Asexual Myths & Tales

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

It's those 17 rabbits again!

Back in January, I wrote about the Renaissance belief in spontaneous generation and "giving birth to hairy worms'.  The worms, incidentally, will be making a welcome return at Swanwick Writers' Summer School in August, in my workshop on "Prince Lindworm."  But you may also remember Mary Taft, who gave birth to 17 rabbits in 1726.  Recently, I read a wonderful article by Terri Windling on the symbolism of rabbits and hares [read it here ] that brought me back to those rabbits once again.

Terri mentioned a couple of things in this long and fascinating article that leapt straight out at me.  (Like a bounding hare, dare I say?)  On the first page of the blog, she says:

In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders—not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. 

I think I had heard this before, but forgotten.  Like Marie Germain (aka Germaine Garnier) who supposedly changed from a woman to a man when she leapt over a ditch while chasing a pig, the hare is fluid in its gender.  Up to this point, I have seen the hare as a somewhat creepy animal (the hare sculptures at Yorkshire Sculpture Park really freak me out).  But, as a symbol of androgyny, I may have to look on him/ her more kindly in future.

On the next page of her article, Terri also has this to say about rabbits:

Despite this suspicious view of rabbits and their association with fertility and sexuality, Renaissance painters used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey a different meaning altogether: one of chastity and purity. It was generally believed that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures of the Madonna and Child. The gentle timidity of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Titian’s Madonna with Rabbit (1530).
Madonna with Rabbit, by Titian

"Madonna with Rabbit" by Titian

I find this even more fascinating.  Virginal rabbits capable of spontaneous generation!  Is it significant that it was rabbits that Mary Taft was said to have given birth to?  A sexless birth of animals themselves associated with sexless birth.  Is it significant that she was called Mary??  Whatever the case, doctors and citizens believed her claim.  Also, I wonder, is it significant that, over 100 years later, it was a white rabbit who acted as a guide to the innocent young Alice in Lewis Carroll's famous fantasy?
By the way, look out for those 17 rabbits in my forthcoming novel, Cage of Nightingales.   They'll be back!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Flautist of the Woods - Getting in tune with nature

In my current novel-in-progress, Cage of Nightingales (which is now in the editing stage - whoo!) Tammo  wants to be a bird charmer and to play his flute in the woods.  It's impossible to know what that would really be like without trying it for yourself.  The other week, I decided to record a simple flute tune I wrote as "Tammo's Song".  I was going to record it in the Early Music Shop, among the harpsichords and baroque recorders.  But after making a practice recording in the park under the trees, I decided that nothing was going to top that.  There's nothing quite the same as playing your flute in the open air, with the sound of birdsong and running water in your ears.  The music and the natural sounds around you somehow become connected.

Anyway, after trying that, I got the bug for playing my flute outdoors.  Actually, I have two flutes - a modern orchestral one, and the one I used for "Tammo's Song", which is a bamboo flute from Cameroon.  The great thing about the bamboo flute is that you can carry it anywhere.  You can stick it in your back pocket and not worry about harm coming to it.  You can whip it out and whistle up a quick tune whenever you feel like it.  Taking the flute for a walk in the woods made me feel just like Tammo.  I tried imitating birdsong - as he does in the story - and improvising tunes that seemed to put me in harmony with the wildlife around it.  I didn't feel that my playing was an intrusion on nature or noise pollution.  It truly felt like my music was part of the natural soundscape.  A wonderful feeling.

A day after this, I decided to get even closer to nature by sleeping in my garden.  No tent - just an air mattress and a blanket.  Strangely, it didn't feel too different from sleeping in bed (I live in a back-to-back house and the windows are often open all night).  But it was great to be there, to hear birds coming and going, and to have the entire dawn chorus playing above my head as I lay on my mattress.  Again, it's something you'll never really know until you've experienced it.  I'm glad I did.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Captain Keeldar and Gentleman Jack

I've just finished reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte.  Actually, I've read it a couple of times before, but barely remembered it (apart from the curates and the Luddites).  The main reason I read it this time was to try and decide if there was any connection between the title character, Shirley Keeldar, and Anne Lister of Shibden Hall.  I thought it was possible.  West Yorkshire (the West Riding in Anne Lister and the Brontes' day) isn't that big, and the lifetimes of the two women overlapped.  As Anne Lister was a landowner, she would have been a well-known character to people living in the West Riding in the early 19th century.  Did Charlotte Bronte know her, and did she have any influence on the creation of Shirley?  The question interests me because Shibden Hall has been a favourite place for me since early childhood.  The Bronte sisters are also local characters (born in the village just across the fields from mine), and I feel I have a lot in common with them.

For readers who may not know, Anne Lister was landowner at Shibden Hall, Halifax (pictured above, in mirrored form) from 1826-1840. She made many improvements to Shibden Hall and Park, owned a colliery, climbed the Pyrenees, and was known to some locals as "Gentleman Jack", due to her masculine appearance and activities.

Shirley Keeldar is also a landowner, an heiress to her family home of Fieldhead.  According to Brian Wilks (The Illustrated Brontes of Haworth), Fieldhead is based on Oakwell Hall in Birstall, but it could just as easily be Shibden Hall, with its Great Hall, oak staircase, and panelled  rooms.  Shirley also engages in masculine activities, such as her involvement in Hollows Mill.  She is bold and straight-talking.  She keeps a scary dog (as did Charlotte's sister, Emily.)  She speaks out for her right to be equal with men. And she sometimes refers to herself as "Captain Keeldar", especially when with male friends.

Of course, there are differences.  Shirley dresses in bright colours; Anne dressed in black.  Shirley is pretty and has a childlike air, despite her business brain and tigerish aspect; Anne (in the picture always displayed in Shibden Park) looks masculine and a bit scary.  And Anne is best-known (outside West Yorkshire) for being a lesbian.  Her famous diaries contain details of her love affairs with women.  And she was married (in their eyes) to Ann Walker from 1834.  Shirley, although she develops a very close, sisterly relationship with Caroline Helstone, loves and marries a man - the only man she will allow to tame her - Louis Moore.

Did Charlotte Bronte know about Anne Lister?  Anne was dead by the time Shirley came out in 1849, but the story actually looks back on a previous era in the history of the West Riding, and draws on some of Charlotte's father's experiences.  According to Calderdale Museums, "There are similarities between Shirley and Anne but no known connection.  It's likely the Brontes knew of Anne, though."  Lots of people are interested in Anne today because of her lesbianism, but Charlotte Bronte would not have written about that side of her life, even if she knew about it.  (Charlotte was well-known in her community as the Vicar's daughter - you can imagine the scandal! - and it wouldn't have passed censorship anyway).  I'm not even sure she would want to know about it.  However, I think she would be very interested in a woman who was able to hold her own in a man's world.  This, in many ways, is what Shirley is all about, and Charlotte uses the novel to talk at length about her views on women's education and occupations.  I wonder if she (or her parents) ever met Anne Lister?   A meeting between a young Charlotte in her school days and the eccentric heiress of Shibden Hall would be the stuff of legend.  Anyone feel a short story coming on...?