I made two new dolls, a feather covered "Fitcher's Bird" and another with the working title “Bird Woman Spawning”. I have worked on these periodically this year, feeding them with forays into literary criticism, Jungian interpretation, more myths, fiction and fairy tales. The sewing takes a long time and they are still in progress. As the year has progressed, I have made tangential objects: egg things, labyrinths, houses, birds. More recently I began writing this - a marker of ideas in words and images.
The sculptures began as a response to Grimm's fairy tale Fitcher's Bird, and a kindred tale: The Robber Bridegroom (variations on Perrault's Bluebeard).
The plot always involves a sinister bridegroom who lures a young girl to his house. She discovers that he is a serial killer of woman, and after a suspenseful ordeal escapes with her life, while he is brought to justice. Usually he goes on a journey, leaving her a set of keys and an injunction not to enter a certain room. She disobeys of course, enters a bloody chamber containing the bodies of her forbears, and the key, dropped, absorbs an eradicable stain to evidence her transgression and endanger her life. Fitcher's Bird has the addition of an egg, and the bizarre "bird" of the title. The Robber Bridegroom has a different structure.
Perrault's original moralises against female curiosity: she brings it on herself by disobeying her husband. His heroine escapes due to the timely arrival of rescuing brothers. Angela Carter writes a version where a swashbuckling mother is the rescuer. But I prefer the other tales are whose heroines have agency and energy - effecting their own rescue, telling their own stories.
The Robber Bridegroom's heroine is sent, reluctantly, to visit the remote home of a wealthy suitor. She ventures deep into the forest, following a path of ashes. A caged bird warns her that she is entering the home of a murderer. An old servant woman in the cellar hides her to witness the bridegroom and his gang torture and kill their latest victim. In the original 1812 edition of Grimm this victim is an old woman ("her own grandmother") but in later versions it is a stranger, a beautiful young girl who is abducted into the forest, then drugged, dismembered and eaten. The heroine escapes, carrying the severed finger of the girl, which fell into her bosom during the robbers' frenzy (in the earlier version the finger falls into her lap, which adds to the sense that the later story is more sexualised, while killing the grandmother seems to point to a systematic destruction of some female lineage).
On her way into the forest the wary heroine had overlain the path of ashes with her own scattering of peas and lentils. These seeds sprout during her ordeal and new shoots guide her home by moonlight. In the earlier version ribbons the groom tied around the trees reflect the light of the moon on her return journey. It is clear the female energy of the moon (combined with the heroine's foresight) is important in this story. A new potential has emerged during her grim experience - represented by the seedlings. The forest has a quality of labyrinth; her living clew trumps his trail of cinders, which clearly intended to make the route one way: to her death. Usually fairy tale seeds are to be painstakingly sorted, not flung out hodgepodge - I always feel there is something tolerant and unpunctilious about female energy and maybe the expedient handful of unsorted seeds expresses that here.
Back home, the heroine bides her time until the wedding, when, before assembled guests, she tells the story of her experience as if it was a dream: reaching a dramatic climax when she produces the severed finger as evidence that it actually happened. She bears witness. If at first her seeds were unsorted, now her words are selected, her narrative structured and paced: justice staged through her performance.
Fitcher's Bird's plot follows the Bluebeard structure, but three sisters are each given an egg to hold in the magician’s absence as well as a key to the forbidden room. The significant object is split: key and egg. It is the egg that retains the stain of witness.
The girls are abducted by a sorcerer masquerading as a beggar. He touches them and, enchanted, they climb into his basket, are taken to his home and the Bluebeardean plot unfurls. The first two sisters drop their eggs in horror and are killed. But the third sister is "wily", she puts her egg somewhere safe before prying the secret of the chamber. Faced with the carnage of the crime scene, she keeps her head, carefully sorts and re-assembles her sisters' body parts, and so brings them back to life. When the sorcerer returns to find the heroine's egg unblemished he sets wedding plans in motion. She has passed his test but he has now lost his power. Her capacity to create life is greater than his to destroy it. She dispatches him, ostensibly with a basket of gold for her father, but within which her sisters are concealed. The sisters complain when the sorcerer slows down under the combined weight of gold and girls and he, thinking his newly omnipotent fiancee sees him slacken, pushes on. The bride coats herself with honey, rolls in feathers and sets off home, looking like a wondrous bird: "Fitcher's Bird": as identified by a rhyme in the tale.
Male relatives step in to finish off the sorcerer and his guests by burning the house down, but already the wily heroine has rescued both herself and her sisters. We don't know if Fitcher's Bird ever goes home, or finds a more worthy husband - or if (like Clever Elsie's more integrated double), she roams still, a mysterious woman-bird hybrid, glimpsed occasionally: becoming the stuff of legend.
It is such a sensory story: sticky with blood and honey, with the smooth textures of eggshell and bone, refracting gold and jewels, tasting of iron from key and blood, with the weight of basket burden and lightness of feathers, the burning heat of fire.
Fitcher's Bird is a story about life and hope triumphing over the negative and deathly; giving birth to oneself on the journey of self individuation, "failing" and getting second and third chances. It is about what must be sacrificed or destroyed, and what kept intact.
The third sister doesn't transform into a literal bird; she saves herself and her sisters through a surreal performance. Newly powerful she hatches herself into a glamour of bird. She is an artist, an actress, a director, a writer of script. There is no need for a feminist re-visioning of this story.
Marie Louise Von Franz insists on the instability of fairy tale: plots are kicked into motion by imbalance, as when a kingdom is ruled by a tired king, or lacks a feminine element. When the story ends with a revitalised constellation (new king, marriage..), it is just a pause until the new order stales or grows one-sided, at which point another plot erupts.
Both my stories begin with a father but no mother, and then a plunge into a deeper and more negative masculine. After witnessing its most awful aspect the heroine finds within herself the capacity to escape, returning with increased confidence in her creativity. The Robber Bridegroom's heroine speaks for herself as a storyteller, Fitcher's Bird's is a healer, a life giver and performer.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes reads Bluebeard as a story about the feminine psyche learning to trust her own instincts. A woman is seduced and imprisoned by a masculine element in whose inflated and destructive company she loses connection with her intuition and potential. In such a case of possession a woman can rescue herself only by having the courage to look inside the bloody chamber - the place of greatest pain and vulnerability. She is aided by the blood leaking key, which by refusing to "give up the cry that something is wrong", allows her psyche to hold on to what it has seen. She describes the key as being a container. I like what she writes about words also being a key, finding the right questions to ask:
"What lies behind the door? What is not as it appears? What do I know that i do not want to know? What part of me has been killed or lies dying?"
The rescuing brothers represent the positive animus which helps with strategies/logistics to achieve potential and bring ideas/dreams to life. She realises what she has to kill, or die to, in her outer life. She has her feet on the ground: grounding herself against inflation.
Fitcher's Bird is feathered but not winged, she runs, dances on the earth. My doll however is suspended in the air, spinning - there will be other things in orbit with her, ultimately.
I first read the sorcerer's magic "touch" as a mesmerising power, but there are different ways of being touched – by pity – the sorcerer is disguised as a beggar, perhaps the girls fell for his weakness, rather than his strength?
Doesn't being "touched" also refer to mental instability?
To digress briefly, in The Madwoman in the Attic, I happened on a discussion of Snow White. The authors reflect on the creativity of the stepmother - the potions she brews, the disguises she makes for herself and the performances she gives. The creative energyof the wicked witch is contrasted with soppy Snow White who unquestioningly accepts the role as housewife/mother to the dwarves, and is utterly without the wile to combat her unmotherly nemesis. The authors suggest that since Snow White's identity (her goodness and submissiveness) is inseparable from her beauty, the only vivifying plot for her life beyond the fairy tale, when beauty fades and she topples from the pinnacle of fairest of all (perhaps usurped by her own daughter), can be to identify with and reprise the role of her stepmother, repeating the cycle until she, Snow White is the one dancing herself to death in red hot iron shoes. Either that or become the good dead mother. Dead either way. My two stories end abruptly with no hint of a romantic happy ever after. Which led me to thinking about endings in stories.
Marie Louise Von Franz says that fairy tales represent different stages on the journey of individuation: each tale represents a particular archetypal challenge. She interprets Bluebeard as a manifestation of animus so negative that all you can do is run away. Estes' locates the Bluebeard challenge at an early stage in the individuation cycle. A young or immature woman often before major life events of wife/motherhood. But perhaps, instead of a preliminary stage this could be read as an alternative to the death aspect of marriage - at least of marriage in fiction. In Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn Heilbrun, I read this:
"The heroine who becomes bride .. on the last page of a romance, has accommodated herself to the cyclical movement by her marriage ... she completes the cycle and passes out of the story" p86
And in the same book, that:
"death and marriage ... were the only two possible ends for women in novels, and were, frequently, the same end. For the young woman died as a subject, ceased as an entity" p121
There are other stories where a heroine comes as outsider into an opulent yet unhomely mansion: pampered but powerless and often socially inferior. Think Beauty and the Beast. Or the East of the Sun and West of the Moon/Cupid and Psyche type story where the heroine, curious to see what kind of creature she is married to; penetrates the darkness to reveal her lover, but is betrayed by a leaking luminant. For the crime of wanting to know the truth she is banished and has to make an immense journey/perform a series of tasks (including for Psyche visiting the realm of the dead) to recover/rescue him. Drip of oil or wax, stain on an egg or key (or bite into the perfect roundness of an apple) each time the evidence disallows both dissemblance and return to unknowing.
One of the essential qualities of fairy tale is its enigmatic silhouette form. But fairytale plots appear in many of my favourite novels; skeletal plots expanded and characters given historical context, motivations, feelings. i have written before about Margaret Atwood's Robber Bride.
Jane Eyre doll, 2016, Fabric & wood
So i found myself returning to Jane Eyre, a novel dominated by and often reduced to, the images of its central section: mercurial Mr Rochester, Thornfield, the secret attic room and Bertha the madwoman. Charlotte Bronte makes one fairy tale root of her novel explicit in her description of the Thornfield attic with
"its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard's Castle"
And from Thornfield extrudes Daphne du Maurier's Manderley: another mansion whose environs contain the deadly secret of a former wife. Both houses, like Fitcher's home, are left ruined after a fire (and both burned down by a woman - vengeful/mad). Interestingly Rebecca is the story of a nameless woman, after marriage - telling her story.
Bertha (Jane's gargantuan shadow) represents female rage/excess/insanity. Somewhere I am sure I read that "mad" is another version of "dead" - in that once so designated, there is no further story for the character. At the beginning of the novel Jane encounters her own capacity for madness: imprisoned in the red room at Gateshead she hallucinates, fits, faints. Adrienne Rich wrote a wonderful essay about how Jane internalised positive female role models to protect against her own potential madnesses: vengefulness, self hatred, hysteria, reckless loving, suicidal self-sacrifice. First among her role models are Miss Temple and Helen Burns, and later Diana and Mary Rivers - all scholarly and moral. The lesser female characters of Mrs Fairfax, Bessie and Adele contribute warmth, practicability, lightness. And over the whole novel looms "mother moon".
The moon: inconstant, transforming, burgeoning, diminishing, reincarnating. Lunar energy is an important part of the pattern in both The Robber Bride and Jane Eyre. The moon is associated with madness. Bertha Mason makes three enigmatic appearances before her identity is revealed, always preceded by a full moon. Bertha's appearance is first described as a reflection from Jane's bedroom mirror, trapped in the glass. There is a wonderful scene where a "mother" moon emerges from the clouds to guide Jane when she is at her most wretched, knowing that she must leave Rochester.
She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away: then,not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward, It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my ear - "My daughter, flee temptation!"
"Mother I will."
Adrienne Rich's articulation of what Jane Eyre has meant to her could be mine, she contrasts it with Wuthering Heights (the first book that "blew my mind" but that hasn't grown with me in the same way). Rich writes that Jane would never say "I am Heathcliff", because she is so busy saying "I am Jane". Jane Eyre expresses the tension between dwelling in dream and imagination, and the conflicting need to negotiate reality, to be in the world. Emily stayed submerged during her short life, while Charlotte did ferocious battle, writing herself out of the shared fantasy world she shared with her siblings into the trials and politics of contemporary womanhood. She wrote many passages of Jane Eyre with eyes closed, entranced in streams of unconsciousness but she fought to get her work published: pushing it out into the world behind the aegis of a male pseudonym.
Birds are equated with fantasy: imagination taking flight from reality. Jane Eyre is full of bird imagery: the illustrated volume of Beswick's birds, a starving robin on her windowsill, a cormorant in one of her fantasy paintings. Birds as raptors or symbols of vulnerability. Jane uses a feather to oil the lock when she flees Thornfield. Rochester's dawning recognition of Jane is articulated in a bird metaphor:
"I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage; a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free it would soar cloud high."
The novel is overwhelmingly about cages and flight: the different ways that life's thresholds are gated and how to pass through without compromise or madness. Interestingly, in the final chapters the bird imagery is applied to Rochester: his "raven black hair" like "eagle's feathers" and his "caged eagle" despair.
For Von Franz the bird represents the soul leaving the body, she says that feather covered objects are more psychically real - belonging to the spirit realm rather than the everyday. The element of air. Wind as spiritual power. Breath.
It is always interesting to wonder why certain images and stories reverberate at certain times of life. This is my second doll - Bird Woman Spawning - born in the same cycle of work as the Fitcher's Bird doll but i don't quite know where or if it belongs and it is still unfinished.
Is it about motherhood? Mother to what? Or bout creativity: the deluge, birth of multitudes? Why do i feel Jane Eyre relates to this doll? In a long-hand Freudian slip I wrote Bertha as Birtha.
As her intimacy with Rochester grows Jane recurrently dreams of babies: some joyful, others inconsolably sad. On the eve of her wedding she has two consecutive baby nightmares. In the first she pursues Rochester, carrying a howling child. She tries to catch up, to call, but her voice is "inarticulate" and she is "fettered". In the second, (precognitive) dream, Jane traverses a ruined Thornfield. Half strangled by the child she carries, she climbs the ruins which collapse, she drops the child, falls...
Jane relates these dreams to Rochester, following them with a third story: that of Bertha's visit to her room which might yet another dream until Jane proves contrary by producing the evidential veil. This the same method used by the Robber Bride raconteuse: lulling her audience with an apparent fiction and then forcing its truth by introducing an incontrovertibly real object. Jane knows the event was real but Rochester refuses the opportunity to tell. But the veil is torn - the next day the mystery is penetrated, having witnessed the living impediment in the attic room Jane begins her journey of banishment and return.
The child archetype represents innocence, playfulness, hope, vulnerability.... Jane's child dreams come when she is in danger of making a wrong choice.
I have had a postcard of this Rurutu casket figure from Polynesia for years - it was included in the recent Oceania exhibition at the RCA. Bird Woman Spawning is part influenced by this and other ethnographic images of parturition. I think also of the myths of Athena and Dionysus, incubated in the body of Zeus after the premature deaths of their mortal mothers: their nature determined by the part of the body from which they emerge: logos Athena from Zeus' head; sensual Dionysus from his loins. Babies emerge from all over my doll's body - head, heart, gut, limbs. Thus far she has no arms, nor wings. She has a north and south but no east west.
And there is not even anything birdlike about her except her so-far title.
The labyrinthine Fitcher type story (immense house/disorientating forest) begs reference to mythic Ariadne - who gives Theseus the thread (clew) to bring him back once he has found and slain the her brother the Minotaur in his disorientating prison. Robert Graves identifies Ariadne as a moon goddess. He describes Ariadne fertility dolls hanging from fruit trees: there is an example of one of these dolls in the Louvre. Beneath her ceramic skirt are articulated legs; as the doll swayed in the wind she would be given given voice in the clank of bell clap limb.
Daedalus was architect of the Cretan labyrinth but was also imprisoned in it, and escaped with wings of feathers he made for himself and his son. We know what happened to Icarus, who, giddy with the illusion of his godlike power to fly forgot the limits of his prostheses. Animusine in his hubris.
I went off on a tangent of image making about corridors, mansions, mazes...
Corridor drawing - the sun casts harsh shadows on the surface but I quite like the way that disorientates the image.
Cad drawing: views of a mansion labyrinth which becomes more confining and cagelike as the centre is gained.
Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus has a winged heroine, the mysterious music hall aerialist "Fevvers": is she real bird woman exploiting the freakish card she has been dealt or a con-artiste? in a recent BBC documentary Carter is interviewed and ponders: are you more interesting if you are a freak or a fraud?
Estes points out that in Bluebeard the key is a container - it contains blood. Fitcher's Bird is full of containers: the egg, house, the forbidden chamber, the bloody basin, the basket, in which the girls are abducted, and later escape. The egg is a potent image of "Self": an indivisible whole, source of life, symbolising strength and fragility. The eggs in Fitcher never relinquish their intactness; no shattering of shell precedes Fitcher's bird (which does make me think there is something rather infantile in the story - wanting a new incarnation without being able to tolerate the destruction of the old). In my imagining the sorcerers basket is an egg-like ovoid, while the basin is a hemisphere, like a cauldron or ceremonial grail. Interesting that the grail of Arthurian legend is also a container of blood: and the key to claiming is asking the right question at the right time.
Jungian interpretations of Bluebeard focus on the Animus. I became interested in Animus a few years ago finding it helpful so to identify the inner critic who has decimated so much of my creative energy: repeatedly bringing ideas to a still-birth. Animus manifests as hectoring voice: caged in your head, judging and recriminating. I was particularly inspired by the work of Barbara Hannah and Emma Jung who recommend sealing animus voices in a metaphoric vessel: letting them bloody well mutter and giving yourself permission not to listen. Animus is often multiple, Hannah calls it an "opinionating substance" (think of the robber gang and their relentless pursuit and murder of the feminine). Sue Monk Kidd (another Ariadne fan) associates the destructive, not good enough Animus voice with the Minotaur.
I have learned to manage my animus better - although he still gets a premenstrual (lunar) upper hand. Jung referred to the way a bottled up animus can evolve during the difficult repetitive work of containing him - hardening to first to stone and then diamond. I have learned that when my critical voice revs up, he usually has a point. His language may be annihilation, but he is alert to sloppy thinking and inauthentic tangents. If i can stabilize the bile he can be a helpful inner critic.
Animus is the male spirit in a woman; anima the female soul in a man. There is a hierarchy of manifestations - the lowest animus is the phallus, then husband, lover and peaking with the psychopomp or spirit guide. (The anima equivalents are Eve, Helen (of Troy), the Virgin Mary and Sophia.) It is worth noting that in the Bluebeard stories neither of the erotic male types feature - neither lust nor romantic love - just husband (or contracted alliance) and (degraded) spirit guide (the failed/evil magician).
Jane Eyre is such an interior story. Is Rochester positive animus? Between him and Jane mental connectivity and physical passion pulse equally. But Adrienne Rich points out that Jane wasn't looking for romantic love. In the scene before Rochester appears she is gazing from the battlements of Thornfield into the distance, lamenting that her class and gender prevent her from spreading her wings to seek the experiences she yearns for and knows she is equal to.
Rochester is sandwiched between the destructive male characters of Brocklehurst and Rivers with their carapaces of morality that conceal a fatal lack - they have become identified with their own myth. They represent morality/spiritually gone awry: corrupted or atrophied. In contrast Rochester spans the lower animus aspects: phallus, lover, husband. He offers Jane love and recognition, but tries to trick and change her. However Rochester's positive capacities are greater than his negative ones - he recognises Jane's resilience, her essential intactness: this is Rochester speaking as/of Jane:
"I have an inward treasure born with me, that can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld, or only offered at a price that I cannot afford to give."
Like the Fitcher sorcerer, Rochester loses power when Jane rejects his proposal of compromised intimacy. He is maimed, blinded, impoverished, dependent - while Jane gains family and fortune:
"I am an independent woman"/ "I am my own mistress"
she says when they are reunited. She insists on her Jane-ness (her inward treasure) repeatedly: unable to resist writing her true name on her drawings, she brings down her alias and brings home her fortune.
Jane marries Rochester but with the famous self affirming utterance: "reader, i married him". We can believe that Jane's "I"is not relinquished.
Bruno Bettelheim reads Bluebeard as a story about infidelity: the locked chamber represents the prohibited sexual act, and the bleeding key is evidence of/guilt over faithlessness. I find more resonance in the Jungian interpretations, but the viscerality highlighted by Bettelheim: red interior as female innards makes me wonder about the timing of this imagery in my own life. Eggs and blood stains. I am starting to notice changes in my monthly bleeding, its timings and textures. My femininity is faltering, each month (the lunar interval again) spends the vestiges of my fertility and sees the erosion of my currency as viable, visible woman.
Somewhere recently i have read the phrase "the eternal pregnancy of death".
This is the first blog I have written that hasn't been retrospective to its art works. Through writing new connections have emerged to feed the Fitcher dolls. May Sarton claimed to write fiction to find out what she thought and poetry to find out what she felt. My blog is an attempt to think; to rummage literary influences into order in relation to my self. Writing weaves a clew of identity to take down into the labyrinth and ensure I can come back again. Like a butchered and reconstructed body this text has been assembled, dismantled, re-assembled - until the right words and rhythms appear. Seeds sorted and sprouted. But prose writing gains its own momentum, demanding conclusions and definiteness which aren't always exactly what I meant. And I am not sure that I haven't muddled the process by giving so much time to my left brain processes by writing this. Maybe I need to give up the thread that guarantees return and descend further into the forest/mansion. The "Fitcher" objects and images are still unfinished or perhaps resolutely fragmented and multiple - maybe there is an intactness in their final refusal to conform to rational interpretation.