Remember that part in our dynamic where I torture you weekly with inane book reviews and you understand, albeit patronisingly and let the inaneness pass? Sort of like the Flu or the Clap for LadyBrains? It’s that time of the week again.
As you know, I’m a big fan of fissured spaces, the idea that a niche can be carved out in a place which is virtually airless makes me more happy than book sales. Or those tiny little owls. Which is probably why I find quite a few VictorianVulvas deeply fascinating, for what better age to discuss Repression Of The Female Variety? And then add the idea that within these repressed collective psyches, a few Ladies dug up pens — or fancyarse feathered quills — and wrote ambiguously about themselves and their lives. Or perhaps it’s the side-effect of my love affair with Colonial texts that started when I was 11. Or somehow I can’t stop looking for clues of my country’s colonisation in these texts. Whatever the reason may be (pick one according to your mood! And watch it change colour too!), I’m ShameLess when it comes to my adoration of these LadyVulvas.
So when I read Eliot’s Mill On The Floss again, I was surprised to see so many broken, occupied spaces; mainly because this book was never about spaces but mainly about little girls with a serious case of tumbling down memory lanes to my silly LadyBrain. To top that off, I’m somehow supposed to hate anything that comes from the Queen’s Land, because extremely thought-provoking counter-arguments like “DON’T YOU REMEMBER HOW BRUTALLY THEY COLONISED US? HOW DARE YOU FORGET THEY MADE US LEARN SUCKY ENGLISH?” are quite commonplace out here. Even the ever entertaining, “They introduced panties and now we can’t seem to go back” accusation doesn’t repulse me enough to fling the book across the wall or get struck all over with CountryLove; whichever is supposed to come first. In fact, year after year, I can’t help but falling in love with these ladies even more. Perhaps the ultimate sense of betrayal comes when even after I read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Homi Bhaba’s postcolonial analysis of the texts, where they pit the woman protagonist against the radicalised and nativised ‘other’, where they strengthened the sense of the Self by Objectifying the Third World Woman; I can’t seem to stop swooning over these books. And this week I discovered, it’s more a confused-fascinated-mesmerised daze that pulls me to the novel each year. This confusion stems from failing to slot the protagonist, Maggie as a Native or The Coloniser; in a rootedly Victorian novel, in a time when colonisation was a household hobby. You can see People of the Olde Interwebes the number of tangled webs this novel makes in this LadyBrain, right?
Now don’t think I’m excusing colonisation or redeeming the Coloniser — I’d happily eat my own face before I do such a thing — but it fascinates me to no end that it’s within these words I see moments of doubt, chaos and guilt over possessing and defining people and even space. To such a point that Maggie so emphatically fails in reclaiming her position and literal space, let alone colonise it that she is dubbed as ‘Crazy Kate’ and later more painfully, “That dark-eyed girl there, in the corner”. Even in Jane Eyre, Jane is the center as well as the fringe of the narrative, ‘slipping in and out of consciousnesses and rooms’; she possesses control and then slips, repeatedly. For Maggie, continuously losing in the tug-of-war to become the possessor and agent, she ends up being an alien on her own land. A speck of dust in her own canvas. As a child Maggie loves the spaces of childhood — the kitchen, the fields — she simply cannot follow the domestic constraints and earns the titles of ‘devilish’ and ‘difficult’, ‘straight black-eyed wench’ (which is only so close to calling her a classy tart); the very titles I may or may not have gotten myself. Through out the book she is too loud, too ‘brown’, too uncouth, too wild-eyed, too unfeminine (she doesn’t do patchwork! Add appropriate shocked gasps here), too subversive as she fetishises her dolls in the attic; she is continuously regulated and excluded by the very people in her home she loves the most. When aunts and relatives come from far-off places, they inspect her along with the Mill’s furniture, find her too clever, she tries to reclaim her native space by running into her mother’s room and “seizing her front locks and cutting it across the middle of her forehead”, scatters those little dark locks all over the room to mark her space; even as the very space slips right under her feet. Ironically, women’s domain or the “domestic” is the one space she chokes in, but repeatedly tries to inhabit, only to find herself propelled outward; to take the anonymous fields rather than take the lane. It is even out in this undefined space she fragments, confronted by her inability to truly be or live in a space without being eaten up by its shadows, Maggie is constantly at war with spaces, with her own head and ultimately her innate inability to colonise. Rejected in the feminised domestic sphere, intimidated by the masculinised outdoors, she can only posses a transient position, on the road. At the climax of the novel, she is faced with an empty Mill, a blank canvas of sorts to imprint her own distinctive marks on it. And the moment she crumbles seeing the empty space around her (and by extension disintegrates the space itself), my heart lurches. As she is stripped, divided and essentially erased in and by the narrative do I fully gauge what it is to colonise someone or something. Try as she might, it is not in her to dictate anything, least of all the liminal space she is allowed to occupy, ultimately entwining herself to Phillip’s identity, as a slave and prisoner, unable to unpack herself or to escape his memory and gaze. Locked, frozen and still; she speaks.
While the rise of the Empire did help LadyVulvas to write more (less pesky dudes to hover over them, see?), even here there is a restraint or policing at work, that refuses them to be as adventurous as Conrad and label something as ‘The Heart Of Darkness’, as if there is a disconnect from the idea of defining boundaries and the act of drawing the lines; around the Self and the Other. There is resistance, acceptance and sometimes even complete submission to other people, yet Maggie will still cherish the space she held in the attic, of locked drawers, preserved items and small boxes, she lets herself become invisible, untamed while in shackles. For it is here, she allows herself to groan, cry and howl like a trapped bird, within disappearing walls that she choses to leave her mark. This very reliance on doubt is what makes this novel so appealing, especially to a direct descendant of a colonised country. It reminds me that not every one was as convinced about carving, silencing and castigating entire populations as it seemed to me.
As a child of 13, I remember distinctly not understanding why Maggie runs away from her mother as Mrs. Tulliver tries to comb and tame her wild hair. Today Maggie whispers and conspires with me to explain that even within submission there is rebellion, that not everyone has to be okay in the box they are fit into; there is always a cool basin of water to completely foil all predisposed tracks.
George Eliot a.k.a Mary Ann Evans wrote The Mill On The Floss and try as she might to speak like the Default Human i.e. a White Male, the woman inside slips through. Explain to me one more time how can I not love her?