Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Joseph Conrad’s Amazonian Warrioresses in the Sex War . . . . . . sans Stovepipe Hats

A recent feature in a magazine, a profile of that infinitely subtle actress, Isabelle Huppert, prompted me to reread Joseph Conrad’s The Return, on whose drama of marital hellishness  – a kind of Huis Clos for La Belle Époque – the French movie Gabrielle (2005) is based. Huppert is Gabrielle, trapped in the stifling claustrophobia of a marriage that turns out to be a sham. It is a remarkable performance. As a warrioress in the Sex War, Huppert is even cooler and more understated in her dominance of the male than in her tyranny as Erika, her notorious rôle in The Piano Teacher, the movie based on Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel of the same name.  

The elephant in the room.

Extraordinarily, the literary nuances of Conrad’s dense text are adapted to the screen with remarkable fidelity save in one particular, hitherto unremarked, yet which in a real sense is the elephant in the room.  For instance, take this description by the husband of the brow-beaten, put-upon wife, Mrs. Alvan Hervey:
The girl was healthy, tall, fair, and in his opinion was well connected, well educated and intelligent. She was also intensely bored with her home where, as if packed in a tight box, her individuality — of which she was very conscious — had no play. She strode like a grenadier, was strong and upright like an obelisk, had a beautiful face, a candid brow, pure eyes, and not a thought of her own in her head.
So we gather she is tall, moreover, of significant height, if those comparisons to a grenadier and an obelisk are to be believed. However, it is not until several paragraphs later that we learn of the phenomenal gigantism with which Mrs Hervey is afflicted.
The door-handle rattled under her groping hand as though she had been trying to get out of some dark place.
   ‘No—stay!’ he cried.
   She heard him faintly. He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the door.          She swayed as if dazed. There was less than a second of suspense while they both felt as if poised on the very edge of moral annihilation . . .
He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the door?

Any self-respecting textualist must take account of the import of these passages, while the student of contextualisation cannot ignore the fact that, in Victorian England, the heights of the standard interior door frame from sill to lintel were 6ft 8in and 7ft, and exterior doors were of greater heights to accommodate stovepipe hats.

This giantism in Conrad’s fictional women can be read in a number of texts, where it begins to assume the aspect of a fixation. Take this passage from his tale, Gaspar Ruiz.

The daughter, in rough threadbare clothing, and her white haggard face half hidden by a coarse manta, stood leaning against the lintel of the door.

Elephantine women.

From an intimate memoir (Ford Madox Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, 1924), we learn that . . .
He was small rather than large in height; very broad in the shoulder and long in the arm; dark in complexion with black hair and a clipped black beard.
So has this author’s identifiable physical squatness nurtured, one wonders, in this particular case, a predilection for elephantine women so extreme (see movie, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, 1958) that a preeminent literary imagination suffers their forbidding bulk to dominate its fictive projections, enslaved in a sort of love-hate submission?

Well, this is a question only Conradian experts of profoundest scholarship can answer.

As it is, we must continue to wonder at Joseph Conrad’s inclination before the camera to strike the Amazonian pose of the disaffected trapped spouse he so vividly describes in The Return . . .  here he is, leaning against his trellis porch, a characteristic attitude of the Amazonian when desperately cornered in marriage. . . or is he, as it were, a captive, no different from the heroine of his bitter tale, in a sticky predicament attempting to propel himself from the marital threshold to get free of a jamb . . . or is his plight that of a seafaring author who has relinquished his helm to the pilot . . . a woefully inattentive editor.

See my next post for the curious origins of Conrad’s Amazonian fixation . . .

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