The 1988 film is enshrouded by a classical music score that inspires a sense of danger and wonder. A woman's hand holds a letter with 18th century styled writing. The laced arm of a noble rises from underneath bountiful and silky bed covers, to reach for a handkerchief from a waiting tray as another servant brings forth a steaming hot drink. A hoop skirt is put into place. And so commences the toilette for two nobles, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. Perfumes, corsets, wigs, shoes, powder, among other details must be founded upon and strictly adhered to.
The innocent Cecile de Volanges and her watchful hen of a mother are at a visit to the Marquise. The budding daughter has recently come from a convent where she lived and was educated. A servant enters with a note upon a tray. It is to announce the arrival of Valmont. Madame de Volanges warns Cecile, who is dressed in white, while she and the Marquise sit as the daughter stands in a near servant like pose, that Valmont does not open his mouth unless he first calculates the damage he may do and all of this is part of a conspicuous charm.
Cecile inquires as to why he is then received. Her mother comments that everyone receives him. Valmont enters with the strolling grace of a cat only to bow and give a calculated smile.
The costumes are sublime though the jewelry looks as if it could be fake. And the puns begin as soon as sex enters the air which is immediately. Valmont stands next to Cecile and leans so that he is in direct lines eye with her breasts. Madame de Volanges states it is best that they leave and Cecile remarks, "I'm used to being in bed by nine at the convent."
"So, I should hope," the experienced Valmont replies. The Marquise rings a bell for a servant to see to their exit. And once the two are alone, the plotting begins. Both are hardened ends to the same crooked stick. The Marquise asks Valmont if he wonders why he was summoned there that evening. He replies that he hoped it would be for the pleasure of his company.
She says she needs something from him. And that is to seduce Cecile as the girl's future husband is the Marquise's old lover who left her for Valmont's fat mistress. But Valmont does not wish to ruin Cecile's life as he had other prey in mind. Madame de Tourvel is married and virtuous. Why not take her for a spin?
The Marquise lectures Valmont on how ridiculous it is to seduce a man's wife as there is little gain in a win and much humiliation in a loss. He argues that doing so is better than seducing a virgin who is bound to be curious as any one of a dozen men could manage it and he has his reputation to think of. Marquise allows him the benefit of a night with her if, he carries out plans and makes the evidence clear in writing.
Both ideas end up blossoming into a wicked flower. The method of engagement is partly based and perhaps depends on stalking. The extent to which nobles stalked each other is also brought about in the original novel that is comprised solely of letters. Servants are blackmailed into stealing letters, footmen are hired to follow on supposed hunts. When Madame de Tourvel flees the home of Rosemond, Valmont's aunt, he has a servant follow her and demands to know where she goes, what she eats and if she sleeps.
The novel brings about even more clearly how aggressive the men could be in following up with a soon to be conquest. And the film is also the prude version of the novel as in the original the first to deflower Cecile is the Marquise herself. The nobles really were hippies as they made love with absolute freedom, seemed to have no financial restraints much less worries and they lived in a dorm type of lifestyle.
But there is a catch to it all which is where the title comes from. The cinematic version alludes to protection during sex, but no one suffers physically from sex directly, except Cecile becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage and Madame de Tourvel quietly dies of a broken heart. In the novel it is alluded to that the Vicomte was a ground zero for an STD, perhaps syphilis. The reality of the original writing was that the Madame passed away a raving lunatic who could not seem to quench her thirst. The Marquise also became quite ill with a rash and was deformed by small pox.
Both forms of the story reveal how much games can ruin people's lives permanently. The Vicomte succumbs to Chevalier Danceny, a music instructor who is the lover of both Cecile and the Marquise, in a duel. Though there was a single victor the men did agree upon one thing: what they did was not to protect Cecile in any particular fashion. And in challenging Valmont to a duel and winning, the Chevalier gained control of all the poisonous letters that were soon to circulate about Paris.
By Sarah Bahl
The novel by Stacy Schiff, does not start out as seeming to be all that well written. It’s filled with overly general clichéd statements about power, territory and legend. “At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great Kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment, she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man. Three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational.”
According to the cover, the author apparently won the Pulitzer Prize at some point. The start to this novel is odd as it is a lot of very broad information that is not well connected, it only happens to be about the same person. It’s not totally disjointed either, but it’s not what one would expect from such a hyped novel. The first paragraph is only missing three or four exclamation points in a row.
It’s also very condescending to the protagonist, whom has not been properly introduced to any given audience. There’s a difference between knowing vague generalities about a person and actually being introduced to a character whether biographical or not. “Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress.”
For the majority she is perhaps best known as the lover of Mark Antony and a ruler of Egypt. It’s like the author is really saying Cleopatra is a whore no matter what she really did with her life. It was written in 2010. I’ve read novels from the 18th century that are more advanced, in the sense they are about the complexities of circumstance as tried upon human nature and the inevitable outcomes to it all, rather than any one female protagonist being a good or bad girl.
Such writing does make one wonder if the future of novels is going backward or forward. For instead of an educated ruler with a control over vast domain, for her short life, one instead gets the picture of a Pretty Woman prostitute who was a good girl all the same and remembered to use dental floss: the well behaved wanton temptress. It seems Cleopatra is made into a modern American fantasy prototype than anything having to do with ancient Egyptian and Roman Empires.
It’s not expected that everyone who writes a biography should be Antonia Fraser nor that every writer should introduce character with the alacrity of Collins or Dickens, but still, the writing has too many ideas that very broadly connect even in the body of the novel.
Though, the body of the work is more specific than the introduction, it seems more of a judgment of a historical apparition than a biography at all. In Schiff’s view; poor, defenseless Caesar was forced by circumstance and Cleopatra’s wiles to do her bidding and get her pregnant. Somehow, one doubts this was really the case.
“Cleopatra – or Egypt – tended to have this effect on poor, vulnerable Romans. Her country itself was a tease and a temptation…She roundly confirmed the myth of the propagative powers of her magnificent country.”
It might be said Schaff could incorporate more emotive sophistication. There does seem to be research done for it, that would be difficult to undertake given the time lapse, but it might arguably not be a biography as it lacks professional objectivity.
By Sarah Bahl
Wild Swans, the novel published in 1991, traverses an incredibly wide array of detail in the telling of the lives for four generations of women in China. Written by Jung Chang, it is a narrative recording of her family's history on her mother's side and gives detailed credence to the cultural underpinnings of the time belonging to each woman.
Chang begins with her great-grandmother, who came from a family of tanners and who was married, at the age of twenty to a boy six years younger. She was named, "Number Two Girl," which was a normal type of name for millions of Chinese girls at the time.
Young females from non-wealthy nor intellectual families were simply not given names. Number Two Girl was expected to raise her husband who was an only son and the family's treasure. His was a family of felt-makers, whose women sacrificed their eyes and overall health by taking in extra sewing for local tailors and dressmakers, working late into the night they would turn their oil lamps down to the minimum.
But, he did go to a good school and passed examinations to become a Mandarin, which was a type of government official. For, "Without power or money, no Chinese could feel safe from the depredations of officialdom or random violence. There had never been a proper legal system. Justice was arbitrary and cruelty was both institutionalized and capricious. An official with power was the law. Becoming a mandarin was the only way a child of a non-noble family could escape this cycle of injustice and fear."
His first child came when he was 15 years old, as Chang's grandmother was born, "on the fifth day of the fifth moon, in early summer 1909." The baby was given a step up in the world as she "was actually given a name," which was Yu-Fang. Yu was the generational name throughout China and it means, jade. Fang was the independent part of her name and it means, fragrant flowers.
Yu-Fang was a child in a precarious world, without centralized government and encroaching Japanese powers in Manchuria. She was also to become among the last of women throughout China to have her feet bound. Her older sister escaped the torment, that she suffered as her feet were broken with blocks when she was two and wrapped to form, "three-inch golden lilies," that were considered ideal for women who were to be respected in society.
Perhaps the look of a tottering lady brought a sort of allure to withhold any male watchers, but the reality was also that their broken feet would try to regrow at any chance once unwrapped and so had to remain restrained constantly in order to keep the effect. They also stank once uncovered as the toenails would grow into the sole and the unnatural morphing of the flesh would cause the foot to rot. The mother-in-law of a young bride would often lift up the edges of a dress to see the young woman's feet, and if they were more than about four inches, she would throw down the skirt in obvious scorn and leave, so that the bride would be left to face the contempt of guests and their mean spirited muttering amongst each other.
Despite the pain she suffered, Yu-Fang consistently retained a good nature throughout her life and she was a beauty. "She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded, which was most of the time, but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She was petite, about five feet three inches, with a slender figure and sloping shoulders, which were considered the ideal."
Her beauty was also considered a main asset by her father, who nearly bankrupted himself orchestrating meetings between his daughter and a warlord general. But his bet paid off as the general was quite taken by the elegance of the rural girl and asked her father to have her as his concubine which included an elaborate wedding ceremony and gifts for the bride's family that would enable the father to take concubines for himself, which he had wanted for a long time.
For Yu-Fang, suicide would be the only way to say: no. The wedding was held, with great ceremony for the whole village to see. She tried to love her husband though she knew she was not his only wife. He stayed with her for a short while and she played music for him and massaged his feet. Though, he left not many weeks after their wedding, but not without telling her a tale of what happened to one of his concubines who cheated on him. She was bound and gagged, then raw alcohol was soaked into the cloth that was stuck in her mouth so that she slowly choked to death. Her lover was merely and mercifully shot.
He came back six years after he left and upon their second union Chang's mother was conceived. The world of feudal finery was soon to be lost to the stark ravages of communism after the Kuomintang lost power. Both of Chang's parents were high communist officials but this did not mean they were not to suffer incredibly under the veil of Mao, who lead the country in a truly bizarre form of mass delusion. The wide spread financial system turned from one based on agriculture and essentially tribal exchanges of wealth that trickled down throughout the classes, to a vastly implemented command economy with nonsensical outputs.
Under Mao, the entirety of China was supposed to be this miracle country all the time. Crops were planted from one field to another, to produce doubled and tripled, "miracle harvests" to show to officials so that there would not be negative repercussions for the working peasants. Though the transplanted crop would die fairly quickly as did millions of people throughout the vast nation, from starvation and over-work related illnesses. There was no clean medical system for decades and medicines were in constantly short supply.
The grandmother, Yu-Fang, had all but a few pieces of her jewelry stolen because it, according to officials, belonged to the people. And when she grew sick and her grandchildren took her to the hospital there was no method by which to diagnose her much less treat her. Her suffering was not unique.
Education was scorned and communism was a bullying system where people like Chang's mother, who were elegantly mannered and unusually well educated, were beaten down consistently for having more than other people. Instead of there being a system where every person has access to a reasonable quality of life, it was literally considered that all people were created equally and anyone with more owed everyone else.
Chang's father suffered considerably trying to protect his family under such unbelievably violent and ridiculous circumstances. Both her parents were unusually intelligent and fostered education within their children. Chang, herself after working a series of seemingly unrelated positions including being a sort of doctor (she was told to treat people after being given a single manual to read) and a peasant, eventually won a scholarship to study outside of China.
"I have made London my home. For ten years, I avoided thinking about the China I had left behind. Then in 1988, my mother came to England to visit me. For the first time, she told me the story of her life and that of my grandmother."
By Sarah Bahl
Begins with the sound of 19th century British royal guard calling out the Royal Salute while in formation. The long line of men in red jackets and tall black hats buckled in gold under the chin; all carrying guns evokes a sense of authority, power, protection and mystery, all in one as the scene fades to a blur and then clears again to a young Queen Victoria, in a red thick velvet cape with black and white fur-like trimming, who is with her beloved King Charles Spaniel, and her lady in waiting. Emily Blunt begins the voice over, "Some people are born more fortunate than others," and so ensues a look into the life and lifestyle of the eventually to be Queen Victoria, who was ruled as a young child by the Kensington System, whereby she was disallowed to do anything on her own and even had to walk down the stairs while holding the hand of an adult at all times. She tells that every little girl wants to be her own princess, even the princess herself.
This system of rules, created and run in junction by Victoria's mother and her lover by insinuation, Sir John Conroy, seems to cover a two fold purpose: one that since Victoria is the only child with claim to the English throne, she has to be duly protected in all possible ways and therefore lives without peer. The second reason being that disallowing the future Queen any sense of autonomy will break her down into signing a regency agreement giving her German born mother control with Sir John controlling her mother.
There is a fluid variation in time sequence and it is now June 28, 1838. Queen Victoria is coronated as her feet cannot touch the ground, (her real life height was slightly under five foot tall). The time goes back to when Victoria is an ill teenager, refusing to bow to Sir John's pressure that she sign the regency order. The glow of a fire gives a warm orange-yellow illumination upon the ill girl, as she lies in bed, and her seeming captors. Sir John responds to Victoria's refusals to sign the order with violence, by taking the pen and forcing it into her hand. "I say you will," says he. The pen is thrown on the ground by her. "I say I won't," says she. This scene is thankfully interrupted by Victoria's lady in waiting who has come to give the princess her medicine.
At King Leopold's (who is the brother of Victoria's mother) palace in Belgium the politics of Victoria's stance are discussed between Leopold I and an advisor. It is Leopold who insists quite strongly of the marriage of Victoria to her first cousin, Albert of Germany. He is uncle to both of them.
Victoria continues to hold the hand of her lady in waiting as she walks down the stairs, skipping the last couple with childlike spirit. Meanwhile Albert is drilled by his advisor as to what novels the princess likes, what she is and is not allowed to do, as well as the types of her various recreations. It is strongly in Leopold's interest for Albert to marry Victoria, as this would solidify alliances among Europe's nobility to his favor. The film talks about Leopold's "survival" being based on having increased access to British resources, yet none of the characters in the film act as if they have survived a day in their lives, though they all have their own battles and sorrows.
Albert and his brother visit Victoria where she is staying in a palace belonging to the King of England. Albert attempts a sales pitch upon initially meeting the princess by claiming to have read Sir Walter Scott. The visit awkwardly continues as Albert, with his brother and Victoria, with her surrounders; play chess while they are gazed at to see if their relationship is developing.
It does, as the turning point is when Victoria asks Albert, "Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself in a game being played against your will?" He does not say he does but asks her if that is how she feels. She replies, "Constantly," and that, "I see them leaning in and moving me around the board."
"The Duchess and Sir John?" he inquires, coldly referring to her mother as the former.
"Not just them," she says, referring to King Leopold and others. Albert tells her, "Then you had better master the rules of the game until you can play it better than they can."
She asks him, "You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?"
"I should find one to play it with you, not for you."
Their friendship progresses and continues after the King has died and the new Queen is on the throne. The film implies Victoria is more spirit than strategy at times in ruling her Kingdom and that some members of parliament did not react well to a little woman on the throne with female advisors which lead to general confusion as to outsourcing decisions in order to help the populace of England at large. By accounts the Queen proposed to Albert and their marriage despite ups and downs and squabbles related to the authority as well as the ruling of the Kingdom, was a uniquely happy one. When Albert died at the age of 42, from illness, Victoria spent the rest of her life in mourning. They had nine children together whose descendants live throughout the world.
By Sarah Bahl
Harriet Beecher Stowe's work is a harrowing piece that argumentatively and prosaically contradicts the social mores and justifications put in place by those who were pro slavery during the 1800s. Uncle Tom serves as Stowe's archetype and like the author, he is unfailingly religious and it is his Christian belief in God that serves as his beacon to overcome the ills and horrors from the daily life of slavery.
In Gone With the Wind, written about 80 years later, there is the continuing line that outsiders to Southern culture did not know nor understand the familial relations between slaves and their masters. In reality, house slaves at least could become family and some were buried alongside their owners. What Stowe points out, is that yes, they may be family, but what happens when the master falls into debt? Will a common law husband not sell his wife and children if it suits his financial needs? What of the families torn apart in the process?
Uncle Tom's story begins in Kentucky, where he serves on a plantation for a reasonably kind master, Mr. Shelby and his wife. Though when Mr. Shelby falls behind on a payment of a mortgage; the family's best house slaves are to be sold. Eliza, the mistress's favorite, has a handsome son named Harry and when Eliza overhears what is to happen to her and her son, she runs away with Harry, crossing the icy winter Ohio river with him in her arms, to be joined by her husband and the family is aided by Quakers on their journey to Canada. Eliza's story is one of many epitomizing the lengths women would go through not to be separated from their children.
Tom hears the news of the master's debt and his plans to solve it, but still he refuses to go, "No, no... - it's her right! I wouldn't be the one to say no - 'tan't in natur for her to stay; but you heard what she said! If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything to go to rack, why let me be sold."
Tom's overly saintlike loyalty may come from his elderly age as he might simply have been too old to risk the dangers of flight across the country, during the winter, to the North. With Eliza and her family escaped Tom is sold to the St. Clare family of New Orleans. The slaves seem to fear nothing more than being sold South, but with the St. Clare family he finds a reasonable home. The head of the family, withholds a philosophical cynicism, and he views slavery as a cultural more, pervading the country with its essence that creates a battle too much for one man to fight; so he owns slaves but promises to free Tom so he may rejoin his family in Kentucky.
Marie, St. Clare's wife, seems to have an ailment every day, though none can be proven to actually exist, and their daughter Evangeline, is unusually sweet and as one of her last wishes as she is dying from tuberculosis, requests of her father that the slaves be set free. Eva's notions toward slaves cause her to be considered a most peculiar child. Marie says, "Eva always was disposed to be with servants; and I think that well enough with some children. Now, I always played with father's little negroes - it never did me any harm. But Eva somehow seems to put herself on an equality with every creature that comes near her. It's a strange thing about the child...Now, there's no way with servants, but to put them down and to keep them down. It was always natural to me, from a child, Eva is enough to spoil a house-full."
When Eva becomes ill, it is Marie, serving as proof that reproducing does not necessarily make a person a mother, who insists herself to be really ill as opposed to her daughter who is merely exhibiting some highly positive signs of consumption. When Eva passes away, her mother's fits increase and doctors are called in a rush and in the process some servants really do come to believe that it is Marie who is in a state of mourning. Uncle Tom is the one to notice St. Clare, who silently remains in Eva's room, is the true mourner of the one pure creature in his life to be taken from him.
St. Clare keeps his word to his daughter, but while making arrangements to free Tom, he is stabbed trying to break up a knife fight at a cafe and dies. Marie, then over-rides all her husband's stances toward slavery and Tom is sold to a low down man; by the name of Legree, who has long, dirty fingernails and a derogatory manner to all who know him. Here Tom meets Cassy, a beautiful light skinned mistress, with a godless view of the world. Cassy's children were sold from her by her husband, and when she has a new master, and a child by him, she gives her newborn son laudanum as she sings him into a permanent sleep.
When Cassy and the younger, Emmeline, both mistresses of Legree run away together, Tom is flogged to death for not disclosing where they went. So, Tom never sees the freedom other persons in the story eventually find. Yet, he held a faith within himself to the last.
By Sarah Bahl