Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling (2)

“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! …I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”

If the first dear readers of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre had known the writer was a woman they would have smirked over Jane’s cry for freedom. Oh, poor, plain, chatty Jane! How embarrassing for her. An hysterical woman screaming for attention. Love me love me Mr Rochester even though I’m poor and not pretty.

Under the impression that a man was communicating to them through an imaginary female body, the reader thinks – oh, if HE says so, perhaps there’s a point to all this spiritual and sexual equality thing after all.

And collusion with prejudice, having to play along with patriarchy, was the reason Charlotte wasn’t happy pretending to be a masculine writer. But, traditionally, this was how women had achieved enormous power over sexes and nations.

mariatheresa ghent

Martin van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresa, Town Hall Ghent. Image: WGA
A Serious Woman in a Pink Dress
Like the dress choices of Elizabeth I, and, intriguingly, the present Duchess of Cambridge, everything the great Habsburg empress and European matriarch wore in public was laden with political and diplomatic significance.
The pink dress she wears is covered in Flemish lace, a gift from the states of Flanders. She presented this formal portrait to them as a reciprocal gift, and it still hangs in Stadhuis Ghent.
She was an able, pragmatic and hardworking statesman, who passed many reforms though deeply conservative in her convictions and a devout Roman Catholic instinctively intolerant of religious diversity.
Though she held the real power, she only bore the title Empress by virtue of being married to the elected Holy Roman Emperor, because no woman could be a candidate, and after his death, as co-ruler with her son Joseph II. In her domestic life, too, she observed the glass ceiling: she was an obedient wife who had sixteen children by her faithless husband.
Like many strong-minded women who achieve power on their own merits she was not interested in the cause of female emancipation in general.
It is easy to understand why Elizabeth I never married.

Prejudice is resilient. It is ancient as the time when Eve replaced Lilith – and which of them wore pink, then? Every time the ceiling cracks, it is quickly repaired, by as many women as men, afraid of their shade of pink, the eternal feminine, being subverted by female literary terrorists.

Once upon a time, the most powerful of angelic messengers wore pink when they brought good news.

pink

Fra Angelico Annunciation 1433-34 Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Image: WGA
The announcing angel Gabriel is wearing a pink dress and an expensive gold leaf androgynous haircut.
Rose-pink is the liturgical colour of rejoicing.

Pink should not need an apology. There are many shades of pink. I’m not going to give it up; it is a misunderstood colour reclaimed by women writers every day. The best things in life are ambivalent.

Irony is pink.

Yes, dear reader, you can be a woman, wear lipstick, high heels and a pink dress, and be a feminist. You might even grow up to be a writer one day.

Pink. It’s a mistake not to take it seriously.

a vague impression of pink

1850

“We did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

Charlotte Brontë, in her explanation of why she and her two sisters wrote under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, published in Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights.

2015

Catherine Nichols has found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.

“It’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important – anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

“Our work [is] pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover.”

Catherine Nichols in an essay published in Harpers, 2015

READ THE ARTICLE ON THE SUBJECT IN The Guardian

by Unknown artist, watercolour, 1850

Unknown woman, formerly known as Charlotte Brontë by Unknown artist
watercolour, 1850 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The one where Rachel rattles the teacups

It’s Rachel with a “sh”, not Rachel with a “ch”. Her full name was Elisa-Rachel Félix, but she was known to everyone by her professional stage name, Mademoiselle Rachel, or simply Rachel.

She was the biggest international theatre star of the mid-nineteenth century. Birthday, smurfday, but today is as good a day as any to be reminded of Rachel (21st February, 1821 – 3rd January, 1858), the Swiss-born Jewish actress whose passionate reinterpretations of French classical drama shook European audiences out of mannered Romanticism into the next cultural revolution of naturalism.

MlleRachelbyWilliamEtty

Portrait of Mlle Rachel, 1841-45, oil on millboard, by William Etty. York Art Gallery.
Image source: Wikipedia.
William Etty, in his usual way, found a melting feminine eroticism in the young Rachel’s huge eyes, curving lips, and glossy black ringlets, but the prettiness does not diminish her authority. In dark and ochre colours and rapid brushstrokes he evoked her intense, almost liquid mutability of expression, with those eyes like dark pools for anyone who dares look too deeply to drown in.

She was a social rebel, too, raised out of childhood poverty on the streets to commercial success and wealth by her own talent, and growing up determined to be owned by no-one but herself. She was contemptuous of bourgeois sexual morality and the patriarchal institution of marriage. Among her many lovers were a Bourbon prince and three members of the Bonaparte family, including Emperor Napoleon III, and was faithful to none of them.

Queen Victoria, a passionate woman herself, was a great fan of Rachel, but stopped receiving her after she was told about the actress’s prolific and democratic love life. For Rachel, personal freedom was worth a curtsey.

Scandal was good for business. The editor of The Milwaukee Journal in 1945 expected his readership to be as titillated by details of Rachel’s “wild love affairs” with “Princes, Paupers in parade of Sweethearts” as audiences had been during her American tour in 1855.

Rachel represented, and was, everything that fascinated and frightened Victorian society about female independence, creativity and sexuality – and Jewishness, a crucial part of her identity, for herself and many people in her audiences. She was the dark, exotic outsider of genius, who might be cast out of society any moment by bigots and idiots. 

She is one of the actresses who changed perceptions of feminine and racial equality.

Like Sarah Siddons, the tragic actress who had embodied Neoclassical and Romantic ideals in Britain a generation earlier, Mademoiselle Rachel combined steely control over her purist technique with such a commanding delivery of fathomless, sometimes murderous, passions that it was described by some contemporaries as “masculine”.

This was not synonymous with being butch: “masculine” was the go-to word for any woman whose expression of emotions or ideas was louder than the rattle of teacups. It was used not only of tragic actresses in full flood, or female writers demanding equal rights, but of the boisterous behaviour of the heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the might-have-been queen instead of Victoria, who broke the nation’s heart by dying in childbirth in 1817.

The word Charlotte Brontë used for Rachel’s power of conveying emotion was “genuine”. 

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