Notes from the Attic

In Search of Lucia di Lammermoor

A poster for a 2009 production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Universidad de Concepción, Chile. The disintegration of the bride in the final act is often highlighted in promotional material. Compelling as it may be, there is more to Lucia than the infamous mad scene.

My grandmother loved music. Every Friday night we climbed the three flights of stairs to the top of her house together. Up there in the attic she revealed a lifetime of music to me through the scratches and crackles of her old vinyl collection. From Rimsky Korsakov to Tchaikovsky, Brahms to Berlioz, the arias of Maria Callas, the gypsy songs of Joan Baez, Scheherazade, Carmen, Swan Lake, Rigoletto. We listened to them all.

All except one.

This was the one I pulled down from the shelf, over and over. A bride stared out from the cover sleeve. She was down on one knee, arms outstretched, her white dress streaked crimson with blood, her eyes wild and full.  I was convinced she was trying to tell me something. My grandmother would shake her head:

‘Lucia di Lammermoor. The mad scene is unbearable.’

I thought it must be terrifying; I didn’t know why.

Donizetti, the Italian composer of bel canto opera was drawn to troubled women in operas such as Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena. But the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor is the one for which he is famous.

Female insanity was a useful dramatic trope in bel canto opera, a conduit for elaborate musical cadenzas. Yet in Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti stated his wish to faithfully portray a woman’s mental disintegration. The story is taken from Walter Scott’s 17th century tale, The Bride of Lammermoor. Lucia is in love with one man but forced into an arranged marriage with another for the sake of the family’s political alliances.

The opera’s mad scene comes in Act III. Lucia, placed in an impossible situation and suffering mental breakdown, appears on stage covered in blood, having stabbed her bridegroom on their wedding night. And here at Act III, Scene II is where the opera culminates in the aria Il Dolce Suono’ which translates to ‘the sweet sound’ in the english libretto. As with all arias, the piece demands a virtuoso performance of astonishing vocal technique. Lucia then kills herself.

Death is no stranger to the bel canto stage.

When I finally heard Lucia di Lammermoor I reached this scene expecting all the fire and fury of a woman driven mad by circumstance. Yet instead of a raging, dangerous woman, I discovered in this aria the ethereal and exquisitely sung lament of a woman trapped and haunted by unpalatable reality and lost possibilities. I wondered then at my grandmother, a Scandinavian who had settled in England for my grandfather, giving up her career as a translator and interpreter to raise two sons.

Perhaps to hear Lucia was to regret lost possibilities of her own?

The fascination with the so-called ‘female malady’ is nothing new. The imagery of the mad woman runs through the arts like a dark flowing river, from the fictions of Bronte’s Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre and Wilkie Collins’s  The Woman in White to the harsh realities of the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and their struggles with mental illness. Their stories may be many and varied, but they are united in the frustrations and limitations externally imposed on women by society.

Yet just as Jean Rhys reimagined Bertha Mason as Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, so too a recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House (2015-2016 with Diana Damrau in the role of Lucia) cast a different light on Lucia.

The director, Sarah Mitchell, wished to give Lucia more agency, setting the opera in the 1840s, closer to the time it was written and a significant period of progression for the feminist movement. The character of Lucia was gradually redefined as a person of depth and intelligence with hopes and aspirations, ultimately failed by the men around her. There was nothing easy about this onstage metamorphosis. It was a struggle, hard fought, hard won. But I heard this Lucia at last, bloodstained from miscarriage as well as murder reclaiming her breathtaking final aria not as caged bird but as bold, defiant heretic.

After all this time Lucia had found her voice.

Terrifying and emancipating.

My Crocodile Curio

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How doth the little crocodile…

Mr Malachai is a stuffed  Nile Crocodile – Crocodylus Niloticus. I don’t go looking for taxidermy – although whilst we’re on the subject I find the craft bizarre and the arrangements of Walter Potter’s taxidermy tableaux – Rabbits’ Village School for example, both grotesque and oddly fascinating all at once.

But as Mr Malachai last swam in river water in the 1920s I don’t feel guilty about his subsequent stuffing as I had no part in his untimely demise. Mr Malachai is in need of some attention, as his stuffing is coming out on one side and he has lost a few claws over the years. However, he maintains a fine row of teeth.

I inherited Mr Malachai. He used to belong to my grandparents and was an object of fascination to me from an early age. He was only known as Croc or Baby back then. Later, my grandfather invented a soft reassuring voice for him and claimed he had a fondness for cucumber sandwiches, although it should be noted that in the wild this species eats a wide variety of prey but cucumber sandwiches are not generally mentioned. Mr Malachai would commentate on all matters  from the top of the book shelf with great wisdom and humour, which amused me now and then.

I half believed in Mr Malachai, just like the tooth fairy or an invisible friend. I suppose that is why Mr Malachai was eventually left to me in my grandmother’s will and now sits on my bookshelf commentating on all manner of things as the mood takes him.

Mr Malachai’s provenance remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. My grandfather was a doctor covering coal mining communities in the South Wales valleys. Family legend has it that an African prince who was studying at Aberystwyth University in the 1930s came up the bwlch to visit and presented the good doctor with Mr Malachai as a gift.

More I cannot tell you – not even how the name Mr Malachai came about – these things must be lost in the mists of time.

Such is the nature of a curio and part of Mr Malachai’s innate and rakish charm.

My name is Rumpelstiltskin

I thought I’d talk about the much-maligned character of Rumpelstiltskin (other spellings are available). He doesn’t come off very well in any version of the story I’ve ever read. Not even the Ladybird books try to hide his essentially grubby, baby-stealing nature, but is that entirely fair? I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him.

For those who may not adequately recall, the eponymous Rumpelstiltskin comes to the aid of a poor miller’s daughter – and let’s remember that the entire problem of the story is created by the miller bragging to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. It’s never fully explained how he came to mention it to the king. We’ll have to assume he blabbed it at the local tavern and word soon spread.

The king duly sets the girl to work. She has a night to spin as much gold from straw as she can.  The  greedy king believes the miller’s foolish boasts about his daughter, but it’s no surprise to discover that she can’t actually spin straw into gold. Each night the girl despairs and each night the infamous Rumpelstiltskin appears and offers to help, duly spinning straw into gold without a moment’s hesitation.

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Rumpelstiltskin appears every night to spin straw into gold, but the service comes at a high price.

On the third night the king promises he will marry the girl if she can spin yet more straw into gold – he’s probably having a lift installed at the palace – but like any self-respecting patriarchal despot he says he’ll have her killed if she doesn’t pull it off. By now the miller’s daughter has run out of things to pay Rumpelstiltskin with – she’s already given him a necklace and a ring.

Apparently he’s happy with the promise of the first-born baby instead.

So far, so fairytale. The king gets his gold. The miller’s daughter marries the king, forgets the promise and is apparently very happy with the man who would have killed her as soon as marry her, although she might be relieved to be away from her bragging miller father. I’m guessing it wasn’t the first time he’d blabbed her into trouble with his outlandish claims and in a feudal autocracy you have to grasp your opportunities as they present themselves.

However, Rumpelstiltskin – true to his word – returns after a year for the first- born baby. Even then he is fairly reasonable, allowing the queen to guess at his name three nights in a row. She gets many guesses. She also cheats by sending a man out to scour the land and find out the strange man’s name. That is how she wins their little game and gets to keep the child.

It’s not surprising then that Rumpelstiltskin gets cross – all those favours, and still no baby. There are various versions of his reaction to this. In one he tears himself in half, in another he stomps his foot right into the floor and in a third he stamps his way right down to hell (my favourite).

So who then is Rumpelstiltskin? Some kind of demon, tempting the miller’s daughter with riches and then wanting to take an innocent soul in return? Perhaps, but there are easier ways to go about that. He might even be the devil himself, but why go to all that trouble when you’re already the Prince of Darkness with more than one gold-spinning trick up your sleeve? Then again, this does make sense in the light of the many superstitions around not knowing the devil’s name, not being able to remember it or not recognising him in the first place. And, in common with many other devil myths, he is ultimately outsmarted by a clever mortal.

I’ve cooked up a little theory of my own about Rumpelstiltskin. Now before you go looking for citations I’ll tell you for sure it’s not backed up by any expert opinion, psychological, literary or otherwise. These are the personal views of the writing cat.

But try thinking of Rumpelstiltskin as a Freudian projection of the girl’s personality where her Superego, Ego and Id are out of kilter.

Bear with me.

If you look at it this way then the conversation between the miller’s daughter, later queen, and Rumpelstiltskin is basically a dialogue between the Ego and the Id in an attempt to balance out their needs with the Superego’s demand for the ideal self. Any canny woman kept her Superego well-polished back in the day, for fear of transgressing any of the rigorous strictures that society imposed and being burnt as a witch.

Medieval societies were a tough gig.

Meanwhile, privately, the queen still has an Ego, reasonable and reasoning, which must work hard to mediate with the Id. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Rumpelstiltskin is rampant Id, the primitive part of personality that wants things now and has no connection to the real world. Newborn babies are all about Id and we all have an inner Rumpelstiltskin, rampaging around, making demands and out of touch with reality, tempered, as our personalities develop, with the other two parts.

Superego, Ego and Id. The eternal conversation.

​Ipso facto: the woman is talking to herself in an attempt to get a grip on things.

Whilst we’re at it, the king clearly has a narcissistic personality disorder and the miller is a drunken fantasist who probably snorts his own freshly milled flour in an attempt to escape from the dreary grind of the daily bread.

Just saying.

Then again, maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a woodland sprite/goblin/creature with preternatural powers intent on making mischief in a story where kings marry commoners after hearing some small talk from the local tavern, straw can be spun into gold and nobody ever knows the little guy’s name.

Sometimes, even in fairytales, it is what it is.

On The Front Cover

From Ambrose Bierce to Ray Bradbury and back…

I’d like to share a picture of the front cover of Terror by Night, a collection of ghost and horror stories by Ambrose Bierce on this entry but it’s simply too unpleasant. It’s turn the book face down on the night stand unpleasant, a photograph of a desiccated corpse whose face seems contorted in pain.  The sight of it – I had left it out face up – once sent my then three year old son screaming from the room and requesting that the book be removed from his presence. He is much older now but still doesn’t like it. He treats it as if it holds some sort of talismanic power, bringing evil in its wake.

It’s easy to understand why.

No, I’m still not going to show you.

The blurb on the back cover describes the  photograph as ‘a well-preserved mummy from a museum in Guanajuato, Mexico’. On further investigation I discover it is the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato. Here one can peruse vast showcases of mummified bodies in what I imagine must be a rather gruesome and troubling day out.

The history of the place is as interesting as it is macabre. In the second half of the 19th century burial space was in short supply in the town. The council imposed a death tax on the relatives of the deceased to ensure the continued burial of their loved one. If the tax was not paid the body was disinterred. These displaced cadavers were stored in a nearby building where they underwent a process of natural mummification due to the climatic conditions in the area. People began to visit the bodies. They started charging an entry fee. A museum was born.

A visit made there by the author Ray Bradbury, author of Farenheit 451 had a profound effect on him and prompted him to write the short story ‘The Next In Line‘ published in his 1947 collection of stories entitled Dark Carnival.

‘The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to leave Mexico,’ he said. He also said he wrote the story in order to ‘purge his terror’.

The familiar sugar candy creations and brightly coloured ornaments of the Mexican Día de los Meurtos reveal a completely different attitude to death than Western Europe, and Britain in particular. Here death is hidden, death is a different currency from life, death is a counterfeit tender from the underworld. There, death is the flip side of the same coin.It’s no coincidence that Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s most famous works of literature is a story narrated by a man who does not realise he is dead.

The contorted faces of the bodies, a curator cheerfully explains in an interview is in fact the result of changes in air pressure rather than any awful fate of the deceased. Most people died peacefully, he insists. 

And all  this before reading a single word of the book.

Ambrose Bierce died in Mexico in 1914. Although many places claim his final resting place,  the specific location of his death remains a mystery.

I am not sure if all front covers are chosen with such care. Or perhaps what I mean is perhaps not all front covers are chosen with such an eye for detail, connection and lack of concern for whether it will aid or hinder the sale of the book.

Although it didn’t put me off, I admit.

​I shall write more about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge and the mysterious Ambrose Bierce next week.

Dylan Thomas Day

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Today, Sunday, May 14th is International Dylan Thomas Day. I grew up in Swansea, the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, and naturally I grew up with his poetry. Fern Hill is my favourite poem, lyrical and full of mortality. My grandmother, Dilys Davis, was an actress who worked in both Welsh and English. She was in the first radio production of Under Milk Wood  for the BBC in 1954, starring Richard Burton. She played Mrs Ogmore Pritchard who runs a guesthouse where nobody stays – she is fastidious in her need for order –  and she spends her time scolding her dead husbands.

‘Mr Ogmore. Mr Pritchard.’

‘It is time to inhale your balsam.’

 

How to Read a Fairytale

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For anyone wishing to delve deeper into fairytales, Angela Carter’s book is a good place to start.

The fairytale is a strange sort of story. It belongs to everyone and it belongs to no one and there are rarely any fairies to be had for love, money or even a handful of magic beans. It thrives on paradox.  It occupies at once a realistic and contradictory world where crushing poverty and immense riches sit side by side. It embraces a narrative of  misfortune, magical events, charms and curses, where strange and often grotesque and unreasonable characters intervene. Relationships are difficult. Death looms large. Nothing is what it seems.  Motivations are not always obvious and are more often than not ambiguous. Different versions of the same stories emerge in all sorts of different cultures. And for those raised on the sanitised Ladybird versions of  Cinderella, Snow White and Goldilocks with their clear boundaries and happy-ever-afters, the older tellings can be hair-raising in their breaking of taboo and exploration of difficult subject matter. For anyone who wants to delve deeper,  Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales published by Virago is a good place to start.

​The story of The White Cat is taken from the Blue Book of Fairytales, edited by Andrew Lang, a nineteenth century Scottish writer who collected myths and fairytales. As a story of transformation, it seemed a good choice for the relaunched Feminist Times and retelling it as La Chatte Blanche or the Tail of the Innocent Pussy was irresistible. For me, the renaming of the story follows a long established tradition of mischievous duality picked up by Angela Carter amongst others, and there is a nod and a wink to her bold and vivid storytelling within it. The teller of the tale, Madame d’Aulnoy was a French writer who inhabited the seventeenth- century Parisian salons. Her stories, like those of the other conteuses of the time were complicated things, stories within stories. The White Cat is the story for which she is best-known.

I like to think that Madame D’Aulnoy, with her habit for slyly critiquing society through her stories, would have approved.

La Chatte Blanche or The Tale of the Clever Pussy was a prelaunch edition of the Feminist Times.

Owls and Omens

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.” 
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
Owls don’t generally get a good write up in literature. I cite the owls of The Tower of Flint in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy  devouring Lord Sepulchre, who mistakenly believed himself to be a Death Owl. Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin also got short shrift from his local owl. Readers will recall that Old Brown abducted him in a terrifying episode on Lake Derwentwater. He escaped Old Brown’s house through the attic window, but lost part of his tail  and a great deal of his charm and  chutzpar in the process.

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 Old Brown teaches cheeky Squirrel Nutkin a lesson he won’t forget. 

 

It isn’t surprising then, when I was not only woken but kept awake for some hours last night by an owl hooting in textbook fashion that I immediately wondered if it was some kind of bad omen, possibly a harbinger of death. The Romans thought this, considering the hooting of an owl to indicate someone’s imminent demise. I comforted myself with the thought that I am not Roman and therefore not obliged to invest in their belief systems…

​But why it was so loud and furthermore why it had picked the tree at the bottom of our garden to perch for the night? This morning following extensive online research – reader, I googled it – I discovered it was in fact a tawny owl, that gives a distinctive kweek hoo hoo hoo call. It’s one of the most common owl species in the UK. 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK at the time of writing, since you ask. It was probably a mating call, which explains the volume and the persistence. And if you live at the edge of a nature reserve I suppose these things are to be expected.

In the owl’s defence, there is of course Owl from Winnie the Pooh who was wise, if a little impatient and also Edward Lear’s romantic seafaring owl, who was married to a cat in a service presided over by a turkey on a hill. Go figure.

​Can anyone think of any more owls in literature?


The Reader and the Story

‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’
― Ursula K. Le Guin

Stories are many things to many people. They are whispered to us from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to read them for ourselves as soon as we are able and we die with them lingering on our lips. Stories drive us through our days and carry us through our nights. They can forge identities, define our relationships and explain the world to us in ways we might never have imagined. The reader’s job is a rich and varied one and in the kingdom of the story the reader is queen.

Without the reader, as Le Guin points out, the story cannot live. Angela Carter knew this. She said reading a book was like re-writing it for yourself’. This resonates for me, given the sense of ownership a good story can instil in a faithful reader, and the protective anxiety any loose talk of a film, television adaptation or a reworking of any kind can invoke. I’m thinking about The Great Gatsby myself, although you doubtless have your own titles to protect and I could list you ten more right here but that is a discussion we can always have later down the line.

Readers take stories away with them and make them their own. Readers are a law unto themselves and there is nothing the writer can do about that. Readers are playful rogues, sometimes misremembering stories and retelling them in a different way, sometimes drawing themes out of the words that the writer had no conscious intention of putting in there so at last it becomes a sister story to the one first set down, sometimes forgetting the story altogether only to rediscover it anew at a later date.

Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature considered that a good reader should have imagination, a good memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense. Virginia Woolf in her essay How Should One Read A Book suggested the reader’s attitude should be ‘to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions’.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose identity, for years a guarded secret, was recently revealed by a journalist, has said that a book, once written, has no need of its author at all and leaves the reader to make their own way through the words.

It might seem strange or contrary then that I will be writing a commentary on this blog around the themes of each story that appears in the Feminist Times. However, I promise to offer no advice and I will definitely leave the reader to their own conclusions. For once a writer has finished she must give the story away and hope the readers will do a good job of their side of the bargain. It is hard work, this reading life, but somebody has to do it and let the stories come alive.