Dear friends and readers,
One of my favorite things to do is listen to wonderfully realistic fine novels read aloud by effective dramatic readers as I’m driving. I can’t begin to list the books I’ve read — or listened to being read this way. Well, recently I listened to over half of Bronte’s Villette read by Mandy Weston and now I’m about a fifth of the way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina read by Davina Porter. Both bring the scenes and characters before as if I were at an invisible play. I learn so much, live so deeply, am kept company with the finest minds and voices.
Well today I had an imaginative experience which brings home to the listener why the Steubenville rape is so significant. This happening should not be cut off from ordinary life as something out of the ordinary: rather it’s an extrapolation into total brutality, bullying and humiliation of the harassment of women thought not just tolerated, but even encouraged in daily life for as long as records have been truthfully kept. An ad which just appeared, made by India Ford shows how this kind of behavior which so hurts and maims women’s in life is made a joke of and thus tolerated. The idea is the Ford contains a trunk big enough to tie three women up in and transport them so you can beat and rape them.
In listening to Bronte’s Villette an early powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She left a stifling job as an old crippled women’s companion, and now desperately needs a new job. She knows no one, had no close relatives in the UK she could turn to, so after spending a week or so alone exploring London (in a kind of lonely exhilaration), she travels with the thought of seeing the world, widening her experience. She wants to see Paris. Getting off the boat, she is given an address by a kind stranger. She leaves her trunk with the boatman and sets out. It’s nighttime. And soon she finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. She had not thought about this common reality. Terrified, she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. Exhausted, she sees a light at a boarding school, and she goes over for safety. A knock and she is let in. Relief. She finds herself in a school which has just lost a servant. Madame Beck takes her in. The incident determines the course of her life.
Exaggerated? Maybe in the way the results embodied.
It’s a harrowing sequence. Yvette was in the car with me and it gripped both of us. We were this young woman, with her.
Similarly early Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the chief male (who becomes Anna’s lover), Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to a demi-monde woman he finds in his flat, which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. He is explaining why he has not been back to the flat for a number of hours. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home to a non-prestigious building, and they thought her living alone. They see her go in, unprotected start up the stairs. Well, open season. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day her irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was this man’s pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress. How she felt when pregnant leaving the theater, and stumbled when aroused by trepidation she rushed up the stairs, and managed to lock her door, and then ignore the knocks.
But the accent of the story is not on the woman on the other side of the door. The sequence is not harrowing. The accent is on Vronsky, his tone; his concern is with his regiment, and he mentions the young woman’s fear to acknowledge his comrades overdid. The purpose of the story is to reveal Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde woman as a joke. I have not got up to her response, but as I recall when I read the book on my own she says little and leaves soon after.
Only in the novel I’m typing slowly to make an edition for Valancourt, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, do we find an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Late in the novel Ethelinde is staying with a female cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s now poor, her father dead, the house far from anyone outside the household. She loves to walk deep into the landscape; well, one afternoon they chase after her. The result is not a plot-hinge in the manner of Villette, nor is it a way of capturing some essential qualities of an ambiguous male protagonist. Rather it plays a part in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. The reader is not surprised; the anxiety worked up when Ethelinde arrived was precisely trepidation that this sort of thing harassment would be what Ethelinde would have to contend with, though quite what form it would take remained unknown.
As a teenage girl I had such experiences. At age 13 I did not know how to fend them off; by age 15 I wanted to and remember distinctly running frantically home, arriving out of breathe and astonishing my father with my trauma over it. I know after that I did not go out at night in the place where we were staying. Indeed my lifelong homebody habits come partly from such experiences
When I wrote to Women Writers though the Ages that the Steubenville rape is a crude ugly real life version of what I had been listening to and read. How far it can go. Within a couple of minutes one member of the listserv community who lives in Germany wrote in pithily:
As if no further proof were needed: see this Indian Ford car add: three scantily-dressed young women with big breasts poppig out of their top are tied up, bound, gagged, in the boot of its Figo car. “Speechless” wrote Fran.