shaken & stirred

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women in fictional history

Beatrice is hosting an Author2Author this week featuring René Steinke and Susann Cokal discussing the female protagonists of their latest books. Today's Cokal's turn to talk about Famke in Breath and Bones, which I very much enjoyed. (Others disagree, but I thought Cokal's use of nineteenth century tropes was very knowing and her writing quite lovely.) An excerpt from their very interesting discussion:
Cokal: When I thought of Famke, I threw in some of the classic elements of nineteenth-century literature: She's an orphan, was raised in a religious community, and embarks on a (perhaps misbegotten) quest for love. Orphan stories are inevitably stories about identity--finding one or shaping one--and with female characters in particular, that identity tends to come through learning who one's father was or finding the right man to marry, the right "Mrs." to become. I didn't want the traditional kind of plot in which identity comes through a man, but I did know that Famke would need a lot of helpers on her quest and that, given the constraints of the time, most of them would be male. I thought it would be interesting if she borrowed some elements of identity from each. So I made her a bit of a chameleon; she joins up with several men, and even masquerades as a man for a while, but never holds on to any one persona for long. She's both a picaro and a bit of a maneater, I'm afraid; she marries a Mormon patriarch in order to get passage to America, and she plays up to a slightly unbalanced doctor in order to benefit from his innovative cure for her tuberculosis. She sees her dependence on men as something with which to strategize; her apparent vulnerability allows her to act forcefully, because she has something they want, too.

What she has is, of course, on display in the posing scenes. I always knew that the first line of the main text would be "'Don't move,' he said"--to me, that sums up certain notions of the nineteenth-century: a man telling a woman not to move, to hold a pose, to keep embodying an image he likes. That's the idea of the Angel in the House, the good example, the good mother, the even-tempered paragon that girls are told to be in books like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie (the recurrence of the word "Little" can't be an accident). But I think that, like the Jo March and Laura Ingalls of those books, most girls--and women--must have rebelled from time to time; it was too hard to hold that pose. So my favorite scene in the book is the night of the tableaux vivants in San Francisco, when Famke and other girls play "living pictures." These were marvelous entertainments in which women arranged themselves as the figures in famous paintings and held absolutely still--one of the best examples of that static identity women were supposed to maintain. (Tableaux vivants were also excuses for public nudity in the name of Art, and the police sometimes raided them.)
Cokal was nice enough to send me a copy of her first novel Mirabilis a few months ago featuring the best inscription ever complete with a drawing of two tiny breasts. I am now a lifelong fan.


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