feminism

Into the Woods: the Symposium

Last Wednesday, I hopped on the train and made my way to Melbourne Uni for the ‘Into the Woods’ symposium run by History of Emotions. You can find their program here.

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It was a full and wonderful day, focusing on the forest in literature, fairy tales, poetry, contemporary culture and ecology. Unsurprisingly, I’ll focus on the fairy tale presentations I saw. If you’d like an abbreviated version, I tweeted my notes over here. I didn’t make it in time for the keynote speaker, but caught morning tea, and met the lovely Caitlyn, who, coincidentally came down on the same train, from the same town! We live less than 5 minutes away from each other. A lovely way to start the day.

And so, onto proceedings. You may want to read each speaker’s abstracts in the program for a clearer idea of what they spoke about. I’m working solely from my scribbled notes here.

Victoria Tedeschi spoke about the idea that, while we think of the forest as a dangerous place, “Fairy Tales’ most arduous trials take place inside (in the human realm), not in the forest itself.” The forest is actually a place for fostering identity: a place for growth and change. It is in the human domain that danger lies. In the beginning of the industrial age, cities became dirty and full of squalor, and so the first public parks were created… while the ‘wild’ forests were thought to be unruly, even ugly. They were seen to be in the way of agricultural progress. The ‘wild’ fairy tale forest was a place to lose oneself, and find a new identity. It is a means of escape.

I got most excited about Victoria’s reading of Hansel and Gretel. In the beginning of the story, Gretel is completely reliant on her brother. She’s helpless, relying on him to lay (unsuccessful) trails of crumbs and stones. However, after their trek through the woods, and entrapment by the witch in her candy house, she find the power to defeat the witch (by kicking her into the oven) and is the one to lead them home. Hansel, after being caged by the witch, is now lamenting the helplessness of their situation. Gretel, through her time in the forest, has formed a connection to the environment, and even enlists the help of a duck. She finds their way home, pockets full of sweets and jewels, in this way also ensuring her own financial independence. Totally blew my mind. Thanks Victoria!

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By Leutemann or Offterdinger, photo by Harke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Next up we had Rebecca-Anne C. do Rozario with Agony! Misery! Woe!: An Excess of Love in the Forest.  She spoke of the forest as a place of exile and refuge, and also, apparently, full of princes! She discussed the women writers from the court of Louis XIV. They often wrote of exile to the forest while they themselves risked the danger of exile to their country estates if they displeased the King. Not the worst danger they could have faced, but it certainly met social death. Rebecca-Anne discussed Catherine Bernard and Madame D’Aulnoy, particularly D’Aulnoy’s celebration of the male body. D’Aulnoy’s The White Hind explored the idea of a beautiful old woman, much different to the old hag we usually read about in fairy tales, and also the disturbance of the usual heterosexual pairing, with a strong female friendship at the heart of the tale.

D’Aulnoy’s story Le Mouton, features a metamorphosed sheep dripping with splendid jewels, and speaks of him in sensual terms, which leads me to my favourite quote from the day, (from Patricia Hannon): “The indolent sheep is the creation of the female libido.” Don’t you love it? I want it on a coffee mug. Anyway, female writers of the time often led sexually adventurous lives themselves, and didn’t shy away from writing about female desire in their writing.

Back in the forest, Rebecca-Anne discussed Marina Warner’s view of the wolf: he is symbolic of desire itself, and a counterpoint to the old crone, or witch in the woods. The prince too, is an artifice of desire. He is chasing, not the princess in particular, but desire itself.

Athena Bellas spoke next, on An Escape to the Forest in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.  She discussed the film and its representation of gender, resistance and space; and also the relationship between the film and the Red Riding Hood stories by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. There is a strong focus on what comes of straying from the path, physically and socially. Interestingly, Athena also discussed the idea of horror being in the home rather than in the wild forest (I’d really like to cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post): In the film, Ringing Hood is escaping her abusive father, and the forest is a marginal space. Through lighting and framing, it is represented as a freeing space for her. Athena has a particular interest in the voice over, where Riding Hood is in control of her own narrative.

She also discussed the differing German and French ideas of the forest in Grimms’ and Perrault’s stories. The German forests are dark and foreboding, while the french are manicured and relatively tame. A place of looming fear vs. a place of wonder.

Amazingly, all the above (and more) was covered in an hour. In the next session we started with Sarah Bartels discussing the the symbolism of the devil in 19th Century English Woodland. She pointed out some of the many plants that were named after the devil, for the simple reason that they were poisonous, spiky, or even just unpleasant to the taste. Sarah looked at the relationship between the natural world (plants and animals) and the supernatural one, and how the balance between the two was negotiated in the beliefs and superstitions of the time.

I then snuck into the other seminar room (multiple presentations make for some very difficult decision making!) to catch Jessica Hancock‘s paper on The Question of Experience and Fiction in Regards to Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.  She discussed the postmodern idea of whether the artist can be divorced from the work they make – is the connection important? There is an expectation that when an author writes about a place (even in historical fiction) they should have been there, and the belief that with the physical experience of a place it becomes part of the story, not just background. Stef Penney wrote about the Canadian wilderness as if she had lived there all her life, and people believed she had… until it was revealed that she lived in London, was intensely agoraphobic, and did all her research at the library. Should that make us read her story differently? Many people believe so, and it is hard to keep it out of mind while reading the book, even unintentionally.

David Haworth spoke next on Silence, Speech and the Unruly Forest: From Fairy Tales to Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, where:

 ‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’- Christopher Manes.

In fairy tales, the forest is loud with (non human) voices, where in The Bluebird Café, the forest is forced into silence. Speech is an expressive of an internal self, a gift bestowed on the forest in fairy tales. In Red Riding Hood we are unsurprised to hear the wolf speak: he is the seductive danger of the forest: His voice is seductive, as is his ability to spin words. David spoke of semiotics as the ‘other’ of language: Not language itself, but entwined with it. In The Bluebird Café the forest has encroached on the town, taken over it. The town and the missing girl are both ghosts, both silenced. Even in flashbacks the girl is mute. The speaking human has privilege in Western cultures, but Bird’s novel makes space for the non-speaking Tasmanian forest in her narrative.

And… break for lunch. Phew. Our brains were overflowing, but the next hour was a wonderful chance to meet several people I heard speak: Sarah Bartels, Victoria Tedeschi and Rebecca-Anne were all fantastic to chat to, and I’m glad to have made their acquaintance. Working away from my keyboard in a relatively small town means I tend to forget that there are real people out there, talking and thinking about the things I’m interested in. And I can talk to them, in real life. I’m so grateful to the organisers of the symposium, and all the wonderful presenters. I haven’t covered all I sat in on, but these were the most relevant to my work, and this blog.

Many thanks to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Melbourne University, and whoever the caterers were, for the very delicious lunch.

You can follow Victoria, Rebecca-Anne and Athena on Twitter.

Reclaim the Night: Castlemaine

On Saturday night, more that 300 women took the streets of our town to Reclaim the Night.

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We were sick of feeling unsafe walking the streets at night. We were tired of having to think up good ‘come backs’ for men who felt that they were entitled to our attention. We were angry that our daughters will one day feel the same fear and exhaustion and anger.
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 And on Saturday night, we were exuberant, joyful, and strong as we walked as one.
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Men were asked not to walk with us: it was a walk we needed to make alone, but we were thankful for their support, their applause, and the soup they had waiting for us when we reached Castlemaine’s Victory Park.
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I wasn’t a part of the organisation of the event: that job was carried out tirelessly by a incredible group of woman, but I was there with my eldest daughter and her friend (and my camera). Mari is nearly 12, and I told her as much as I could about why we were there. How we want to feel safe from violence, both domestic and on the street. That there are people who sometimes make us feel unsafe, or act out in violence against us, and that is not ok. It is never ok.
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It got me thinking how much I didn’t want to tell my daughters. I don’t want them to know the full extant to which women are hurt and abused. I don’t wan’t them to know about the details of rape, or of violent abuse, or even that some find sport in just making us feel uncomfortable. That some people will treat us with less respect, just because we’re the ‘wrong’ sex. That it’s endemic in our culture, and it’s bloody hard to fight something that is so ingrained that in so many cases it has become invisible. They will know soon enough, and I wish with everything I’ve got that their knowledge won’t be first hand.
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And it got me thinking about the stories we tell them, the stories we have always told our children, about keeping themselves safe. How for thousands of years we have taught them not to venture into the deep dark woods alone, because who knows what might be lurking.
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We tell them about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Hansel and Gretel and the witch in the woods, Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga, so they know be wary of walking alone. We tell them about Cinderella, Snow White, The Girl Without Hands, All Kinds of Fur, so they know that know that abuse can happen in the home too. These are stories they can absorb as entertainment; a lesson given with going into the realities of abuse and violence. A warning wrapped up in a fairy tale.
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On that walk, I felt a solidarity with the women around me, and also for the mothers stretching back through time: who for thousands of years have felt the same urge to keep their children safe from harm, who felt just as reluctant to expose their children to the true harshness of the world they were living in, and who used stories to wrap up the terrors of the world.
I wish we didn’t need those stories. I wish we didn’t have to keep fighting for a world in which we are all equal and safe from harm. Ah yes, if wishes were horses…, and so we march, write, protest, and stand up for ourselves and others whenever we can.
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Our girls are our future women, and they deserve a future in which they feel safe and powerful in their own skin.
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Early Women Photographers: Part I (The Pioneers)

I shared a few early women photographers on Twitter a few days ago, and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here, as a follow on from my posts on Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales and Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales. Many early women photographers used the fairy tale in their work: limited by social expectations, they stayed close to home and photographed their own friends and family in fashionably allegorical and fantastical scenes. But as you can see here, the very early women pioneers, those working in the 1800s before photography was a respectable hobby, were doing anything but chasing fairies…

Constance Fox Talbot was the wife of the much heralded inventor of photography William Henry Fox Talbot. She is thought to be the first woman to have made a photograph, but doesn’t get much credit for it. At least she is held up for her enthusiasm. Here’s what Maev Kennedy had to say in the Guardian:

There is also a rather dull image of four hazy lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript, on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, the first photograph by a woman.

“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.


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and her husband were friends with the Talbots, and she soon began experimenting with photography too. She is also credited by some sources to have made the first photography by a woman. Neither Constance or Anna used a camera for their ‘first’ images, so the title is contentious. Anna is best know for her cyanotypes of botanical samples, which she began creating not long after family friend John Hershal invented the process in 1942. She published a book of her work a year later, the first photographically illustrated publication. Anna dedicated her life to the study of biology and its representation with the cyanotype process, and has left us with a beautiful and scientifically important legacy.

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Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri was an early French photographer. She also began experimenting with photography in 1842 after her marriage to fellow photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. They ran a studio together in Brest, France until he left for Paris in 1852. She ran the studio alone, until moving to Paris and setting up her own atelier there in 1872. She worked as a portrait photographer for many years, but is best know for her architectural views of Brest.

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Thora Hallager brings us back momentarily to Fairy Tales. She was a working portrait photographer, and landlady to Hans Christian Anderson. They wrote often, and she produced a portrait of him in 1869. You can read their letters if your Danish is good, or run them through Google translate, as I have done below. In that letter, he states (as far as I can tell from a clunky translation) how pleased he is with his portrait. It seems that Thora was a professional photographer her whole life, and never married.

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Sofia Carolina Ahlbom  is described on Wikipedia as “a Swedish drawing artist, engraver, lithographer, photographer, map maker, writer, poet and feminist.” I like her already. She supported her family as a professional artist after moving to Stockholm in 1832, and never married. She was also an active writer, and engaged in politics, particularly regarding women’s rights. Ok, now I would very much like to have her to dinner. I couldn’t find any of her photographs, but I couldn’t not include her.

Julia Margaret Cameron was probably one of the most famous of early women photographers. She started working with photographer late in her life, and photographed almost solely her friends and family, often in allegorical and legendary scenes. She also worked her neighbour, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, to produce a photographically illustrated book of his poems. Her works were often derided as being limp and fanciful by her (male) contemporaries, but her legacy is a strong one. Her images may often be soft, but the there is no denying the life and power within them.

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Julia heralded a new wave of women photographers: women who viewed photography as a means for creative expression. Mostly, these early photographers were of the upper classes, and to keep their respectability stuck subjects close to home. They photographed their children and friends, usually in the garden and grounds of their family home. Photography was suddenly a respectable hobby, which meant a flourishing of images that represented allegory, fantasy and fairy tale.

I will explore the creative lives of Victorian Female Photographers in Part II of this series, next time…

How to Destroy a Fairy Tale

images-2You’ve all heard the cry that Disney is destroying ‘true’ fairy tales, one by one. Probably also that contemporary re-writers of fairy tales are twisting them into corrupt and damaged things, particularly those YA authors, with all that sex and death and hormones. It’s a cry that has rung out before; when sentimentality reigned in Victorian times; when tales were first fixed in writing instead of living in the oral tradition. It’s not a rare thing to decry the contemporary moment as the worst and most corrupting time for some beloved part of our culture. It happens with music/art/fashion. Photography meant the death of painting. (It didn’t). The mini skirt was the end of style. (It wasn’t). Rock and roll would corrupt us all. (We seem to be doing ok).

Fairy tales seem to hold a certain sanctity for us – probably because they link firmly back to our childhood. In our minds they are a sacred text. We hold close the Golden Books, anthologies and worn editions of Grimm and Anderson that gave us our safe and predictable Once upon a times and Happily ever afters. It is that sensation, I’m sure, that causes many to lament the contemporary ruination of those ‘original’ fairy tales.

What we often forget though is that there is absolutely no such thing as an original fairy tale. As I’ve written about previously, Cinderella can be traced back to old China. Sleeping Beauty has so many incarnations and variations, and exists in some form or another in so many cultures, that it’s impossible to trace it back to one source. And it’s the same for most of the tales we know and love. There is no original version. Stories pass through cultures and times like roughly spun wool through cloth; changing colour and ply as they go. Sometimes hidden, sometime caught up in a knot, but running unbroken throughout generations.

525e1-knittingThis is what frustrates me about the claim that we’re spoiling them now. We might not agree with how the Disney corporation treats its princesses (I certainly don’t!), but they have as much of a place in the evolution of fairy tales as did the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In fact I have as much of a bone to pick with Anderson over his portrayal of women as Disney – if not more so.

I recently read someone expressing their anger over writers like Neil Gaiman claiming to ‘fix’ fairy tales by altering gender roles and storylines. And I agree wholeheartedly with her argument that that we can’t let new stories suppress the old ones, but we’ve been ‘fixing’ fairy tales ever since we’ve been telling them. Every generation alters its fairy tales to fit within their own cultural context – stories would soon lose their power and agency if we didn’t. Yes, we need the comfort and lessons of tradition, but we also need to relate. And if that means reading female protagonists who more closely fit our feminist ideals, well then hoorah! About time too. And if YA and Adult Fiction writers are putting sex and death back into fairy tales (there was plenty of it before anthologists like the Brothers Grimm realised that parents were reading their stories to their children), then great! There’s room for all of it.

I argue that the only way to destroy a fairy tale is to freeze it in time; to leave it locked in a glass case, untouched and ‘sacred’. Fairy Tales have always evolved, they are right now, and they will continue to far into the future. And may they live happily ever after.

PS: This blog post has suddenly had an extra 250+ views via Facebook overnight, but I don’t know who or where from. If it was you, thank you! If you are one of those many lovely people who clicked over, I’d love to know who led you here. If you could leave a comment and let me know, I’d be ever thankful.  Lorena.

Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales

Yesterday on Twitter, I shared a few of the Golden Age’s female illustrators and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here. There is a difference between the ‘Golden Age’ of fairy tales, and the one of illustration, but the artists I share here cover both. They were illustrating fairy tales at the time when both fairy tales and illustration was at their peak, around the first two decades of the 20th Century.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

12618351_1198685337_e279793bc0560b5207Ida was an Australian Illustrator, and she often included local flora and fauna in her fairy tale illustrations. She worked predominantly with pen & ink, and watercolour. Her use of silhouettes, and the detail within them, is breathtaking. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, and worked and lived there all of her life. You can read more about her life here, and do make sure you view a google image search of her works here.

I had a couple of her books as a child, and loved her work. I still do. The illustration shown is taken from her 1921 book The Enchanted Woods, which she collaborated on with her husband Grenbry, and you can see here how she often imbues her work with a gentle humour – a koala with a top hat and walking stick – of course!

Virginia Frances Sterrett

Old_French_Fairy_Tales_(Virginia_Sterrett,_1920)Poor Virginia only lived a short 31 years, after contracting tuberculosis at 19, around the same time as she received her first commission. Her ability to work declined over the 12 years she had left, and her last collection of works, based around the Arabian nights, took several years. She’s one of my favourite fairy tale illustrators.

Dark but full of light, delicate but with an incredible strength of line, her work always catches me deep in the chest. Go, bask in her genius here.

 Florence Harrison

tumblr_n83tdaOdRN1rtdn1mo5_500There’s very little on Wikipedia on Florence, and her true identity has been disputed, but this website dedicated to her and a collection of her works looks like it may clear things up, and is a fascinating read into one woman’s love for Florence’s work.

Florence was an Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite artist. She illustrated the writings of Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson, as well as poetry and fairy tales. She also wrote poetry and short stories herself.

In the illustration pictured here, you can feel the chill wind and lonely melancholy of Rapunzel in her tower.

Frances MacDonald (MacNair)

Frances was a Scottish artist, whose every claim for fame seems to have been overshadowed or thwarted by others. Not only was she the younger (and lesser known) sister of Margaret MacDonald, who in turn was overshadowed by her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but her husband also destroyed many works after her death. Makes you want to scream doesn’t it? Anyway, she certainly wasn’t a shrinking violet in her lifetime (she was a founding member of the Glasgow School), and she deserves to be better known. View more of her works here.

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Anne Anderson

anne_anderson_little_mermaid_foamAnne Anderson was a Scottish Illustrator, and by the sound of it, had a nice, normal prolific life. No TB (though she did only live to 56 now that I look again), no obvious overshadowing by others, and no disappearing into obscurity. She married fellow illustration Alan Wright, and they collaborated on many projects, on which she is believed to have been the driving force.

Her work, mostly in watercolour, is much like her life appears to have been (though of course who are we to assume?): beautifully executed, probably conventional for her time, but really quite lovely.

That was by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Do you have a favourite illustrator that I missed?

Brave Girls of Fairy Tales

For those new to my work, I thought I’d give you a brief introduction into what I do. My recent artwork has been focussed strongly on strong girls and women in fairy tales.

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Vasilisa

They may be Vasilisa who outwitted the Baba Yaga and her own wicked sisters, the Scottish single mother who rescued her son from the faery-like Sidh, the Japanese daughter of the Moon who refused an earthly marriage, the African Moremi who questioned her people’s blind faith in those disguised as gods and ventured alone into an enemy town. They are the women who acted bravely and independently within a male dominated society, and those who ruled their own. They are the girls who survived and prospered because of their own bravery, kindness and wisdom. They are the characters and protagonists who all but disappeared in the face of the Victorian era’s dictates on the female place in society. They are the girls and women who deserve to have their stories brought back to new readers.

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Baba Yaga’s House

The advent of the fairy tale’s golden age in the late 19th and early 20th Century was a boon for the cultural spread of traditional stories, and for fairy tales as we know them today, but a great loss for the representation of girls and women in those tales. The imposition of Victorian values onto the stories meant that any female character with a whiff of independence or initiative was rewritten, or written out, completely. My hope is to bring those protagonists back to light.

 A Mother’s Gift I & II

A Mother’s Gift I & II

A Mother’s Gift I & II were created as illustrations for an old Gaelic fairy tale; The Stolen Bairn and the Sidhe. The story evokes the power of a mother’s love, in the telling of a woman who bribes her baby back from the fairies who have taken him, thinking him an orphan. She makes a harp from driftwood and bones, and strings it with her own hair, and a blanket woven also from her hair. As they were given of herself and made with a mother’s love, the blanket is the softest ever felt, and the harp the sweetest sounding. The fairies can’t resist her gifts, and she is reunited with her baby boy.

When not directly interpreting fairy tales, I often still use them as inspiration, as in Wild Swans below.

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Wild Swans

All of my work is created through the medium of photography. I photograph each element of the image separately, then digitally manipulate and montage them together. In the case of A Mother’s Gilft I & II, about twelve individual photographs were used for each image. Many of my other images have used upwards of fifty. I will talk further about my process in a future post.

If you’d like to see more of my work, you can visit my website here, and watch the short video below.