Don’t Fail Me Now

Dear Millicent,

It is a cruel thing when something you love lets you down. It is also one of the most powerful things that television can do besides inform you about disasters and keep you company when other people are sleeping. TV is not the most respected of mediums, and I hold the same expectations for most things that I watch on TV as the over-thick general fiction novels I used to hoard from the Tucson public library: pleasure first, with an outside chance of mastery.

And TV has a fair chance of being supergood. The 2000s have been full of breathless television. We are such a good generation at mixing quality with pleasure, just look at our trends of food and drink. In the 1990s, our swoons were limited to Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and MSCL. I was a much younger viewer then, a different demographic entirely, but I just don’t remember anybody talking about how great TV was. I watched a thousand pounds more of it a day, but it rarely landed in my gut like art. It landed like salt.  It was delicious. It was the stuff that made a future dreamable, collaged, and fully outfitted.  It was what people were doing somewhere.

But that’s barely here or where. I want to get back to heartbreak. I want to talk about Bramwell. Netflix had recommended the show to me for months, and I kept pushing it aside because it looked a tad…bunned? The title card was of a Victorian woman by a fireplace looking all inquisitive and honest while sitting next to a microscope.  It looked like a grown up American Girl movie.  What finally pushed me into this 31 hour affair were the comments over at The Hairpin in response to a post I had written about the maxi-drama Poldark.  Somebody said that the main character got into “scrapes.” If you speak Anne Shirley, I listen.

And the first episode swallowed me whole. It was Victorian, but about syphilis! And it was feminist, well-written, and well-costumed.  Half procedural (think a kind of feminist Victorian version of House), half melodrama about what it’s like to be a working Lady (by the way, I want to start a new academic branch called Lady Studies), Bramwell is a dream come true.  You get mystery, you get silver chafing dishes, you get extreme power structures to dissect, and you get the fun of another time and place. Surgeries happened every episode, often on the kitchen table!  Genre at its best, teasing out all the big ideas, but foremost entertaining and soothing its audience while it pokes at the tender bits of what a society makes.

I was in love. I savored the show, knowing it only had 31 episodes the way I knew Anne of Green Gables series only had 8 books. It was a lovely length–long enough to know you couldn’t gobble it, but finite. It was constructed smartly enough that you fell into full trust with its creators. The characters are complicated. They say the perfect thing, but it isn’t the one you were expecting.  Elinor Bramwell is a trained doctor who starts a hospital in the East End. She lives with her father, also a doctor, and is constantly navigating her future and place. Can she be a wife and a doctor? Will she be an old maid? What were the expectations of class, virtue, and philanthropy in Victorian England?

As with our particular stories of headstrong, intelligent women who have just the right spark of pluck and grace, we all immediately identify with our lead. She is Elizabeth, Anne, Rilla, Wonapalei. I watched this show looking for answers (I watch a lot of television looking for revelations, personal or universal). How do we find work that uses our best skills? How do you navigate privilege and service? How do you utilize, dismantle or deflect patriarchy? I’m not kidding. There were breathless moments in this show, usually alone and late at night, where I thought we were getting somewhere, me and Elinor.  I thought by episode 31, some new answer was going to get cracked out of me.

I thought this all the way up to episode 29, where I so want to tell you what happens, but cannot, because I also really want you to watch this show.  But I want you stop watching at episode 29. Then turn it off like the book is over.  No more pages.

I also want to find Lucy Gannon, the show’s creator and main writer, and beg an interview with her. Something huge happened between the end of the second season (episode 29) and the strange 4 hours that make up  season 4 (episodes 30-31). My guess is that Gannon would defend her choice, but I want to know why. Did the producers go crazy? Did she want to sober up all of us slobbering romantics, pegging our lives on the constructed adventures of gamine do-gooders? Something happened! Professionally, personally, cosmically, Bramwell got fucked.

All I can say is that the feminism, heavily installed in the series, fully goes out the window. Beloved characters disappear with no explanation, characters become unrecognizable, and the theme music gets really bad.  Up until the very end, I was holding my breath, sure this was all a grand architecture to make the ending glow like the best of television endings. But it didn’t. It did the worst thing, and pretended that the crap was just what we wanted. It broke our hearts. There are lots of us, according to the old Masterpiece Theatre forums on the PBS website.  We are all astonishment.

So now I have to go back to answering my own questions about my life, without the crutch of what would Elinor do? And she was played by a Redgrave (Jemma), and you know you can always trust a Redgrave!

It was dreamy while it lasted. And then, the evidence changed, all collapsed.

Lesson: good endings must not be assumed, and in television, dreadfully, cannot be earned.

Yours,

CF

 

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Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.

Fondly,

Millicent

P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.