Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Bad Question for Small Talk

The question came when I least expected it. Tilted back in the dentist's chair, wondering if I were going to choke on my saliva, I clutched the arms as the technician cleaned my teeth. Then, out of the blue, she asked, "Do you have children?"

"Glug!" I said. This unclear reply didn't matter. The technician was just back from maternity leave and wanted to talk about her baby and preschooler. I was her captive audience.

I remembered a winter day two years earlier. I was in the foyer of a church I'd started attending, waiting for my husband to pick me up after a book club meeting. The chief news-spreader of the congregation was standing with me, both of us making way for parents coming in to pick up their children from the day care centre in the church hall.

"Aren't they cute at that age?" she remarked. Clearly she expected a "yes", so I said "yes." Then she asked, "Do you have children?"

"No," I said, "I have a husband - and there he is !", and I escaped into the snowstorm.

"Have you any children?" is a question I was frequently asked when I was younger. When I said "No," people waited for me to explain, and looked displeased when I didn't. Now that I'm old, I hear it less, and when I do, it jars me. I suppose I should be flattered that people still say "children", not "grandchildren."

"Have you any children?" is not a good question to ask when making small talk with someone you've just met or know only slightly.  Even nowadays there are strong social pressures on women to have children, and if you ask and the woman doesn't have any, it sounds as if you are prying or getting ready to criticize. Even among women who have had children, you can still strike a nerve.

An elderly friend in a retirement home whom I used to visit always introduced me to her new friends among the other residents. One woman in particular seemed very sociable, and after she had left us, my friend filled me in on the great tragedy of her life. She and her husband had had a son, who had suffered from an incurable disease of which he died in his early twenties. If he were alive he would be about the age of my husband.  I expect that the pain of losing her child has become endurable over the years but I'm sure it's still there.  I was thankful that it is not my practice to ask new acquaintances, "Have you any children?"

Someone else who might find the question uncomfortable is an acquaintance of mine who has two children in their twenties, one chronically unemployed and sometimes in trouble with the law;  the other trying to make something of himself but struggling. A query about her children is like opening a can of worms.

A few  months ago I learned something about making assumptions when I was having a conversation with a woman in my age group who, like me, has no children.  She was telling me about a young couple she knows who have an infant and don't like being parents. My friend, who is a religious woman, wondered aloud why God had blessed them with a child they don't want, while she couldn't have any. This rhetorical question about the unfairness of life was a revelation to me, because I had thought that she, like myself, had decided not to have kids.

We never know the hidden pain that a careless question can cause. So instead of asking women, "Have you any children?", ask something else, like "How about those Senators?" or "Seen any good movies lately?"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Every so often I reread my favourite Thomas Hardy novels: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd, so naturally I was interested to learn that a new film version of the latter, starring Carrie Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, has just been released.

I own the first film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.  Back in the days when VHS players were state of the art, and few people had them, I rented this version to entertain a family we were visiting. The father of the family had his doubts about the entertainment value of the movie, but when it began, he was hooked by the depiction of Gabriel Oak's work tending his flock of sheep, because, as a cattle farmer, he knew the difficulties of making a living off the land. His interest confirmed my appreciation of the classics of literature. I was charmed, recently, when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that her ninety-year-old mother was rereading Thomas Hardy again in preparation for being taken to see the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Roger and I saw it yesterday and were impressed. The earlier version is more faithful to Hardy's novel, but it was long; it had an intermission, and the new version had to abbreviate the text to achieve a more normal length. The new version has a more real feel to it. Landscape and weather play a big role in Hardy's fiction, and the film emphasized them. We get a sense of what it was like to walk around a farm at night in an era prior to flashlights, electric lighting and motor vehicle lights. The characters looked grubbier and more authentic than in the earlier film.

Bathsheba Everdene rises in the novel from unemployed governess to owner/manager of a large farm, and Carrie Mulligan conveys the young woman's delight at the opportunity to take over this inheritance, her nervousness as she meets her farm workers for the first time, and her pleasure in working in the field with them and being on the land. Hardy was ahead of his time in depicting a woman who lucked into a career that fully made use of her intelligence, a chance to head a business with great potential. In the end she succeeds in that, even though she has made mistakes in her personal life.

It is amusing to read Hardy, writing in the 19th century, in Victorian times, about a woman's erotic awakening. I remember first reading the seduction/rape scene in Tess and not being sure what really had transpired between her and Alec in the forest.  In Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy was subtle and conveyed things symbolically so as not to offend publishers and readers. (He deeply offended them, later, with Tess and Jude.) On the screen, in this remake of Far, we get a better sense than in the novel as to why Bathsheba's romantic life works out as it does. Carrie Mulligan looks young, as befitting a heroine who is 20 when the novel opens and 23 at the end.

While it is clear that Gabriel Oak is the best man of Bathsheba's three suitors, his proposal to her, early on, after a short acquaintance, is so unromantic and direct that it is off-putting.  He is  ten years her senior, ready to settle down, and she is not. He has mapped out their future and that it will be a dull one, featuring a piano, cucumber frames and babies' birth announcements in the paper.Can we blame a twenty year old girl, who hasn't had any suitors, for wanting more?  Later, when  Mr. Boldwood proposes to her, he does it in similar terms; it is all about the material things he can offer her. He says she won't have to do farm work any more, not realizing that she likes being a hands-on manager, and that she can provide for her own material needs for herself.  Sergeant Troy is clearly a slimeball, but to a girl barely out of her teens, dazed by her sudden rise in the world, he is glamorous in his red coat. Unlike the other two, he courts her by praising her beauty. No wonder she falls for him.

In the three novels mentioned above, Hardy creates complex female characters well worth reading about even in the 21st century. Like most Victorian novelists he is verbose, and sometimes in his role as omniscient narrator, discussing the characters' thoughts, he is not enlightening, and it is better when their actions speak for them. His explanations of farm work, however, are of interest nowadays, as technology has changed and most of us live urban lives. His appreciation of folk songs and customs and his love of the natural environment are attractive qualities.

Originally, Far from the Madding Crowd was written as a magazine serial, and as a result, the chapters usually end in cliff-hangers, thus maintaining suspense and reader interest. I hope the remake of Far from the Madding Crowd will encourage people to read the book.

Friday, May 8, 2015

My story in Passages anthology

Back in the winter I entered a creative writing contest held by Carleton University's English Department, and a few weeks ago I was delighted to learn that I came second in the fiction part of the contest with my short story, "They Can't Understand It".  The honorarium and gift books from Anasi Press were very welcome, and so is the news that my story is not only being published in the anthology, Passages, but will be mentioned, or included, on the Carleton University English Department website.