THE (IM)POSSIBLE HENRIETTA JEKYLL: RECONSIDERING GENDER MATTERS IN STEVENSON’S MASTERPIECE

I have lost count of how often I have taught R.L. Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which I have published here several posts, as this seems to be an inexhaustible text. I return once more to it after having marked the most recent batch of students’ exams to focus on their answer to our question: is this text specifically about men? Can we imagine the same type of moral duplicity in women?

Four years ago I wrote a post in which I mulled about the possibility of a contemporary female version of Jekyll, a Prof. Henrietta Jekyll who, like Jekyll’s successor Dr. Hannibal Lecter, had a secret life in which perhaps she had her own students home regularly for dinner. I took the chance then to reject Elaine Showalter’s famous reading of Jekyll’s male circle as a closeted gay ring, with Hyde being the incarnation of the ‘evil’ pleasures by which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour a decade later. Despite Wilde, I find the idea that Stevenson is covertly dealing with homosexuality uncomfortably homophobic, and particularly distasteful when defended by contemporary feminists.

Back to my students answers, then. The matter is very simple: is Stevenson claiming that duplicity is a necessary condition of masculinity in late Victorian times? Or is he taking a man as a representative of all Victorian individuals? Could we, in short, place a woman in the centre of his story and if we did so, how would it change?

This is not, as you can see, a simple question to answer as it is necessary to take into account whether gender or class matters predominate in Stevenson’s text. In class, we followed the argument suggesting that Stevenson’s target is the hypocrisy of, specifically, Victorian gentlemanliness of the upper middle-class professional (not aristocratic) variety. This lead my students to write exams split among three options to explain why Stevenson’s text dealt exclusively with masculinity: a) for Victorians it was impossible to imagine ladies leading double lives, and so it was for the author; b) the author was a misogynist and this is why he practically excluded women from the text; c) since women were excluded from the professions and Jekyll led his double life to protect his professional reputation, no woman could replace him as a protagonist.

Let’s see… To begin with, we had read together Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which made it very clear that ladies like Helen Graham faced daily, like gentlemen of their class, the challenge of having to keep up appearances or see their reputation destroyed. Now, Helen creates a false identity for herself to protect her son and not to indulge in secret pleasures, yet Victorian fiction is full of femme fatales, from the vampire Carmilla to the scheming Lady Audley–it is simply not true that Victorians were incapable of imagining perverse women. Rather, as Bram Dijsktra very well explained in his classic Idols of Perversity (1988) the problem is that they imagined too many… by which I do not mean that all Victorian ladies were angelic. I’m sure Henrietta Jekyll could have been imagined as a committed adulteress, for instance; fancying her a nymphomaniac would have been harder indeed. What puzzles me is the students’ denunciations of Stevenson as an anti-feminist for as I insisted again and again in class, Stevenson offers a very negative image of masculinity in his text, and, well, paradoxically, making a woman the centre of his tale would just have resulted in just one more case of the kind Dijkstra describes, by no means in a feminist story.

Some re-writings of The Strange Case.., like Hammer’s quirky movie Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) or the idiotic American comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), have fantasised about Jekyll’s dark side being a woman (in the 1971 film, she commits, in addition, Jack the Ripper’s crimes!). Others, have enhanced women’s participation in the story, producing totally unnecessary melodrama: just recall Julia Roberts as the maid falling in love with her master Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s silly romance (1990). I have been unable to locate, whether in fan fiction or in film, however, a retelling with a female Jekyll, with the only exception of the seemingly pathetic horror comedy Jacqueline Hyde (2005), in which shy Jackie discovers she’s the granddaughter of the original Dr. Jekyll. The rest, it seems, is porn.

I have awarded the highest mark to a girl student who simply argued that Stevenson could have equally focused on a woman but once he decided to focus on a man he made the suitable decisions to make his tale as solid as possible. Of course. It makes perfect sense for Jekyll to be a gentleman scientist as it would make perfect sense for a Henrietta Jekyll to be, for example, his widow (even a former lab assistant as many scientists’ wives were). If you don’t want to go the SF way, then stick to fantasy and provide Miss or Mrs. Jekyll with a dark fairy godmother and a magic potion (Wilde, remember?, used magic for Dorian Gray’s picture). Henrietta Jekyll surely must be a lady, for ladies rather than low-class girls risked it all by losing their reputation as fallen women. If you still have problems visualizing her unspeakable pleasures, just read Dracula (1897) where you’ll find a lovely lady, Lucy, attacking every evening poor children to drink their blood.

Here’s a challenge for anyone interested, as I don’t have the time to do this myself: take Stevenson’s text and just alter the gender of the main characters, and see what happens. It will definitely not work if you insist on presenting Henrietta as a newly-minted pro-feminist Dr. Jekyll (unless you want to produce a misogynistic tale against the few women doctors practising in the 1880s). But think of all those angelic, repressed Victorian ladies and imagine what kind of secret life they would lead if in possession of a magic potion. Perhaps, here’s my conclusion, Stevenson knew very well how to do this… but refrained himself from writing what could only have been an outrageously scandalous text. Yet not impossible.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ON BOREDOM: DIFFERENT GENERATIONAL STRATEGIES

Who or what is to blame for the idea that whoever dares speak in public must, above all, entertain? The adjective ‘boring’ has become absolutely pervasive in the classroom and, no doubt, a major enemy of learning. In recent days I have gone through so many situations connected with this that it is hard to choose where to begin… One thing I have noticed is that, although boredom may have a long-lived presence in the history of education, each generation seems to cope differently with it.

Since I don’t recall being bored in primary school I’ll argue that classroom boredom begins in adolescence, when the augmented narcissism of the students results in their belief that teaching should focus on them. Respect for the teacher is eroded if not lost for good then: ‘you bore me; I could do better; who cares about what you teach?’ As I teen secondary school student in the early 1980s, I coped with my own boredom mostly by daydreaming, and only occasionally by skipping class (severely frowned upon, then). My daydreaming strategy has not changed since then: it consists of looking at the speaker with all due attention, signalling with my body language that I care while my mind wanders off. I often complete this with making notes, actually about my daydreaming, though the speaker may be totally fooled into thinking it’s about the talk.

As a university student I found that my threshold of tolerance for bad lecturing decreased sharply, which resulted in my skipping many lectures–often to go to the library or stay home to study. Other classmates famously chose the bar, always crowded. If we did choose to attend a lecture, however, we mostly kept up appearances: we took (pretend) notes and I don’t recall anyone yawning (only discreetly), eating or drinking, slumping on the chair, much less sleeping. We may have looked at the speaker with glassy eyes but a certain degree of politeness was maintained. Perhaps we just took it for granted that teachers were boring or, rather, that learning was not about being entertained. If a teacher happened to be entertaining that was a bonus, though I distinctly recall that the highest valued university teachers were the ones with the most interesting personality, which does not mean they cared for students at all… Admiring students just hoped their idols noticed them. Really.

In recent days, however, I have seen this in my class: a) an MA student just laying her head on the table and falling asleep (I stopped my lecture to wake her up and invite her to take coffee, or leave), b) an undergrad leaving the classroom five minutes into my lecture. In this case I stopped to manifest my delight at having broken a new record in my career… boring a student in the shortest possible time. He never emailed me to say he was indisposed, so I assumed it was boredom. Students think we don’t notice this but from our vantage point we see everyone: the ones staring at the floor or the wall rather than look at us, the ones never making notes, the ones using twitter and Facebook, the ones eating… The body language says it all: I wish I were elsewhere… Perhaps we were just as bored but the etiquette code dictated that we had to, as I say, keep up appearances, beginning with sitting up decorously. This, I find, is gone. If students are bored, they plainly show it, perhaps feeling that honesty is the best policy. For the caring teacher this is unnerving for the only solution is to a) close your eyes to what it going on in class and drone on, b) throw a hysterical tantrum.

In the last three days I have attended a conference and I have had the chance to see these diverse generational strategies at work simultaneously, as the public ranged from post-grads in their early twenties to seasoned academics in their sixties. It’s not the first time I write here that conferences have grown into truly boring experiences as few speakers succeed in making the 20-minute paper or the 50-minute plenary lecture… engaging. No, I’m not using the adjective ‘entertaining’ for in conferences what matters, in my view, is the ability to communicate new ideas based on solid research using an adequate delivery style. Just let me tell you just about one panel session.

I was sitting in the front row, daydreaming and making notes, as I wondered what the speaker was talking about since she had hidden herself behind her paper and was delivering it in an amazingly monotonous voice (a friend told me this is called ‘lectura parapetada’ or ‘walled-in delivery’). If the speaker had, however, raised her head and looked at the audience she would inevitably have seen the young man sitting to my left, madly twitting as she spoke. Not about her talk, as I noticed. Then came an appalling young man who used his 20 minutes to bore us to death about his journey to Japan, where he had interviewed old glories of Japanese cinema for his documentary on Godzilla. I grew so furious at his impudence I could not even daydream. The guy next to me twitted on–this time the factoids in the speaker’s self-advertising campaign. To my consternation (and delight) a senior academic in the audience told off the Godzilla guy very rudely for his total cheek. This same academic, however, had slept through the previous speaker’s paper… so who was being rude to whom, I wonder?

Is this all, I wonder, the effect of the remote control and channel hopping, the idea that something more exciting is going on elsewhere? Or is it something else, the replacement of an ethics of endurance by the demand for constant excitement for other reasons? The older academics I saw fall asleep in the conference as the younger delegates twitted on confirm my thesis that different generations react differently to boredom.

Yet the older ones’ sleep suggests that 1980s sense of etiquette is gone for all… for aren’t we all becoming great narcissists? Entertain us or else. Easy to say, hard to do. And why should it be done at all?

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ELSA’S DRESS AND GIRL POWER: WHAT I MISSED ABOUT FROZEN

On 5 January this year I published here a post on a new Swedish system to rate films according to their feminist interest. In this post I mentioned in passing Frozen, noting that, although this Disney film exalts sisterly love, after seeing it my two Madrid nieces didn’t hug each other but remained “mesmerised,” poor things, “by the stupid glamorisation of a pathetic fairy-tale lifestyle.” I totally missed the point. Stupid me.

An MA student, Camila Rojas, asked me subsequently to supervise her dissertation on how the concept of ‘true love’ has changed from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. Thrilling! (She’s almost done). I interviewed then my two Barcelona nieces (same ages as the ones from Madrid: 9 and 5) and this is what I learned: Frozen is unrealistic in its depiction of sisterly love because actual sisters quarrel all the time. Still, older girls, though less interested in the princess theme, appreciate the fact that heterosexual romance is not central. They find the film warm and funny, in particular the quirky snowman Olaf. Younger girls simply love Elsa. Why? She’s pretty and smart and, attention!, she’s powerful. And a queen who needs no prince, take that! When I stressed that Elsa’s power to turn all she touches into ice is dangerous, I was explained that this is irrelevant–what matters is that it’s cool: look at her castle, her ice monster and her dress… My Madrid nieces corroborated these views, perplexed that they had to clarify for my benefit what was so obvious to them.

Elsa, as Camila has seen, has clearly become a figure of empowerment for very young girls who don’t even know such word exists. For them ‘power’ means Elsa’s special power, presented as a sickly condition by the script but re-written as a super-power by the young female spectators (more Superman than X-Men, if you know what I mean). This is the real reason why the film has become so strong, even a cult film, among little girls, a phenomenon which, in its turn, explains the superlative boom in merchandising-related sales. Particularly of Elsa’s dress, without forgetting that the doll based on this character will outsell Barbie herself this oncoming Christmas.

Let me digress about the dress, now that I’m the middle of the nightmarish process of commissioning the Three Wise Men with bringing one home. Think Snowhite, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle or Rapunzel, and you see a typical princess dress: a long, flouncy skirt accompanied by a bodice with puffy sleeves, ribbons… right? Now, picture Elsa (or check Google) and see what she’s wearing: a tight-fitting sequined gown with a long cut up her skirt. This suggestive dress is aimed at showing off her sexiness, which in the script accompanies her decision to, as she sings, “let it go” and enjoy her unique, toxic power. Her younger sister Anna, in contrast, wears girly dresses of a more conventional cut, actually very pretty. But, then, she has no power, right? Except the power to love Elsa (almost) to death.

I’m sure Disney never anticipated little girls would want Elsa’s dress (I’m told that even some little boys want it!!). The house designers have actually solved quite poorly the problem of how to adapt a sexy gown made for a curvy twenty-year-old girl into something wearable by girls aged 3 to 10 (without a major scandal). This is why you can currently find at least four official versions of Elsa’s dress–well, ‘find’ is a relative word, as they’re sold out in official online stores, whereas in the physical shops they disappear as soon as they arrive. All these ‘official’ versions are quite ugly, made with low-quality, wrinkled, rough cloth… and totally overpriced (40 to 80 euros, plus shoes, tiara, and other accessories). One wonders about the Asian workers making them probably for next to nothing, unable to afford them for their own little girls. Yet, you should have seen the anxious parents and other relatives asking Disney Store employees to please, please, please, let Santa Claus and the Three Wise Kings keep one for their little girl. Other sweeter and prettier princess dresses elicit much less interest–and, by the way, Merida’s unfussy outfit (from Brave) is gone for good. I also missed Maleficent-related merchandising items, um, perhaps for good reason, though, my!, I loved those wings (not the horns…). And Aurora is simply lovely.

Back to Elsa: the home-made solution, having the Three Wise Men make the dress thus improving on the wretched Disney materials, is not really easier as the required cloth has been sold out from the main stores (at least in Barcelona). Holy cow… A chirpy sales clerk familiar with the Frozen situation explained to me that mums came to his cloth shop accompanied by demanding five-year-olds, absolutely adamant that they wanted the ‘right’ dress. He was scandalised that mums allowed little girls to behave in this tyrannical way, curtailing, besides, all possible creativity. I wonder whether the choice of Elsa as a favourite reflects this trend… get me that dress, or else, I’ll use my power to freeze you!

As films with a very similar focus, I very much prefer Maleficent to Frozen, though I understand that Maleficent is too dark for very young girls–I found the fairy’s mutilation almost unbearable to watch. As for the princess dress, though Elsa’s is beautiful, I find it out of place in a fairy tale: it’s closer to Gilda and Jessica Rabbit than to Scarlett O’Hara. Why do little girls have, in any case, this fantasy of being empowered by wearing a princess (or queen’s) dress? And, in our Catholic culture, how does this connect with the first communion dress and the wedding dress, both patriarchal concoctions? Well, I’d answer that very obviously. Disney films for girls suggest that power only comes either by inheriting it from dad or by marrying a prince, and just in fairy tales, not in real-life contexts. In contrast, little boys are offered a much wider choice and may dress up as super-heroes or as more ordinary heroes (firemen, spies, astronauts and such). No prince outfits required for them…

My feminist self would rather see my nieces become real heroines than fake princesses or queens. But, then, what little girl would accept an astronaut dress as a Christmas present with the same glee as an Elsa dress? Even I would go for that blue beauty–though I’d rather warm than freeze hearts…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

OUTSMARTING CERVANTES: ARTURO PÉREZ REVERTE’S EDITION OF EL QUIJOTE

Recently, I went to Laie in search of a copy of Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo (1914) for my nine-year-old niece. I asked for an edition aimed at children, meaning illustrated, and I was offered instead an adapted edition. Scandalized that someone had dared touch the original, I bought her a beautiful edition commemorating the 100th anniversary of its original publication… with illustrations. Platero y yo, as everyone knows, is not a book for children but the poetical language is perfectly accessible, and, in fact, I bought my niece the book on the basis of her dad’s good memories of reading it as a child. It worked, she loved it (well, except the ending, too sad of course).

Next thing I know, the internet is full of comments on the RAE’s new edition for secondary school students of Miguel de Cervantes’ El Quijote –and edition adapted by Arturo Pérez Reverte, one of RAE’s members and, of course, a well-known author himself. RAE itself announces that in this way they finally fulfil the ‘Real Orden’ of 12 October 1912, commissioning this institution to produce a ‘popular’ edition and one for schools, apart from the critical edition (this was issued in 2004, edited by Francisco Rico). Obviously, I’m not the first to note that in 1912 Spain was a mostly illiterate country, which may have made these other editions necessary. But today??

During his presentation of the new edition in Mexico, Arturo Pérez Reverte took the chance to berate, precisely, the “illiterate Ministers” of Culture and Education that have eliminated El Quijote from the compulsory school curriculum in at least six Spanish Castilian-speaking countries. He called for a return of Cervantes’ masterpiece to all school systems in this linguistic area, on the habitual grounds that the book guarantees a much needed education in the shared language and in the values needed for today’s life. I marvel how far Matthew Arnold’s shadow extends, even in countries culturally alien to his preaching. Claiming that a book published in 1605 (1615, the sequel) is essential to face life in 2014 is odd, to say the least. And that the person making this claim is the local equivalent of Ken Follett and not of Harold Bloom is even stranger.

What has Pérez Reverte done to El Quijote? As RAE informs (I guess this is his own text), he has streamlined the narration, pushing to the margins the digressions and the interpolated tales (whether to footnotes, appendixes, or links I’m not sure). As if this were Frankenstein’s creature, the RAE’s press note refers to the “special attention devoted to the cleanliness of the stitches” used to conceal the cuts in the original. Chapters have been re-numbered and fused together… an operation accompanied by the truly cheeky claim that the integrity of the text has been respected. Now fancy Javier Mariscal adding colour to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on the grounds that it’s muted tones bore contemporary audiences and you get what Pérez Reverte has done.

Juan Ángel Juristo, absolutely indignant, claims that RAE has simply and plainly “expurgated” Cervantes (http://www.cuartopoder.es/detrasdelsol/la-rae-publica-una-edicion-manipulada-del-quijote/5849). He mentions as an example to follow Tales from Shakespeare, the popular versions for children of the plays that Charles (and his sister Mary!) Lamb published in 1807. If you are to adapt a text for children, his point is, do it openly, and don’t pretend that you’re still offering the original, an argument I subscribe even though I think that adaptations are valid only in very particular circumstances. If young scholars are bored by El Quijote we need to learn why, he concludes, and not mutilate the book.

I was myself one of the scholars bored to death when aged 15 by El Quijote. Reading it put me off Spanish Literature for many years, as I was reading at the same time the much more exciting work by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and similar English classics. When I asked my current students of Victorian Literature how they would solve the problem of making El Quijote attractive to teenagers, they suggested inviting young students to read just some chapters and let them decide when to read the whole book. Checking this morning how the teaching of Literature is organised in Catalonia, I have come across a document indicating that this is what local teachers do (I mean in the itineraries for ‘Humanities and Socials Sciences’ and ‘Arts’ of ‘Batxillerat’). The same applies to the Catalan classic Tirant lo Blanch (1490).

Logically, the additional problem to be considered is the kind of literacy possessed by current teenagers, who may be absolutely proficient in following complex videogames or TV series but poor readers (a problem I believe made worse by young adult fiction). El Quijote was not written with teenagers in mind and it is possible best read in a more mature phase of life, when the reader approaches it with a much bigger cultural baggage. The concern, however, is that unless young readers are force-fed El Quijote they will never read it; likewise, I myself face the problem of having to force my second-year students to read Victorian Literature in the original language when most are not ready at all. Reading just chapters is not the solution at a university level, and adapted versions are totally out of the question. Pérez Reverte’s monstrosity exposes a problem which has no easy solution. In the end, as I know very well, students simply choose to read complete books, a segment or a summary…

As for RAE, instead of contributing to launching a dubious edition which may bring money to its coffers (and to Santillana, the publishing house) but no prestige, it should embark on a much needed project to guide readers beyond their teenage years. To begin with, since Rico’s critical edition is freely available online (http://cvc.cervantes.es/literatura/clasicos/quijote/), RAE should develop a hipertextual digital resource (which might also appeal to teenage readers).

Actually, I would engage those teenage readers in producing the hypertext… and let Arturo Pérez Reverte continue to write his novels. May they never be compulsory reading…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/