Sir Orfeo/Steward (a queer reading, possibly in both senses of the word!) 
Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 05:47 AM
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A quick check on Google and Google Books suggests that others haven’t spotted a queer subtext in the anonymous Medieval poem Sir Orfeo, possibly for good reasons. But when I returned to the poem after 20 years or so, pursuing a more general project about the queer afterlives of both Pygmalion and Orpheus but not really expecting to find anything, I thought the addition of the ‘faithful steward’ strand of the poem might invite a queer reading.

The original dynamic of repetition in Ovid’s story, Eurydice’s second death, is here recast as a more positive double narrative whereby we get not one, but two, emotional reunions and Orfeo is allowed to keep his rescued wife Heurodis. The second reunion is that between Orfeo and his faithful steward who has loyally served as his master’s deputy during his long absence.

The poem’s narrative patterns encourage the reader to associate the reunion between man and wife with the reunion between king and steward. The rescue of Heurodis involves Orfeo, disguised as a common minstrel, craving admittance from the porter at the gate of fairyland, being taken to the fairy king and queen and delighting the audience with his music. Once she has been restored to him he returns home, but remains disguised and, once again, begs for help, this time from his steward. Thus for the second time in the poem he plays before a courtly and appreciative audience who fail to guess his real identity:

‘[Orfeo] took his harp so mirry of soun
And tempreth his harp as he wele can,
And blissful notes he there gan … (436-8)

He took his harp and tempred shille;
The blisfulest notes he harped there
That ever any man yherd with ere … (526-8)

He tells the steward that the harp’s real owner is dead. The loyal steward responds:

‘now me is wo!
That was my lord Sir Orfeo.
Allas, wrecche, what shall I do
That have swich a lord ylore? (542-5

Once his wife has been lost to the fairies we learn that Orfeo ‘oft swooned opon the stone’ (197). The steward also ‘fell aswon to grounde’ (549) before joyfully realizing that his master in fact stands before him. The two losses – and the two moments of joyful reunion – thus mirror one another, with Orfeo reenacting both his own role and that of Eurydice. The (apparent) reanimation of the king echoes his wife’s more literal return from the fairy netherworld. The importance of the bond between the two men is reinforced when Orfeo declares that he will make him his heir – quite a curious move considering his wife is alive, well and (presumably) of child bearing age.

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Friday, October 9, 2009, 05:49 AM
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Over drinks at a conference in Bristol last year I found myself being asked the (slightly surprising) question: ‘What is your favourite Blake’s 7 slash pairing?’ (I think I replied Blake/Avon – a conservative choice.) Slash fiction - or rather (see comments) the growth of slash fiction - is one of the more curious byproducts of the internet – its focus is always two male characters from a book or tv series (often science fiction) who are presented in a sexual relationship. The classic example is Kirk/Spock.

I’ve never actually read any slash fanfic, although one or two of my blog entries suggest that I probably have a slash-curious streak at least. So it was very interesting to have lunch yesterday with two experts on these matters, one a prominent writer of fanfic, the other an academic who is researching the area. I learnt all about Mary Sues and about a particularly bizarre subset of slash – MPreg. MPreg stories focus on the usual male/male pairings of slash but with a twist – one of the men gets pregnant.

Both my lunch companions are, of course, attending Rereading Georgette Heyer. Suddenly my planned paper (‘Lady of Quality and Homosexual Panic’) begins to seem a bit tame. Having just reread The Foundling I wonder whether I should have gone for ‘Gilly/Gideon’. (Gilly’s the hero of The Foundling, Gideon’s his cousin.) But a quick search on Google quickly established that I had been beaten to it. By lots of people. Weird.

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working mothers and children's health 
Wednesday, September 30, 2009, 09:10 AM
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It seems slightly frivolous to complain about my mild feelings of irritation at this survey and the way it has been reported when one reads stories like this. And it is also perhaps a bit rash to intervene when I have no training or experience in data analysis. But here goes anyway. This article, taken from the BBC website, is a fairly typical report of the findings. To summarise, research has shown that the children of working mothers are likely to be more unhealthy than those of non working mothers.

One of the investigators , Professor Catherine Law, notes here that ‘they had not looked at fathers in this study because fathers’ employment levels had not changed whereas the numbers of working mothers had increased dramatically.’

I understand the point, but the way the research is couched is likely to fuel feelings of anxiety and guilt felt by (some) working mothers. Surely in the case of every working couple the responsibility for ensuring that children are eating healthily and taking exercise should be a joint one. Why couldn’t the research have been framed more neutrally as a contrast between single and dual income families? (Evan Davis, interviewing Professor Law on the Today programme, made a similar point.)

Apparently socio-economic factors had been taken into account in the survey to ensure like was being compared with like as far as possible. I wonder whether that means that a working couple earning 50K between them was compared with a family in which the man earned 50K and the woman stayed at home. But if the working mother in the first family gave up work the joint income would drop to say 25k – a factor which might itself impact on the health and well being of her family.

This is part of a wider trend to focus obsessively on working women/mothers while apparently forgetting that these women usually have husbands or partners. Nick Cohen, for example, in a recent Observer article has a go at working women who exploit their female cleaners and nannies. But many of these professional women will be half of a couple in which a man is also benefiting from such services. And single men employ cleaners too – why are they exempt from blame?

Even those who defend working mothers do so in a way which implicitly views them differently from working fathers. Here is Sally Russell’s response to the survey, taken from the BBC item linked to above: "With many more mums having no choice but to work these days and with government policy actively encouraging it, it is difficult to know how mums can do better.” Here again there seems to be an assumption that the default and perhaps desirable situation is that the mother should not work. It is almost implied that it is a shame that more women are working, rather than a positive reflection of huge improvements in the educational and career opportunities for girls.

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normblog profile 
Friday, September 18, 2009, 07:51 PM
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Norman Geras’s normblog is one of my favourite bookmarked sites – it covers a wide range of issues from jazz and cricket to politics and religion and I nearly always find myself in agreement with Norm’s take on things (except when it comes to this burning issue). So it was very gratifying to be invited to complete a normblog profile recently. This is a weekly slot in which bloggers are asked to answer any thirty of a total of fifty questions about their tastes, views and blogging experiences. If Prof Geras noticed a recent spike in his blog stats this was probably down to me fretfully consulting the archives to see what answers others had come up with!
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Rereading Georgette Heyer (again) 
Thursday, September 17, 2009, 08:54 PM
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I’ve organised quite a few conferences now – but none have generated quite so much enthusiastic attention as Rereading Georgette Heyer. In the past I’ve filled in endless complicated forms trying to squeeze some money out of one funding body or other to help support the many costs involved in running a conference – to no avail. But in the case of Heyer we have actually had a spontaneous offer of sponsorship out of the blue from the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

The colloquium was discussed in a blog in The GuardianWhich authors are worth a whole conference? – and we’ve also had enquiries from a researcher who has requested permission to film parts of the conference as part of a projected BBC documentary on Heyer. I think part of the interest is due to the fact that this is – we think– the first conference dedicated entirely to Heyer’s novels. But another important factor is the simple fact that so many people really ENJOY reading (and rereading) Georgette Heyer. Although I’ve had politely appreciative feedback after other conferences, none has ever been the focus of intense online discussions where people say things like:

“Oh dear Lord, a Georgette Heyer conference! You may well see me there. I have now been bitten by the bug!”

“Head for Cambridge if you’re a Heyer fan … Some of the presentations sound amazing”

“I SOOO wish I could be there!”

Among other little tasks associated with the conference, I’ve had to note some suggestions for a bookstall. Heyer herself seems the obvious choice, but I suspect most attendees will already have a complete set. What else might the typical Georgette Heyer fan be tempted to buy? Patrick O’Brian? Diana Wynne Jones maybe? Or Lois McMaster Bujold? (One of the things I’ve learnt about Georgette Heyer readers via the internet is that many of them (like me) are also science fiction fans.)

Rereading Georgette Heyer is a joint Lucy Cavendish College/Anglia Ruskin production – click here to find out more.

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