Space and the Home in Michel Faber's Crimson Petal and the White

From the very beginning of Faber’s novel, the reader is welcomed—ushered—into a space that is “another world altogether” (5). Rather immediately we arrive in Caroline’s home, our first look at the intersection of home and space in the novel. In a way, too, this novel is a new home for the reader because the narrator has decided that we need to be brought here, even if we “mean nothing” to the novel’s main characters (4). We can come and go as we please, but the narrator has something, or multiple things, they want us to experience. One such thing is likely this correlation between space and the home and how that is represented in this other world.

We’re introduced to various street names in the novel, which creates distinction among groups of people by socioeconomic class. There is Church Lane, where Caroline lives and which is “infested with Irish Catholics” (17). There is Greek Street, where “civilization begins” (22). There is Silver Street, where Mrs. Castaway’s now resides. There is Crown Street, and there are landmarks such as Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square. All of these locations inherently separate people into specific categories; they carry a connotation when spoken based on those who live there, yet all of these people are human and all of these places are a home for someone.

Most of the characters in the novel remain in the rigid box they’ve been placed into by society, represented by their stasis in physical location. The only character who appears to cross freely between various spaces and homes is Sugar. Caroline thinks Sugar to be “awkward and tentative” when hugging her (43). I believe this to be because of Sugar’s liminal existence as someone who crosses borders and boundaries, who is a sex worker but who is trying to elevate her station in her society. We know she has moved from working on the same street as Caroline to working on different streets where she makes more money. She is also an avid reader and writer, which no doubt helps her liminality between social classes and places. Her writing, too then, like the reader being invited into a new home by this novel’s narrator, creates new spaces as well. She is both the omnipresent specter within spaces and the creator of spaces.

She ultimately finds herself in William’s home, where she also takes up work. What is interesting here is that it appears Sugar’s role as this governess of space is that she can also move others, breaking an established space. William comes to Caroline in a panic, exclaiming that his daughter “has been abducted…by Miss Sugar” (885). This doesn’t happen until the end of the novel, though, indicating that Sugar’s movement across social class and space throughout the novel has ultimately led up to this ability to move others along with her. It’s a progression of the journey she has been on the entire novel, a culmination that began at Mrs. Castaway’s and ends with her own freedom of movement not controlled by men. It’s worth noting here that the reader both begins and ends the novel in Church Lane, meaning we don’t have the same freedom as Sugar; she is truly the only figure in the novel who can move as freely as she wants.

Necessity and Autonomy in Alasdair Gray's Poor Things

Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things takes its reader on a trip through a number of layers of metafiction and intertextuality, through varying genres, through varying points of view. In one of these layers, Victoria McCandless writes a letter to one of her descendants recounting her own point of view of what transpired earlier in the novel, correcting errors in the previous storytelling. Of a specific moment with God, she writes, “Next day over breakfast God explained things fully, for he never made unnecessary mysteries” (266). Here, we can already see a number of layers at play: the letter correcting Archibald McCandless’ book, which itself is only part of Alasdair’s novel, and the symbolic layering of religion in the text. Victoria writes about God, which is short for Godwin, but it also elicits a Christian God—a maker.

Both Gods here make things and create life: Godwin is a scientist who has given life to Bella Baxter, and the religious God, in source material, has created all life as we know it. In so doing, Victoria asserts that God—neither of the two Gods in this reading—ever make “unnecessary mysteries” (266). The word “unnecessary” pulls a lot of weight here. As a subjective noun, it operates on the implication of the speaker when spoken rather than on any unspoken personal or cultural connotations. What is necessary for Victoria and for her creator, God, and what is unnecessary for them? What remains a mystery to Victoria, and what makes those remaining mysteries necessary or unnecessary?

When thinking about these questions, I viewed them from a place of intersectional thinking. For me, issues of class, gender, race, and so many other categories of social issue align with the unnecessary, in that I do not think they should exist; I believe everyone should be treated equally. However, after further thought, I think I was focusing on the wrong word. Rather than contemplating this idea of necessity, I should have been honing on the word “mystery,” as Victoria doesn’t appear to see these things as mysterious like I have. For example, when speaking on class in her letter, she writes, “The envy the poor and exploited feel toward the wealthy is a good thing if it works toward reforming this unfairly ordered nation” (273). For Victoria, these issues of injustice are not mysterious because she focuses not on why these issues have happened but how they can be remedied. She looks away from philosophy and looks toward sociology and a future in which society has reached a greater social equilibrium.

This levelheadedness may come from Victoria’s own autonomy. As someone who is inherently liminal, both of our world and yet not of our intricate society in that she hasn’t been as deeply affected by its rhetoric, she is able to think fully for herself and form her own perspectives free of outside influence. At the end of her letter, for example, she writes, “I almost hope our military and capitalistic leaders DO declare war!” (276). As just one example of her ability to think—and therefore live—freely, this shows Victoria’s yearning for a tomorrow that is better than it is today, even if her means do not always correlate with the ending she so desires.

Fiction as Home in Arthur & George

In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes unabashedly plays with intertextuality in a number of layers. The novel itself is based off of events from our real world, and Arthur himself is a writer, having written the famed Sherlock Holmes series of stories. Furthermore, other stories and characters are referenced in the novel as well. All of this creates a series of intertextual layers that all work off of each other. What Barnes does well, though, is his construction of these layers; rather than competing and creating dissonance for the reader, the layers work in tandem to create depth and ample room for analysis and interpretation—and, because one of these layers is our world and our history, this creates room for analyzing our world in addition to Barnes’ fictional world.

Barnes and Arthur seem to share a lot in common in their artistic though processes, though Arthur seemingly adds a little more flair to his ideas than Barnes has incorporated into his novel (with it sticking more closely to history). For example, when Arthur is talking about Christianity with his sister Connie, he explains that he believes such notable Christian figureheads as Jesus and Joan of Arc to have been psychic mediums (240-241). He has his own distinct view of history steeped in both realism and whimsy, and we see this again when Barnes describes Arthur’s resilient stubbornness. He writes, “What did a knight errant do when he came home to a wife and two children in South Norwood?” (69). Arthur is not yet ready to fulfill a higher role than the knight, yet he feels unfulfilled in his current station. I believe it to be this sense of being unsettled at where he is at in his life—at various points, too; this is a recurring theme—that results in these imaginative flairs that transport him to times of knighthood or to the times of early modern France, if we consider his mention of Joan of Arc.

We see Arthur’s fascination with narration early on. Barnes writes, “For Arthur there was a normal distance between home and church; but each place was filled with presences, with stories and instructions” (5). Interestingly, George is described as the opposite. He “lacks imagination,” and a question of whether he never had one or if he simply lost one is raised (4). But for Arthur storytelling appears to be in his bones; he’s compelled to do so, fascinated with history and religion and how various aspects of life intersect to create full, complete narratives. And we see this in Sherlock Holmes stories, where the antagonist is always apprehended and revealed in the end, and each story is neatly concluded without leaving the reader wondering about anything. Perhaps this is where Barnes and Arthur differ. Where Arthur loses himself in the details and weaves stories at tight intersections, Barnes tells his stories tightly but with the knowledge that he is working with history and he may not be able to tie everything up neatly or that his novel is fiction and may not—or cannot—be wholly factually to the real life account of George and Arthur’s lives.

Finding the Alias in Grace

Atwood’s Alias Grace brings to the forefront two things I take particular interest in because of my own past: trauma and change. Perhaps what these two things most closely share is time—how one not only can change over time but how one naturally does change over time, how trauma affects the person and the mind over time, how one can cope over time. Still, these are intricately woven into the novel, Grace experiencing both in an upsetting abundance, and yet nothing is really resolved in the end. The conflict is left unresolved, a symptom of historical fiction perhaps, but even more worryingly, Grace’s mental wellbeing is left to question as well.

Of course, this could, again, be because we are working with historical fiction. However, I wonder if there is more to this evasion of closure than historical restraints. At one point after the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, after she and McDermott have fled Canada, Grace narrates, “On the edge of sleep I thought: It’s as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I left no marks. And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent” (342). There is a lot one can excavate from this passage, but one particular word does a lot of work here and is what I would like to focus on. Almost.

What remains unclear to me is Grace’s memory of the murders. She claims to not remember the murders happening. We’re left not only with the question of her guilt or innocence but also of her amnesia. If she is telling the truth, when did this amnesia set in? At what point did she forget and/or block these memories? It is common knowledge now that humans can unknowingly block memories because of trauma as a survival mechanism, and that is certainly a candidate in the consideration of what happened to Grace that night and the following years. And still I am stuck with the word almost. Grace, in this passage, defines a difference between running away and leaving no evidence with actual innocence, but what is that actual difference between the two? One answer would be that the only difference is memory. Without traces—which could have its own blog post about the archiving of time and space—there would be nothing to tie Grace to the murders without public memory of her and her life and work there, and she of course carries her own memories, which would be the internal difference for her, though we know later she claims amnesia.

This is when we arrive at the alias Grace. Rather than reading any secondary characters as projections, mental manipulations, or any other way other than how they are explicitly portrayed in the narration, I might consider Grace as one lifelong alias. By this I mean that she has changed a substantial amount each time we see her in the novel. She is not the same when we see her with Mary as she is when we see her on the boat that brought her from, and she is not the same when she is meeting with Dr. Jordan. We change constantly throughout our lives, even when not faced with trauma, so her change has only been exacerbated by what she has been through. Her name and what she represents has changed with it, evolved and devolved, moved forward, backward, and sideways. What I see in Grace is a woman who has never been afforded the very thing her name represents

Letters and Fairy Tales as Feminist Modes of Writing in Possession

I have worked with fairy tales a lot. They’re my favorite pieces of writing to study, and they are what I’m focusing on in my culminating project, so I was thrilled to see fairy tales represented in Byatt’s Possession in a really lovely manner. They are joined by letters and poetry in an amalgamation of genres that make up this novel, and while they are all different and offer their own unique contributions to the novel, they all simultaneously offer one thing: ways of writing in which women can fully represent themselves when they may otherwise be unable to do so.

Written in the late twentieth century, Possession overall treats its women well. Most of them are given agency, and the women aren’t simply restricted to the domestic sphere. There is Val, who is left at home while Roland is on his adventures with Maud, but in the end, she quickly decides to leave him for Euan. Still, Val shares a sharp curiosity with the other women in the novel. She is unhappy and wants out of her current life, Maud is endlessly fascinated by Christabel, and Christabel is curious about fairy tales and writing—and Randolph—for example.

What we might as products of this curiosity—and the passion that breeds curiosity—are the writings in the novel. The letter (and we might think about this in terms of text messages today) affords one many things that a conversation doesn’t: time, vulnerability, wit, stature, etc. Because one has seemingly endless time to write and send a letter, one can really think about what they are going to say. There is also a distance with letters; the recipient will read this someplace the writer is not. This all allows for an increased capacity for honesty in letters. These all apply to fairy tales and poetry as well, where the former allows honesty to come through allegory and where the latter allows emotions to take precedent, with or without metaphor.

In the novel, Christabel writes countless letters to Randolph, and in them she maintains her agency, claiming her emotions and never really backing down. In one letter, she writes, “I am sad, sir, today—low and sad—sad that we went walking, yet sad too, that we are not walking still” (216). In another, she writes, “I spoke Thunder—and said—so it shall be—and there will be no questions now—or ever—and to this absolute Proposition I have—like all Tyrants—meek acquiescence” (220). In the first excerpt, we see that Christabel is managing complex feelings regarding her relationship with Randolph, and in the second we see anger from her. She compares herself to tyrants, and at the same time we can Biblical reference with fragments such as “so it shall be,” where she’s speaking in an almost omniscient manner.

Christabel is fully herself in her letters, and in a similar manner she takes full control, too, in her fairy tale writing. In her “The Fairy Melusine” proem, the fairy holds more power than the man—the knight—and it is the man that has to be accepted by the fairy in the end. She writes, “Now was he hers, if she should ask of him/body or soul, he would have offered all./And seeing this, at last, the Fairy smiled” (323). Here, Christabel is offering the woman—the fairy—power, and we see her living this same way through her letters.