Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Geraldine Brooks

I just read a review by Cliff Reed of Geraldine Brooks' novel March in The Inquirer, which made me want to go and buy it. Having looked at her other books, I also bought Year of Wonders (which is about the plague year in Eyam in Derbyshire) and People of the Book (which is about a book restorer who restores and investigates the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah).

March is a novel about the father of the March girls in Little Women, and is based on the life of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's father. I like novels which throw a sidelight on other novels (Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea being another excellent example), so this should be an excellent read.
From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of the absent father, March, who has gone off to war leaving his wife and daughters. To evoke him, Brooks turned to the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, a friend and confidant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In Brooks’ telling, March emerges as an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union cause as he learns that his side, too, is capable of acts of barbarism and racism. As he recovers from a near mortal illness, he must reassemble his shattered mind and body, and find a way to reconnect with a wife and daughters who have no idea of the ordeals he has been through.
Year of Wonders should be of interest to British Unitarians, as the village of Eyam is only just up the road from Great Hucklow, the Unitarian conference and holiday centre. The story of Eyam is incredibly moving; I first heard of it at school when I was 10 or 11, and it made a big impression on me; but this summer was the first opportunity I had had to visit Eyam itself, and witness the scene of the amazing self-sacrifice of its people, who quarantined themselves to protect the rest of Derbyshire from the plague.

People of the Book is a fictionalised account of the remarkable preservation of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The real story of this book is amazing, too:
The history of the remarkable man, Dervis Korkut, who saved the book from the Nazi officers who sought it, was told in the December 3, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article, entitled "The Book of Exodus", also by Geraldine Brooks, sets out the equally remarkable story of the young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, whom Korkut and his wife hid from the Nazis as they were acting to save the Haggadah. In a twist of fate, as an elderly woman in Israel, Mira Papo secured the safety of Korkut's daughter from the Serbian genocide of the 1990s.
The pictures in the Sarajevo Haggadah depict scenes from the Torah, including Jacob's ladder, Joseph's dream of the wheat and the cattle, the offering of Isaac, Noah's Ark, and many more.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The real heroes of LGBT liberation

Over at Pink News, Peter Tatchell (a hero of mine) reminds us that Quentin Crisp had feet of clay. He did not support LGBT liberation in the 60s and 70s, and wanted to be "the only gay in the village"; he also made that stupid comment about AIDS. He had clearly internalised the homophobia of those around him.

On the other hand, a friend of a friend called him up when he was in New York, and Quentin Crisp invited him round for tea, and they spent about an hour chatting; I think my friend's friend found him charming.

Peter Tatchell continues:
The true icons and pioneers of the modern British gay community are heroes like Allan Horsfall and Antony Grey. They were the driving forces of the first gay rights organisations in Britain – the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee set up in 1964 and the Homosexual Law Reform Society, established earlier in 1958. These two men, who are still alive and have never received the public recognition they deserve, have done far more for gay dignity and advancement than Quentin Crisp.

Crisp is a pale shadow of US gay rights trailblazers like Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
So yes, let's celebrate the real heroes and heroines of LGBT liberation:

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810-1865
Novelist, daughter of William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, and for some time Keeper of the Treasury Records. She married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, at Manchester, and in 1848 published anonymously her first book, Mary Barton, in which the life and feelings of the manufacturing working classes are depicted with much power and sympathy. Other novels followed, Lizzie Leigh (1855), Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1865), Ruth (1853), Cranford (1851–3), North and South (1855), Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), etc. Her last work was Wives and Daughters (1865), which appeared in the Cornhill Magazine, and was left unfinished.

Mrs. Gaskell had some of the characteristics of Miss Austen, and if her style and delineation of character are less minutely perfect, they are, on the other hand, imbued with a deeper vein of feeling. She was the friend of Charlotte Brontë, to whom her sympathy brought much comfort, and whose Life she wrote. Of Cranford Lord Houghton wrote, “It is the finest piece of humoristic description that has been added to British literature since Charles Lamb.”

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]
Beatrix Potter, another Unitarian, was a family friend; and Frances Power Cobbe, the Unitarian feminist, was a personal friend.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Skirts for men

Guy in a Skirt playing a Saxophone
It seems bizarre that people are still hung up about seeing a man in a skirt. Women have been wearing trousers since 1850 (earlier in the case of female miners), so why has it taken so long for men's fashion to be rationalised in the same way? There was a brief bout of skirt-wearing in the nineties, but it seems to have subsided.

Men can wear sarongs on the beach, kilts and priestly garb (and there are plenty of pictures of Jesus in a dress), but people are still intolerant of men wearing actual skirts. Why? It's only a piece of cloth. It must be because the Western definition of masculinity is still so circumscribed by convention that people can't imagine a man being a man unless he's hairy and/or betrousered. There's still a strong taboo against men crying, for instance.

Men who wear skirts: I salute you from the bottom of my heart. You are pioneers as much as the early feminists in their bloomers.
We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

~ Walt Whitman
Here's some sites about men in skirts:


Bloomers (trousers for women) were invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller and pioneered by early feminists and advocates of rational dress. Amelia Jenks Bloomer (May 27, 1818 – December 30, 1894) was an American women's rights and temperance advocate. Even though she did not create the women's clothing reform style known as bloomers, her name became associated with it because of her early and strong advocacy. She was the the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily, which was a voice for many women reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It spoke on many issues such as dress reform and the need for enfranchisement for women.

The first woman to wear trousers (circa 1820) in America was arrested for indecency.

I very rarely wear a skirt and feel deeply uncomfortable in one, so I salute these pioneers of trouser-wearing.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


How lovely. Susie Orbach and Jeanette Winterson are an item. And they're in love. Winterson wrote in her blog:
I am in love. Unexpected. Glorious. Happy. A great dancer and an amazing cook. How lucky am I? And yes, she is very smart and totally together. And she loves me too. Wow.

And when I say unexpected, I mean that I wasn’t looking, and certainly not in that direction. As ever, the important things happen by chance, unplanned, unseen.
Jeanette Winterson is one of my favourite authors - Oranges are not the only fruit was a very important book for me when I was discovering my own inclinations (I'm bisexual), and I love her other stuff as well.

I never got around to reading Fat is a feminist issue (I preferred Shelley Bovey's The Forbidden Body) but I notice that Orbach is doing the 2010 Price lecture at the "birthplace of feminism" Newington Green and Islington Unitarians, the church attended by Mary Wollstonecraft.

There is some speculation that the press will be all sleazy about this - that would be terribly sad in this day and age, but sadly it does happen; people still have misconceptions about LGBT people, and we have not yet reached the stage where your gender and/or sexual orientation is irrelevant. On the other hand, the Evening Standard has a rather positive article about this and Mary Queen of Shops' relationship.

Anyway, I hope that Mss Orbach and Winterson will be very happy together. We here at The Bluestocking would like to raise a virtual glass of champagne to toast their continuing happiness.