Tuesday, 28 April 2020

#5 At home... with Clarissa Harlowe

Francis Hayman, Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe

I have spent the past couple of weeks in the company of Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace,  the heroine and anti-hero of  Clarissa, a history of a young lady, by Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novel published in 1748.  A forbidding work in nine volumes, roughly 970,000 words, Clarissa consists of letter upon letter beautifully written by a range of characters to one another in a surprisingly accessible language, despite being three centuries-old (though I had to get used to expressions and turns of phrase which are now obsolete;  and, of course, the style,  full of polite circumlocutions eg  "permit me, madam, to trouble you with a few lines, were it only to thank you for your reproofs" or "the maids who brought the flowers were ambitious to strew them about them").
Clarissa is part of the English literary canon but its influence on  European literature has been huge.  It is a novel about rape and abuse: emotional, physical and intellectual (no, this is not a spoiler; the rule about spoilers can be waived when dealing with works of this magnitude, which are known to almost everyone).  But it is also a novel about strength, determination and integrity. If the emphasis on female virtue is set aside, the subject matter of Clarissa becomes very relatable: a woman who is drugged and raped by a  controlling man infatuated with her,  but who refuses to be defeated. She seeks comfort in religion and chooses death rather than marry the man who abused her and would have continued to do so. She could have denounced his actions and chosen to undergo a trial (rape was punishable by death sentence in the 18th century, but proving it was most difficult); however that would have been, she believed, a lost cause, due to the rank of the man, his wealth and his connections. She does not commit suicide; instead, through gradual starvation and neglect of her health,  she wills herself to die.

Saskia Wickham as Clarissa, 1991, BBC

I was aware of Clarissa but had never read it.  I did read  Clarissa's  French 'counterpart' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also an epistolary novel with a virtuous heroine seduced by a libertine, set among the aristocracy of the ancien regime.  But Clarissa and Les Liaisons are only superficially similar. For one thing,  Les Liasons reflects a corrupt and disintegrating aristocracy, whereas Clarissa's milieu is that of a rising, greedy middle class, represented by Clarissa's own family and her brother James in particular. Clarissa Harlowe is a very wealthy young woman, whose assets are coveted by her brother and sister; through their persecution, she ends up trusting Lovelace and is persuaded by him to elope. This will lead to her downfall and premature death, at the age of 19.

Sean Bean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBC

Reading Clarissa is not for the fainthearted, definitely not for everyone.  It requires commitment;  it is a full-time occupation and a test of endurance. The story unfolds at a maddeningly leisurely pace: Clarissa leaves her parental home only in volume II and Lovelace's elaborate rape takes place in Volume VI.  We have to wait till volume VIII for the beginning of the unmaking of Lovelace, while Clarissa is slowly dying. Volume IX concludes with their separate deaths, in very different circumstances: she is finally received once again by her grieving family, albeit in a coffin, Lovelace dies in a duel, killed by his nemesis, Colonel Morgan, one of Clarissa's cousins.
I was challenged to read Clarissa;  I do not know what possessed me to accept the challenge, I realised as soon as I picked up the book that it was not an easy read but I persevered and once I went past volume 1, I was hooked.
I started the book on Easter day and have now got to the end; naturally,  I feel a great sense of elation and a compulsion to share my observations,  though I realise the number of people who have actually read the book is rather small.  It's lamentable because  Clarissa is an extraordinary novel that has to be discussed, it is so compelling a read, how can one choose to ignore it?  In my view, it has to be read in one go,  a marathon read, there is no other way of doing it.  You have to allow yourself to be enveloped in Clarissa 's and Lovelace's conflict of will,  immerse yourself in 18th century England, make several concessions to Richardson's puritanical views (context, context !) and then you will really enjoy the novel, with its numerous theatrical twists and philosophical disquisitions on libertinism and virtue.
No film adaptation has (yet) done it full justice - I watched the 1991 BBC version with  Saskia Wickham and Sean Bean in the title roles and enjoyed it, Bean makes a wonderful, angst-ridden  Lovelace, though the series takes some liberties with the novel, in the hope of making it more interesting to a modern audience. eg there is no incestuous relationship between Clarissa's older sister Bella and brother James, as made out in the movie.
But reading Richardson is an experience not to be missed.

I have cheated my way through it, having chosen the audiobook version, so that I could listen to a narrator while still attending to mundane things. I have also ordered a print version, this is a book you need to have in your library, to go back to some of the most poignant passages whenever you feel the need to do so and re-read it, skipping chapters, as you see fit.
Now that I have finished it, I confess I feel a little lost. For the past fortnight, I began my day with Clarissa and Lovelace and ended it with them. No more.
I thought the Audible audiobook, though an excellent recording (I listened to a sample), was a bit pricey, so I listened to the free one available through Libri Vox.  Readers for Libri Vox are volunteers and whereas some of them do the job superbly, there are also very poor readers, especially those who fancy themselves being on stage. They kill the text through over-the-top, totally unnecessary, acting. Several times in the course of listening to the letters of volume 6, I had to turn off the audiobook and read the text myself (I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg) as the voice of the reader and his style were awful - I totally disagreed with the way he read Lovelace's letters, turning him into a ridiculous, farcical character, whereas Lovelace, an archetypal rake, a handsome young man endowed with great charm, has a complexity, an inner turmoil that cannot be ridiculed, though he is quite despicable in his sense of entitlement. But this is an opinion readers must be allowed to form for themselves. In contemporary terms, Robert Lovelace is a narcissist. He is unquestionably a villain,  as twisted as can be, but I remain convinced that Richardson never intended to depict him as a vaudeville character - his letters bear me out.
  I doubt it I would have had the time and stamina to go through all the nine volumes in pre-Covid 19 times - but when I was a teenager I used to spend my school holidays in bed just reading, a luxury I was never again able to afford, until now.
 I found Clarissa a tour de force that played havoc with my emotions. So many times I caught myself being totally enraptured, and  'in the book'.  Occasionally, I had to remind myself I was reading (listening to) a novel, the world I had stepped into was Richardson's construct, Clarissa and Lovelace are not, never were, real people.
Clarissa is a bit too saintly for my liking though she makes her point with vehemence: she does not love Lovelace; despite a mild, cautious, initial attraction, she despises his ways and does not want him near her. And that's that.

Sean Dean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBC

Lovelace is totally infatuated with her, the more she refuses him, the more he wants her and he checks all her correspondence, stalks her, imprisons her in a brothel. It is inadmissible to him that she would turn him down. Even his eventual rape is not an ordinary rape, but an elaborate machination to own Clarissa, bend her will, get to her inner self in an attempt to force her to love him. That's what he really wants, her love and submission,  to the point of believing that raping her is the only way to obtain her complete surrender. I cannot condone this, no one can (and Richardson rages against it, rightly so); rape is rape and NEVER justified. But one can feel throughout the book Lovelace's frustration and anguish, his pathological need to control Clarissa going beyond what is morally acceptable.
He is, as a matter of principle, being a libertine, against marriage, and would like for Clarissa to accept cohabitation, which to her is unthinkable; after raping her, he insists on marrying her, because he knows that through marriage he will own her. Clarissa is adamant he should never go near her again.
 It seems odd that Clarissa should die but in the context of the novel, it is the only way for her to assert her total independence and her triumph over Lovelace's perversity and the callousness of her relatives.
As I said this is not a book for everyone. But if you wish to challenge yourself, do read it. It will stay with you for a very long time.

*** Samuel Richardson in his Conclusion II gives reasons for why he wrote this novel and why he chose such a tragic ending. He also justifies the length of the novel and his choice of the epistolary style ***

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

An intergenerational fashion

I originally wrote this piece soon after London Fashion Week  2020 for Goldie magazine. However, with the lockdown currently in place due to COVID19, for the time being, Goldie is not being printed. 
So I am posting the original article here, with only a couple of edits.

Year in, year out, we read articles about lack of diversity in fashion, especially in terms of age representation, urging designers to be more inclusive and to have more older models in their shows. Many designers do try their best to be inclusive, but they often prefer to play it safe and only have well known ‘older’ faces walk for them. Fashion week shows are expensive, designers pay good money for a slot and want everything to go smoothly. Relying on a known model or a celebrity, of any age, can enhance the popularity of a show and of the collection presented.
Diversity is a complex issue and within it, age and ageism are a minefield.
When I started modelling, in my late forties, there was almost nothing available for older models, not in fashion and beauty: it was all about commercial work, replete with stereotypical grannies. The trend continues - come Christmas, you will see more and more grannies in ads; ever since I turned 60, I have done quite well, appearing in several Christmas campaigns, as an honorary grandmother.
However,  over the past decade, slowly but steadily, older models have begun to be more visible, not just in magazines aimed at the forty/fifty plus section of the population, but also in fashion magazines whose readership ranges, age-wise, from 18 upwards.  Some brands seem to have gone out of their way to include older models, of both genders, in their look books – JD Williams, H&M, Lindex, Gucci, even Sweaty Betty and Athleta, which do fitness wear, come to mind. Some brands purport to have intergenerational clothes – and their look books reflect this attempt at inclusion. Rixo, for example, has had a policy of inclusivity from inception, often relying on older female customers to model alongside younger professionals, in an attempt to emphasize an intergenerational approach (why non-professionals? Well…  it is often a cheaper option).  The Bias-cut.com, an online boutique that celebrates all ages, also relies on non-professionals, who do it to gain greater experience and build up a portfolio. A few then go on to model professionally.

With my granddaughter Livia for Rixo, celebrating Mother's Day

I am a ‘glass-half-full’ person; you have to be if you are in my line of work or you would spend your days crying your eyes out. I firmly believe that there is a genuine effort among designers, and the fashion industry, on the whole, to serve a wider age range and not to unduly differentiate between young and old. I do believe we are witnessing major changes. Education has done its bit; young designers have been trained to develop an awareness of diversity and its attendant issues and have a better understanding of the body and its ageing process.
Ageist attitudes may continue to be rife, at an individual level - at a recent casting for a London Fashion Week show, a young designer rather than routinely accept my comp card and that of a fellow older model, felt the need to say she did not want older models in her show. It was quite unnecessary, she could have just taken the cards and not selected us, a standard behaviour, but she felt the need to articulate her disapproval, unwittingly coming across as biased.  Maybe it was a language problem and all she meant was that on this occasion her collection was really geared towards younger people. No matter. Her statement seemed very blunt and pointed to the fact that age-insensitive language is so common that people do not even realise they might be saying anything that could be construed as ageist.
Yet, at that same casting where my card was declined, a handful of older models turned up (why only a handful is a different issue) and they were all hired, including me (though I stepped in only when a first option was no longer available). Yes, models have to get used to being second-best!
Designers do have a vision when creating a collection and their vision for the clothes they make must be respected; on the other hand, they should be encouraged to broaden their horizons. Having a few pieces in a collection which can be worn, with adjustments, by older women (and men) does not mean the collection is going to be ruined; on the contrary, it would highlight a designer’s creativity and versatility.  That’s where styling comes in…
Much pressure is put on designers to tick boxes. But no model wants to be hired as a tick box.
Soon after images of the LFW shows went up, it was interesting to observe the reactions, especially on social media. Some felt the number of older models at LFW was still far too low; that the clothes were unsuitable to older women; and also, that there was a tendency to go for slimmer older models rather than curvy ones.
All this raises interesting questions on what it means to have an intergenerational approach.
But let's retrace our steps.
What is intergenerational fashion?
Intergenerationality refers to relationships between generations, which can often be strained and difficult; it does not have to be that way. An intergenerational fashion is one that does not discriminate between the young and the old. It is not a fashion that ignores the specificity of being old or of being young, on the contrary. The idea is to break down the barriers that exist between generations – I recently did a shoot for Conflict of Ego, a brand that makes intergenerational clothes. There was a pink suit that I wore and immediately afterwards,  it was worn by a much younger model. The same outfit, but different styling. It worked.
Older women, even more so than older men, often feel invisible and fashion can help them reacquire visibility, at the same time fostering a better relationship with women of a different generation than their own.

With Laura Shannon Harding

Many young designers are happy to make clothes to be worn by women and men of different generations.  Laura Shannon Harding, designer and also occasional model, at a recent fashion show, a charity fundraiser, asked me to model one of her very bold designs, a mini-skirt with matching jacket. At first, I was reluctant, feeling too old for it. I even asked whether by any chance I was a last-minute replacement, believing Laura had not thought it through.  “No way. I knew exactly that you were modelling for this event and knew what to give you. My clothes are for bold individuals, not afraid to stand out. I chose you as one of my models, please wear it”. I was persuaded and did, complete with colourful boots (but I asked I’d be allowed to wear nude tights). Later, I felt quite elated.  I, an older woman, had been asked to show off one of Laura’s bold designs! She did not hesitate, she felt her clothes could be worn by an older woman.
 I may not wear Laura’s minis every day,  but there might be occasions when her clothes will be just right – again let’s not forget that styling always gives you the option to adapt clothes.

For DB Berdan LFW2020
We want to see models of all ages, all body sizes and all ethnicities at fashion shows, proving that fashion is truly for all and can be enjoyed by all. We want designers to set aside their prejudices and any conventional wisdom they might have been taught as part of their training and believe that their clothes can be shown off by a range of body types and ages. Representation matters: we want to see models that reflect different demographics.
Ideally, we want to focus on the clothes, not on who wears them, though admittedly, it can, at times, be difficult to separate clothes and their wearers – but separation is the goal.
And here is my ‘glass-half-full’ take: we are getting there, so let’s celebrate this moment of intergenerationality in contemporary fashion.  

Soon after I wrote, the coronavirus required a complete lockdown. I wonder what it will be like when things 'go back to normal'. There will be other concerns, no doubt, which will have to be prioritised. I also feel that the emphasis will be on youth and renewal and fashion will reflect that. 
Anyway, I thought I should post this article as it gives a sense of where we were at in early March. What will happen next? We just have to wait and see... 

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

# 3 Life in the time of Coronavirus

London in coronavirus lockdown. Source: The Independent

Here I am with another post written in lockdown London.
I don't know about you, but I find that too many celebs and pseudo -celebs, keep posting images of themselves self-isolating in their fab homes, not to mention the very rich, all exhibiting 'mild symptoms' after being tested positive (while our frontline doctors and nurses do not enjoy the same privileged access to testing)  and at pains to tell us that we are all in this together. The profound inequality of our society has never been more evident than in present times - the incomparable Marina Hyde has written an opinion piece on this, which I strongly recommend you should read.
But no, I did not want to post a rant, it just came out.
Where was I? Oh, yes, lockdown. To relieve the boredom that is settling in (yes,  I am exercising; and no,  I am not slouching on my sofa in my pyjamas) I am reading a lot, making the most of my trial Scribd membership,
 I stumbled on The Austen Project of 2013, aimed at a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen's most famous novels.  Six prominent writers of our time were commissioned by HarperCollins to rework an up to date version of  Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. Only four novels were published, Persuasion and Mansfield Park never saw the light of day. The Project flopped, in other words, even though the writers were all 'masters of their craft'. What went wrong?

Jane Austen is, well, Jane Austen, the doyenne of comedy and satire. Through her witty pen, and her revolutionary indirect libre style of writing, the foibles of Regency England are magnified.  Status, rank and class are the major concerns of her characters and the subservient position of women, for whom finding a good match is absolutely everything they can aspire to,  is put in sharp focus.
I am not a Janeite, but Austen has had me in her thrall ever since I discovered her work, back in my teens. Did it help in endearing her to me that I did not have to write A level English essays on Pride and Prejudice because my schooling was in a different country? Perhaps. (I wrote about Divina Commedia and I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) but whereas I have long made my peace with Dante, the very mention of Promessi Sposi still makes me slightly queasy).
Let's be clear. Reworkings are done all the time, much contemporary fiction is inspired by seminal literary works.  Margaret Atwood beautifully rewrote The Tempest in Hag-seed, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary is but a version of Pride and Prejudice set in the 1990s, Zadie Smith's On Beauty owes its inspiration to  Howard's End, fully acknowledged as its source by the author.
Therefore I  thought that Austen in contemporary dress would be fun to read.
Well, yes and no.

I do not know what the criteria given to the authors were, for this Austen Project. I have so far read Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility (note the ampersand) and am now going through Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible. I then plan to move on to Emma as retold by Alexander McCall Smith, which I have already downloaded. Emma is my favourite Austen novel.
Trollope, queen of the Aga Saga,  clearly had great fun rewriting Sense and Sensibility and was utterly faithful to the original. She is a good writer, I will not dispute that. But Sense & Sensibility does not work, precisely because she felt she should not   - perhaps could not - deviate from the original. Yet, the main difference between women of today and women in Regency England is precisely that marriage is no longer the be-all-end-all of our lives. Thus the matchmaking and the various disinheritances no longer make sense, not even in the upper-middle-class milieu the characters of the novel inhabit. Yes, Elinor (sense) is studying for a degree in architecture, which she has to give up to help out the now impoverished family. Marianne (sensibility), a musician,  comes across as a very silly girl,  and though Trollope hints at a possible bipolar condition she does not develop this fully, dwelling instead on her asthma (not in the original).  Willoughby, though mixed up with drugs, is not dark enough for our contemporary times to warrant the mammoth breakdown of Marianne - it is all a bit over the top, whereas it makes perfect sense in the original. It is as if Trollope was so in awe of Jane Austen, she could not bring herself to make her characters believable when giving them a contemporary dress. Thus they fall flat on their face. (But I do like the reference to upperly-mobile Middletons).

I watched a small clip on YouTube in which Joanna Trollope explains what she has done with the book. Coming from the same upper-middle-class background as Jane Austen's characters, she is able to observe shrewdly and fill in details.  Hers is an admirable effort, I certainly acknowledge that. But it does not work. At some point, Trollope makes Marianne say to her mother Belle that she views life like those 19th-century heroines so obsessed with marriage, as indeed Belle Dashwood seems to be. It's a nice touch, but it does not rescue the retelling.
Curtis Sittenfeld has been more imaginative in Eligible and one can relate to it more easily. I have not finished the book,  so I will refrain from commenting.
I suppose all this makes it crystal clear that context matters. Austen transcends her time because she talks about love,  money and the human condition - this continues to be important even today.  But there are certain things that anchor her characters to her time and it is not enough to give them ipads and laptops to make them contemporary: their thinking has to reflect our contemporary condition.  Trollope's Sense &Sensibility is only just "a cut above chick-lit" as one reviewer comments. It could have been better than that.