Making Another Case: A Victim of Love (really long)
Posted by Karen R on October 31, 1997 at 13:11:23:
I think there are several other avenues to pursue for making the case that no lesbian relationship existed between Christabel and Blanche. A few of the clues provided by Kate bothered me and I needed some context for rationalization. This begs the question of why do I feel it is necessary to rationalize away the existence of something as obvious to the feminist scholars at Lincoln and Tallahasse as Christabel's big teeth, I think it has to do with the way I've been reading the book this time--from a symbolic viewpoint, rather than as a story. As a result, I'm bringing in what little I know or understand of the name poems; other literary references; bios of the poets; art and literary trends of the period; and the book of course!! Bear with me if this like Faulkner but punctuated punctuated :-))
Who Do You Believe?
There are three sources of information provided about the C-B relationship: (1) Blanche's journal, (2) the letters of Christabel and Ash and (3) our narrator, Byatt, when she provides us with events and people's thoughts that our hero and heroine will never know. (Actually, there is a fourth, which would be the poetry that Christabel wrote but, once again, its interpretation depends on how you interpret their life.)
For whom is a journal written? The writer of course and for posterity, to create an image, an image that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality. Such were the journals kept by Ellen Ash and Blanche Glover. They created scenes of domestic tranquility in their respective households, concentrating on the dull, boring details of jam-making, servants' pecadillos (sneaking food at night or getting pregnant), cleaning , etc. In Ellen's case, she did it to cover up what was missing in her life and to create an image for her husband. Blanche did it for very much the same reasons. She had nothing in her life--oh, she had art, but even she characterized it as "thin" or "unlit stained glass." The real artist was Christabel and she worshiped her. She is the same type of "helpmeet" as Ellen Ash. They ran the household, dealt with the mundane, and adored their masters in their silent ways. Notice that neither couple quarrels or wants to. Quarrelling would seem to imply that deep emotions, like love, exist between a couple.
Letters, on the other hand, are meant only for whom they are addressed. No one else. This is not junk mail. So, I would tend to believe them more. I looked for references in Blanche's journal and Christabel's letters to the existence of "conversation" or "intercourse." For the most part, life at Bethany Cottage is silent; the two of them absorbed in their solitary pursuits. Painting and poetry are both solitary pursuits. Blanche states that she lacks the courage to talk/speak, which I interpret as she loves Christabel, but her love is one-sided. What Christabel feels for her is something else, which I shall get to later. There is Blanche's description of the "Peeping Tom" event, that begins with "Where is our frankness of intercourse? Where the small, unspeakable things that we used to share in quiet harmony? So the word has been set down. Are they lovers? No. This is all in Blanche's mind. It's unspeakable or nonactionable. Blanche has always lacked the courage to act on this aspect of her love for Christabel. She breaks down, goes to her room to pray, cries and is comforted by Christabel. "We were quiet together, in our special way..." is not a description of lesbian love, but of the helpmeet being acknowledged or appreciated by the master. (Risking insensitivity, let's call it crumbs being thrown.) BTW, like Harmony, NM, Bethany Cottage is another example of Byatt's irony--based on my very limited understanding of anything New Testament.
Then, we have Byatt's narration of events and thoughts that are not set down on paper. Kate had brought up Ash's reaction to finding out that Christabel was a virgin. This surprised him, given her enthusiasm the night before. How could he rationalize this to himself? Why, of course, she had been involved in a relationship with Blanche and while "slightly repugnant," he found it "interesting." Yes, men find lesbian love interesting as substantiated by the number of porno video made to the subject. Ash led a celibate life. He judged women's reaction to sex by his wife, who wanted nothing to do with it. He probably believed that women had no basic sex drive. [I need to check my Freud on this one. I actually have a book called a "Primer on Freudian Psychology" from my college days. At the University of Illinois, Freud was only taught in the English Dept.) Her natural ability to love him physically had to have been the result of a lesbian relationship with Blanche--there was no other explanation. But that doesn't make it right.
The Browning Letters
Having skimmed through a bio of Robert Browning (RB), I find numerous similarities between his courtship of Elizabeth Barrett (EB) and the CLM-RHA affair. Byatt said that Christabel is not EBB but, in this aspect of her life, the parallels are too uncanny. Having never met EB, RB responds to a compliment on his work by sending her an amazing letter professing his love for her work as well as for her. She was a shut-in as a result of having TB for nearly 20 years. She was protected by her father, much in the same way as Blanche. They correspond for many months before he actually visits her.
Initially, she refused to see him ("refused then in my blind dislike to seeing strangers"). Then she tried postponing their meeting by warning him that he might be disappointed and even bored by her (are these the cucumber sandwiches, little green rounds, etc., that keep popping up???). His letters described meetings with famous people and described his workroom with its skulls, spiders, etc. She responded that "You are Paracelsus, and I am a recluse, with nerves that have been broken on the rack, and now hang loosely--quivering at a step and breath."
When RB finally visits her, the admiration turns into love. He declared his love and her response (in a letter to someone else was: "forget at once and for ever, having said at all....Now, if there should be one word of answer attempted to this; or of reference; I must not...I will not see you again....So then I showed him how he was throwing into the ashes his best affections--how the common gifts of youth and cheerfulness were behind me--how I had not the strength, even of heart, for the ordinary duties of life."
She is afraid of her father, he would not like anything to develop between RB and EB and is being kept in ignorance. One year later, she begins to warn RB of the "danger of suspicion entering one mind....we should be able to meet never again in this room...letters of yours, addressed to me here, would infallibly be stopped and destroyed--if not opened." Even just before their elopement, she wrote about her father: "Yet in that strange, stern nature, there is a capacity to love and I love him--and I shall suffer, in causing him to suffer." (Blanche, again??)
EB (a 40-year old woman) and RB marry secretly. She sneaks out of the house one morning and goes to St. Marylebone Church and is wed to RB. They part and she returns home to papa. A week later, they actually elope (even though they are already married) to the continent. EBB meets him and they take a train to Southampton. (At this point, it begins to foreshadow a little the Maud-Roland boat trip and/or Cropper's description of Ash's honeymoon trip with Ellen.)
As I look back on this section, I think I'm making my point the hard way. The parallels in the correspondence indicate for me that CLM was merely a recluse, a shut-in. CLM had a deep, passionate love for RHA that culminated in a healthy sex life with him. Blanche could represent her father, a protector. That was the extent of their relationship, unless you want to pursue an incestuous one!! Or Blanche could be one of the "whiteladies"--a Dame Blanche or Fate Bianche, representing death. EB lived with a deadly disease, tuberculosis. When CLM lived with Blanche she lived the life of a dying person. When RHA showed up, like RB, her life was renewed. Bethany Cottage, now could be the site of a mini-resurrection, because ultimately EBB does die.
Christabel, the Poem
Briefly, the story concerns the Lady Christabel, who while out one night in the woods praying for her absent lover meets another lady in distress. She identifies herself as Geraldine and tells the story of how she was abducted from her father's house and left in the woods. Christabel takes pity on her and takes her home to share her couch. Before going to bed, Geraldine kneels to pray and desires her friend to undress and lie down. She does, but being curious she looks at Geraldine and sees "something nasty in the woodshed." (ok, ok, Cold Comfort Farm was just on TV.) No, what she sees (i.e., the hideous side of Geraldine) is conveyed in two lines that Coleridge sometimes put in and at other times left out; they weren't for polite society. But Christabel is unable to tell anyone because Geraldine has cast a spell on her.
The next morning, Geraldine is introduced to Christabel's father, Sir Leoline, who finds out that Geraldine is the daughter of a good friend, Sir Roland de Vaux, with whom he has quarreled. Yadda, yadda yadda. His bard describes a dream where a dove, named Christabel, is struggling with a green serpent round its neck in the forest. Christabel begs her father to send Geraldine away, but she is prevented from explaining why by the original spell. Sir L, then behaves quite unexplainably. He mistakes his daughter for the serpent and takes Geraldine as the innocent and trembling dove.
My point? This poem was never finished, which leaves a great deal of its meaning open to debate, much in the same way as Blanche, who shortened her own life. No one managed to pry an explanation of the mystery out of Coleridge. Who really was this Geraldine? Some have supposed she is really the lover in another form, which makes the bedroom scene a little risque. Some critics have complained that the general story is dim, obscure and visionary; it was more like a dream than reality. "The reader is obliged to guess at the half-developed meaning of the mysterious incidents, and is at last, at the end of the second canto, left in the dark, in the most abrupt and unceremonious manner imaginable."
So, shall we ever know what kind of relationship existed between Christabel and Blanche if the poem sets the tone? Not really. At the point the poem ended, Geraldine embodied the power of evil and Christabel represents innocence betrayed. She brings Geraldine home out of charity and is pure and good. Hence, her name: Christ for good and Abel for the archetypal victim.
Have I made any sense??
Karen, who never learned to be succinct.
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