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Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 12:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Following the “moral accounting” scheme of plotting, it should be obvious that the element introduced in Chapter 6 “The Diamond Mines” is setting Sara up for her fall. After all, what greater moral debt could one accrue than to fall into the opportunity for the fabulous wealth associated with investment in a diamond mine? And what better example of how wealth and privilege breed greater wealth and privilege than to contemplate just who would be in a position to have an old school friend casually offer them the opportunity for such an investment?

As the story notes, it isn’t even so much the business aspects of the investment as the sense of glittering enchantment that the phrase “diamond mines” conjures up. Sara plunges into expanding on this image in her story-telling for her friends…and here she has an uncharacteristic failure of empathy.

Sara is perfectly capable of recognizing and disapproving of how hard the school scullery maid is worked. But in her stories about “labyrinthine passages in the bowels of the earth, where sparkling stones studded the walls and roofs and ceilings, and strange, dark men dug them out with heavy picks”, it never seems to occur to her to consider that her anticipated wealth will come at the cost of the sweat and blood and often lives of those “strange dark men”. Although we seem to be led to believe that the diamond mines are in India (where Sara’s father is), it’s impossible not to visualize the origins of the De Beers diamond empire and its founder Cecil Rhodes.

I don’t know that Burnett intended us to factor in that associated moral debt. Probably not, since the question is never really even alluded to. (And eventually when the mines retrieve themselves and the wealth is realized, the exploitative nature of the industry is never touched on.) This (although with the issues of orientalism) is one of the foundations for me considering my love for this story “problematic”. Stories about how virtuous people are rewarded with fabulous wealth rarely acknowledge that most sudden wealth is created at a great cost to some set of unfortuante people behind the scenes.

At any rate, it is in the context of the school Mean Girls stirring up jealousy of this new development in Sara’s life that they turn the “princess pretend” into a weapon and start taunting her with it. And this section of the chapter brings in two major bits of foreshadowing: Sara’s fascination with the French Revolution (showing her immersed in a book about the freeing of the prisoners from the Bastille), and a demonstration of how Sara uses the “princess pretend” as a self-control mechanism. I love that Sara isn’t automatically good. She gets angry and feels spiteful. She has self-centered impulses (as when she resents having to come out of her book to soothe Lottie). She responds to Lavinia with sharp words. But she brings herself back to her center by reminding herself that she is a princess, and princesses don’t slap each other like “gutter children” and fly into rages.

Sara has an oddly idealized image of what it is to be a princess—something that particularly comes out in her historical hero-worship for Marie Antoinette—but that’s a discussion for a later point in the book. Suffice it to say that the “princess pretend” is not about actual royalty, but about an idealized image that Sara has associated with the role of princess. Princess as a job, rather than an inheritance.

Friday, April 22, 2016 - 08:00

Yeah, ok, lots of spoilers in this review because I WANT TO WARN EVERYONE NOT TO SEE THIS FUCKING MOVIE!!!!! This is the platonic ideal of the Tragic Lesbian Boarding School Story.

* * *

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

* * *

Lost and Delerious (2001) is basically Dead Poet’s Society with girls. Except with the Bury Your Gays trope more explicitly gay. There's also a strong Psycho Lesbian trope, in that a thwarted lesbian relationship drives one character to increasingly bizarre and violent behavior and suicide. Hey, I told you there would be massive spoilers. Don't blame me if you're still reading.

This movie belongs to the genre of hot-house boarding school stories, in which same-sex relationships bloom and are cut off well before their prime. Mary, the new girl at an upper-crust all-girls boarding school ends up rooming with two girls, Tori and Paulie, who are involved in a hot-and-heavy relationship. All three have problematic relationships with mothers: Paulie’s birth mother gave her up for adoption and she is currently trying to track her down and contact her. (When she eventually succeeds in locating her, the woman refuses to allow contact.) Mary’s mother died three years ago and she feels she’s being sent to school to make room for her stepmother. Tori’s mother is trying to make her over into her own image as a socialite. A running subplot involves two of the school's teachers who are widely rumored to be lovers.

While Mary figures out she’s ok with pretending not to notice the sex going on in the next bed over, the balance is upset when Tori’s sister barges in one morning when the lovers are still naked in bed together. Tori freaks out about the potential for being outed and throws Paulie under the bus, claiming she was the sexual agressor and that she (Tori) is perfectly straight. To support this, Tori takes on a program of public heterosexuality, sneaking out to date and have sex with a random boy, selected due to a chance meeting. When Mary chooses to be supportive of Paulie, she takes the risk of being labelled a lesbian herself.

There’s a subplot where Paulie finds an injured Harris Hawk and secretly rehabilitates it in the woods. (I will now forego discussing the logistics of bird of prey rehabilitation as the event is clearly meant to be Deeply Symbolic and practicality need not intervene.) Paulie is the hawk, a fierce wounded creature. She makes bold symbolic gestures, including a chivalric declaration of love in the library while wearing her fencing gear and carrying an epee.

But both the girls are terrified to name their sexuality. Relevant quote, “I’m not a lesbian! I’m just Paulie in love with Tori and Tori’s in love with me.” In a late night encounter, Tori confesses she’ll never love anyone but Paulie but that they can never be together.

Paulie has always played the role of Bad Girl, which initially masks her acting out of her emotional crisis. As in Dead Poet’s Society, poetry and Shakespeare and drama are the medium through which strong emotions are expressed within this shrine of classical learning. This framing drives Paulie to challenge Tori’s boyfriend to a literal duel on the night of the big school formal (at which all the parents are present) and to cut in when Tori is dancing with her father, threatening a confrontation where she declares her love. Tori, terrified, rejects her. Mary is having her own issues, as her father fails to show up for the dance and Paulie taunts her into confessing that she hates her father, using Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex me” speech, and then recruits Mary as her second for the duel.

They meet the boys in the woods with swords, and the duel ensues, but Paulie’s using an unblunted sword and actually stabs her rival in the leg. The scene cuts to Mary running across the field where all the students and teachers are gathered in a picnic to find Tori, and we see the hawk flying up, called to Paulie where she stands on the rooftop of the school. We see Paulie begin to fall, then see the hawk flying away, and we see all the girls staring up at the roof in horror. But Mary, our viewpoint protagonist, is ok, because now we get a voiceover about the lesson she learned from the hawk and how now she’ll always remember her dead mother’s face.

This version of Lesbian Tragedy (the plot that Emma Donoghue classifies as “Rivals”) always marks out the butch character for death while allowing the femme character to recant and be redeemed. At the beginning of the movie, I don’t recall there being an obvious butch/femme distinction between the Paulie and Tori. But as the emotional crisis progresses, Paulie’s presentation becomes more and more masculinized, culminating in her wearing a suit at the school dance, envisioning herself as Tori’s knight, and more explicitly with the “Unsex me” speech. Tori drags herself by force into a normative female role by her pursuit of a heterosexual sexual experience. So rather than their gender perfomances locking them into the fates of their respective roles, once those fates were set in motion, the gendered roles claimed and assimilated them.

Given the context of the inspiration for this review series, this is definitely a Do Not Recommend. We hit all the bullet-points: Tori recanted, Paulie came out and died, everyone is unhappy. This is the sort of movie that could convince an entire generation of young lesbians that they are doomed. The fact that movies like this are still being made in the 21st century is a crime.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 13:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

The scene when Sara returns to her opulent suite of rooms after dance practice, wearing her diaphanous pink gown, and finds Becky asleep in her easy chair before the fire, is a jewel of characterization. At various points Burnett insists that Becky isn't skilled at "imagining" and needs Sara to guide her through the process, but it seems to me that when Becky sits down in that chair and contemplates what it would be like to live that life and be that person, she's doing every bit as much imagining as Sara's fanciful tales. We see Becky's hunger to be taken into another life and her willingness to accept Sara's offer of friendship as genuine. But we also see her reflexive cringing terror at "forgetting her place", allowing her guard to slip, and "taking liberties" that could get her thrown onto the street.

I could wish that we were shown a little more of Becky's interior life in this context. There's always a veil between the outward performance of cringing servility and the desperate, constant calculation that you know must be going on behind it. It would be easy to get the impression that Becky's behavior is an ingrained characteristic rather than a survival tactic. We see a lot of careful code-switching in her interactions, as in how she interacts differently with Sara and Ermingarde much later in the banquet-in-the-attic scene. But the author doesn't seen to acknowledge this as the result of analysis and calculation, the way she does Sara's struggles with questions of behavior later in the book. Of course, this is Sara's story, which accounts for some of the difference.

The main thing we see in Sara in this chapter is a very practical empathy and the negotiation of the gulf between them. She understands Becky's plight, knows why she's frightened and addresses those causes in trying to calm her, and recognizes Becky's incomprehension of some of her more philosophical thoughts. But most of all, in making offers of friendship, she targets the things that Becky herself would find valuable: food and stories. ("Bread and roses" if you will.) Even before she makes the offer of private storytelling sessions, she offers her a piece of cake. And the later storytelling is accompanied by shared food as well--practical food as well as luxuries. This is one of the characteristics that makes Sara most sympathetic to me: that she has the empathy to figure out what other people need, rather than simply focusing on what she has to give.

It is the interaction with Becky--and the recognition of how enjoyable it is to give people things they need--that sparks Sara's "pretend" about being a princess. And in the next entry, I'm going to examine the oddly idealized concept of royalty that drives and sustains her through the rest of the book.

Monday, April 18, 2016 - 07:00


I've been on something of a book-buying and library spree lately for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project--not that I didn't already have plenty of material on my own shelves to last for another couple of years already! But it's always nice to have choice, and after covering a whole string of entire books, I wanted to fit in some shorter articles. By the time I finished with Castle's book last week, I'd actually expected to have the new front-end for the LHMP (and my blog as a whole) up and running, but the combination of an intensive project at work (for the last five weeks) and the push to get Mother of Souls out to the beta-readers meant that I've fallen down on my end of the necessary work. (My web masters are being very patient.) So I'll keep teasing you with the knowledge that Something New is coming Real Soon Now.

Mother of Souls
Full citation: 

Jay, Karla & Joanne Glasgow (eds). 1990. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-4177

Publication summary: 


This is a collection of literary studies relating to the theme of lesbianism, whether of the author or content, and specifically within the framework of lesbian/feminism. There are 22 papers in all, however I’ll be holding strictly to my pre-1900 scope. Literary critism is already marginal to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, except to the extent that the articles highlight literary works that themselves are of interest.

Friday, April 15, 2016 - 08:00

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

* * *

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a BBC costume drama (with all the production values and gorgeous location work that usually entails) based on the diaries of a wealthy early 19th century Yorkshire woman who--at least in the privacy of her diaries and her bedroom--was an open and self-aware lesbian. This movie necessarily condenses the details of her life down to a manageable hour and a half. In doing so it retains the major themes of her experience, but strips out the agonizing and tedious years of confusion, depression, and uncertainty that are laid out in the diaries themselves.

The movie opens on an idyllic picnic on the moors, where Anne frolics with her two closest friends: Marianne, with whom she is deeply and passionately in love, and Tib, who is more in the way of a fuck-buddy. Anne’s fantasies of eventually sharing her home with Marianne (currently made awkward by the fact that she shares the ancestral manor with her unmarried sibling aunt and uncle) begin to crack that evening when Marianne’s engagement to a rich older man is announced.

We see the slow, agonizing fracturing of their relationship as Anne clings to the hope of eventually realizing her dreams with a widowed Marianne, while Marianne tries to eat her cake and have it too, misleading Anne about the steadfastness of her feelings. But braided among this are Anne’s continued sexual relationship with Tib, Anne’s flirtation with an innocent and bewildered young woman she meets at church, and Anne’s personal and professional conflicts with another local landowner over developing coalmines on their properties, which leads him to begin slandering her over her sexuality. (Well, ok, I guess it’s not actually slander because the core of what he says is true.)

Around about the time that the final fracture with Marianne occurs, Anne has befriended another neighbor (Ann Walker), an unmarried young woman who recently inherited her own family estate and who shares her interest in developing their coal resources. This professional friendship develops into romance when the other woman is confronted with accusations of how her friendship with Anne Lister is being interpreted and decides to make the rumors into reality. The movie closes with a “what happened to them all” summary, noting that Marianne’s husband outlived Anne Lister, who died of a fever while on holiday with her new love in the Caucasus mountains.

So how does this measure up on the four key questions? When you’re dealing with a biopic that deliberately follow people to note how and when they died, I don’t think that counts as a movie-death. So no death, certainly not as “punishment” for being queer. Marianne recants, but she’s the only one who does. Anne spends a fair amount of the movie unhappy but ends up happy, which I think is what counts. Of the various woman-loving-women in the film, Ann Walker is the only one we see having a coming-out experience, and it isn’t a major focus of the plot. So all in all, I’d say this movie comes up a plus on all four categories.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 07:45

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Chapter 5 introduces Becky, the scullery maid. I think it’s a virtue of Burnett’s writing that she is able to portray Sara as being less essentialist about Becky’s nature and character than Burnett herself seems to be. While the narrative descriptions of Becky regularly focus on her timid and fearful personality (well, duh! when she could be dismissed from her position on a whim) and portray her as worshipping Sara as a near-goddess, not merely a princess, in Sara’s interactions with Becky, she treats her as nearly as an equal as their respective positions allow. And Sara’s kindness and charity to Becky are usually sensitive to what Becky herself wants and needs, not simply what will make Sara feel good. Still, there are a lot of wince-worthy moments around Becky.

The chapter begins by returning to Sara’s love of storytelling and how it was one of the behaviors that gave her social status among the other students. She not only makes up stories but acts them out in the telling, drawing the listeners into her imaginative fantasy worlds of fairies, mermaids, kings, and queens.

And then, in the midst of this, we switch to Sara’s observation of a new servant at the school, seen from a distance as Sara is getting out of her carriage “wrapped in velvets and furs”. Becky is working around the area steps (the lower front entrance to a townhouse, used by servants) and staring at her as if she were a vision from another world--which, in fact, Sara might as well be.

The first of the cringe-worthy moments comes in the first description of Becky as “a dingy little figure”, but more to the point, in that first descriptive paragraph, Becky (whose name we don’t know yet) is referred to as “it” three times. Now, this isn’t a matter of gender uncertainty--clothing is highly gendered in this era and even if Becky’s face were obscured it would have been instantly obvious that she was female. There seems no useful reason for this “it”-ing, especially given that the narrative switches to female pronouns in the next paragraph. If I were looking for deep meaning, I’d suggest that the change in pronouns represents the near-instant process of Sara recognizing Becky as a unique and individual human being, but if so, it still feels like a slap in the face to do that by means of literal objectifying at first.

Becky’s initial reticence is played as humorous in the narration, by virtue of noting that Sara does not laugh at the way she pops out of side like a jack-in-the-box, because she feels pity instead. And this is only the beginning of the divergence between Sara’s attitude and the narrative position. Later that day, while Sara is telling a story to a group of other girls, Becky comes in to tend to the fire and becomes so enraptured by listening to the story that she stops working to listen. Sara, noticing this, projects her voice more clearly to make sure that Becky can hear the story too and, when Lavinia (who, as usual, represents the archetypal Mean Girl) also notices and scolds Becky out of the room, Sara defends her right to listen.

Mariette, Sara’s French maid, fills her in on the details of Becky’s life, including her name, and communicates that she considers Becky to be unusually put-upon and burdened with all the hardest work of the school. (I rather suspect the nature of Becky’s position wasn’t at all unusual.) And after this, Sara makes a point of noticing and observing Becky around the school and turns her into a character in a story (presumably one she doesn’t share with the other girls) in which Becky is an “ill-used heroine”, presaging the role they both will share later in the book.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 12:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

As chapter 4 is titled “Lottie”, we naturally expect that we will be introduced to this character, previously described as “the baby of the school” at age four. I have to confess that Lottie is one of my least favorite characters. While it might be forgiven that at this tender age (and given her described upbringing) she manages the world about her with temper tantrums and emotional meltdowns. It is harder to forgive that, at the end of the book at age nine (two years older than Sara was when she arrived at the school), and after five years of Sara’s allegedly improving influence, Lottie is essentially unchanged in behavior and personality.

This is an issue I have with most of the secondary characters – that they show extremely little change and development as characters, but are rather fixed “types” who provide the backdrop for Sara’s journey. Lottie is, perhaps, only the most extreme. She exists in order for Sara to be seen to be “motherly” and to demonstrate Sara’s gift for empathy and storytelling. It’s interesting that in the first chapter it is said that Sara “did not care very much for other little girls”, although this may simply be another inconsistency between the early material and the rest of the book, like the claim that she didn’t like other people to listen to her telling stories. But in another sense, as I noted in a previous entry, Lottie is one of several examples of how Sara’s closest relationships are all unequal.

Ermengarde is Sara’s intellectual inferior, Lottie her emotional inferior, Becky her social inferior. Sara doesn’t have any close relationships with true peers. (I’ve spun out some personal speculations about how she might end up interacting with the older Carmichael girls after the end of the book.)

At any rate, we are introduced to Lottie (aside from a few mentions of her in passing) when she’s having a complete screaming meltdown over being asked to wash her hands for lunch. The two Minchin sisters are at wits’ end trying to quiet her, alternately with bribes and threats. Sara, having had a few friendly interactions with the girl previously, offers to try to calm her down and they leave her to it. Sara’s technique begins with simply being quietly present and letting the tantrum wear itself out a little. Then when Lottie starts up again with her most potent weapon, “I haven’t any Mama”, Sara points out that she doesn’t have a Mama either, then begins spinning stories about what their mothers are doing together up in heaven. Their bond is confirmed when Sara offers to be Lottie’s pretend mother at the school, cementing Lottie’s status as her adoring fan. It’s a relationship that will involve constant tending and nurturing, and which provides very little return to Sara. Later, after Sara’s fall, it continues to be the case that her interactions with Lottie are about Lottie’s emotional and scholastic needs, not about Lottie being thoughtful and supportive of Sara.

Given that, it’s hard (at least for me) not to see Lottie as primarily a device by which Sara earns moral credit.

I should note that it isn’t that I find Lottie’s personality unbelievable. Even without losing one’s mother at a very early age, and being dumped at boarding school by a family who provided no functional emotional support, it’s possible for a child to have difficulties with emotional balance and with finding productive ways of communicating emotional needs. Just as my private theory is that Ermengarde has an unrecognized learning disability and uses comfort-eating to address the disapproval she gets because of it, my theory about Lottie is that she may have some sort of autism-spectrum sensory overload/emotional processing issue. But that doesn’t mean I have to like her as a character.

In fact, it's interesting how Burnett makes the characters so three-dimensionally real that I, as a reader, find it easy to dissociate myself from Burnett's apparent attitude toward the characters and my own reception of them. This is even stronger with regard to the titular character of the next chapter, Becky, who I like a great deal more than Burnett seems to want me to.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 08:45

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Chapter 4 is entitled "Lottie", telling us which of Sara's satellites we'll be introduced to this time. But the initial part of the chapter concerns itself with setting up Sara's common sense, self-awareness, and charity in several senses.

This is initially explained by the omniscient narrator, who points out that the favoritism and flattery that Sara received at the school would be more than enough to turn an ordinary girl into a spoiled brat. Miss Minchin is once again emphasized as two-faced: secretly disliking Sara but publicly going rather over the top to indulge and pamper her, in the belief that this would cement Sara's enjoyment of her school experience.

Sara, we are shown (in a conversation with Ermengarde), is instead quite aware of both her privilege and her luck. "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. … Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all…and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials." But she is secure enough in her position that she's friendly to everyone, generous to beggars that she meets on the street, and even willing to suggest that Mean Girl Lavinia acts horrid only due to growing pains. And as the most salient sign of her generosity and charity, Sara is willing to attempt to befriend "the baby of the school", Lottie Lay. But that we will cover in the next entry.

At the moment, I want to indulge in a critique of literary style. (Because this is a critical re-read, after all.) The thing that peeves me the most about Burnett's prose in this book is her tendency to use formulaic strings of adjectives. In particular, the word "little" is vastly over-used and could probably be eliminated 90% of the time. The strings of adjectives themselves stand out as being just over the edge of what is needed: A clever little brain, a friendly little soul, a motherly young person -- all those from the present chapter. But earlier strings that irritate me every time I encounter them include: "a queer old-fashioned thoughfulness" (in fact, one could do an entire analysis of the use of the words "queer" and "old-fashioned" in this work), "her handsome, rich, petting father", "a rash, innocent young man", "a queer, polite little voice", "a funny, old-fashioned child" (I mean, what the heck does that even mean?), "a very nice, intelligent, middle-aged Frenchman". Looking at them like that, I'm not even sure why the constructions irritate me so much.

In any event, the exploration of Sara's character is then framed by contrasting her with Lavinia, via a conversation between Lavinia and her BFF Jessie. Lavinia, it is explained to us, had been the de facto leader of the students prior to Sara's arrival, evidently due to equal parts seniority, a spiteful domineering personality, and heretofore being the best-dressed "show pupil" given special privileges. Sara undermines her position without meaning to by virtue of being richer and smarter than Lavinia, but more consciously by Being Nice. Not nicey-nice, for she isn't above speaking sharply to Lavinia in defense of other students, but genuinely kind and generous.

This is the primary theme of these early parts of the book: in those areas where Sara has agency, she uses that agency to make the world a better, happier place for those around her, as best she can. And the lengths she's willing to go to do so are detailed in her encounter with Lottie, to be covered in the next segment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 07:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

That last section of the chapter introducting Ermengarde goes much deeper into Sara’s imaginative storytelling. But it tosses in one of those odd inconsistencies that the story occasionally trips over.

Sara invites her new friend up to her suite of rooms to meet her new doll and Ermengarde asks about how it happens that she has not just her own room, but a playroom all to herself. We can guess that this surplus of space was originally intended to be simply another sign of the ostentatious luxury that marked Sara’s position. But now there seems to be a need to justify the rooms logically, for some reason. So Sara explains that her father arranged it, “because when I play I make up stories and tell them to myself, and I don’t like people to hear me. It spoils it if I think people listen.” 

The story plunges straight on into a “pretend” about the doll, Emily being alive and trying to “catch her” moving about the room. Ermengarde is distracted and enthralled by the stories about animate dolls, but we can spend a moment contemplating this very odd claim. Because two chapters later (ch 5) we are told quite explicitly, “Sara not only could tell stories, but she adored telling them.” It makes me wonder whether this isn’t some sort of continuity error that came up when the original story was expanded to novel length. I don’t see any point in trying to integrate the version here in chapter 3. This is scarcely the most awkward of the logical errors we're asked to accept.

The chapter concludes with Sara experiencing a moment of intense homesickness for her father, and explaining how pretending helps her get through her sorrows. The contrast is made with how Ermengarde thinks of her daunting father. I suspect this is part of the regular reminders of how much Sara has to lose, compared with other girls. Ermengarde might possibly be relieved to be orphaned, but the intensity of Sara’s relationship with her father reinforces the fact that he is not just her only relation, but he is her whole world.

Then Ermengarde takes the daring step of asking if they could be best friends, to which Sara agrees with the somewhat odd response that “It makes you thankful when you are liked.” But from then on, Ermengarde is cemented as first among her followers, and Sara is established in a tutoring relationship to her.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 07:15

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

The next several chapters each introduce a girl who will have a key role in Sara’s experience. Each of them is subordinate to her in some fashion: Ermengarde intellectually, Lottie emotionally, and Becky socially. And in these introductory chapters one of the functions they fulfill is to show Sara being kind and supportive to others on their own terms according to their own needs and interests.

Ermengarde, unfortunately, is brought in with an unpleasant whiff of fat-phobia. Now, Burnett never quite says outright that Ermengarde is stupid because she is fat, but there’s a constant re-emphasis of her physical appearance, and regular comments from other students that restrict Ermengarde’s possible roles on the basis of her body. (Much later in the book, this attitude is summed up in Ermengarde’s repetition of the others’ judgement, “I can’t be a princess, I’m too fat.”) And while the narrative clearly takes the position that being a good person is more important than being thin and beautiful, it never really contradicts the judgement that her body is the determiner of all her other characteristics.

In my head-canon, there’s a somewhat different story going on. Ermengarde clearly needs a learning method other than what Miss Minchin’s school (and the society of the story in general) uses. She may have an actual learning disability or she may simply have different brain wiring. She comes from an intellectual family, with a father “who knows everything, who speaks seven or eight languages, and has thousands of volumes which he has apparently learned by heart”. Ermengarde has difficulties with rote memorization (though she does better when facts are contextualized in an interesting way). Her father is severely disappointed that Ermengarde doesn’t follow in his footsteps and various comments along the way indicate that she’s been told that she is stupid, dull, and a disappointment since long before she came to school. Miss Minchin was then primed to view her in the same way, and Ermengarde’s learning experience has been an exercise in being forced to repeat the same failure modes over and over as a public humiliation. Given all of that, it would be no surprise to me if her weight were a consequence of the emotional abuse. Comfort-eating has a strong attraction. (And evidently her aunts who sent her care packages at school are firm believers in "food is love".)

Sara’s first impulse is non-judgmental sympathy. She approaches Ermengarde specfically because the other girl is unhappy and looks lonely. Her first interaction is to draw Ermengarde into her imaginative world, commenting that her name “sounds like a story book.” And when Ermengarde expresses admiration for Sara’s facility with language and labels her “clever”, Sara discounts those things as moral virtues or personal achievements and returns to sharing stories. The rest of chapter 3 (which I’ll return to next week) explores that imaginative process a bit more.


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