Thursday, April 25, 2013

Literature wormholes and serendipity

This morning I snatched a little parcel of time to do some reading. I was reading this book.

I've recently become a bit of a fan of Lucy Worsley. I love the domestic details of history and she blogs about dresses and coats too (she also gives rather wonderful interviews about being 'childless,' which is an interesting quirk in feminist and social discourse at the moment, I think).

I was reading about Tudor beds and how they were sprung and how, as a result, people were sort of sitting up in bed. She reflected that the portraits of people sitting up in bed may have had less to do with the symbolism of their status and rather more to do with the give in the ropes. Just a minute, I thought, I remember that. A few years ago, I read an article about that. I can't find the original article (here's where she does write about it, though), but I remember it, because I was mulling over the subject matter of the book I'm working on and when I read about her discovery, it clicked my own ideas into place. There really was worth in thinking about how the practical day to day lives of people throughout history shape fairy tales.

Of course, I'd totally forgotten who had made this observation and I was travelling, so I didn't keep a copy of the article, but I've just now, by chance, rediscovered the author who helped me realise I was on to something.

It's serendipity sometimes. Just the other day, I was reading a post on The Thesis Whisperer about wormhole literature. The idea is that you can read and read and read and think you know everything about your particular field of scholarship. And then you find the one paper or article that opens up an entire universe of literature that you knew nothing about, but is exactly what you need. The fantastic Stargate analogies in the post aside, this is how it is. You can read and read and read, but it just takes one article, book, paper or even quote and you find 'your' universe: the universe of scholars who are thinking what you're thinking, who will provide support to your arguments, consolation when others disagree with you. It's a scary idea. What if you miss that one article, book, paper or quote? It's not inconceivable and the terrifying thing is - it does happen. Sometimes we never know. Sometimes the article/book/paper/quote does eventually find us, leaving us red-faced and a little excited all the same. However, scholarship is often about serendipity.

It's informed much of my career. I look back and I realise...

When I was nine or ten, I read These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. I've mentioned it before. It was the book that made me realise people can write stories about sinister dukes, girls with secret pasts, carriage chases and so forth. It's probably why I find so much 'serious literature' seriously disappointing.

In retrospect, it also echoes the French fairy tales of d'Aulnoy and her peers. There are detailed descriptions of the court and the lively salon culture, fashion is important and adventures include cross-dressing and being switched at birth.

When I was doing my Honours, I wrote a small essay about "Beauty and the Beast" after discovering Marina Warner quite by accident.

I thought if academics could really write books like that, I'd like to be an academic. And so I am. And so I'm working on my book. I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn't happened across From the Beast to the Blonde?

There's nothing we can really do to avoiding missing the significant (to us) article/book/paper/quote. We can't read all the things. We can't always be alert to what is important. But I do think we can listen for that little bell when we do read something and think 'Hmmmm?' Bottom line, it isn't always the reading we systematically do that is important. Serendipity has a big role to play.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Afternoon in Fairy Land

We have a poster! This is a free event we've put together and anyone is welcome (although if you can rsvp, that will help us out). There'll be great performances and papers... at least, I hope great papers, since I'm contributing one! I'll be talking about what Mother Goose wore.

1pm, Monday 6th of May 2013
ISB Meeting Room 2
Sir Louis Matheson Library (Building 67)
Monash University Clayton Campus

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Doctor Who, fairy tales, children's literature and strong female characters

Yes, I couldn't think of a pithier title.

I'm a Doctor Who fan. The third doctor was my first favourite. He wore velvet with panache, had a yellow vintage car, and fought ferocious plastic dinosaurs. I also recently discovered he had a shower scene that I had somehow missed. But I digress.

I'm also a Steven Moffat fan - ever since I watched the goings-on of Spike and Lynda (Press Gang).

It's been interesting watching the fan commentary on his seasons of Doctor Who. Steven Moffat is at his best, I think, when he's writing fairy tales and when he's writing for kids. He often combines the two. I sometimes smile at the outrage of fans who complain the plots are complicated and don't make logical sense. Diana Wynne Jones once remarked that children can follow much more complicated plots than adults (see Reflections), because they pay attention to the clues. Likewise, fairy tale logic isn't the same as usual narrative logic. It's fairy tale. Weird stuff happens. There are great leaps in logic. The logic is often in emotion and not always the emotional journey of the characters, but of the audience. Fairy tales are all about playing to an audience. Although, it should be noted that it would be very rare indeed for every member of an audience to love the same fairy tale.

I loved last week's episode, The Rings of Akhaten. I'm not a little obsessed with Clara's red satchel. Also, it was a wonderful fairy tale/children's story. Why? Because it was all about storytelling and the power and importance of storytelling. That's one of the secrets of fairy tale and children's stories. They're as much about the storytelling as about the story itself. In The Rings of Akhaten, all sorts of stories were being told. Clara told stories about being scared and lost, about her parents meeting, about the loss she felt when her mother died. Merry sang stories and learned stories. Worlds relied upon her knowledge of stories and her ability to tell them. The Old God could only be convinced to sleep by being told stories - a nicely weird twist on the idea of bedtime stories.

Stories are important in Moffat's Doctor Who, even more so than in Russell T. Davies', although the Ood sang the story of the Doctor Donna forevermore.

The Doctor immediately loves Amelia Pond, "like a name in a fairy tale." Small wonder that Amelia Williams, after writing about travel, becomes the author of children's books. Her book, Summer Falls, appears in The Bells of St John, when Clara says Chapter "Eleven is the best. You’ll cry your eyes out." (You can also buy Summer Falls - I have it downloading now.)(Also, remember when the Doctor told Martha before the release of the final Harry Potter "Wait till you read book 7. Oh, I cried"?)

River Song has been writing books too, not to mention a diary filled with delicious spoilers.

And now Clara is carrying around her book, 101 Places to See, in her red satchel.

Moffat's heroines are very literary (see Lynda, editor of the school paper in Press Gang).

I have recently been a little intrigued, though, by some commentary complaining that all Moffat's heroines are 'strong.'

That's a bad thing?

Can you have too many strong women?

Why would we worry about too many strong women?

Moffat's stories do feature a number of plucky young girls. Doctor Who is, after all, at core a children's show and having child protagonists is logical. It's actually nice to see so many girls in main roles in the various episodes. And you'd have to be quite plucky to go on those adventures.

Moffat's stories also feature a number of young feisty women. Again, you'd have to be quite feisty to keep up with the Doctor and tell him off when he needs to be. It's sort of a requirement of being a companion - unless you're just going to scream a lot and whine and, really, why would he want you about if that were the case?

Yet, I can't help but wonder at how we mark out strong, feisty or plucky female characters in the way we don't mark out strong male characters.* Strong male characters are a default. We don't often wonder about the number of them or whether writers have the ability to write diverse strong male characters.

Because... not all feisty, strong, plucky women are the same. Perhaps once one gets over the shock of another strong female character, it can be seen that Amy, River, Clara and the others are all quite different and do have other qualities that make them interesting. (Yes, that was a little snarky.)

Recently I've been musing about how female fairy tale characters are rewritten as 'feisty' and how this seems to be a response to a perception that the default for female characters is 'passive.' Perhaps once we rewrite the default for female characters, we can start to better enjoy the spectrum of strong female characters?

*Although, there is a good line in strong mothers and strong elderly ladies if the Duchess of Grantham is anyone to go by.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

CFP for our next salon

We're holding another fairy tale salon on May 6. Our first salon took place last year and was a great success. This year's salon is held in tandem with the Rare Books' exhibition "In Fairy Land."

We're looking for academic papers and storytelling and performances, so if you'd be interested in participating, please let us know!


The Rare Books Collection at Monash University is currently holding an exhibition entitled In Fairy
Land: An Exhibition of Fairy Tale Books. In honour of this exhibition the literary group, Fairy Tale
Salon, at Monash University will be hosting an enchanted daytime event.

The day is open to readings, performances and discussions about all things fairy tale. This event is open to anyone who has an interest in fairy tales and will take place in the Sir Louis Matheson Library at Monash University Clayton on the 6th of May 2013.

We are looking for interested participants who would like to present original work and/or papers on the fairy tale genre. Areas of interest are:

Scholarly analysis of fairy tale (incl. literary studies, translation studies, film & TV, drama
studies, gender studies)
Live performance of fairy tale (incl. new & established fairy tales)
Fairy tale readings (incl. new & established fairy tales)

Please send a 100-200 word summary or abstract to by the 12th of April 2013.