‘Mirror, Window: An Artbabe Collection’ by Jessica Abel

This collection is composed mostly of short stories from Jessica Abel’s independent comic series, Artbabe. A few of her journalism pieces are included as well. While I like several of the individual stories very much, these pieces do not form a good collection. As with prose short story collections, graphic short story collections should consist of stories with similar themes or images repeated throughout the selections. True, all of the stories in Mirror, Window deal with relationships in some manner, but the journalism pieces really don’t. Some of the stories seem to have been included simply because they are referenced in another story, regardless of quality or a comparative theme. The reader must read “As I Live and Breathe”—a rather uninspiring account of two people harboring crushes on each other trying to begin a relationship—because it introduces the characters of an untitled segment—a fantastic and subtle piece. The untitled segment could have been enjoyed without the set up. Does the reader really benefit from knowing these characters’ back story? Not really. The segment is so short and is so much in the moment that the backstory almost becomes burdensome. “He Said” is seemingly included because “Châiné” references the incident it features. But “He Said” is odd and unclear—is the main character a secret agent or just delusional?—and the description of the events in “Châiné” is sufficient.

Of the stories in this collection, “Châiné” and the untitled segment most impressed me.

“Châiné” – This story is probably my favorite and I found Abel’s artwork the most effective. The first panel of the story manages to set the tone with just an empty hallway. A broom and dustpan sit untouched—evidence of someone trying to clean up a mess. But the next panel reveals a drawer partially open, shirts hanging out—evidence of the true disarray of the main character’s life. Abel then reveals Paloma in pieces, starting with her foot, then the leg…. Abel keeps the frames very tight, trapping Paloma as she feels trapped in her career and her apartment. Anyway, I could go frame by frame, but if you’re interested just read the damn thing. The first really open frame of Paloma is when she drives into the pool at the hotel. The world from which Paloma is escaping—her apartment, her boyfriend, her job—seems to have a general evasive male presence. She retreats to be with her (female) friend, where she feels safe and, as the ending suggests, wants to stay.

Untitled Segment – This segment was the only piece that really challenged me as a reader. Abel has a knack for presenting recognizable characters, but she seems somewhat trapped in this comfort area of identifying with her readers rather than confronting them with something new. Anyway, I really like the contrast in this piece between the woman running gleefully and the man, refusing to run, spouting falsely chivalric palaver.

‘Agnes Grey’ by Anne Brontë (1847)

Brontë addresses two important issues in Agnes Grey:

  1. Class: The upper class indulges their children and forces unrealistic expectations on their servants to tame the children they are unwilling to punish. Brontë seems to offer sympathy to the children, but not to the parents.
  2. Religion: The upper class professes concern about having a “christian” house and their children behaving in a “christian” way but Brontë does not feel that they ascribe to basic Christian values: enjoy what you have and try not to hate anyone, perform your duty.

Agnes, as a governess, seems to exist in a middle class of sorts. She doesn’t seem to get on well with the servants, yet she is not on the same social standing as the children she tutors or their parents. Also, Agnes seems to look down upon poorer people—even though her family is quite poor—as uneducated, pitiable creatures. Brontë seems to promote a moderate way of life. One must dedicate oneself to performing the duties God has intended; education is not frivolous or vain, but one must not have too many possessions as Mr. Hatfield does.

Brontë and Agnes are both very moralizing in this novel. Though Agnes is still likable most of the time and the reader does pity her position on many occasions. I tended to think her a little foolish to continue to hold such high expectations for her charges, particularly Rosalie, after she discovered their temperament. And, on the whole, Agnes is a bit naïve. She becomes world-wearier as the novel progresses, but she remains optimistic about people’s abilities to perfect their moral compass.

“Of a Monstrous Child” by Michel de Montaigne

I chose to read this very brief essay of Montaigne’s before I went to bed last night because the title amused me. I was expecting a rant against the bratty behaviour of young children, not a thoughtful observation of conjoined twins that precipitates Montaigne suggesting universal acceptance of things we consider strange.

My favorite bit:

What we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of his work the infinity of forms that has comprised in it; and it is for us to believe that this figure that astonishes us is as related and linked to some other figure of the same kind unknown to man. From his infinite wisdom there proceeds nothing but that is good and ordinary and regular; but we do not see its arrangement and relationship….We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom; nothing is anything but according to nature.

Most likely Montaigne’s comments are limited to those visibly strange, not socially or sexually strange. But maybe I’m wrong. He did write an essai about sexuality in Virgil, which was taboo for his time.

This essay fits with Montaigne’s thoughts about the purpose of personal introspection through essay (according to the introduction provided in my mighty book of essays): that the activity is not vain nor narcissistic, rather by writing about ourselves we can discern the common aspects of all human experience. The notion that the experience of this young boy whose brother is partially attached to him has universality might be a difficult idea for some people to grasp.

“A Whisper in the Dark” by Louisa May Alcott

I feel gypped.

The first (I would have a specific number of pages here for you, but the cat is currently sleeping on top of my book and he is too cute to move) pages of this story develop it into a gothic tale of female fury and victimization. The last couple of pages, however, fail to fulfill the reader’s expectation of another story of victimization (that of Sybil’s mother) and Sybil laments her “own folly” in perpetrating her downfall. And she goes and marries Guy, who I still don’t particularly care for despite Alcott’s efforts to redeem him.

I would have preferred that the story ended with Sybil escaping from the house and running with the knowledge that someone was pursuing her. That ending would suggest that someone was going to place Sybil in another institution because once branded insane women—indeed, people in general—can never lose that label.

Guy’s explanation of the events was the hardest part of the story to read for several reasons. First, I felt like Alcott was destroying the beauty of her piece. Second, I felt like I was being taken by the hand and lead through the dark places of the story, the places where my imagination could fill in the situation, and Alcott was illuminating them to reveal circumstances that I did not like. All of the mystery was sucked out of the story.

Before the story was ruined, I really liked it. It was difficult to read about such a strong young woman being so thoroughly sublimated. Indeed, because she was a strong woman, she was more vulnerable to her uncle and the doctor’s attack. Of course a woman who speaks her mind must be insane.

“The Pleasure Pilgrim” by Ella D’Arcy

Gah, what a disturbing story.

D’Arcy’s psychology and characterization of her characters is troublingly accurate. Lulie—what a ridiculously appropriate name, by the way—is portrayed in such a way that the reader continues to doubt her sincerity as Campbell does, but not so much so that the reader cannot imagine that Lulie has not turned a new leaf, if you will pardon the cliché. Or that she is simply young and naïve but not vindictive. Most likely this young woman is a nymphomaniac, so caught up in her fantasies that she destroys herself.

However, D’Arcy encourages the reader to question the conditions of Lulie’s suicide. Was it accidental or intentional? As tiring as Mayne’s monologues have become by that point, he presents a somewhat believable argument that perhaps Lulie did not realize that the chamber she was about to fire was loaded. As skilled as she seemed with guns, however, I’m inclined to think that she knew that the chamber was full.

As disturbing as Lulie can be in the story, I found Mr. Campbell’s behaviour even more unsettling. D’Arcy presents this man as very uptight, very sexually-repressed, and very English. He lectures Lulie that,

to all right-thinking people, a young girl’s kisses are something pure, something sacred, not to be offered indiscriminately to every fellow she meets. Ah, you don’t know what you have lost! You have seen a fruit that has been handled, that has lost its bloom? You have seen primroses, spring flowers gathered and thrown away in the dust? And who enjoys the one, or picks up the others? And this is what you remind me of – only you have deliberately, of your own perverse will, tarnished your beauty, and thrown away all the modesty, the reticence, the delicacy, which make a young girl so infinitely dear. You revolt me, you disgust me. I want nothing from you but to be let alone.

Campbell’s description of a woman’s purity—not just her virginity, but her “purity”—is highly idealized. The speech seems to suggest that he would consider a woman defiled if she neglected to lower her eyes from a man’s gaze. This idealization of women’s chastity and modesty leads him to torment Lulie to the point of suggesting that only her suicide would convince him of her love for him. She does kill herself and yet he still is not convinced of her affection.

And what if she wasn’t a nymphomaniac? What if she was truly in love with Campbell, in whatever form of love a woman of her age and disposition could manage? The story also has the undertone that a woman with a promiscuous past, or even a rumored promiscuous past, can never redeem herself, even in death.

“A Widow in the Wilderness” by Annie Howells Fréchette

I’ve read this story four times and I don’t like the conclusions that I have made. This story seems to suggest that women cannot survive in the wilderness by themselves and that Indians are stubborn and stupid. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Fréchette is trying to indicate that men underestimate women’s abilities.

However, the portrait she paints of the widow and her children intimates that the men’s suggestions that she rejoin her people are not unwise: “The nursing baby turned its head from the brown breast and looked up with listless eyes which seemed to fill the wan little face”; “As they neared the widow’s camp they could see her fishing, with her gaunt children crouched about her in an old canoe” And the comment that “The sick baby had sunk to sleep, and was drawing the long, peaceful breaths of that perfect rest which a weak creature enjoys when held in strong arms” indicates that the man holding the baby has a strength that the mother, who held it only moments before, does not.

There is a something of a switch in typical gender roles in this story. Besides an allusion to breastfeeding, the widow does not display very stereotypical feminine qualities. She is quite stolid and unemotional, while the men seem more nurturing. Upon seeing the baby, the man feels compelled to take the child in his arms. And the exploring party donates supplies to the widow with “willing hands and aching hearts.”

“Sister Josepha” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

This short story is kind of like The Sound of Music only without the kids, the singing, the Nazis, or the optimistic ending. In fact, the ending is pretty bleak. But besides those things, it’s exactly the same.

The main character has two lives: Camille and Sister Josepha. As Camille, she has no parents, no history. She appeared at the nunnery when she was three and the only information the nuns could wrest from her was the name Camille. The name might not be her own. When Camille is confronted with the possibility of being adopted, she balks.

Camille stole a glance at her would-be guardians, and decided instantly, impulsively, finally. The woman suited her; but the man! It was doubtless intuition of the quick, vivacious sort which belonged to her blood that served her. Untutored in worldly knowledge, she could not divine the meaning of the pronounced leers and admiration of her physical charms which gleamed in the man’s face, but she knew it made her feel creepy, and stoutly refused to go.

Despite Camille’s youth, she seems to understand the power dynamic between herself and this man who leers at her. She understands her vulnerability to him if she agreed to the adoption. The whisperings of other girls living at the convent suggest that even the priest admires her beauty, “linger[ing] longer in his blessing when his hands pressed her silky black hair.” Confronted with these men who seem to lust after her, she begs the Mother Superior to allow her to enter the convent and become Sister Josepha, also seizing control of her sexuality.

She quickly becomes bored with the life of a nun, of the self-repression and submission, and a brief encounter with a sympathetic young man seems to augment her desires to leave the nunnery, causing her to make a feeble escape plan. But the night before her escape, she overhears two other nuns talking about her and she is reminded that she has

No name but Camille, that was true; no nationality, for she could never tell from whom or whence she came; no friends, and a beauty that not even an ungainly bonnet and shaven head could hide. In a flash she realised the deception of the life she would lead, and the cruel self-torture of wonder at her own identity. Already, as if in anticipation of the world’s questionings, she was asking herself, “Who am I? What am I?”

Without her habit, she feels as if she has no identity. As Sister Josepha she belongs to God and the convent, but as Camille she has no family or friends. She also recalls that her beauty is a vulnerability. Reminded of these things, she does not escape the following day at High Mass, rather she confesses, “j’ai beaucoup péché par pensées – c’est ma faute – c’est ma faute – c’est ma très grande faute.”

The situation of the main character potentially represents the limited options available to all women at the time this story was written. Camille may choose to make herself vulnerable to the sexual desires of men by leaving the convent or to remain in an equally sublimating environment. As a nun, at least she has an identity and degree of protection from lascivious men. Unfortunately, she blames herself for her vulnerability, as if she is at fault for her good looks and her orphaning. Her confession makes her sound like a rape victim who blames herself for “asking for it.”

from ‘The Great Tradition’ by F.R. Leavis

Leavis declares the great English novelists as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad at the beginning of this selection. By the end of the selection, he has amended the list to include D.H. Lawrence also. According to Leavis, these writers “not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but…they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life.” By defining the great English novelists, Leavis intends to define the great English tradition.

Throughout the selection, Leavis dismisses a panoply of significant British authors:

  • Henry Fielding: his subject matter and interests are too limited.
  • Samuel Richardson: his subject matter is also limited and his works demand too much of the reader’s time.
  • George Moore: he is too concerned with style. (And he wasn’t English, but the difference between British and English seems to have escaped Leavis.)
  • “The Trollopes” (Frances and Anthony, I assume): they could not understand and appreciate Austen.
  • James Joyce: his work lacks an organic form. (Also not English.)
  • Charlotte Brontë: “she couldn’t see why any value should be attached to Jane Austen.”
  • Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights seems like “a kind of sport” to Leavis and she only inspired a “minor tradition.”

In the selection I read, Leavis only discusses Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence’s merits that contribute to their inclusion.

  • Jane Austen: she is the rare kind of author whose work defines tradition retroactively. By reading Austen and discerning her influences, one can deduce the important novelists of the tradition who came before her.
  • George Eliot: she appreciated Austen. From Austen she borrowed a sense of irony related to morality. (I don’t quite understand Leavis’ point, probably because I haven’t read much Eliot, but anyway….)
  • D.H. Lawrence: he wrote novels that “demanded no unfamiliar effort of approach” and did not settle into one writing style once it gained success.

From what I can discern from this selection, Leavis believes that Austen is the center of the English tradition and appreciation and indebtedness to her work serves to include or to exclude novelists from the tradition. As one can see, three authors—Charlotte Brontë and the Trollopes—were dismissed due to lack of appreciation of Austen and Eliot seems to have been included because of her indebtedness to Austen.

Leavis is suggesting a deductive (oh, I hope I remembered the distinction between deductive and inductive so that I don’t look like an idiot) process of determining greatness—one approaches a text with a set of standards and the work’s adherence to those standards ascertains its greatness. The greatness is not found within the work.

Why this obsession with greatness? As I said, Leavis believes that defining great novelists will define tradition. But will a text’s lack of greatness make it any less a part of the English tradition? Even novelists that Leavis does not consider great—like Fielding, Richardson, and Fanny Burney—he admits influenced Austen. Thus, aren’t they part of the English tradition? Despite their lack of greatness, they helped mold the center of the English tradition, according to Leavis.

Can someone explain this sentence to me:

The writer [George Eliot] whose intellectual weight and moral earnestness strike some critics as her handicap certainly saw in Jane Austen something more than an ideal contemporary of Lytton Strachey.

Wuh? That sentence makes it sound like Strachey and Austen were contemporaries, but Strachey was born 63 years after Austen died. Eliot died the year that Strachey was born and I doubt that on her deathbed Eliot laid hands on Baby Lytton and proclaimed, “Ah! This boy will grow up to be a writer whom undergrad students will learn of when researching Virginia Woolf! This boy, he reminds me of Jane!” and then croaked. The footnote indicated at the end of that sentence talks about some guy named Peacock—the only Peacock I’m aware of is Thomas Love Peacock, but I would assume he would be classified as a Romantic and not a Victorian….I’m just bloody confused.

Mr. Leavis needed to learn something called parallelism. A critic of his distinction should not have lists of authors in his texts that look like this: “Trollope, Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Charles and Henry Kingsley, Marryat, Shorthouse.” For god’s sack, man, either first and last name, last name only, or title and last name! Don’t use all three options in the same damn sentence! I could make an exception if you had mentioned some of these authors previously by first and last name and on following references called them by only the last name. But you, Frankie, hadn’t mentioned the last-namers previously. And you call Jane Austen “Jane Austen” every damn time you mention her. You refer to George Eliot as “George Eliot” and T.S. Eliot as “Mr. Eliot,” and while I believe you intend the title to imply derision at T.S., good, old George, whom you actually admire, appears to be slighted. And please don’t just start talking about “Richardson” as if everyone should know about whom you are speaking before you mention Clarissa, okay? Some of us, especially those of us who have been reading a lot of women’s lit of late, might think, “Richardson? Dorothy Richardson?” which really isn’t that stupid of an assumption because she was British too. Yeah, yeah, yeah….you’re thinking, “I’m dead! Get over it!” Well, sucks to your assmar, Frankie!

Ahem. Anyway….