- Martine Desjardins (Author)
Fairy Ring. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Karen J. Blair (Author)
Women in Pacific Northwest History. Rev. ed.. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jill MacLachlan
In recent years, the Victorian period has been the focus of artistic and popular interest. However, as the sales of fish-net stockings, Toulouse-Lautrec prints, and a new version of the decadent drink of choice, Absinthe, escalate in the wake of the release of the film Moulin Rouge, it seems clear that the versions of nineteenth-century history and culture currently having the most currency are those that aestheticize, glamourize, and commodify the Victorians. Two books—Women in Pacific Northwest History, a revised edition of an anthology first published in 1988, and Desjardins’s novel Fairy Ring—attempt to trouble this very sort of stylization by exploring the complex and often violent facets of gender, class, race, and sexual ideologies, particularly in North America, during the Age of Victoria.
Unlike many texts seeking merely to insert and to foreground the histories of women or of once neglected minority groups into pre-existing patriarchal canons, Women in Pacific Northwest History elucidates how, in the words of Susan Armitage, "attention to gender relationships offers historians a new and powerful way to understand power relationships within a given society."
These gendered "histories" are located within a specific geographical region, the American Pacific Northwest, although one essay by Sylvia Van Kirk explores the role of native women in the fur trade in Western Canada. This spatial focus enables the text not only to "span a much wider spectrum of history [and cultures], from late-eighteenth-century traders to the modern Chicana experience" and to explore with an impressive thoroughness and depth areas such as "New Directions for Research," "Politics and Law," "Work," "Race and Ethnicity," and "The Arts," but also to connect local histories and cultures with larger dominant historical-cultural issues, debates, and ideologies.
This collection is eclectic and its scope is broad, with essays ranging from David Peterson del Mar’s "Portland and the Whipping Post Law" to Mary Bywater Cross’s "Quilts in the Lives of Women Who Migrated to the Northwest, 1850-1990," but the contributions fit together quite well. It is richly comprehensive without being definitive.
As a work of fiction, Fairy Ring might be considered the antithesis of Women In Pacific Northwest History. Yet, while Desjardins’s vision of life in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia is highly interpretive, it is also grounded in meticulously researched historical evidence, as well as Freudian and feminist psychoanalysis, particularly l’écriture féminine, as derived from Cixous and Irigaray.
Fairy Ring centres on the personal histories of Clara Weiss, a learned young woman who has found herself saved from spinster-hood but trapped in a loveless marriage to Dr. Edmond Weiss, a cold but learned gentleman scientist specializing in the study of mycology and crystallography; and Captain Ian Ryder, the leader of an Arctic expedition, who has sublet his house at Blackpool, Nova Scotia to the newlywed Clara and Edmond while he is away. The story is fragmentary; the actions, thoughts, feelings, and interrelationships of the characters are slowly and only partially gleaned by the reader from Clara’s diary entries, Captain Ryder’s logbook, and letters between characters, such as Clara’s aunt Hortense, and her stylish debutante sister Irene. Although the reader is given a sense of intimacy with the characters through such seemingly personal writings, a cold distance also emerges. Like the icebergs Captain Ryder must dodge during his expedition, Desjardins’s characters loom large, but they hide more than they show.
The style, part confessional, part scientific logbook, is highly effective and appropriate, considering that, as the back cover points out, the text is set in 1895, "the year Freud published his ground-breaking essay on hysteria." We become both analyst and patient when we read Clara’s accounts of her troubling dreams, rife with sexual imagery, after she is forced by her husband to undergo a series of rather traumatic sleep and refrigeration treatments at the hands of Dr. W. Clavel, an apparent specialist in hysteria, when she refuses to perform her "wifely duties." The "cures" prescribed for Clara produce rather than treat her supposedly inherent "feminine diseases," although Clara is also able to use invalidism in order to shirk her "duties."
Through her sensitive portrayal of one woman’s triumph over incursions into her mind and body at the hands of various patriarchal institutions, Desjardins thus resists both the objectifying thrust of Victorian empirical representation, and more recent tendencies to view the Victorian past with a nostalgic, rather than critical, eye.
- Life Lessons by Ian Dennis
Books reviewed: The Horn of a Lamb by Robert Sedlack
- Perfect Cree by Margery Fee
Books reviewed: Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
- Liberté surveillée by Mylène Lévesque
Books reviewed: Betsi Larousse ou l'ineffable eccéité de la loutre by Louis Hamelin and Un sourire incertain by Bernard Lévy
- An Epistolary Tandem by Marta Dvorak
Books reviewed: Clara Callan by Richard Wright
- Classical Riffs by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Fabrizio's Return by Mark Frutkin
MLA: MacLachlan, Jill. Victorian Violations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 118 - 119)
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