Sunday, April 6, 2014

#Mimi, #Musetta and Revisionist Women’s History

Home from seeing the #Metropolitan Opera’s superb revival of #La Boheme, with Mimi performed by a replacement who had just a few hours’ notice. Christina #Opolais, who sang the Met’s equally exhausting role of Cho Cho San in Madama Butterfly last night, gave the finest performance of Mimi I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen more than twenty performances of La Boheme.) It was a “first” in the Met’s history -- a soprano play leading rolls on two consecutive nights, the second being her Met debut in the role.
But it’s not the magnificent performance Opolais gave, or the feat of her performing the role on two hours sleep -- but the theme of the opera itself that jostles deeper thought. 

It’s the truthfulness of the two female characters in the opera, when in history, film  and novel we’ve given up truth in favor of social engineering: the laudable, but in my view overdone, attempt to support women’s self-image with myriad myths of heroic women who are offered to us as the “real” forces in history.

“The helmet came off and down tumbled her auburn curls,” so, with hilarity, a reader of historical novels summed up for me the obsession of writers and publishers for ludicrously fictionalizing the past. 

There were a few women warriors, Boudica, Zenobia… but the list is very short and they came to quick, bad ends. Well, not so bad for #Zenobia. After being paraded in chains through Rome, she retired to Tivoli and focused her efforts on finding rich husbands for her daughters. But the eager mother-in-law is not exactly the wonder woman profile promoted by modern fiction.
The historical fact that seems almost unmentionable these days is that women, from the mid-20th century on back through cave dwelling times (Jane Auel notwithstanding) had very few choices in life.

A woman could become a wife. Although there were many happy marriages, her legal condition was that of being the property of a man: her father, then her husband. If she was mistreated she had almost no recourse. In country life she might prosper, or not, doing farm work. In cities she was often her husband’s assistant in manufacturing or shop-keeping. 

A woman with considerable intelligence could maneuver in such bondage, and many did, whittling out a position of regard for themselves independent of their husbands. They could influence a few men, but the accepted scope for their actions was domestic, and, with the exception of a very few, and those mostly queens, their actions were indirect in the arena of events that form history. 

Do I hear an outcry from readers and writers? Let’s face up to the fact that there were very few exceptions to the legal, marital slavery in which most women through all time have lived.

Yes, a woman might not marry: she could become a dependent in her family, with a position little above, or equal to a servant. Or she could work – like Mimi in the opera. 

Mimi stiches embroideries of flowers. La Boheme is set in 1848, and is a composite of people actually known by the novelist Henri #Murger and written about in his book and play, Scenes de la Vie Boheme. At the time Murger describes, fabric for dresses was cut in workshops. Women skilled in needlework would take bales of the cut fabric and patterns of floral decoration, and would work at home painstakingly forming flowers, foliage and scroll work stitch by stitch through hours and days of eye-straining hand work. Such labor gave them a very small but independent income. Orphans and girls from poor families found such work in cities. 

In city and country, a very large part of the population of women worked “in service,” but there a recommendation was required and jobs were allotted to those who already had some connection to the employer. Work “in service” was nearly a “closed shop” as in modern times is said of some unionized jobs. But a girl with skills could still support herself, as the model for Mimi no doubt did, merely by displaying a sample of her craftsmanship.

What did unmarried women without family to keep them do if they did not have such skills or connections? If they weren’t pretty they might be reduced to begging, or theft and a long life in prison or a short one on the gibbet.

But if they were pretty, like Musetta, they had the one chance at true freedom that women knew.

(Here we embark on a topic that's become oddly taboo, though it was not so in the 19th century.)

Musetta lives by seducing rich men. She does not wed and encumber herself with the restrictions of marriage. Instead she uses men, suggestively flaunting what she refers to as her “hidden charms” and bilking old men who are happy to pay just to be seen with her. She may or may not let them enjoy any more than the pleasure of her fully dressed companionship – the choice is hers. And she can take a poor lover if she’s attracted to him.
The life of the courtesan obviously had great appeal for women capable of managing it. It was a lifestyle practiced by any able and willing woman from penniless orphan to minor nobility. The 17th century’s Ninon de l’Enclos was deliberately brought up by her military father to be a free spirit; she learned very young how to persuade men to support her without becoming anyone’s slave, sexual or otherwise. 

The grand horizontals of 19th century Paris and #majas of 18th century Madrid were idealized social models and dictators of fashion for ladies who lived perfectly circumspect lives. #Aspasia, the leading whore of Athens, was friend and intellectual partner of the great Pericles.

But the life of the courtesan, especially in 19th century Europe when it reached its social apogee -- probably in numbers of population as well as fashionableness -- was perilous. 

Records indicate that thirty-five to forty percent of deaths among the “working class” in Europe  was due to “consumption”, that is tuberculosis. And courtesans were no exception. In fact the consumptive lady of “easy virtue” had a peculiar advantage in the aesthetics of the time. 

That deadly pallor and emaciation were seen as romantic, the meeting of Eros and Thanatos. And there was a belief current that consumption made the sufferer especially lubricious. This was before the nature of infectious diseases was understood.  Delicate, dying ladies were an excellent means for passing on their diseases to their lovers, and thence to their lovers’ wives.

Even more contagious was syphilis, which infected some forty percent of the population of Europe in the 19th century, so I’m told, and undoubtedly it was pandemic among street walkers and courtesans. 

So freedom, for women in previous centuries, claimed a very high price.

The bold heroines that fill our pages and our screens are fictions, or at most exaggerations of the roles available to women. They minimize in the understanding of the young just what an enormous, and very recent achievement, are the freedoms they take for granted – to make a living, to marry if and when they please, to claim legal protection equal to men, to negotiate in business, and to own businesses and properties in their own names.

In the churning of the women’s mythology mills we lose sight of the truly new world that has opened for women just in recent decades The real heroines to be lauded are not the women of centuries long past, but those of the late 20th century: #Betty Friedan, #Simone de Beauvoir, #Gloria Steinem, to name just three who were among the most visible at the time.

The real heroines to be lauded are still alive, or have died recently. Where are the biographies, the films, the novels about these actual heroines?

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series