Not an Odalisque

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Book Review: Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah A. Chrisman

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How do you make a book about wearing a corset gripping? Because I was gripped at two am, turning each page to find out what happened to Sarah Chrisman, adventuring though Victorian attire. Her book blends titbits about corsets and their history into a narrative of what happens when you wear a one in everyday life, and both aspects are surprisingly interesting.

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Did you know that those skeletons they say had ribs deformed by corsets were actually bent out of shape by the preservation process? That they weren’t just for the wealthy—maids and labourers had corsets designed to support their work? That they were astoundingly cheap? Have you ever thought carefully about those claims that women had bones removed to make their corsets fit? Because it was the era before Florence Nightingale; a badly broken leg was usually a death sentence, they’d saw it off without anaesthetic and then you’d die of an infection. That corsets, in short, weren’t like you think they were?

While we’re learning about corsets of the past, we join Chrisman on a journey as she transforms from an ugly duckling to a swan during a year (and a bit) of tight lacing. She immediately learns to sit up straight and walk tall (corsets don’t allow slouching). She used to eat in restaurants known for their big portions (in America!) until her stomach hurt, but there’s no room in a corset for overeating, so her heartburn is cured and she begins to lose weight. As her wardrobe becomes more and more Victorian, she learns to walk elegantly in kitten heels, wash her hands regularly and not wipe her dirty fingers on her trousers.

It is a little drastic. I couldn’t help thinking that those lessons could have been mastered without steel or whalebone. To make up for it, though, she tells her tale with an enjoyable acerbic approach to, well, everyone except her husband. She isn’t going to let polyester and rayon at the Victorian fashion show go by without protest. It’s rather fun, being on the inside, reading all the things you don’t allow yourself the freedom to say, or think. Her reaction to “I crafted it from things at the thrift store,” is as scathing as the one I always wanted to give. Such fun!

Then one’s sympathies begin to shift. The tipping point for me is when Polly (I hope to God that isn’t her real name) turns up at a Victorian ball in a blue polyester ball gown. This monstrosity is so memorable as to be referred to chapters later, when she makes her next appearance, Polyester Polly. I begin to think: poor Polly. Polly has turned up at a social event with the outfit she can afford. How much should she be maligned for it? How many people should be lambasted for failing to live up to Chrisman’s standards of attire? How evil are her fellow massage class students who use too much oil, is her mother for questioning her choice to tight lace, is her mother in law for talking too much? She is so primed to take offense, she’s even sure that cardiologist in the coffee shop queue is looking at her funny.

Chrisman seems relentlessly negative about everyone around her. The following come under serious fire: people who drink coffee; people who have mobile phones; people who run cars; people who wear synthetic fabrics; modern medical practitioners; and most of all feminists.

Sarah began to seriously lose my sympathies exactly half way through the book. She travelled to a cheap custom corset maker, and despite her misgivings when she noticed a pair of handcuffs for sale, handed over much more money than she’d been quoted as a deposit for two corsets. Escaping, suitably fleeced, she writes the shop off with: “to me, corsets are about Victoriana, not sadomasochism. My idea of proper wrist accessories are jewelled bracelets, not handcuffs.” Because, yeah, it was the BDSM that went wrong in that transaction.

There’s a paradox at the heart of this book: the only person sufficiently motivated to write it must be a zealot, and a zealot cannot give the impartial view the book requires. Sarah Chrisman has all the enthusiasm of a convert. She believes in corsets enough to wear one night and day, to spend serious money on them and attend all the relevant conventions and high teas. Somewhere along her journey, she goes to a Victorian place where we can’t follow. Sure of the old fashioned method, she ignores medical intervention on her broken foot in favour of a concoction of camphor. She tells us women’s lib has gone too far and we should recognise our inherent differences (say, dontcha know that in oppressive societies women often have power in domestic settings?). She has any number of health tips, but I find it hard to take health advice from an era in which the main source of vitamin C was jam.

Precisely because the writer of this sort of book has to go to an extreme to do so, she also has to deal with everyone else’s reactions to her choices. Some of those are very positive, but that means that you have to read, again and again, of people telling her she looks lovely. By the last chapter I was ready to tear out the next page in which a stranger gives her a compliment. The negative responses are explored, too, and one gets the feeling that Chrisman is taking the opportunity to say to us everything she wished she’d said at the time. These are not reports of two way exchanges or opportunities for reflection, but opportunities to be indignant. The effect is a lack of balance that undermines Chrisman’s case. One side of the argument (hers) is well explored, and she often speaks of ‘educating’ people, but now I want to know more about the views she was arguing against, and until I do I shall take hers with a pinch of salt. Chrisman’s anti-feminism is tiring, but Polyester Polly’s omitted reasons for decrying the wearing of antique clothes would hold my interest.

Mixed in with all that, though, are some interesting nuggets. I rather liked her point that it’s underwear, not biology, that prevents women from peeing standing up. She makes many of the discoveries that I have about how Victorian clothing and practices are better suited to the world than modern things. Natural fibres are warmer, more breathable and stay cleaner. Ankle length skirts and petticoats are cosy and practical. Washing your hands gets them cleaner than sanitizing them. Kitten heels make for an elegant gait. She’s so enthusiastic about split crotch bloomers that I think I want a pair.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep some aspects of modern life. Central heating, say. And medicine. I’d love to go to one of Sarah Chrisman’s presentations of antique clothing. Just don’t put me next to her at a dinner party, she might find herself being ‘educated’ about feminism and the joy of handcuffs.

Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah Chrisman is available at Amazon. Chrisman’s website is here.

 

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Taming the Beast

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Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.

The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.

I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.

The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.

In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.

Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’

Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.

I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.

On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.

I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.

He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.

Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.

I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.

I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.

*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.

**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm

The Unstoppable Advance of Socks

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I was browsing in a bookshop in Belfast, once, when I noticed a blonde woman in an intimidating suit walking around the store with a shop assistant in tow. She went from display to display quizzing him about how the set up, and it became clear that she had come from head office to standardise the shop’s marketing. They worked their way around the tables near me:

“What’s this one?” she snapped.

“Comedy.”

“And this one?”

“New releases”

“And this?”

The man slouched, put his hands in his pockets and then mumbled, “Books I think my ex-girlfriend should’ve read.” The woman looked horrified.

http://www.recyclart.org/2010/12/book-christmas-tree/book-christmas-tree2/

I imagine that the assistant and I would share an approach to Christmas shopping. It isn’t so much a case of what you think people might like, as what they ought to have in their lives: The text that will influence their thinking, the novel set in a world you’re sure they would love to inhabit. If that’s difficult to determine, and you’re cohabiting, a book which will influence your own thinking is a viable alternative. Do consider the possibility of break-ups if it is a romantic relationship, though. There’s a lovely dictionary out there, and a hardback book of fairy tales, both of which I suspect are unused and neither of which I felt I could take when I left.*

Choosing becomes difficult with people whose tastes you don’t know, but in this circumstance something with wide appeal, or, more properly, something you think everyone should read, is a good choice. And the receipt. If they really wanted a book on building model aeroplanes the shop will probably give them one. The impossible challenge, I have discovered, is buying a gift for someone who doesn’t read. Not someone who can’t read, as in the case of the blind grandmother for whom I’ve purchased many audio books, but someone who has the ability to read and chooses not to. This is the case with my father’s girlfriend. I just don’t know what to do.

My father’s girlfriend is a lovely woman. She’s successful, tall (I approve strongly of tall women) and glamorous. She also used to read her science textbooks during English class. From this I can infer that she likes science text books, but I don’t think she needs any more of those. She doesn’t need much of anything, and I have yet to fathom what she wants.

Before the first Christmas I spent at her house, I rang my father and asked if he had any suggestions for what I could get her. A book, perhaps? No, he said, he had the perfect answer. He was buying her an amplifier and speakers. Why didn’t I purchase the wires to connect them? “No,” I tutted at his masculine ineptitude, “you can’t get someone wires for Christmas!” He had no further suggestions, so I chose and wrapped a bottle of perfume. On Christmas day I received a hi-fi from my father, and some prettily packaged wires from his girlfriend.

It’s been no better since. I’ve given her garishly coloured pashminas and she’s bestowed costume jewellery upon me. Last year I received a box of Wallace and Gromit themed bread mix (I put it in the cupboard with the twenty or so bread flours I already possessed) and Harvey Nichols fruit tea bags. I took her an architecturally unstable gingerbread house which was binned after a few days of dereliction, due to staleness.

What do you buy the woman who doesn’t read? There must be an answer. If you know it, save me, please, from giving the soulless gift of candles or bath bubbles. One of us has to change, or soon we’ll spiral down as far as socks. I can see them marching towards me, with a sense of impending doom.

*I’m not bitter, though, I think I make a net gain on books in most relationships. My last boyfriend packed a 1901 edition of ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ in with my things. Perhaps he was trying to make a statement, but I’m rather pleased.

Written by Not an Odalisque

December 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

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