Monday, March 18, 2019

Gloriana Redacted

I've been experiencing writer's block--not because I haven't had ideas or motivation, but because I haven't had the nerve to write.

I felt that I'd written everything I had to say; there seemed no point in blathering on and on; I'd just be repeating myself.

But, you know, people repeat themselves, all the time.  Nobody tells a story just once.

I thought that I had lost my witty style, that I couldn't write funny anymore.

And that no one, God knows, should take me seriously.

Then again, humor stems from a kind of congenital absurdity. I couldn't shake it off if I tried.

So, here I am, struggling not to write like Queen Victoria.  I've been reading her biography by A.N. Wilson. I'm saturated in 19th Century British royal syntax.

(I know, right?  What's the diff?)

In the BBC series, "Victoria," the dreamy Tom Hughes put on a little weight (just a scosche) to fill out his role as Prince Albert approaching 40.  Albert's chin, by that time, had melted into a doughy jawline, north of a distinctive paunch.

They might have slightly padded Jenna Coleman's petticoats to play a middle-aged Victoria.  But, it was hardly enough to qualify as a symbolic gesture. The stunning Coleman bears no resemblance to Victoria in her late thirties, whose petticoats had been let out a yard or two.

How will the BBC handle two decades of unremitting anguish and mental contortions: Victoria's grief over the loss of Albert?

Will they ignore it, like they ignored her physical metamorphosis?

Will they swap out Coleman for Judi Dench, have Dench reprise her roles as the adorable-when-in-love Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" and "Victoria and Abdul"?

The story of Victoria's now-famous friendship with Abdul, her servant cum munshi, is entirely missing from A.N. Wilson's hefty biography of her life.  What a disappointment!  What a scorching oversight!

I have seen the movie, of course, "Victoria and Abdul," but I want to read the book about their decade-long relationship to get the full picture.

The wanton, even craven, censorship of Victoria's diaries, letters, and entire chapters of her life--by her daughter, Beatrice, and her son, Bertie, is a shame.

Beatrice carefully excised anything personal in her mother's letters--all vestiges of tenderness and friendship; from her personal correspondence with Albert, to that with her prime ministers, and John Brown...

Bertie, as King Edward, destroyed everything concerning Abdul, an exhaustive effort to erase Abdul from British history--his name absent in every single "complete" biography of his mother's life.

Anything Victoria might have written of a personal nature is lost to us, thanks to Beatrice and Bertie (King Ed).

This is a theme I have already written about in relation to my own grandmothers.

Oh, well!  It bears repeating:

Growing up, when I asked about my grandmothers who had passed away before I was born, I was told that they were both very beautiful and smart.

I did not think they could have been very interesting, based on what I was told.

It was only later, as a grownup, that I learned about my paternal grandmother's awful rheumatoid arthritis at a young age; the piano in the living room, silenced; the stoic set of her jaw in photographs as she moved through her orbit as a leader among women on one committee after another.

Later, came the stories of my maternal grandmother slowly suffocating in the twin shadows of her magnetic but overbearing husband, and her creative mother who tacitly competed with her daughter on every level.

Women are much more interesting than what we are propped up to be.

It doesn't matter much whether we are the Queen of England or the daughter of an art teacher; it happens just the same.

At the end of our lives, and sometimes in the middle, we are cleaned up and propped up and placed on a shelf.  We spend eternity on that shelf, gathering dust meant to clothe us in dignity.

Because I had been struggling with writer's block, or because it has become a popular topic, I have been attuned to various people addressing the question of propriety, censorship, creativity, and self-expression.

Ruth E. Carter (Oscar for best costume design), for example, talked in an interview about being ridiculed in high school for how she dressed ("Who does she think she is?").

A podcast comic spoke about the importance of using material that makes him feel exposed and uncomfortable; the imperative to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, embrace failure.

Amy Schumer posts photos of her naked and pregnant self on Instagram as a challenge to mainstream critics with trollish impulses, noting, in an interview, that the greatest power comes from not caring.

Imagine, if you can, giving yourself the freedom and authority to not care what anyone thinks about the choices you make, the things you do, the way you look, how you live your life; what you say, or think, or post, or write....

I don't suggest that I would, or that anyone should, forswear their privacy.  I don't think that to freedom has to involve turning ourselves inside out, airing out our inner lives on the outside porch like a rug.

No. I think privacy continues to be sacred to every individual, and I'm entitled to mine so long as I'm not attempting to conceal a crime.

Queen Victoria's family were not protecting her privacy by censoring her letters.

If Victoria had wanted her words redacted, she would have had someone do it for her.  But, if it was her choice to write things down, and not her choice to delete them while she was alive, then to censor them after her death was a violation of her privacy and autonomy, in my opinion.

In death, she was like an ordinary woman, cleaned up and propped up on a shelf.  She was, figuratively and literally, embalmed, the blood drained from a life-long habit of writing every breath in her diary.

I glom onto Victoria now as though she were anything solid that floats, and I a shipwrecked sailor.

Her lovable, rough-hewn personality and corpus beckon to me through the centuries.

As I get to know the real, cracked, monstrous, fabulous Victoria, she sometimes whispers in my ear, Just listen to my voice, and read between the lines. 

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