Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

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One Chord

elton johnOne chord. That’s all it takes. One chord and I instantly know this song and the artist. It’s the sound of that one chord that caused me to have a reoccurring nightmare for weeks on end in 1974 where I would hear that chord and then faint, waking up hours later after having missed an entire live rock concert with my favorite rock star of all times, Sir Elton John.

I was introduced to Elton John in the summer of 1973 while on a student tour of Europe. Five girls from my high school, Delta Heritage Academy in Buras, Louisiana, went together on this trip and we were paired up with five boys from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. We all got to be good friends, but one boy, Al, was the most popular of his group. He was fun and flirty with all of us, and deep down inside, I think we each thought he liked us best. While sitting on the bus on long rides from one country to another, he told me about Elton John and how much he loved his music. We had music on the bus, but no Elton John. The 1972 Harvest album by Neil Young was played so much that I knew every word to every song on that album. “…I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind; it’s such a fine line. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold…”

After my big adventure in Europe, I returned to high school for my senior year. The chaperones had given each of us a list of the addresses of all of the students on the trip so we could keep in touch. Al began writing me and several of the other girls in my group. He ended up coming for a visit, staying part of the trip with my family and part of the trip with another family. He brought hostess gifts to my mom, and for me, he brought me a book of piano sheet music from Elton John’s most recent album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of the hits from that album was “Bennie and the Jets”. The visit did not work out exactly as I had hoped, but my book of Elton John sheet music is still sitting in my piano bench.

In August of 1974 I headed off to my freshman year of college at Southeastern Louisiana University. After my parents helped me carry all of my belongings to my dorm room, and my mom helped me unpack a few things, we said our goodbyes and they headed home, which was a good two and a half hour drive away. 8 track tape playerThe first thing I did after they left was to set up one of my prized possessions: my 8 track tape player. It was a gift from the parents of my best friend, Judy. I had visited Judy in the hospital during our sophomore year of high school and the 8 track tape player was a thank you present. I only had a few tapes: The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course, Elton John, and I played them over and over and over. I played them so much that they began to “drag” when I played them. I’m not sure if it was the tapes wearing out or the machine itself but I discovered I could stop the dragging by wedging my hairbrush under the tape to support it and help hold it in its correct position in the machine.

So, on that August afternoon, feeling very melancholy about being nearly alone in my dorm—hardly anyone had moved in yet, including my roommate, a girl I had never met before, I popped in my 8 track tape of Elton John’s Madman Across the Water madman across the water 8 trackand sang along while I unpacked and got myself ready for my college adventure. Even today, some forty years later, hearing “Tiny Dancer” or “Levon” yanks me right back to that dorm room in Livingston Hall, and I can even close my eyes and picture myself standing at my dorm window, watching the boys rugby team practicing on the field adjacent to my dorm, while eating tuna salad on Club Crackers.

All of my family and friends knew how much I loved Elton John’s music. Just after classes started my freshman year, I received an early birthday card from my godmother, my mother’s only sister who I have always called Nanny Pat. In the card was a note about my present. She had purchased for me a ticket to see Elton John in concert at LSU. My uncle was going to drive to Hammond to pick me up, drive my cousin, Elizabeth—who I have always called “Lizard”, and me to Baton Rouge for the concert which we would attend, and then he would drive me back to my dorm, where he would have to sign me in with my dorm mother since it would be after midnight. ELTON JOHN IN CONCERT! Was that the best gift ever?

Now, you may recall I have told you about my Nanny Pat before. She gave me the subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine when I was just a young girl—my very own copy that arrived every month addressed to ME. I absolutely loved my Reader’s Digest magazines. That was the best gift ever. But this—this was something on a whole different level. This was ELTON JOHN. I was ecstatic over this early birthday gift. Everyone on campus knew I was going to that concert.

And, that is when the nightmares began. One night I dreamed I was in my uncle’s car, in the backseat with Lizard, and we get to the arena. We go inside and find our seats. The lights go down. The stage is dark until one single light shines down on a grand piano. Then we hear the chord—that one chord. And, that is when I faint. In the dream/nightmare, I faint and slink down between the stadium seats. My cousin is frantically trying to revive me but I stay out cold until the lights all come on at the end of the concert, when I wake up, look around, and realize that I have missed the entire concert.

I told my cousin about this and she calmly said she would take care of it. I had no idea what that meant but in the car on the way to Baton Rouge she tells me that she has “smelling salts” in her purse just in case the nightmare comes true. That’s what kind of person she is, always prepared, like a Girl Scout loaded down with merit badges. And, she hasn’t changed a bit. Recently, when my father became very ill and I flew down to Louisiana to see him, there she was, driving several hours alone; leaving her boys to fend for themselves so she could come and help me out.

So, on September 29, 1974, I saw Elton John in concert with Lizard at my side. It was a glorious concert, my first ever. And, when he played “Bennie and the Jets”, I swooned but did not faint. The smelling salts were not needed I am happy to report.
concert set list (2)Thanks to the power of Google, I was able to find the setlist from the concert and I am a little surprised as to how few songs he actually played. I don’t remember it feeling short, or feeling that there were so many of his hit songs he didn’t play. I just remember how great it was and how really great my aunt and uncle were to go to all this trouble for me to see my favorite rock star in concert.

I did get to see Elton John one other time. My parents gave my husband and I tickets to see him in concert for our anniversary in 2001. It was his “Face to Face” tour with Billy Joel. face to face (3)I’m not really a Billy Joel fan but beggars can’t be choosers. The concert conveniently was scheduled for when we were going to be in Louisiana for Easter break. My parents got up at the crack of dawn the day the tickets went on sale and drove to New Orleans to buy them. My dad waited in line while my mom sat in the car. It’s hard to picture that, my dad waiting in line to buy tickets for two aging rock stars. “Bennie and the Jets” was performed near the end of the concert. Just as I was thinking he wasn’t going to play it, there it was—the chord. And, the audience erupted as it always does when he hits it. He also played my other favorites “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”, and many others. Billy Joel was very entertaining and the two performed together seamlessly. It was a great concert.

In June of 1994 Disney released its major hit The Lion King, with the VHS tape released in 1995. Our daughters were five and three at the time, and like little sponges, memorized every single word to every song in that movie. When we finally purchased a car that had a CD player in it, I stocked it with CD’s of my favorite Elton John albums. (Yes, I had come a long way from the 8 track tape!) One day I was driving them home from school, playing an Elton John CD, when my older daughter said, “Mom, that man sounds like the man singing ‘The Circle of Life’ in The Lion King movie.” I explained to her that, yes, it was the same man, Elton John. She was so shocked that I knew who he was and that I actually had CD’s with him singing things that weren’t from her movie! The Lion King revitalized Elton John’s career and introduced him to a whole new generation. His contributions also earned him an Oscar and a Grammy for music from that film.

In early September of 1997, in the midst of extreme grief, he asked his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin to write new lyrics to one of his classic hits to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, who had died in a car accident in Paris, France. The new song, “Candle in the Wind 1997”, began with the words “Goodbye England’s rose” and was poignant and heartbreaking. Elton John performed the song live at Diana’s funeral, adding to the already other-worldly experience of the internationally broadcast funeral of such a young, vibrant, and beautiful woman.

My favorites of his repertoire all come from seven albums produced in the 1970’s, during my high school and college days. They instantly bring me back to the carefree and happy days of being a young adult, with my entire life ahead of me. goodbye yellow brick roadThese songs, particularly those from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, are the ones I go back to time and time again. In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road leads Dorothy and her new friends to the Emerald City, where hopefully the Wizard will help Dorothy return home. For me, however, these songs represent a time when I was heading out to make my own way in the world. Elton John’s early work is my “coming of age” music, and all it takes is that one chord of “Bennie and the Jets” to make me feel nostalgic and homesick.

The Second Mrs. de Winter: Not Your Mama’s Cinderella

Cinderella vhsDespite what Walt Disney’s mega-marketing machine would have you believe, he did not create Cinderella. The story may have originated as early as 7 BC, but its European roots date from the mid 1600’s. The basic story line does not vary much: the prince or other wealthy man saves the poor orphaned girl from a desperate life, with or without a wicked stepmother or nasty stepsisters. Cinderella is the title character and our protagonist, and the story, in its many variations, is really about her.

Hollywood, Broadway, and the literary world have all brought us many, many versions of this well-known tale. Just looking through Julia Roberts’ filmography alone we can see many iterations of the Cinderella story. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere saves Julia Roberts from a life of prostitution and cheesy fashion choices. In Erin Brockovich, the legal field and a tough but fair attorney together rescue her from near-poverty, but alas, not from her cheesy wardrobe. In Runaway Bride, Richard Gere again saves her from being all dressed up in white but not getting “a ring on it”. Cinderella is everywhere.

One Saturday in the fall of 1980 I was watching television while cleaning my tiny shoebox of an apartment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a studio apartment that in real estate speak would be described as cozy and “open floor plan”; the kitchen/dining/living room area was only separated from the bedroom and bathroom by a floor to ceiling curtain. I was a first-semester law student at LSU, and as much as I hated house-cleaning then and now, I was dreading even more a full day of reading case studies at the law library. I had channel-surfed for almost an hour and found nothing of interest until I came upon something already in progress, a black and white movie I had never seen before. However, I instantly recognized Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier as the leads, and that alone was enough to hold my attention.

du maurier booksI was awestruck by this movie and for several days had the characters and setting bubbling around in my head. However, in the days before Google, unless you had a TV Guide magazine or the newspaper, it was not that easy to find out what was on television. When I mentioned it to the mother of a friend of mine, she instantly knew which movie I was talking about. “It’s based on a novel, you know, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.” I didn’t know, so naturally, I rushed to the library to get a copy of the book.

Since I had never heard of the book Rebecca or been introduced to Daphne du Maurier prior to stumbling upon this movie, there wasn’t much I could do but proceed getting to know the movie and the book out of my preferred order. Almost thirty-five years later, it is hard to remember my initial reaction to reading Rebecca for the first time, as I have read it dozens of times since then. However, it is, and will always be, one of my favorite books, permanently lodged on my all-time top five list. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In this gothic novel, we get a glimpse of life on a grand English country estate (aka sprawling seaside castle amidst vast lands), set between the two great world wars, with the well-known trope of rich, dashing widower meets poor but pretty young girl. He marries her, and brings her home to a substantial dose of culture shock and all-out social class warfare. Classic Cinderella story, n’est-ce pas?

If you assumed the Disney version, though, you would be very wrong indeed. Du Maurier shatters all such assumptions. In Rebecca, the title character is actually the deceased first wife of the “prince”, and the story is really about her, so much so that we never actually learn the name of “Cinderella”. Du Maurier very craftily makes this young girl, released begrudgingly from her employment as a traveling companion to an old and pompous American woman to marry Maxim de Winter, the vessel through which we get to know the first and late Mrs. de Winter. It is through the slow unfolding of Rebecca’s story that we watch the second Mrs. de Winter save her prince. No spoilers; if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie get thee to Amazon immediately!

This glorious book, published in 1938, has sold millions of copies and is still in print all over the world in many different languages. It is still regularly assigned as required reading in high schools, where its status as a modern gothic novel with elements of romance, jealousy, crime, and mystery are artfully woven together, serving also as a good vehicle for teaching social class and hierarchy with the classic struggle of the upstairs and downstairs life of British nobility, even in post-Victorian England.

rebecca vhsThe movie Rebecca is equally glorious, and you don’t have to take my word for it. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also thought it was glorious, as they bestowed upon it the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940 (although at the time this top award was referred to as “Outstanding Production”). Having been nominated for a total of eleven awards, it also won the Academy Award for Cinematography; the choice of filming it in black and white did nothing to diminish the beauty of Monte Carlo, the roiling Atlantic Ocean, or the English countryside. The director, Alfred Hitchcock in his first American production, stayed true to the novel, with only a major change to the story line, required by the studio to uphold the morals of the time.  Du Maurier herself loved the film.

Hitchcock’s movie is not the only adaptation; the book itself reflects the jealousy felt by a woman for the previous lover of her husband. In a 2013 interview, du Maurier’s son, Kits Browning, revealed that his father had been engaged to a woman before his mother, and that woman signed her last name with “this wonderful great R”. He intimates that his mother may have been jealous of that first relationship, and those feelings inspired the plot of Rebecca, along with the “wonderful great R” featured prominently in both the book and the movie. In reality, du Maurier was more Rebecca than the second Mrs. de Winter, having grown up wealthy and privileged, holidaying in a mansion near the sea in Cornwall.

In Rebecca we have a female character that initially is weak and submissive, so passive and unimportant that, like Cinderella, she is not even granted a first name. She is skittish and worries over everything, even the most minuscule change to her hairstyle and whether her new husband will like it. She breaks a small China figurine and hides the broken pieces in a desk drawer out of fear for being reprimanded by the housekeeper for this accident in her own home. At the start of the book, again like Cinderella, we know very little about her past other than her occupation, presumably because she has no family and must make her own way in life. She goes from the care and control of Mrs. Van Hopper to the care and control of her new husband, a much older and even wealthier companion. While haunted day and night by the aura of Maxim’s first wife, which hangs over the family estate and all its inhabitants like a heavy, cloying perfume, we see the second Mrs. de Winter “come of age” and take control of a tragic situation when her dear Maxim most needs her. It is her strength, borne of love and the compulsion to lift the bitter fog of Rebecca’s memory, which saves them both, when all the world appears to come crashing down around them. While it appears that they lose everything in the process, the spell of Rebecca is broken. In du Maurier’s gothic novel, it is her Cinderella who saves the Prince.

Bibliography

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 08 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cinderella.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (1940 film).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (novel).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.