The Age of Fiction: How Donald Trump Rewrote My Life

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The Bolsheviks shot ’em, chopped ’em up, threw ’em in a hole, poured acid on ’em. This was my high-school History teacher’s recounting of the Romanov murders. He sat at the back of the classroom grading while we watched a video, the people of the early 20th century jerking along soundlessly in black and white. Then the finish: the forest of today, grown up where the scattered royal bodies had recently been found and DNA-tested, proving the story was all real. In spite of two of the skeletons being missing, this was passed off as a happy ending.

Grigori Rasputin came up too, of course, and took over. They couldn’t kill him. Poisoned him. Shot him. Clubbed him. Tied him up and threw him in the water. Intrigued by the whiff of the dark, I wrote a long, galloping essay about him. I stared at his stark photographs in books, sucking up descriptions. He smelled like a goat, and always had food in his beard, yet was extremely attractive to women. He looked that way. Like someone who stank and didn’t care, whose lack of caring was behind his ability to get any woman naked in a hurry. Under his caveman brow, his eyes were pale and startling. “A flaming glow,” as Boney M. put it in the song about him and the Russian queen. My parents had the album.

I could see how the eyes got to that queen (another Alix, as I noted with a thrill). I’m sure I included them in the essay. I got a B, and was irritated. I was usually an A student, a prim compiler of what teachers wanted to hear. “Great! A little inconclusive,” the teacher wrote in red. There was something I clearly hadn’t gotten at. Something I didn’t see, or didn’t yet know how to write about. And didn’t know was coming.

This year, I didn’t see Donald Trump’s election win coming either. At home in British Columbia, watching poll results on my phone half the night, I drifted into bleary memories of high school, of sadistic boys, of History class. Rasputin floated up again when I skimmed an article about Trump seeking to bro down with Vladimir Putin. Trump is no Mad Monk, but there are other similarities. Like Rasputin, he projects himself as a “man of the people” with heroic powers, including the ability to transform a sick country into a healthy one. Like Trump, Rasputin was proud of his genitals, and enjoyed grabbing and kissing and firing others once he got some governmental clout. And both he and Trump show themselves as ringmasters of narrative: they tell their own heroic stories, and reroute everyone else’s.

That’s especially true of women’s stories. Aside from persuading the queen that he was cousin to Jesus Christ and knew everything she was thinking, Rasputin told “my little ladies” that sleeping with him wasn’t the sin they had been brought up to believe, but conversely, a sin-removing act. Trump is similarly possessive about “my women,” but is a less subtle deflector. We’ve all heard his “Pussygate” responses: the accusers are wrong, the assaults never happened, they’re liars. This technique spreads easily. When his campaign manager was accused of aggressively grabbing a female reporter by the arm, Trump said, “Perhaps she made the story up. I think that’s what happened.” It goes beyond gaslighting; it’s a rewrite, or a writing-over.

Like many people who’ve been sexually abused, I’ve gone over and over my past in my mind, keeping it mainly to myself. And like them, I’ve felt chewed up and spat out by this presidential victory and what it’s peeled away from the world. A lot of women I know have said the election result feels personal, and it has surely reanimated old occurrences for us, things we thought were dead. Inconclusive things. Things with zombie afterlives that are difficult to tell. Here’s one of them.

All the things you don’t remember line themselves up first. After watching so much political posturing, I now feel the need to note that, to defend my honesty upfront.

I don’t remember leaving the party at the house near the river in Oxford, where all my A’s had taken me. I was studying English Literature there at the end of the 1990s. I don’t remember getting back to my college closer to town, going up the stairs to my room, putting the key in the lock, turning on the lamp inside. He must have been with me all the way. I feel the need to list details, too. There were three flights of stairs. He was in a tux, I was in a long gown. Oxford parties often required oddly formal dress, and we’d sit around on the floor drinking like that, as though we were minor Russian royals from some other time.

I look for connections, trying to give this story a shape.

I don’t remember what we talked about, walking over the cobbled street in the cool winter night. We must have talked. I do remember sitting on my small couch chatting about families. I liked talking about mine then, with anyone who would listen. And complaining about things wrong with England: the eyedropper pressure of the showers, the clerks’ pain upon eye contact at the grocery store. I was very obviously homesick. I’ve wondered since if that marked me.

He wasn’t Russian or American. He was English. I can’t remember his eye colour. He had glasses.

My room looked out onto the shoulder of the chapel next to the quad. It was late, it was dark, as we sat by the windows. I do remember being cheerfully drunk, amused. I don’t remember us getting into my narrow bed. I don’t remember how we started kissing. I do remember stopping and telling him, “I don’t want to have sex with you.” His odd compliments: You’re so feminine. You’re so female.

How I ended up out of my rustling pewter ballgown: No.

His weight: Yes.

The pain when he pushed into me: Yes.

I said nothing else, except asking him to finish, so it would stop. He did, and fell heavily asleep with his arm over me, blurting out Bloody fucking in his dreams, twice. I had wavery, still-drunk thoughts about pregnancy and disease. These seemed to be far away but coming, trains that had left their stations. I held very still.

I remember him leaving in the earliest morning with a kiss and his number, and me going along with it, already deciding this script would make things better, though I felt like a wasteland. Chopped up and thrown in a hole and covered in acid, yes. Him calling later to say, “I owe you an apology. I’m sorry I raped you.” His voice was slightly abashed in that English way, permanently level. And me trying to figure out what to reply.

No words came to mind. I still hadn’t slept. I was sitting at my desk, trying to work, with the heavy curtains closed against the white sky. I’d taken a shower, avoiding thinking about what I was washing away. I’d stripped the navy sheets from the bed and taken them straight downstairs to the laundry. He stayed on the phone a while, mentioned his girlfriend, how he had one, yeah, and he was sorry about that too. I’m not sure which seemed worse to me at that moment.

Then all I did was think, for weeks. All the old donkeys trotted out in the service of rape explanations. Your fault, your drunkenness, your strapless dress, your taking him to your room, your kissing him back, men can’t help themselves, men can’t stop themselves, nobody knocked you unconscious, it wasn’t your first time, you asked him to finish, you must have wanted him. And others, less clear. Your unanchored need. You wanted to talk with him, you wanted to meet someone, the cute story, the happy end. Isn’t that why you went to parties?

Via email, I blurted out a summarized version to a guy I knew, as if a male witness would cement it. His reaction: Are you sure? Rape-rape? I had nothing to say to that either. I think I wrote the rapist a blistering email at some point. But I’m not sure I sent it. My Oxford email address disappeared years ago, so I can’t check. Are you sure? That question never dies.

I tried to go on working, too, making a thesis out of piles of 19th-century research. In the Bodleian Library — everyone called it the Bod, which now made me queasy — I felt swallowed up. Waiting for my books to be delivered to my desk, I looked up at the faces of ancient greats painted high on the walls. Ovid was one. I remembered first reading his Metamorphoses as an undergrad back home in Canada. The people changed into rocks and trees and animals still felt human, still had human emotion, but nowhere to put it now. The back of my brain wondered: How was I changed? It was the same stew of disbelief and fascination I knew from reading fairy tales all my life, Russian or German or Irish, the ones that kept turning up in my research now. Girl into bird, sister into deer, queen into witch. How did it happen? What happened to her after that?

The morning after Trump’s victory, I posted a broken heart on my Facebook feed. I usually hate emojis, but I was out of words, tired and blasted, as if it were again the morning after in Oxford. Another memory circled: the day, weeks later, when I was brusquely declared clear of pregnancy and sickness by the clinic, and went back to work in the library with a goodie bag of condoms they’d handed me. It felt like an ending, though it wasn’t, there isn’t one. Looking at that Facebook heart, I wanted to write my story, all of it, in point form or tweets or emojis, sure. Something shapeless.

Trump’s campaign brought the prevalence of sexual assault into the open, and then brushed it away. It felt like a nation turning its eyes on victims and asking what my male friend asked me: Are you sure? You’re not sure. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. There are other issues. Turn the page, tear it out, write it better.

He tells it like it is.

The subtext of that favorite comment of Trump supporters is this: That isn’t the story. He’s telling the story. Their impatience for the victory, the desired finish, is palpable. Trump has always wanted to keep hold of the narrative, saying, for instance, that he would be the one to “reveal all” about his accusers after the election. Rasputin did the same, teasing his followers along with opaque predictions about the future. After a financial fall in 1997, Trump declared, “Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken,” like Rasputin undying, staggering up from poison and bullets, controlling the tale until the absolute end.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Teenage Dream: Life on the Pageant Circuit


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So one time you enter this beauty pageant. It seems like a good idea at the time, and hey, why not? Then you get third place and have to spend the year being a princess, travelling around doing parades and shows in this royal-blue off-the-shoulder gown and a purple cloak with fake fur trim, and this crown.

“You” is me. It’s from a short story I wrote about it a few years afterwards. I was 15 when I took my short, cold dip into pageant life, and I can’t shake that naive voice. I slide into it when I talk about that time, which isn’t often (I never published the story). A fog descends, not just at the thought that it was me swanning around western North America in a rhinestone tiara. Like a lot of smalltown girls, I gave a good impression of agreeable calm — like a lake. When I think of myself and my friends then, I see us holding still in spite of all the usual teen infernos, as if just about to be photographed.

The Lady of the Lake is a young woman who has a personal presence that leaves a favourable and lasting impression. She has the integrity to meet anyone in an honest and genuine manner, the self assurance and judgement to converse intelligently, the finesse to meet dignitaries in any social setting, the natural warmth and grace of a young lady, as well as the intelligence, and excellent public speaking skills. Combined with the fact that she has an awareness of herself as an individual, and you have the young woman who is the Ambassador of Kelowna.

This is from the curiously antique-sounding pageant website. Or maybe not so curious, given that the competition began in the 1930s, when my British Columbia city was hauling itself up from its one-horse-town roots. It hit its stride in the 1950s, when the winner’s every move was reported breathlessly in the news. “Lady of the Lake” is Miss Kelowna’s alternate title, straight out of King Arthur, wherein the Lake spits out Excalibur and the Lady is Lancelot’s foster mom. Kelowna has a lake of its own, and its parade float is covered in blue tinsel to approximate it. The real lake is narrow and very deep, and home to more than one lost corpse. I used to swim down as far as I could off my grandmother’s wharf with one of those disposable underwater cameras, trying to photograph bones or ghosts.

Photographs eat your soul, right? (We all talked like that, in questions.) But that’s what I think about when I think about that time: being looked at. This was the early 1990s, pre-cellphones, pre-Instagram, but in training the pageant candidates developed an alertness for cameras, like animals for danger, or for food. We learned how to wave (one from the elbow, two from the wrist). How to eat soup (dip the spoon away from you, it looks less greedy). How to sit down (edge of the chair, legs angled to one side, ankles uncrossed). How to close a door (behind you, without turning around to look). How to exit a car without displaying your unmentionables (press your legs together and swing them out first). What unmentionables to buy for beneath evening gowns and suits (“Cinnamon” was an approved shade for nylons. So was “Nude”). How to pose: three-quarter turns, feet in third ballet position, arms at sides, chins slightly down. Look up at the lens from under your eyelashes.

I loved it. This was stuff I would never have learned anywhere else; my parents were bookish and kept to themselves. The ladies who ran it, the 30-ish Trainer and the 60-ish Director of Royalty, insisted this was not a beauty pageant, but they took femininity seriously. They looked the part, never without jewelry and full hair and makeup. Here was arcane knowledge: This is how it’s done. I remember going to the drugstore for their recommended French-manicure polish and touching a bottle of Witchcraft brand on the shelf. That’s how it all felt, occult. Initiation. Ritual. Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts, watered down for middle-class Canadian girls.

Men start things for me. Two of them, friendly and middle-aged, from a local service club, get my name from school, and one evening they come to my house to meet me and my parents and ask if I will be their sponsored candidate for 1991-92. They sit in the living room and politely accept cheese and crackers and ice water. The glasses sweat as the men chat with my dad about ski lifts and construction. My mother keeps out of it. My younger siblings lurk in my view at the top of the basement stairs, narrowing their eyes identically when the conversation turns to me. Why you?

I sit next to the fireplace, keeping my back straight and ignoring them. I’m flattered to be asked, persuaded easily, as I am into most things. The men are full of good cheer. The club buys me a dress. I pick blue velvet. The club’s name goes on the white satin banner I have to wear over it.

A couple of my more academic or proto-feminist friends are dumbfounded by my decision. But Why not is a minor refrain with me, and I’m used to pleasing adults. I usually choose Truth in Truth or Dare, so I can lie pleasantly if necessary and escape. This candidacy feels like a dare, and I take it. It plays into my inner perversity, doing something that already feels bizarre and out of time.

I have long hair, I like makeup. I play piano and flute, I get good grades. I look at myself in the mirror frequently. A bloodier part of me, the part that pours out gothic tales in a flowery journal and occasionally startles the English teacher, knows to stay in its kennel. But it’s easy enough to move between selves. I want to see me as you see me. Joyce Carol Oates makes this a refrain in Blonde, her psychological portrait of Marilyn Monroe. But I think it goes beyond that.How thick a shell can I build, so you can’t see me at all?

The competition takes months. There are nine candidates, all sponsored by local shops and clubs and societies. I’m the youngest, the oldest is 20, the upper age cutoff. Two girls are Asian, the rest white. Most of us have biggish 1991 hair. There is much friendliness, sisterliness, at training nights and the local events we are sent to. We wear matching boxy suits and white heels. We hear over and over in speech practice about respective career plans (teaching, beauty therapy, “a singer in Japan,” the law) and causes (children, mostly). Some of the girls are deeply earnest about all of it, with stage-mothers bustling in their wake. If you win this, you go on to more pageants, ideally to Miss Universe. Win that and then what? Then you win.

No one is mean. There’s a Miss Congeniality trophy at stake.

But first blood outs itself at the talent competition. Our hackles shift as we side-eye each other’s outfits and abilities. What can you do? For me, this question goes two ways: what is your talent, and what are you supposed to do about it? One of the more outspoken girls talks petulantly about a candidate from another year who played a video of herself synchronized-swimming while she did ballet live, in a costume she’d made herself, also singing at the end. The sense of injustice is visceral. Showing off is not what you do with your talents. But what do you do, then, if you have to perform them in public?

This part is held one evening at the Centennial Hall in the middle of the sports fields, with its chalk-dust smell and its raised curtainless stage. A girl puts on a felt beret and shows off her art. Another performs a liturgical dance in a white robe. There are a couple of jazz routines, a dramatic monologue in a fetus’s voice. I play the flute to a fuzzy tape-recording of myself playing the piano. The Trainer stops me backstage and powders more blush on my cheeks and forehead. More smell of dust. I get out there and do reasonably. In spite of nerves and hissing worries about being showoffs, we’re all enjoying being looked at onstage. Doing something that merits being looked at. We know this is what we’re here for.

The audience is gravely favorable. A full house, half-visible in the dark, but no cheers, just long gentle applause for everyone. One of the girls is tearful afterwards. She sniffles, “I want to do it again.” I’m not sure whether she means she wants to do her song better, or just to be on stage again. She’s inconsolable. We circle her, pat her.

As it turns out, my flute and piano and I win this part. Standing alone on the stage again, I feel I had nothing to do with it. I’m always surprised by things that happen to me. And I’m tired. The training nights are getting longer and more frequent, as are the weekend charity events.

School ends, and we do a summer fashion show for a full house. The pageant is approaching like an express. We inhabit our bodies more and more uneasily, though we go over and over walks and turns for the evening gown component, and the Phantom of the Opera jazz-dance routine we’re all in. There’s a judges’ question we each have to answer at the end of the big night, and the practice answers get sharper, and at the same time less sincere. No one says she doesn’t want a career or a cause, but a flabbiness has struck the responses. Yeah whatever, I want to be a teacher, I guess. Will we ever need careers? Aren’t we enough, doing this? Isn’t this what we’re here for?

Then it’s late August and the valley is soaked in heat. I’ve been avoiding tan lines all summer because of my strapless blue velvet. And it’s time. On pageant day, I get my hair done in long spirals, though it’s already curly. I take a bubble bath and it sags. My mum has caught a whiff of the stage mothers by now and starts to fuss around my head, but I tell her to leave it, and I get myself into my blue velvet dress and white banner. My heart is thudding like an old machine. When I arrive at the hotel hours early to get ready for the night, the candidate trainer clacks her tongue and attacks me with bobby pins. “They need to see your face,” she tells me, looking hard into my eyes and puffing my hair above my forehead. I close them against the hairspray bomb until she’s pleased with her work. She touches my cheek softly, an uncharacteristic gesture, checking me like a grocery store fruit.

The hotel is older, built to look modern in 1961, and still the most formal in town. The water in the central courtyard’s outdoor pool shifts and glitters. People in swimsuits watch from their lounge chairs as we dart back and forth between dressing and rehearsal areas. A woman is lying facedown, her white bikini top undone, the man beside her massaging her tanned back in slow circles. In a sudden sweat I thank God there is no swimsuit competition; I don’t think I’ve considered that possibility until this moment, and it’s nauseating. It’s not the abrupt hint of sex that scares me. Teenage pageants are resoundingly asexual, or at least the outer rind of them is, in spite of being all about bubbling femininity and strapless dresses, in spite of male-gaze theory. Those father-daughter Purity Balls are cousins. Girls doing what they ought to do, while everyone waltzes around the fact that they’re getting old enough to do what they want to do.

I stare at the half-naked woman on the lounge chair. It hasn’t occurred to me that people might look at us that way, though one of my indignant friends told me that prostitution and pornography are exact equals to what I’m doing. But those analogies are too easy. They don’t take into account the hiding in plain sight. And this woman isn’t hiding. She couldn’t care less who looks at her. The nauseating part is that I never think things through. I see that now. I don’t want to be stared at, but here I am, asking for just that.

The ballroom begins in darkness. The emcee is a slow-voiced AM radio host. The judges are local celebrities, two women and the token man. We know them by now, we’ve seen them watching us. And we know each other, we watch one another more closely. These are all smart girls, and tonight, waiting to go on, I see the way they use or screen their smartness. One is grieving her mother’s recent death, hoping to make her proud, but she rarely brings up this fact, though others might have. Her eyes swim with tears now. One, who has little chance, stands with military straightness in the knowledge that her candidacy has given her family undreamed-of pride. A couple inhabit their bodies with ease and proficiency, in tighter gowns than the rest of us, shifting their breasts in their bodices, posing better. They look as if they were another species, bred to this.

We do everything we’ve trained for. The judges’ surprise questions come towards the end. They ask me whether young people today should have goals and I’m momentarily flummoxed. Is the question stupid? Is it deeper than I’m seeing? Do they want us to have goals? Should I say No, they should not?

I don’t argue. I come up with something about physics, and my struggles with it, that somehow relates. The two in the tight gowns are asked about whether men and women are different (yes, but equal! Like hands!), and about heroes (people with cancer!). One of them tells me later that “Hitler” was the first word that popped into her head, but her big hazel eyes never showed a fleck of obscenity. She is very good. The purple cloak she ends up with suits her.

She wins, after last year’s Princess revenges herself on the Queen with a farewell speech about how she ate too much Mexican food on a trip to Washington. The other tight-gown girl is second. I am third, and dazed, and thinking Now what. The tiara is now what. Its combs gnaw at my scalp as I’m crowned, and the three of us stand on the low stage doing our wave to the long, packed room. Some of my friends and family are there, grinning in amusement or bemusement. As we walk off, escorted by scarlet-coated RCMP officers, Lionel Ritchie’s “Ballerina Girl” plays loudly.

The Director of Royalty takes us aside. She tells us we’re now living in a goldfish bowl, and all our movements will be scrutinized by the public. Her lined face is plentifully made up. Her heavy earrings tremble as she talks. She’s been running this show for years, she lives for this. She radiates joy. It hits me in the chest, like heartburn.

The watching goes on. The Director and her husband chaperone us during all our royal duties. He drives quietly, doing his male part. We three new royals are crammed together in the backseat of their compact Chevrolet, listening to Abba tapes or to the Director talk about World War II and why she will never buy a Japanese car or wait in line for a restaurant. It’s not something we do. We travel to parades and other pageants around BC and Alberta and Washington State. It’s another planet, all of it. We model wedding dresses and sportswear. We meet other royalty and exchange city pins. We meet Superman, Christopher Reeve, at the Calgary Stampede, a few years before he falls and is paralyzed. In our matching gowns and cloaks, or matching suits, or matching snowsuits, and always in crowns, we ride the City of Kelowna float with its blue tinsel. Floats lumber, parades are long. The driver, a realtor, is hidden underneath with the controls. I can just see the back of his head from my place left of Ogopogo, our resident lake monster, staring bland and bug-eyed from the top. I wave until my shoulder shakes, I smile until my jaw trembles and migraine stabs my left temple.

The Queen is sometimes handed solo gas-station roses in plastic tubes, or asked for autographs. I’m impressed by her easy handling of these peripheral guys, these dumb spider mates. She and the First Princess get along splendidly. They don’t wear unmentionables under their nylons, avoiding panty lines altogether. They’re not shy about showing me how this works. They idly discuss whether posing for Playboy one day would be a good idea.They’ve already staked their claims on womanhood, and they don’t know what to make of me. The Queen tells me, “You’re so innocent.” I’m not sure if she’s exasperated or curious. I use my innocence as a shield, pretending not to understand what they talk about half the time, though I’m always listening. They snap my bra, do my hair, hide my textbooks, tease me about sex, paint my nails, lend me earrings, rub my neck, make me share a bed with one of them everywhere we go. The rooms are always doubles. The motels are always functional. In small bathrooms, I take long showers to be alone for a while.

At many events, we’re paired up with local high-school boys as escorts. I find this humiliating and hilarious, as most of the boys seem to. One of them tells me he’s doing it for a PE credit. We usually dance one or two dances and then I try to bow out and sit on the sidelines, tiara-ed and smiling gamely. One night I end up with a boy I’d known in primary school. We haven’t seen each other in years. We leave the gym for air and stand around looking at the stars and laughing. Our reunion makes me bizarrely joyful, as though my actual life is still tethered to me. As though I have a life. I feel it then, shifting around in my chest under my strapless bra.

I remember a lot of disconnected details like this. The stars, the helpless laughing, the welts from control-top underwear, the pads in the balls of high-heeled shoes to ease pain. At one parade, a little girl with brown braids and a purple shirt asked me if I was a real princess. She was suspicious. I liked kids, I babysat all the time, but I curtly told her no. I’m not real.

I found the blue velvet dress in the garage a while ago. It smells, but I tried it on anyway. It just fits (it has a full skirt). But teenage me still doesn’t seem to have quite existed in this world. Stacy Schiff’s recent book about Salem in 1692 makes clear that the original accusers at the infamous witch trials were very much adolescent: The neighbor made me do this. I don’t like her. She pinched me. I’m tired all the time. The men and the hints of sex only entered the story later: She bewitched me. She made me think of her constantly. Her form came to my room at night. The way things slide away from you. You start them, then they escalate, they’re not in your control. You can only watch.

We looked a little witchy in the early ‘nineties, given free rein. Black dresses and tights, dried-blood lipstick. I got my driver’s license during the pageant year. I passed without having to parallel park; the examiner and I had the same name, so he let me off the hook, saying it was a wonderful coincidence. After being introduced to the mayor with the other candidates that night, I got to take the family Honda out by myself for the first time. I was still in my boxy suit and nylons, my white heels thrown into the passenger seat so they wouldn’t scuff. I drove everywhere, aimlessly, for hours. It occurs to me now that what I felt like was one of those teen witches flying off on a broomstick through the night over Puritan New England. Surveilled, questioned, harnessed by someone else’s power, but turning it around. Watch me now.

Image: Wikipedia

Angels of the North: On ‘Happy Valley’ and Anne Brontë

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Netflix’s Happy Valley is known for being mumbly — many North American viewers watch with the subtitles on. The Yorkshire-speak is unabashed, as is the crying: longtime cop Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) solves crime while suffering metastatic personal tragedies. As she notes in the opening episode, “I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with my sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson. So.” The grandson is her dead daughter Becky’s child, conceived in a rape. Season One (2014) has Catherine on a kidnap case, not knowing at first that one of the criminals involved is Becky’s rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). In Season Two (2016), Royce is in prison, using a besotted woman to get at Catherine while she investigates a series of sexual murders.

Visually, the scenes are clear-edged; the landscape green, the huge sky often piled with clouds. References to the grey-brick towns and villages of northern England’s Calder Valley abound (the police call it “Happy Valley” in honour of its addict population, perhaps echoing the sex-drugs-and-murder colonial compound of that name in Kenya). The opening episode includes a scene at the Heptonstall churchyard where Becky is buried, along with Sylvia Plath — the characters remark on the visitors who leave pens on the latter’s grave. This is no throwaway reference; Happy Valley is full of painful relationships, and Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes likely takes the literary cake in that department.

Nor is it the only literary source material for the show. For one, Happy Valley has a curiously Victorian quality that goes beyond its soot-stained setting. Class and women’s roles, those 19th-century preoccupations, loom large. Sarah Lancashire lends a certain atmosphere, known for corseted appearances in BBC period dramas like Oliver Twist and Sons and Lovers. And Yorkshire has 19th-century badlands pedigree; Charles Dickens made it the home of the dreadful Dotheboys Hall school in Nicholas Nickleby, for instance. But the show also echoes the works of the county’s native daughters, the Brontës. Haworth, their hometown, is mentioned more than once. Catherine has a Jane Eyre-like stoicism, and Tommy Lee Royce’s schemes to gain power over his son and those he sees as having harmed him aren’t far from Heathcliff’s machinations. However, it’s the least-known Brontë’s vision that is clearest here.

Anne Brontë was the youngest of the six siblings — five girls and a boy — born at Haworth parsonage 18 months before her mother died. The two eldest girls died in childhood, and Anne grew up closest to Emily, with whom she created the imaginary world of Gondal. Throughout their curtailed lives (both died in early adulthood of consumption), they wrote stories and occasional journal notes about themselves and their imagined characters. When Anne left home to work as a governess, she continued writing, and later published poems and two novels as Acton Bell. Her sisters’ respective Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre became sensations, and though The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) sold well and quickly gained notoriety, Anne’s reputation was submerged after her death, especially once Charlotte wrote dismissively of her work. But with her 200th birthday coming up in 2020, she’s now seen as a proto-feminist who looked unflinchingly at life’s worst problems; her work is deceptively powerful.

Anne didn’t leave many private writings, and she’s difficult to know. Her published poems are often religious and nature-inspired, but one can see they’re reinforced with steel. Away from home, caring for difficult children under indifferent employers, she wrote of loneliness and low spirits; most of her poetry is a summons to courage, with God as the adrenaline shot. Some of her poems, though, pulse with huge personal feeling that has nowhere to go; “Self-Communion” (1847-8), for instance, talks of others “whose love may freely gush and flow,” and “whose dreams of bliss were not in vain.” In the end, the passion is subsumed again. Biographers have speculated about whether Anne loved a young curate, William Weightman, but there isn’t much evidence to go on, and her work keeps her deepest self-communing private.

In Happy Valley, Catherine does the same, submerging her pain beneath a preternaturally calm surface much of the time. For her, there’s little sense of a god or any other consolation for suffering, but there’s the moral imperative, similar to Anne’s, that life must plod on, that this is the way things are. So many people depend on Catherine that she can’t collapse, however close to a breakdown she gets. Her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) is a difficult, fragile sibling, depending on Catherine to run much of her life. When Catherine leaves her at a party to pursue the criminal Royce, her absence precipitates Clare’s furious relapse into drinking. That night, she weaves off towards the pub, while Catherine, cracking at last, screams that the door will be locked when she tries to come home, and that she should “remember there’s a fellow out there murdering and mutilating vulnerable women wandering about at night on their own.” But within minutes, Catherine is out looking for her again, watching as she throws up in the square, putting her to bed with a loving note, and returning to harness at the police station in the morning. The sibling relationship here is complex and realistic, showing how family can lock people in.

Anne Brontë was also tied to her family. She seems to have accepted her role as her father’s “dear little Anne,” mild and placating, while privately showing more strength than her siblings. Given their propensity to run from adult life and return home, Anne was the only one to really support herself financially. Her withdrawal into herself is understandable: she lost her beloved Emily five months before her own death, and she also dealt with an addict sibling. Her brother Branwell fell apart after an affair with the mother of the boy he was tutoring at Thorp Green, the grand house near York where Anne was governess. Horrified, she witnessed Branwell slowly kill himself with alcohol and opium, burdening her with what Charlotte called “the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused.” Some of Branwell’s final writings are pitiable notes to a friend begging for “fivepence worth of gin,” a hard contrast to his earlier plans to be a great author or painter. Anne’s determination to live her own life, and write her clear-eyed work as she saw fit, seems to have come out of his fate. In her semi-autobiographical first novel Agnes Grey (1847), she wrote: “The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you can imagine, or than anyone can who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking.” Catherine and Anne are the sisters who know their strength, and accept the roles their family members give them.

Tough women proliferate in Anne’s books. The title character in Agnes Grey is a governess in charge of uncontrollable brats, noting rather drily, “[I]s not active employment…the surest antidote for despair?” She carries on stoically until a parson, Edward Weston, declares his love for her and she can marry and give up work. Though it’s a Cinderella variant, scholars have noted that Agnes undergoes no real change, unusual for a 19th-century bildungsroman. Agnes simply goes on, unchanging, because she must. Like Catherine, her static quality defines her and makes her strong.

Even tougher, and more shocking in the book’s time, is Helen Graham of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who flees her abusive alcoholic husband with her young son and tries to begin a new life. Helen’s diary makes up part of the novel, and is full of desperate scenes; the husband gets their boy hooked on drinking, for one. The abuse wasn’t what stunned the Victorian audience; it was instead Helen’s refusal to submit to her husband, illegally running away with their child. But even now, the abuse and high drama aren’t really the point of the book. It’s the character’s endurance that holds readers. As Helen puts it, “What the world stigmatizes as romantic, is often more nearly allied to the truth than is commonly supposed.” The romantic, that is to say highly dramatic, plot is the servant of Anne Brontë’s need to push forward her truth.

Happy Valley also has its luridness, but this is similarly kept in its place relative to Catherine’s strong character. Tommy Lee Royce has raped not only Becky, but also Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), the kidnap victim in Season One. Catherine has to tell Ann’s father about the assault: “She couldn’t face telling you herself,” she says, “so she asked me to…You do need to know.” It’s a distressing scene, brilliantly played by Lancashire, but again, the show takes care to point out that rape doesn’t define Ann’s character. Catherine goes on to say, “She’s tough. She’s clever. She’s dealing with it.” Like Anne Bronte, Ann is a strong young woman who loses her mother and insists on making her own way in life. In Season Two, Ann has joined the police force, working with Catherine, making headway on cases; the assault is behind her, just one part of her story. Critics have recently commented on male TV writers’ casual use of rape as female characters’ only motivation to get angry and act — Game of Thrones has received plenty of flack for this — but Happy Valley’s writer, Sally Wainwright, deals with it quite differently. She told The Guardian, “Women are more heroic. The banality of the day-to-day; the reality of it; coping with problems on a daily basis.” The rape, abuse, and addiction fit into everyday life. They’re not the centre of things, and the protagonists push on with work and family like Sisyphus moving uphill.

Even the horrors of kidnap, assault, and murder take a backseat to Catherine’s characterization. In one of the show’s best moments, a drunken Ann, who has just shagged a stranger outside a bar, looks at Catherine and says, “So much goodness. So much bigness…It’s like you embody what God is.” This appellation feels exactly right — as do Catherine’s other colleagues’ secret nicknames for her: “Brunhilde” and “Miss Trunchbull,” after Roald Dahl’s headmistress in Matilda. The Victorian Angel in the House hasn’t died; she has mutated from the quiet, calm keeper of domestic bliss into someone huge and ferocious, working at all costs to keep others safe, even the least sympathetic characters. This theme is rooted in Anne Brontë’s work — Helen, for instance, cares for her abusive husband when he lies dying and begging for her to save his soul. Happy Valley’s Catherine takes this trope further, saving Royce’s life, consoling his manipulated prison girlfriend, and raising her grandson in spite of her clear ambivalence towards him as Royce’s child.

The visibly tired Catherine cries often, and gets through the pain of every Christmas with false “big smiles.” Anne Brontë’s protagonists are also emotionally driven; Helen says, “[S]miles and tears are so alike with me, they are neither of them confined to any particular feelings: I often cry when I am happy, and smile when I am sad.” For both Happy Valley and Anne Brontë, the nature of feeling isn’t important. It’s the engine for correcting injustice, keeping women in perpetual forward motion.

Anita Brookner, Queen of the Damned

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Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed — hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren’t showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader.

Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there’s a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above “the abyss that waits for all of us,” as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters’ strength is in their stasis.

Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals — slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn’t fit easily into Jane’s tiny, tidy world.

Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it’s not easy to find what publishers call “comparables” for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, “problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.”

The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster’s people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to “stand still here,” even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett’s men, they wait.

But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you’ll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren’t sure they want to “only connect,” or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf’s and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances — feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple — observes “somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.” Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs — an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can’t see her. Uneasy but unaware they’re being observed, they reveal themselves fully.

As the intruder draws near, Brookner’s wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they’ve woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that “art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter.” But Brookner’s own highly-wrought art isn’t quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you’ll feel it watching you, too.

If you’re not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you’re not alert, she doesn’t want you as a reader. There’s a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don’t you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist’s part.

We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you’ll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having “a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon.” In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.