Friday, 4 January 2013

Bad Spiritual Mothers

Every once in a while I think it necessary to remind everyone that I'm just a lady with an M.Div., a book and a computer. I have zero teaching authority, and I could be wrong on a lot of stuff. I can't think of anything in particular at the moment, but I admit the possibility. And this is why when you are particularly enthusiastic about anything I write, you should discuss it with your roommates or your mother or your favourite aunt, so they can point out any problems.

Long before I turned 39+, I gave considerable thought to what kind of Older Woman I wanted to be. In the society I grew up in, there seemed to be a clear dividing line between Younger Woman and Older Woman which nobody really wanted to cross, particularly if they were in the Arts. This dividing line was often called FORTY. Nobody wanted to turn forty, but nobody wanted to die either, and if you don't die first, you turn forty (or 39+). That's just how it is. No more ingenue roles for you. If you are a Shakespearean actress (which I once wanted to be), you can't play Juliet or Ophelia anymore. You have to play Lady Capulet or Queen Gertrude or Lady Macbeth.

But that's one of the wonderful things about Shakespeare: he acknowledged the existence of Older Women and if anything found them more interesting characters than younger women. It is not really a tragedy when directors stop asking you to play Juliet and ask you to play Lady Macbeth instead. Lady Macbeth is one of the great female baddies of all time: "All the PERFUMES of ARABIA will not sweeten THIS LITTLE HAND!!!"

Of course, you do not want to be a baddie in real life. And you particularly do not want to be a corrupting influence on the Young because that is the exact opposite of what Older Women are supposed to be. We are supposed to model and encourage the best in you, not use you as sops to our overwhelming egos or live our misspent youths again vicariously through you or use you as pawns in our academic-political-theological games. It can be a temptation, though, as you may have noticed in an Older Woman or two. I sure did when I was a Young Woman.

But I have a lot of sympathy for Wicked Older Women, in part because of the insane prejudice in society against older women, against which Wicked Older Women are at war and may even be partly blamed for their excesses. This is often explored in literature, and so I will now present my list of Bad Spiritual Mothers in Art.

I warn you that there is a whiff of the glamour of evil around these women, but hopefully their deeds are horrendous enough to blot that out. I also warn you that there are mild plot spoilers for Dangerous Liaisons, Great Expectations, The Graduate, The Portrait of a Lady and Anna Karenina.

1. The Marquise de Merteuil. The Marquise de Merteuil is the villianess at the dark heart of Les Liaisons Dangereux, and she was played brilliantly by Glenn Close in the 1988 film. Bored by the do-nothing existence of women of the French aristocracy, she enjoys manipulating everyone around her, seducing men and destroying reputations, all while appearing to be an upstanding, moral woman. Her argument on wanting to be revenged on men for the patriarchy falls rather flat since she does much more damage to fellow women. Plus ca change...

2. Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham is a character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. She was jilted at the altar by a fortune-hunter and never gets over it. For example, she keeps the wedding breakfast on the table and wears her wedding dress ever after. I hope she was a neat eater. So bitter is she, that she adopts a pretty little girl and brings her up to be a selfish, soulless man-trap, so as to get revenge upon men. Although this is not very nice for the hero of the novel, it is of course much worse for the poor girl.

3. Mrs Robinson. Mrs Robinson is the villianess of the film The Graduate. She got pregnant as an undergrad and married the baby's father, who did rather well financially but became rather boring. Mrs R temporarily staves off boredom by seducing the recent college grad son of friends. Well, she gets him into bed anyway. It's not like he falls in love with her. No, instead he falls in love with her daughter, which annoys Mrs R very much. I suspect she lacks a sense of humour, and as evil goes she is quite pathetic next to Madame de Merteuil.

4. Madame Merle. Madame Merle is a character in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. She is a beautiful, charismatic woman who is stuck on a very manipulative and corrupt man and quite willing to sacrifice the interests of younger women to his interests. One of the interesting things about Wicked Older Women is how blase they can be about their love interests marrying someone else, so long as it fits in with their long-range plans.

5. Countess Vronsky. I have not read Anna Karenina, so my acquaintance with Vronsky's mother is limited to the 2012 film. In the film it is quite obvious that Anna Karenina would not have given Vronsky the time of day if Countess Vronsky hadn't put the idea of having an affair into her innocent head. Countess Vronsky reminds me quite a lot of the Sexual Revolution: first she talks up inchastity as a wonderful adventure that one would regret not having and then she sneers at its victims. The scene in which she gives her son a piece of her mind for actually loving Anna is classic.

Incidentally, there was a rather unfilial spark between Vronsky and his mother (played by Olivia Williams) that makes more sense now that I know Olivia Williams is the same age as the actor's wife.

I don't include Potiphar's Wife, as she is in the Bible, and might have been Joseph's age anyway, and represents the religious man's worst nightmare. Nor do I include poor Phaedra of Hippolytus, who suffered more from bad luck, treachery and Hippolytus's misogyny than from sin.

The stories of Potiphar's Wife and Phaedra are very sad for women, playing as they do to men's fear of being falsely accused of, and punished for, rape, which has made it difficult for women to seek justice when we are raped, and also makes us resented objects of fear, which makes us more vulnerable to attack.

And that is the thing about Bad Spiritual Mothers. It is up to you, not any young man terrified of female sexuality--as Hippolytus was and as Joseph is too often depicted, to decide if an older woman is a good spiritual mother for you or not. (But here's a hint: if she tells you that the Church's teachings on sexuality are just "man-made rules" there is room for doubt.)


Domestic Diva said...

Have you seen "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"? Stars Maggie Smith and based on the short story by Muriel Spark. Miss Jean Brodie is most surely a Bad Spiritual Mother.

Seraphic said...

A novel, although of course Muriel Spark's novels are all very short. Yes, Miss Brodie was a Bad Spiritual Mother. I feel for her very much, though, as I am not sure she actually knew what she was doing.

It's such an amazing book. I always recommend it as an exemplary work of Edinburgh fiction.

Domestic Diva said...

Ah! I haven't read it, only seen the movie, so I will have to be sure to read it. My parents saw it in the theatre, and when the Miss Brodie of my life began turning my head with her ideals, my mother remembered the story and wisely limited my contact with the woman. Anyway, because of the works you mentioned in this post, I wondered if you were familiar with the story and thought you'd like it if you weren't.