On heroines and servants…

I’ve been struggling to find my “voice” for this blog lately, most because I’ve been out of sorts and couldn’t really say why.  My sister thinks it’s because I’m “at loose ends” as I try to figure out where I’m going with the rest of my life.  It certainly doesn’t help that I’ve been hit with a series of financial inconveniences that have me trying to decide between curtailing even more of my “wants” or getting another job, which I frankly feel too tired and burned out (still!) to do.

The great thing about being an avid reader, though, is that often books give me perspective and help me understand that nothing I’m experiencing is particularly new under the sun.  My two most recent reads — as well as a Spanish television show I have been obsessed with — have reminded me that many (most?) people struggle with who they want to be and where they want to go with their lives, and that no matter how much money you have, it may not ever be “enough”.

In How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much (Random House, 2014), British playwright Samantha Ellis explores how her life trajectory has imitated or been influenced by the heroines in her favorite books.  As an Iraqi Jewish exile, Ellis has an unusual cultural backdrop to her English upbringing.  Much of the tension in the book, then, is a result of the disconnect between her family’s expectations and her own wish for the independence to pursue a literary career.  Ellis’ choice of heroines is in many respects quintessentially British:  Anne of Green Gables, for example, or Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. But she also throws in surprising (for her age) characters like the women from the 1966 American novel, Valley of the Dolls, or Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. The result is an entertaining, though at times somewhat forced, juxtaposition of fiction and reality.  If you grew up, like I did, framing your world view around the books you read, this volume will give you lots to think about and contemplate.  What I realized after reading it, though, is that my life hasn’t been shaped nearly as much by the fictional characters I’ve met as by the real-life heroines I’ve known, people like my mother and grandmothers.

Both of my grandmothers faced enormous, almost unimaginable, financial crises (they were pregnant and raising children during the Great Depression, after all), and did so at a time when their options were entirely circumscribed by societal and family expectations.  Yet what I remember about both of them is their dignity, their ability to find joy in simple things like “dancing” with their dog, and their kindness.  Whenever I begin to feel frustrated, I try to remember that I have choices neither of them had, have done more traveling than they could ever even vaguely dream of, and have a level of financial security they would find luxurious.

All of which was reinforced by reading the book Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell (St. Martin’s Press, 1968).  Powell’s memoir, when it was published, was groundbreaking in its revelations about the world of the servants in Britain’s wealthy households in the early twentieth century.  Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has said that this volume influenced his vision for that immensely popular television show.  Powell has a direct, no-nonsense writing style that mirrors the difficulties she endured in her life.  Born in 1907 to an impoverished working-class family, she had no choice but to leave school at the age of thirteen to starting working, eventually going into “service” in a series of great houses.  Class differences and assumptions loom large in this book.  Many of Powell’s employers would have been surprised, I think, to discover that she even had thoughts and opinions, such was their contempt for those born into the lower classes.

As I read, I couldn’t help but think on the current debate about income inequality in this country.  There seems to me to be an ongoing effort on the part of many to portray poverty as a moral failure, and books like Powell’s do a good job of showing how the system has always been organized by those on top to make it easier to guard their prerogatives.  What I found interesting about Powell’s narrative was the contradiction between her oft expressed bitterness about the way she was both paid and treated as a servant and this conclusion:

I’d love to be rich…I don’t particularly envy rich people but I don’t blame them.  They try and hang on to their money, and if I had it I’d hang on to it too.  Those people who say the rich should share what they’ve got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it’s only because they haven’t got it they think that way.  I wouldn’t reckon to share mine around.

This is certainly an interesting summation of human nature.  I’m not sure I would call Powell a heroine, but she exudes a resourcefulness and courage that is admirable.

Another thing that struck me about Powell’s book were the number of households she worked in that were desperately trying to “keep up appearances” in the face of reduced circumstances.  Indeed one of the lessons I’ve taken away from being a reader of history in general is that even kings and queens can feel financial pressures, so my own concerns are anything but unique.  One of the main themes in my latest obsession, the Spanish television series, Gran Hotel, revolves around this very premise.

Gran Hotel is billed as a sort of Downton Abbey, and it is an equally lavish and engaging series, albeit much soapier.  Set in a luxury hotel on the northern coast of Spain at the turn of the twentieth century, the Gran Hotel is owned by the grasping Alarcón family.  There is murder, manipulation, financial wrangling, and a forbidden romance between the owner’s youngest daughter, Alicia and a waiter, Julio.  The good news about mentioning the series here is that it is available on Netflix with English subtitles, so even if you don’t know Spanish it is accessible.  (Though if you do know Spanish it is that much more enjoyable, and a good way to practice.)  I’m not one to watch a lot of television, but what started out as an effort to keep up my language skills ended with my being drawn in by the characters, the setting, the mysteries and pacing, and the just plain fun!

In a previous post I mentioned Alberto Manguel, who has said “Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.”  What I already know, from my reading and what I chose to view on television, is that my concerns are not unique.  It helps to be reminded of that.


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