Sunday, February 19, 2012

Charles Dickens Takes a Canoe Ride with the Lady of Shalott

Victorians, Ladies in Nightgowns, and TV Ratings Today

The Victorians are dead --- killed by Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, and our cultural preoccupation with the mini skirt --- but long live the Victorians.  The more we deny that we are like them, the more the opposite seems to be true.  Sexual revolution?  What sexual revolution?  We don't want gays to marry or women to have abortions ("we" in the American societal sense), and while those very much can be seen as urgent, red hot ethical problems, they also are sexuality problems: some things just give us the willies, more so than the equally grand ethical problems of offshore oil drilling or how much chocolate milk our kids should drink at recess. 

Well, with or without gay marriage, it is February 2012 and Charles Dickens, that most Victorian of Victorians (down to the classic dual morality hypocrisy of his professional status as a married man and his desperate love affair with his secret mistress), has just had his 200th birthday.  Time magazine, among others venues, featured him in a fair, nicely paced overview.

And even if you are not one to cover the legs of your grand piano with drapery so that womanly shape of the carved wood doesn't excite the men folk into licentious thoughts (or worse, licentious actions), even still, as modern and liberated as we are, his books still speak to our sense of fair play and purpose.  We too, like the Victorians, wonder how to house and reform prisoners, what the exact status of women should be in relation to social liberty and moral obligation, and we even wonder, as the Victorians did, which foreign wars (if any) we can still afford to fight.  Even that classic Victorian fictional character Sherlock Holmes is as popular as ever, and in fact, just last night I was at a Sherlock Holmes themed birthday party, one that featured a continuous loop of the new BBC version being played on the high def tv.  From House, MD to the franchise with Robert Downy, Jr, Holmes seems to be on every channel.  Here's a shot of the British version, as it played at the party.

 As for the novels of Charles Dickens, they are as readable now as when he wrote them, with vivid characters, expressive range, and melodramatic plots as large and grand as anything in Harry Potter.  They are more or less free via Amazon's Kindle or any used book store or thrift store, so you might want to stick one or three in your emergency supply duffel bag for that inevitable day when an earthquake or power failure leaves us living by candlelight for a few days until the grid goes back on line.  Dickens reads marvelously aloud, and in fact, as the Time magazine article points out, when he was born half of England was still illiterate, and he wrote to be read aloud --- to be shared by all ages and all strata of society, from kids on up to the elite and educated upper classes.  If we want to think of an equivalent, I hate to say it, but it might be Steven Spielberg.  (Either that, or Shakespeare.)

While Antelope Valley College has not sponsored any panel talks or symposia on the great and lasting Mr. Dickens (partly because I forgot to schedule any), we are still actively considering his era and legacy.

On Friday March 2nd the Faculty Professional Development Committee, better known by its old name of Flex, sponsors an event that will look at another famous Victorian, King Arthur's Lady of Shalott, a character revived (or we might say invented whole cloth) by the poet Tennyson.  She was the "it" girl of the Victorian era, at least for painters, and her portrait by John William Waterhouse remains one of the crowd favorites at London's Tate Britain.

This image above shows the most famous of the Victorian-era Shalotts but there have been many more, including photographic ones, banana boat ones, and weepy, syrupy reenactment ones.  Here's a screen shot from Google Images under a search for her name.

These will be too small to see here, but trust me, there are a LOT of hits when you search for her by name --- some really interesting ones, and a few versions that border on the mawkishly terrible.

Why did she provoke such a vivid and recurring response?  (And it's an especially intriguing question since she was a woman known initially only from a poem, albeit from a poem by a fellow as famous in his time as Oprah W is in ours.)  That problem is something that some of the AVC faculty hope to help us find out.  

Here is the write-up from the Flex booklet.  Though the primary audience is supposed to be AVC staff members earning service credit, everybody in the community will be welcome, students first of all, and one will NOT need to be any kind of an expert to enjoy the fun and magic of this evening.  Here's the description:

As part of Women's History Month, we'll explore a powerful and iconic fictional character --- the Lady of Shallot --- from Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous Arthurian poem. How might she function for feminist reflection with students? How has her image reverberated through culture since the time of Tennyson's poem? What does the Lady of Shallot, and her usage in the culture, say about the state of women's equality today? Included in the evening’s activities will be panel reflections, an interview with a Lady of Shallot impersonator, plus live music inspired by the Lady. 

Presenters: Dr. Rachel Jennings, Santi Tafarella, Melanie Jeffrey, Lynn McDonie, Rhona Memmer, and Nicelle Davis. 

The event happens at 7 pm on Friday, March 2nd, in SSV 151, better known as the Board room.  It is free and open to the public.  I really wish I could see this, but I'll be in Chicago at a poetry event.  Too bad, since I even have something just right to wear . . . something left over from my attendance at the above-mentioned Victorian party last night.  Hmm, maybe I can hope for a late-spring revival of another Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.

Merry Flex Nights to all, and to all a good night.

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