Sexism and Harry's Place 
Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 08:54 AM
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I spend more time than is probably quite healthy hanging out at Harry’s Place. I find the views of its bloggers often, if not absolutely always, congenial. One of the things which immediately struck me about this blog was its blokish atmosphere – and I’ve often been moved to grumble about sexism or misogyny on the comments.

I was recently invited to write a guest post – a slightly daunting prospect as HP is famous for its light touch moderation policy and the comments can get quite nasty. If anyone visits HP for the first time via my blog they may think I was given a hard time – but it can get much more vicious.

If it achieved nothing else, my guest spot did have the effect of getting Alexto take a look at HP – I keep on telling him he’d love it. He was a bit confused – ‘why is this man talking about his penis?’ - though, as a veteran of the standards wars he was completely unfazed by the critical comments!

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Reinventing the Renaissance Occult in Modern and Postmodern Culture 
Sunday, November 15, 2009, 05:07 PM
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This colloquium was the last in a series of events held at Anglia Ruskin University to mark the visit of our visiting Leverhulme Professor, György E. Szönyi. The aim of the day was to explore the different ways in which modern culture has returned to Renaissance esotericism. Some have been drawn to the intriguing remoteness of such teachings from our own more scientific and sceptical age. Others, by contrast, have sought to discover unexpected points of contact between the mysteries of the occult and more modern mysteries, such as quantum science. The lure of the occult today may partly be explained by a growing dissatisfaction with Enlightenment rationalism and its perceived failure to address fundamental human concerns.

The first session began with a substitute paper, ‘Shaping Fantasies’, which I offered because two speakers dropped out at a late stage. This was a version of a recently published article in which I analyse the way in which modern responses to Shakespeare’s magic such as Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country invest Shakespeare with the power of a vates, the ability to channel information from some higher plane – or bring that plane into being. Our second speaker was Ewan Fernie, whose paper, ‘The Possessed’ was a powerful meditation on the relationship between sexual surrender and divine, or demonic, possession. A particular focus of Ewan’s paper was the strange case of Daniel Paul Schreber who was obsessed by the idea of becoming a woman and achieving a sexual union with God. Then György E. Szönyi spoke on ‘New Age’ interpretations of the Book of Enoch. Unfortunately I was unable to hear this paper or Urszula Szulakowska’s ‘Art and the Esoteric Tradition in Australia’, although I know that both papers were extremely well received – and were followed by a lively and prolonged question and answer session. (I was involved in lunch preparations at the time and, when delegates failed to appear 40 minutes after this was due to begin, I began to fear that they had been translated to some astral plane ...)

After an excellent buffet supplied by Cotto we heard a fascinating paper by Sophia Wellbeloved on the influential and intriguing figure of G.I. Gurdjieff, a polymath who mixed with many famous figures associated with the Modernist movement, including Ezra Pound and Katherine Mansfield. Part of Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson is available to read online. Then Leo Ruickbie gave a very engaging account of the Faustian pact in magical culture, moving from the responses of Faust’s near contemporaries, to an account of an eighteenth-century man apparently saved at the last moment when on the brink of selling his soul to the devil, and concluding with some unexpectedly up to date examples. We heard of people attempting to sell their souls on eBay, and also of the curious case of S. Jason Black who claims to have reaped substantial benefits after making a pact with princes of Hell. (Afterwards Marina Warner drew a wholly convincing parallel between such magical pacts and Catholic indulgences – both equally the targets of Protestant disapproval.) Finally Monika Smialkowska introduced two extremely interesting modern responses to one of the best known magicians of the Renaissance, Prospero. Both David Calcutt’s Prospero’s Island and Elizabeth Nunez’ Prospero’s Daughter challenge, in different ways, our sense of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘magic’.

The final panel of the day opened with Patricia MacCormack’s illuminating ‘Occultism and Continental Philosophy: From Solomon through Spare to Serres’. She explored the importance of the demonic for thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, the appeal of the idea of ‘possession’ to thinkers who are drawn to new assemblages which exclude the forces of the family, capitalism and the state. Mark Goodall then offered a suggestive series of ideas about what might constitute an ‘occult film studies’. A quotation he used, Paracelsus’ description of the occult as something ‘inaccessible to human reason’ reminded me of Kubrick’s description of 2001 as something which he wanted to ensure could never be fully susceptible to logical analysis. Finally my colleague Rowlie Wymer gave an entertaining account of James Blish’s ‘After Such Knowledge’ sequence, novels which problematise both barriers of genre (one is sf, one is a historical novel, and two are fantasy/horror/sf hybrids) and also the boundaries between different kinds of knowledge – science and religion seem like polar opposites but magic, with its emphasis on instrumentalism - and the possibility of concrete results – complicates this binary. Of the novels Rowlie discussed I had only read A Case of Conscience, but now feel tempted to read more of Blish’s ‘occult’ works.

Everyone was delighted that Marina Warner was able to accept our invitation to join in our colloquium and give a reading from her celebrated recent book, Phantasmagoria. She read from the final chapter of the book, in which she tracks traces of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation to the recent shocking Abu Ghraib photographs which she describes as the ultimate example of phantasmagoria. This was a fitting conclusion to an extremely stimulating and lively conference which brought together scholars from several different disciplines.

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Heyer Questionnaire results - how you voted! 
Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 08:18 PM
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Apologies for an entry rather short on useful links – but with so many names involved I couldn’t do all of them!

45 questionnaires were collected in total – many thanks! Your careers include research editor, librarian, academic, actuary, teacher, psychotherapy, curator, civil service, tax inspector, scientist, marketing manager, architect, solicitor, financial services - and lots of students.

Nearly all of you began reading Heyer in your mid teens, although one precocious fan began when she was 9. I was a Heyer virgin until the ripe old age of about 22 I think. (I spent my teenage years reading Proust in a slightly passive aggressive way. )

It was fascinating to see what people put down as their favourite Heyers. Some people complained that being limited to three was mental cruelty. Other ignored the limit completely. The overall winner was Venetia with 12 votes. These Old Shades and Cotillion tied for second place with 10, and Devil’s Cub secured 9 votes, as did Frederica. Here are the other results – any novel which attracted more than one vote is followed by the appropriate number.

Powder and Patch; Masqueraders 2; Bath Tangle; Regency Buck 3; False Colours; Grand Sophy 7;Infamous Army 3; Nonesuch 4; Sylvester 4; Friday’s Child 7; Unknown Ajax 6; Tollgate; Convenient Marriage 4; Civil Contract 6; Arabella 7; April Lady; Lady of Quality 5; Reluctant Widow; Talisman Ring 2; Black Sheep 3; Corinthian 2; Blunt Instrument; Black Moth.

The ‘least favourite’ category threw up a few surprises from my point of view – why wouldn’t anyone like False Colours, Sprig Muslin or Frederica? But I endorse the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the queasily Gothic Cousin Kate which attracted 12 votes.

The other losers were Masqueraders 2; Bath Tangle 3; False Colours; Simon the Coldheart 3; Black Moth 4; Talisman Ring; April Lady 3; Charity Girl 3; Civil Contract 2; Royal Escape 2; Sprig Muslin 2; Lady of Quality 2; My lord John 4; Barren corn; Friday’s Child; Foundling; Frederica.

You liked other romantic novelists including Erica James, Jilly Cooper , Nora Roberts, Louise Allen, Mary Balogh, Mary Stewart, Stephanie Meyer, Jennifer Crusie, Eloisa James, Charlie Cochrane, Karen Rose, Louise Bagshawe, Philippa Gregory, Freya North, Eliz Herbert, Mary Renault, Winston Graham, Jean Plaidy, Angela Thirkell, Monica Dickens, Mills and Boon, Charlotte Lamb, Tracy Chevalier , Marian Keyes, Freya North, Dorothy Dunnett, Eva Ibbotson, Katie Fforde, Sybil Marshall, Jo Beverley, Clare Darcy, Juliet Blyth, Eva Ibbotson, Julie Quinn, MM Kaye, Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle, gay and lesbian romantic fiction – but quite a few of you, like me, don’t really read any romantic novelist other than Heyer.

Most liked literary fiction – I expect most people were thinking within a bit of a Heyer groove when they filled in this section – thus as well as many references to Jane Austen there was a strong preference for female novelists, including ‘middle brow’ classics from the mid twentieth century such as Mitford, Thirkell and Goudge as well as more recent writers such as Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt. Other favourites included Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Donna Tartt, Atwood, Du Maurier, Khaled Hoseini, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Aiken Hodge, Shakespeare, Bronte, Patrick O Brian, Lessing, E Annie Proulx, Mavis Cheek, Dumas, Collins, Gaskell, Lermontov, Pushkin, Orwell, Zamyatin, T S Eliot, Frayn, Waugh, Barbara Pym, Jeannette Winterson, Forster, Nabokov, Woolf, Sebastian Faulks and Bret Easton Ellis (that was me in slightly contrary mode.)

Can I take this opportunity to recommend Dorothy Whipple by the way?

Quite a few Heyer fans also read sf, although there was a preference for comic fantasy rather than hard sf. However I did spot a couple of Heinlein fans and many readers of Le Guin. Other writers mentioned include Anne Mcaffrey, Pratchett, Tanith Lee, Robin Hobb, Katherine Kerr, Vonnegut, EE Smith, Arthur C Clarke, Elizabeth Moon, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Naomi Norvik. Several people mentioned the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold and if you are even vaguely interested in science fiction do give her a go.

Most of you like detective stories and favourite writers include CJ Sansome, Laura Childs, Dick Francis, Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Falco, Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters, Tey, Marsh, Sayers, Jasper Fforde, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Boris Akunin, Dornford Yates, Sapper (that was me), PD James, Mark Billingham (also me), Carla Dunn, Rosemary Rowe, Edmund Crispin.

Horror proved less popular although people mentioned Barbara Michaels, Stephanie Meyer, and Peter V Brett. A couple of readers enjoyed more classic horror such as ‘Monk’ Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe and Poe.

Quite a few of you enjoy children’s books – ranging from older classics (Burnett, Nesbit, Streatfield and Montgomery) via mid c.20 favourites such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Rumer Godden, to modern best sellers such as Pullman and Rowling. The most popular writer was Diana Wynne Jones, and quite right too! Other writers mentioned included Tolkien , Michelle Paver, Michelle Magorian, May Grant Bruce, Joan Aiken, Antonia Forest (I agree, must read her again) Brent Dyer, John Christopher (that was me) and Caroline Lawrence.

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Rereading Georgette Heyer: Reflections on the Day 
Sunday, November 8, 2009, 11:03 AM
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When a small group of colleagues at Anglia Ruskin originally planned a little colloquium on an author we all love, Georgette Heyer, none of us anticipated how popular the idea would prove. Nor had we realized that this was the first ever conference devoted to Heyer’s works. So it was very cheering to see places get snapped up so quickly – though sad to have to turn away later enquirers.

We were all delighted that Jennifer Kloester was able to give us a sneak preview of material from her new biography of Heyer. (There was a little ‘oooh’ from the audience when she revealed that she had identified seven ‘new’ Heyer stories.) It was fascinating to see newly discovered photographs of Heyer – and learn more about episodes from her early publishing career such as her suppression of The Great Roxhythe.

Jay Dixon then gave a very suggestive paper on ‘Heyer and Place’, examining Heyer’s use of brief but deft and evocative descriptions of location to set the scene for her tales – as well as her dependence on the resonances of certain place names for readers familiar with her very individual version of the ‘Regency World’.

Laura Vivanco, who contributes to the Teach Me Tonight blog, spoke on The Nonesuch as Didactic Love Fiction. Her exposition of some of the moral lessons contained in that novel, in particular the way in which the moral shortcomings of Tiffany, the spoilt young beauty, are revealed to her admirer, put me in mind of Fanny Burney’s Camilla which deals with a rather similar group of young people, including the lovely but superficial Indiana. But I also found myself thinking of another of my favourite novelists, Charlotte M. Yonge, a fact which made me reflect that there is something oddly Victorian somehow about The Nonesuch.

Some of these thoughts stayed with me during Mary Joannou’s paper, ‘Heyer and Austen’ as she too was reflecting on the relationship between Heyer and historical period, drawing particular attention to the way in which Heyer conjures up a stylised rather than an authentic version of the Regency, inserting her rather un-Austen like characters into Austen’s own world, offering us heroines who go around London armed with such unladylike accessories as a pistol and a social conscience, designed to please twentieth-century tastes rather than recapture Regency structures of feeling.

The way in which later ages try (or don’t try) to capture the spirit of the past was also central to Sam Rayner’s entertaining discussion of the way in which Heyer’s book covers have changed over the decades. It was amusing to see the disparity between Barbosa’s elegant and restrained designs and the rather lurid ‘bodice ripper’ covers which became popular when the novels were first published in paperback.

After lunch we enjoyed an intriguingly titled paper by Kerstin Frank, ‘The Thermodynamics of Georgette Heyer’, which explored the way in which the warm and spontaneous young heroines disrupt the lives of the more cool and languid heroes. The pattern is susceptible to variation of course and in Cotillion Freddie has to learn how to be – or at least pretend to be – more cool than is his wont in order to become a true, if not a typical, Heyer hero.

Yesterday evening my husband (who has yet to read any Heyer) asked whether my own paper was the ‘edgiest’ of the day. I’d say Catherine Johns probably had that distinction. No one gets agitated on being told a novel has a queer subtext these days whereas, as Catherine pointed out, her own topic, ‘Class and Breeding’, can make people nervous. She placed Heyer’s class consciousness within the context of her upbringing in the first decades of the twentieth century, a time when barriers between the classes were both more rigid and more visible than they are today. This was an extremely elegant paper, although I still think it’s a pity that Heyer’s novels are, to my mind, more class bound than say Persuasion.

My own paper, ‘Lady of Quality and Homosexual Panic’ used Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of ‘homosexual panic’ to try to decode a pattern of lesbian anxiety at work in Heyer’s final Regency, anxiety which is centred on Annis Wychwood’s relationship both with her older companion, Miss Farlow, and with her young protégée, Lucilla.

The final speaker was Elizabeth Spillman who analysed Heyer’s treatment of cross dressing, investigating whether the disguises of three heroines (and one hero) function not simply as a means of hiding their identity and escaping danger or discovery, but as mechanisms which allow them to articulate aspects of their personality, to ‘be themselves’. I certainly always feel some regret when Leonie, Pen, Robin and Prudence return to their ‘real’ gender roles.

The conference concluded with a lively final discussion in which many participated. I hope everyone enjoyed the day as much as I did. Certainly I can’t remember encountering such an enthusiastic audience at a conference before - I’ve attended quite a lot of academic conferences – but never one where there was anything like so much cheering and laughter!

Results from our little questionnaire into delegates’ reading habits will be revealed as soon as I have processed the data!

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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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