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From Phyllida's Desk


Most of us, if asked, will probably say we enjoy reading or seeing movies about survivors, not losers. But if presented with genuine survivors, people who struggle so hard at just getting by that all other concerns—love and sex and leisure and pleasure and creativity, must of necessity be pushed aside—we don't like that either. It's too depressing, too…threatening.

"That could happen to me," we think, perhaps subconsciously. If I lost my job, if I was the victim of a crime or an accident. If I had been born, not in the middle class of twentieth-century America, but somewhere else, in some other time. It's distressing to contemplate and to be confronted with; not what we want from a book or a movie, a piece of entertainment, no matter how serious or literary, that we hope will take us out of ourselves, if only briefly. Even diehard cynics like me, who sneer at "inspirational" books and films, want to be "uplifted" in some way by an absorbing story of characters who triumph over hardships, who are not defeated.

I've been having these thoughts for some time, but I'm prompted to write by two works: "Albert Nobbs," the film with Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, made from a story by the Irish novelist George Moore; and a presentation on Mansfield Park, Jane Austen's most difficult of her six published novels. Both of these stories feature characters who can be called survivors but not really winners, even though Fanny Price, the survivor and heroine of MP, really does win in the end: marriage to the man she loves and what her author assured us, in letters and comments to interested readers, was a happy, healthy life with children and family.

Critics gave mostly good or excellent reviews to the 2011 movie of Albert Nobbs, but viewers didn't really enjoy it that much. I think part of the problem was, knowing only that the story involved women cross-dressing and living as men, many of us were expecting some sort of exciting, sexy celebration of lesbian love in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and were disappointed to find out the main character is a sexless, traumatized victim.

The problem with Mansfield Park is that it followed Austen's "light, bright, and sparkling" Pride and Prejudice and seems its exact opposite: heavy, dark, and dreary, serious in tone, with a heroine who is the antithesis of P&P's Elizabeth Bennet. Where Elizabeth laughed her way through life, standing up to every ogre she encounters, from arrogant Mr. Darcy, buffoonish Mr. Collins, rude, vapid mean-girl sisters Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, and the imperious, overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and defeating them all with her wit and courage and independence, poor little Fanny is meek, religious and timid. More than one callous modern reader has called her a "drip," and no doubt many readers in Austen's time had a similar poor opinion of her.

Why are we so unsympathetic?

In Moore's story, or at least the movie version (the only version I know), the person who calls himself "Albert Nobbs" is the result of a poor, orphaned fourteen-year-old girl's being brutally gang-raped, "torn apart," as she describes it. Left for dead, she survives by dressing in men's clothes, keeping her hair short, binding her breasts and working as a waiter in hotels. By the time the story takes place it's thirty years later, and this middle-aged androgynous being has been hoarding his tips under the floorboards of his room, dreaming of buying a tobacco shop. Albert has no concept of sex or of romantic love; he's incapable of imagining that two people can love each other and express that love physically. Such possibilities were murdered in him during the rape that (de)formed his nature. To him, women are all potential victims, and appearing masculine, or at least neuter, is the only way of being safe.

In Austen's novel, we meet Fanny as a child of nine, one of ten siblings in a a poor, lower-middle-class family headed by a father in the Merchant Navy and a mother defeated by her large family and small income. Fanny, one of the four girls who are "less valued" than their six brothers, is sent away to live with her aunt and uncle, her mother's sister who has made an excellent marriage to a wealthy baronet. Fanny is not missed by her mother, nor is she embraced by her new family. She is treated as something in between a servant and a poor relation, and her personality—shy, homesick, overwhelmed by unfamiliar luxury and overawed by her large, confident cousins—wilts further under so many pressures.

We're torn between intellectual understanding of her difficulties, and a reflexive, cruel impatience. How can this little girl stand up to cruel Aunt Norris who scolds and bullies her, to her tall, well-grown cousins, sophisticated and careless, who have had plenty to eat but been given little real guidance or affection? Yet we want Fanny to defy them like a transplanted Elizabeth Bennet, making no allowance for the harsh forces that have shaped her.

In the same way, in the movie of Albert Nobbs, when we meet Janet McTeer's lesbian character, Hubert Page, we relax into admiration and genuine enjoyment of the story. Here's the cross-dressing woman we wish "Albert" could be, someone completely, sensuously alive, married to a loving, attractive woman and slyly alert to every humorous nuance of her situation. When, having learned Albert's secret, Hubert returns the favor by opening her heavy work clothes to reveal a gorgeous pair of knockers, we howl with delight. It's the best piece of visual comedy I've seen in a long time.

In both stories, in our severe judgment of the main characters, we sometimes forget the reasons that they're survivors. People survive traumas and tragedies, and survival doesn't require health or happiness, merely ongoing life. In the presentation on Mansfield Park, we learned that survival for Fanny has meant malnutrition and neglect, leading to her small size, poor health and crippling headaches. Fanny's religious faith and strict moral code helped her survive emotionally; "drippy" as her character is, it has been shaped by her environment, just as Albert Nobbs has been pieced together from the ruins of a violated young girl. Work is all Albert knows how to do, saving toward the goal of buying his shop. He can't love or create or even enjoy a day of leisure. Survival doesn't encompass such extraneous, inessential activities.

When writers tell stories about survivors, they take a great risk, knowing that most of us want to read about winners. On our bad days, and maybe on our good ones, too, most of feel like survivors—if we’re lucky. The older we get, the more life takes its toll. We read in order to be taken out of the rat race, the daily grind, the survival games. We want to read about Lizzy Bennet and Hubert Page, to contemplate the possibility of not merely surviving against the odds, but winning.

But for writers, creating a character who's a survivor, inhabiting her constricted life and making her come alive to the point where she can support an entire novel, is a necessary exercise in empathy and the storytelling art. It's the kind of challenge that makes a writer, if she can carry it off, feel like a winner.

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