to watch, and oddly compelling in its charming insistence on being somehow relevant. I admired this very old woman whose integrity and grit was so strong. Those are traits I believe this world very much needs right now.

We need honesty. We need integrity. We need a sense of purpose-driven adherence to duty, to what we believe with all our hearts is right and true and proper in this world. We need to inspire the young with the courage to keep on through the hard times until things get better.

It’s not bad to have a figurehead who embodies these ideals.

But Elizabeth is very old. Although her mother lived to be over one hundred years of age, that doesn’t leave Elizabeth at best with much more than one more decade. Now that her husband has stepped back and entered a semi-retirement, her role must weigh on her shoulders more heavily than ever. I cannot think Prince Charles is overwhelmingly popular. There was too much wrongdoing in the Diana years, too much damage to the monarchy as an institution apart from the incredible example of Elizabeth.

But Charles is old too, and he has two sons who are handsome, charming, seemingly kind-hearted and idealistic young men who might still want to carry on the legacy of their grandmother. William married a similarly kind-hearted, dutiful young woman who is committed to rearing the next generation of royal heirs to the throne in the best way she can (and if she is successful in producing well-adjusted people in that family, it will be something different and almost miraculous after generations of royals with problems, with the exception of Elizabeth).

If the royals are to have any relevance at all, they really must be committed to carrying on the work that Elizabeth has carved out for the monarchy, aside from figurehead duties: that of calling attention to charities and causes that are worth the attention and support of British people and charitable people worldwide, and of supporting the British “brand” worldwide, and of continuing as much soft diplomacy as is possible. They need to work a lot harder at it than they have done up to this point.

Prince William may have gotten on board after all since becoming a full-time royal this past summer. He seems to be carrying out a great deal more work on his grandmother’s behalf than he ever did before; one wondered whether he was going to carve out a private sort of life for himself just in case the monarchy was voted down as soon as his grandmother passed away. Someone seems to have convinced him that it would be better for him and his family if he did all that he could to continue the legacy.

The charm of the young and beautiful is great, and Prince William still has that going for him in the picture of himself and his little family. Because of the attractiveness of his family, he enjoys some popularity. It won’t last long, as time rushes by, unless he continues to prove himself invaluable in terms of his service to his country. And not only William must prove himself, but his wife and his brother, and in time his children.

Now Meghan Markle is to join this effort as Prince Harry’s wife. I have a lot of curiosity about what it means for a modern American woman to join the British royal family. Will she have to give up her citizenship? Can she have dual citizenship? Would that work if the British public perceived that they were paying this American woman who wasn’t totally committed to being one of them? Would the British people ever accept an American woman as one of them anyway? Isn’t this an ironic revisiting of the Edward VIII – Wallis Simpson situation?

On a personal note and considering the realities of the daunting task Meghan Markle has undertaken, if she should fail and the marriage break up, will she be protected from financial disaster by some sort of prenuptial agreement? How does that work to negotiate with a royal family before the marriage? She certainly isn’t bringing to the marriage real or monetary assets that compare to the vastness of what Harry has behind him.

If Meghan Markle is to succeed, she needs to undertake an immediate crash course in British history and culture, and she needs to study the country in depth as quickly as possible. She will have to negotiate the intricacies of the upper social class, the aristocracy, and the wider royal family. There will be many who will snub her and be determined for her to realize their deep and implacable resistance to her every move; there will be many whose noses are out of joint at her audacity in marrying “their” royal prince. She will have to placate those who will be anxious to put her in her place—and that makes me wonder if, as an American, she will be expected to observe every nuance of precedence in British royal society? Traditionally the Queen doesn’t expect Americans to curtsy to her. Will Meghan? There will be anger at her every Americanism, her accent, her American openness, her American attitudes, her religion, her race, her past choices, and her present. Some will hate her for being older than Harry, for wanting to have children or for being unable to have them (should that prove the case). She must be prepared not to win, in order to win.

What she has going for her is her ability to perform well in interviews, to give speeches, to be genuinely interested and able to work hard in the causes that she undertakes. As Harry said in their first interview, she can do the “job” of being a royal, and that will be a great asset, especially to the cause of continuing the royal family’s relevance in this age.

She also obviously loves and is committed to Harry himself, and to their being a couple. She seems to have good communication skills, and they seem to communicate well as a couple. It will be vital for them to grow closer in order to continue to communicate well about the myriad of issues facing Meghan as she makes the transition from her former life to this new life. The difficulties will be much less so if they can pull together in harmony through all the challenges.

The scrutiny and criticism will be daunting. Their supporters are far fewer than William and Catherine had—some of the goodwill generated by that royal engagement and wedding has been squandered by subsequent choices that seemed to suggest that neither William, nor Catherine, nor Harry really wanted to take on the duty-oriented life that their grandmother was asking of them.

If they have all embraced it now, this new royal wedding might generate new levels of good will and popularity that just might see the next generation of the royal family through these times.

I find this story interesting and compelling enough to follow it through for the next several years. Having been culturally conditioned to root for underdogs, I am rooting for them to succeed, just because I see the obstacles growing huge. What do you think?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Playing in Puddles

Winter is coming at last. My dog and I went walking on the day that the weather changed here, and while we were out walking, the cold rain turned to snow. We were soaked anyway, so we played along our walk in the puddles. It was fun for me to contemplate reflections of trees and houses and sky.

Not coming down hard yet

The clouds right down on the mountains

Something interesting in the wet leaves?
The tree inverted

Tree and dog and me

Have a great week everybody, and to all my U.S. friends, happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Who Does What for How Much?

A friend just posted a link to an article on Facebook today that analyzes a United Nations report and concludes that the United Nations is trying to mandate a worldwide scenario that forces all women to work outside the home whether they want to or not and whether they have minor children at home or not. The author attempts to alarm its readers with a dystopian future in which all children are reared by government workers, a popular element of dystopian fiction.

One problem I had with the article other than its similarity to the aforementioned fiction is that it distorts and misrepresents some of the statistical data used in regard to equal work for equal pay. I have friends who think this is a non-issue, that it does not exist. I have no idea whether they think it never existed at all. But I myself have personal experience of the problem in the course of my own work career, so I know that it has existed, and I believe it is not entirely extinct. It’s pretty easy to search and click a number of reports that set out the data regarding the status of equal pay for equal work in this country, and the report loses its credibility on that problem alone.

But it also loses credibility when it misses the opportunity to make a point about something in line with what it wants to advocate, which is that women should have the choice to stay home and rear their children if they want to. Before I talk about what is missing from the argument, Let me state that I believe that their main point is valid, and that I further believe that it is not something we have to fear will be outlawed in the near or even distant future. I don’t see a society in the world today that is taking the step of outlawing care of one’s own children in the name of gender equality. It is absurd to think that that is a fear for this generation.

(However, I didn’t see coming the election of such a president as we have in this country today, who advocates such backward-looking policies as trickle-down economics; who tacitly approves racism and sexual harassment; who not only cares nothing for vulnerable populations but explicitly mocks and denigrates them; and who has such a retrograde sense of our obligation to the planet that he reverses our progress on climate change, shrinks our national monuments, cancels policies protecting our air and water quality, and reverses protections on endangered species. So anything bad could still happen.)

What is missing from the article’s argument is the opportunity to explore the issue of what value is contributed to society, both economic and social, of supporting women in rearing their own children in the best way they know how. The article talks about this opportunity being in danger of being lost because of an economic idea that the work women do for their families is somehow lost by reason of its not being paid work. The article says that the United Nations wants all childcare to be done by governments. It then drops the idea and fails to explore what that statement means, as if all children are delivered to Congress or something.

If childcare were done by governments, obviously there would have to be massive numbers of childcare centers built, childcare workers trained and hired, and a gazillion laws passed regarding regulation of the same. Certainly childcare wages would be a hot topic. Nobody is going to work for the government for peanuts. If childcare were to become a government function, then it would have to be well paid.

As with all government entities, there would be enormous opportunity for corruption among the levels of management of such centers and staff. Imagine the fun of running a center and being able to bill the government for millions of diapers and Wet Wipes and zinc creams and so on each year. The past scandals of military organizations that billed thousands of dollars to the government for equipment wouldn’t touch this one.

Intrinsic to the picture is the millions of women “freed” from the bondage of home labor now enabled to work in this new government department, doing the same thing they used to do at home, but now for wages that can be taxed. Forget equal work for equal pay--how many men do you think will apply for a new governmental career in childcare? Depends on how well it pays, for one thing. Still, it’s pretty reasonable to imagine that fewer men than women would do this type of work as a career. So this will probably be perceived as a woman’s type of job, and it will probably be given a pay scale that is lower than, say, the facilities management department that takes care of all the new childcare buildings. In other words, the janitors will be better paid than the childcare staff workers.

Managers, though, will be paid more. They will be mostly male, if this industry follows the same pattern as all other governmental industries. The glass ceiling will remain in place, with a few exceptions of course.

The supposed major gain in the entire scenario is supposedly that women who otherwise would be home earning nothing will be out in the workforce, doing whatever they are trained to do in the fields they most enjoy (aside from care of their own children, that is, unless they opt for a childcare career and get to have their own children under their care for a time). This is supposed to be a major economic boost to the nation.

One little matter is forgotten in the entire picture. What sort of upbringing do the children experience? If it is at all like public school, then some of the children will have excellent care, some will have mediocre care, and a lot will have bad care. Differences will exist along racial and economic lines in terms of location. Children from affluent areas may have better care than children from inner cities. Some will experience mentally and emotionally supportive and enriching environments, but most will not.

Plenty of reputable studies have shown that children do best when cared for by their own parents in a home where both parents are present and supportive of each other and the children themselves. This is the ideal that is so often discarded because it is so often unattainable. But it should still be sought, and it actually is still supported by current laws in almost all developed countries today, even those that are supposedly so focused on gender equality that they are supposed to be on the brink of enacting just such dystopian laws as described above. They haven’t enacted such laws anywhere that I could find. Society today still knows that children grow up and reach their best ability to function in society when they have plenty of the right kind of support in their formative years.

That many don’t have the right kind of support is a problem to be worked out, but not by denying the children who do have a parent who wants to stay home with them and rear them for “nothing.”

Now what about that “nothing”? The economics seem to be clear that parents taking care of their own children are paid nothing in monetary terms. However, we all know that there is another currency operating in this case. For the children, the rewards of having a loving, attentive person whose interest in them is incalculable is so great as to be, perhaps incalculable. For the parents, the rewards of childcare can be great, especially when all goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t for a number of reasons, but we’re talking still in ideals here. Therefore, the rewards to the parents for doing their best at a job they know they can do better than anyone else are perhaps the greatest.

But without discussing the subjective subject of love, we can identify some absolute benefits of childcare by parents. Studies have shown that such children are better socially and emotionally adjusted, perform better in school, and achieve a more stable adulthood according to a number of objective benchmarks than those otherwise reared. Statistics regarding imprisonment show that people cared for as children in stable homes by a stay-at-home parent are far less likely to commit crimes that result in imprisonment.

One most interesting issue in the original article was the fear that parenthood, and specifically the day-to-day care of small children, is denigrated. Leaving small children to the care of government workers is described as if it were the most obvious and desirable solution to the disposal of some unwanted commodity. But these are human beings who are being discussed. They are the future. They are deserving of society’s best efforts. If their own parent wants to care for them, such a choice should be celebrated as the securing of the future of all of society that it represents. These points are missing from the article, and of course they should have been there to solidify the point that every woman ought to be respected for the choice she makes whether to be at home with her children or not.

It also bears repeating that women who cannot or do not want to be at home with their children should be respected as well. Mostly this is the attitude of our society at present. But in some circles it still is a problem, precisely because the range of choices is presented as an opposition, not as alternatives.

Whatever progress we make toward true gender equality, we must come together and support one another in all the range of opportunities and choices we have, and we must remember the children, to do the best for them that we are able to do.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Sight Treats

My dog and I went walking as usual this morning, but I made him stop a lot and sit, because I wanted to take pictures of the Halloween decorations in my neighborhood. We seem to have a mix of minimalist and maximum decor people around here with a bunch of us in the middle. I like them all!

Here are some of the Maximums I saw.

I have been watching this house because the owner has a business doing landscape and yard care, and part of it is decoration. So here is what they came up with.

I have another picture of this house before the dying flowers were taken out. I kind of like the dying flowers look for a Halloween theme, what about you?

The elaborate set pieces deserved a couple of close-up shots.

Check out the guy with the fish on the line at the bottom, and the one with the shrunken head at the top. Then the one at left with the shades on. Very cool.

I really like the dancers in the center, and my favorite is the kid pulling the dog in the red wagon.

Here is the other house in the neighborhood that is well decorated. These people always go all out for every holiday. They always provide the neighbors with a visual treat year around.

I like this one. These people took the skeletons that appear to be the latest rage and gave them a ghoulish tea party, complete with the dog begging for crumbs under the table.

Then the skeleton-of-a-witch riding overhead adds a nice touch as does the evil clown hanging at the side.

At this house the graveyard is the big thing, along with all that spider-webbing over the bushes. I would have put this house into the middle decoration category except for the labor involved in what they put out.

Here is a close-up of the web in the yard pictured more fully below. I also made a close-up of the ghoul hanging in space. My dog thought it was threatening enough to bark and growl at it as we paused. In fact, he did not want to cooperate with me to take its picture and pulled on my arm as hard as he could to get me to move away.

It’s a wonder this isn’t blurry. Thanks, dog.

The house is pretty well decorated.

Next come some of the minimalist decorations. These are houses where the trick-or-treating people are going to have to look carefully to see if this house is participating or not. Sometimes it’s only the house lights that are going to be the deciding factor.

The pumpkin lights on the garage wall and porch are going to be a tip-off, but when you get close to the porch, there are a quartet of monsters (a ghost, Frankenstein head, vampire head, and large spider) to greet the little trick-or-treaters.

This really is minimalist. A couple ghouls looking like nothing in particular hang from the lamps. But then a close-up reveals a skeleton in that flower pot.

Also in the minimalist tradition, a couple flags proclaim the season (autumn), and a single pumpkin labeled Halloween hangs on the door. Only the pumpkin counts as a Halloween decoration.

This next house has a different minimalist effect with tiny decorations. There are a witch, a black cat, two jack-o-lanterns, a ghost, and a bat hanging around. The fall flag and the autumn-hued wreath don’t count as Halloween decorations.

Now I have pictures of what I figure are the middle of the decor spectrum.

Bridging the gap of minimalism to middle are these ghosts coupled with
decorations that will last until after Thanksgiving.

Window decor, haunted wreath, bats, and jack-o-lanterns

More skeletons, and is that haunted tree from the Wizard of Oz?


Hey, you can use a watermelon instead of a pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern!

Great use of paint on the pumpkins

Is this a crime scene?

I really like the look of the little things hidden in the dying vegetation

I should have put this one in the maximum category. It must have taken quite some time to hang all those things, unless they are all part of a single mobile? I like the effect!

A really lovely web in the morning sunlight

These people get the prize for jack-o-lanterns in my book.
My favorite neighborhood mailbox.

These are my favorite ghosts in the neighborhood.

And finally, what is at my house?

The black cat on the door,
with a jack-o-lantern face my mom made

Bats on one window

Pumpkin faces and cats on the other window

Our welcoming porch with a grinning lighted jack-o-lantern, a brick ghost in the middle of a row of tiny pumpkins, lit window ghosts, a giant spider, and window stickers: skeletons, bats, spiders, jack-o-lanterns, and cats . . .

It is clear we are not in the minimalist camp. Are we maximums or middles?

(Those little pumpkins are staying there until Thanksgiving, so they dont count. Neither does the clump of autumn leaves on the door. I hate decorating for Christmas until after Thanksgiving is over, so the leaves are my way of being festive and keeping my holidays somewhat separate.)

My neighbor told me while I was handing out candy that I needed to walk around again and see things that had been added . . . so here are some!

Large spiders!

This is hard to see, but there are purple and green witches flying at left.

Some familiar faces!

Added to the Maximum House that were not there earlier

The Maximum House with additional figures

I like the "Boo" on the skeleton with the shades on the roof

This was not there earlier today

Neither was this scene

I totally overlooked house lights!

Here is our house again, with lights.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Intrigue and Mysteries

This post is a series of three reviews, a movie and two books.


Recommended to do so by my best friend, I recently watched Whit Stillman’s 2016 movie Love and Friendship. This is a brilliant production of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. It captures the black-humored satire, some of Jane Austen’s harshest, of how a woman’s wit must be pitted against the society of the day in order to achieve basic security. Lady Susan, as described by her sister-in-law in the movie, Catherine Vernon, is a genius at manipulation, sabotage, seduction, revenge, wit, and charm. Kate Beckinsale captures her perfectly; in fact, she nails the part and carries the movie.

One of my favorite lines, one that the writers added to story, is the one about how no male sees through Lady Susan except a few tradesmen who have banded together and forced her to sell her last piece of jewelry to pay their bills. The women see through her and abhor her, including her conflicted daughter, but Lady Susan is such a force that all are powerless against her until she acts in her own interest and it fortunately aligns with something that other characters would like to achieve. There is no anti-heroine like Lady Susan. She is an original; she is wonderful and terrible together.

The movie begins subtly by presenting Lady Susan by reputation as a coquette. This is not a compliment in those times and in that society. We soon meet the lady, and she is all charm and smiles. We see her being forced to leave a residence under some duress, but it isn’t fully clear why. Slowly, carefully, her true character is revealed to us, and we recoil at the same time as her charm beguiles us even as young Reginald DeCourcy is beguiled despite being forewarned.

You can’t dislike Lady Susan, until her daughter, Frederica, comes on the scene and it becomes clear that she is heartless towards the innocent girl. Initially the unpleasantness is well covered by Lady Susan’s charm and devious explanations of her actions. Coupled with plenty of very funny lines and business by other actors, especially in the person of poor Frederica’s would-be suitor, James Martin, the seriousness of Lady Susan’s real mistreatment of Frederica is held off until near the end. It is simply brilliant the way Whit Stillman crafted this movie to build so slowly to the full revelation of how bad Lady Susan really is.

And yet, Lady Susan’s motives ring true for many of Jane Austen’s later heroines. The stark reality of her world is that she needs security, and she can gain it only through an advantageous marriage. She wants her daughter in a position of financial security as well. Same deal. Jane Austen was a genius at presenting variations on the theme of marriage as a business proposition. But she was soft-hearted enough to hope that love could have a chance to be present in the marriage of young Frederica. It’s only hinted at in the novel, but the movie carries that hint to its nuptial conclusion.

There are so many great lines in this movie. I love the way Stephen Fry delivers this line to his wife, “I hear the North Atlantic passage is particularly cold this time of year.” His look adds to the chill and the effect is very drily funny. (Of course anything Stephen Fry does is brilliant.)

Lady Susan assesses the marriage of Alicia Johnson to Stephen Fry’s character this way: “Too old to be governed and too young to die.” It’s another chilling line and wickedly funny.

The character of James Martin is amazingly funny. He is sketched so lightly in the novella that he owes his lines to Whit Stillman and his laughable delivery and incredibly hysterical mannerisms to the acting of Tom Bennett, whose very posture is funny.

Lady Susan reveals her personality in a speech to Alicia railing against young Mr DeCourcy for doubting her—it is a view into her power that she expects to be believed against the facts, against reason, against good sense, and against all considerations but loyalty to her. In creating such a character, Jane Austen reveals an amazingly broad understanding of human nature—even though she wrote this novella when she was still only a teenager. Others have mentioned that the character of Lady Susan is unique in the literature of the time and place. Maybe not since Shakespeare created Lady MacBeth was there a woman character so powerful and dangerous in English literature and arts until Jane Austen created Lady Susan.

There. I’ve set Jane Austen on a level with Shakespeare. I think that’s where she belongs.


Spoiler Alert! Don’t read my review of these books unless you don’t mind finding out the secrets. I discuss the solutions to the crimes in the course of my analysis, but in a veiled way. You have been warned.

1. Louise Penny, Glass Houses

I have read all of Louise Penny’s mysteries featuring Armand Gamache in order, and I suggest you do the same. They build on each other, although each is a standalone crime-and-solution mystery. The bigger picture is the development of the characters of Gamache, his wife, his son-in-law, his colleagues, and the wonderful, quirky citizens of the village of Three Pines.

The current crime is set mostly in Three Pines, but much of the story is told through testimony in a Montreal courtroom. The framing device of flashback is well handled, with the courtroom narrative interrupted by narrative set back in those past events, allowing us to explore the thoughts and impressions of the people of the village as they face the threat of both the black figure on the village green, and later, the murder of that figure, as well as to explore Armand Gamache’s psyche as he undergoes his own inner trial in the courtroom, giving testimony in the murder case. The double narrative device allows the author to slow down the plot a great deal in order to go deeply into the court of conscience, which needs careful, detailed consideration to understand. The action in this book cannot go at the same breakneck pace as others in the same series.

In this story, the figure in black brings back the old European legend of the cobrador, or debt collector that uses public shame as a lever. The cobrador gets murdered in the church, discovered by Madame Reine-Marie Gamache. Because there are only two characters who haven’t appeared in previous novels, they of course are the reader’s prime suspects, and of course they do end up having something to do with the crime. But all this is a front for a forceful statement about the institutions of society, especially those in public service, being complicit in today’s terrible opioid crisis. Gamache wants badly to turn the tide, but it may already be too late.

The strength of Louise Penny’s novels are their psychological explorations into timeless truths, and the way in which she continues to develop all her characters. The villagers sometimes seem in danger of becoming parodies of themselves, and then Penny pulls something like this to pull each one out, shake them all up, and force them all to grow after all. Even Ruth Zardo, the crazy poet.

2. Sue Grafton, Y is for Yesterday

One problem with my reading of this series is that I haven’t gone back and reread earlier books yet, and I no longer remember the plots and characters that are referenced in this particular book. Most of the references are explained; however, some need me to have a better memory, or to have read the earlier books more recently than 20 or 30 years ago.

However, once I set aside that problem and ignore the references, I am happy to barge into this plot with its double narrative, one set in Kinsey’s present, 1989, and the original crime set ten years before.

A group of high school kids in 1979 have made some typically stupid teenage decisions stemming from their various positions of privilege or lack thereof, coupled in almost every case with parents not paying much or the right kind of attention. (The parenting in this story is in fact abysmal in every case.) The kids end up killing one of their own, and ten years later the repercussions strike down another couple of the participants, now in their mid-to-later twenties. Happily for two of them, ten years has added a tiny bit of belated caution to their judgement, and it kicks in at the end to allow them a reasonably happy ending. They aren’t particularly likeable people, but then nobody in this plot is except the 1979 murder victim.

It isn’t hard to see who is responsible and and to guess that the prominent suspect is a red herring, but that doesn’t ultimately matter here. It’s essentially interesting to see how Kinsey goes about nailing the culprit, who stays carefully neutral enough not to be suspected until late in the game.

Also featuring in this novel as a subplot is the killer from X, still after Kinsey and a couple of others whom Kinsey tries to protect from him. Satisfyingly, he gets his comeuppance at the end of this novel, in a wonderfully black-humored way. I like that Grafton includes this as a subplot, showing that loose ends don’t always get tied up at the artistic end of a story, but ravel on and interrupt the narrative of another case.

What I worry about in this series is that something will happen to Henry, or Rosie, or William, or any of the regulars that I like. I’m happy that nothing dreadful has happened to them yet. It was bad enough that Henry’s cat had to suffer in this book, though it could have been a lot worse. I like that Kinsey ends up adopting the dog, and that the cat seems to put up with him too. That dog made me feel a lot safer about Kinsey’s home situation. It also made me feel a lot better that she and Henry had a good alarm system put in. The alarm system at her office provided that same feeling of safety coupled with humor as she goes through an OCD ritual to arm it and disarm it—and then that all the alarm systems and the dog end up being useless against that clever sociopath adds to the black humor at the end.

The black humored sub-plot for me saved this book from ending with a feeling of sadness and morbid brooding over the state of society today. But it’s good to see that sometimes life throws Kinsey into conflict with a lot of unpleasant people, and then she gets to fall back on her circle of supporters who end up saving her from the most unpleasantness of all.

We all need our supporters in times of crisis; perhaps that is the truth that we all need in the end.


Later Note:

It occurs to me after writing the above analysis that Kinsey and her circle facing the killer of X are set as foils against the victim of the 1979 murder and her circle of so-called friends, none of whom stand up for her or try to stop her killing. The parallel is poignant and perhaps comforting to Kinsey’s fans.