Monday 23 January 2017

A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree.. by Leslie Wilson

This advertisement appeared in 1903, and I hope that to all my readers it will seem as shocking as to myself. What is equally shocking is that in fact it contains the essence of the abuser's mind-set; the attempt to clear his (less often) her conscience (it won't stop the abuse recurring), and that Pat's equivalent is alive and well and maybe living just down the road from any of us, or even next door.
But here, it's a joke. It's even considered a good way to sell butter. What has often struck me, in reading the fiction of the quite recent past, is the extent to which domestic violence is normalised or trivialised. 'Your tantrums may do very well at home,' says the Earl of Worth to Judith Taverner in Georgette Heyer's 'Regency Buck,' 'but they arouse in me nothing more than a desire to beat you soundly. And that, Miss Taverner, if ever I do marry you, is precisely what I shall do.' And how can we believe that he won't? Since he starts his acquaintance with the heroine by forcing a kiss on her, it's quite clear that he hasn't much sense of her boundaries.
Of course, domestic violence wasn't frowned on in the Regency period, but Heyer wrote the novel in 1935, when one would like to think it was regarded with more loathing. But maybe not. And it's odd how the examples I'm thinking of all come in 'feel-good' novels, that one would read for amusement, possibly while eating chocolates.
Take 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,' Winifred Watson's charming mille-feuille of a novel. Here Miss La Fosse's Michael appears on the scene and begins by shaking his adored soundly. Oh, yes, Miss Pettigrew persuades herself that Michael 'would never really hurt Miss La Fosse,' and that 'Miss La Fosse had done to the young man something meriting anger, for which she had no excuse..The punishment then was only just.' Miss Pettigrew then goes on to justify the assault by comparing it to smacking children. Clearly in those days attitudes to smacking children were very different, but: an adult woman is not a child. 'Do I look like a wife-beater?' Michael later demands of Miss Pettigrew, who, already infatuated, gasps: 'Certainly not.' And of course, she's right. Wife-beaters don't have it tattooed round their foreheads. It'd make it easier for the rest of us if they did.
Martin van Maele: Histoire comique de Francion

Just to drive the point home, Michael later says of his love: 'obviously she needs a little physical correction, but I'm the only right man to do it.' It makes me think of Max Frisch's fire-raisers, stacking up paraffin and kindling round the house while the householder refuses to believe there's anything dangerous going on.
Later, he wins her love by punching another lover down, which is what not a few Georgette Heyer heroines do, too. A violent man is good husband material, is the nasty message.
Then there's the attitude to rape. 'A nice rape,' is what Albert Campion once suggests would be therapeutic for a woman. At least his wife protests, but almost casually; one wonders if it's really rape he's talking about, but I do think of Freud's belief that 'penis normalis' was the cure for all ills.
In 'The Pursuit of Love,' when Fanny bids Linda farewell on her journey to the South of France, Linda says: 'I do feel so terrified - think of sleeping in the train, all alone.'
'Perhaps you won't be alone,' I said. 'Foreigners are greatly given, I believe, to rape.'
To which Linda replies: 'Yes, that would be nice.'
And thus rape, like Worth's desire to beat Judith, is presented to us as something exotic, something a woman really wants, and really enjoys.
This is not to say that all authors of the past trivialise abuse.In 'The Making of a Marchioness', Frances Hodgson Burnett has one of her characters say of Mrs Osborne: 'That little woman.. lives every day through twenty-four hours of hell. One can see it in her eyes even when she professes to smile at the brute for decency's sake. The awfulness of a woman's forced smile at the devil she is tied to, loathing him..'
And then, of course, there's Morel's beating of his wife in 'Sons and Lovers,' where Lawrence eloquently describes the mother's psychological processes. Or are they hers? In the end, the story is about the effect on Paul of his father's violence. Paul is later described as incapable of violence towards his own women, and yet he himself does a nice job of emotional abuse on his first love, Miriam. And oddly, Lawrence seems to feel that Morel and his wife had a vital, nourishing relationship in spite of the violence, and blames Mrs Morel for it. As the abuser always does.
It's estimated that one in four women will experience violence in a relationship in her life. That's not the same as saying that one in four men is violent, but it's a terrifying statistic. The police receive about two calls a minute about domestic violence. Most of these will never lead to prosecution, still less successful prosecution, because the crime is committed far away from witnesses, and even if there's injury, it's only one person's word against another's.
It's now thought that abusers are not men who themselves have been abused, but who have seen their mothers abused in childhood, have had it role-modelled for them, in fact (though some people will decide that abuse ends with them). But there is a direct line between the people who in 1903 thought two black eyes was a good way to sell butter, and the man who assaults his wife 114 years later. Like the anti-Semitism which also lurks in 'Miss Pettigrew', we need to be aware of these things, though. They are past a joke.


Ann Turnbull said...

Interesting. Attitudes have changed so much, and this is one of the things that can be off-putting about older books. Of course one can understand that things were different then, but it does make it impossible to LIKE these men when you are clearly supposed to. A few years ago I re-read a novel I'd adored as a young teenager: The Gentle Falcon by Hilda Lewis (1952). The hero Gilles seemed so romantic and exciting to me back then - but when I re-read it I detested him! So disappointing! There is a similarly unpleasant young 'hero' in The Perilous Gard (1974).

Leslie Wilson said...

What's worrying is that one ever did admire such people..

Penny Dolan said...

Not sure if you finished the title quote?
Isn't the next line "The harder you beat 'em, the better they be."

I recently read that Heyer novel, and found the apparent willingness to smack his lovely beloved a horrid aspect of the otherwise "romantic" novel.

Leslie Wilson said...

In fact he's not the only Heyer hero to suggest beating for women. Yes, I thought I'd leave it to my intelligent readers to supply the end of the saying. Beating dogs is a dubious idea too.

Miranda Miller said...

If only it was all in the past, Leslie. I've just signed a petition against a law about to be passed in Bangladesh to force young girls to marry their rapists.

Leslie Wilson said...

Exactly my point, and in the UK too, with frightening frequency. Abuse does seem to be passed on in families; if you've seen your father abuse your mother, you are more likely (if a man) to abuse your own partner. I don't know if it makes women more likely to abuse or to submit to abuse. At an era when we are supposed to deplore domestic violence, there is just as much about as ever. The dreadful thing is, it's a crime done in secret and it's hard to prove. Abusers make a big thing, often, about not having been found guilty. I'm not saying false allegations aren't made, but that doesn't mean acquittal means the person is innocent, only that there isn't enough evidence to secure the 99.9% burden of proof. But maybe the way to deal with this is culturally, and through life education in schools?

Marjorie said...

Yes, I believe that there is research which shows that children who witness or are direct victims of abuse are more likely to end up in abusive relationships, either as victim or perpetrator. I think mostly it is that they grow up believing that that is how relationships / families work, so it is normal.

A client of mine told me that the child psychologist who was working with her son told her that she should not try to 'shield' him from his father had done, as that normalises it, instead she should be more matter of fact but not try to minimise ether what he had done, or that it wasn't OK. Thant particular case had factors other than physical abuse but I think the same principal applies.