Houses of Fiction

Friday, 7 December 2012

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

I owe a huge thank you to Sally for introducing me to the project, Houses of Fiction by artist Julia Callon. I spoke with Julia, which only reinforced my fascination with this project and what it sets out to explore. Houses of Fiction adapts the private domestic sphere of nineteenth-century fiction. When I spoke to Julia, she explained that “the title of the series ‘Houses of Fiction’ is a reference to Henry James’ ‘the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million ...’ and that ‘the series was also influenced by the literary criticism of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their book The Madwoman in the Attic, among others.” This is precisely the kind of research I’ve been doing myself over the past few years.

I contributed to a collection of essays on Gilbert and Gubar’s landmark feminist analysis of nineteenth-century fiction, The Madwoman in the Attic. In my essay, I explored how film and television adaptations of Wuthering Heights drew from the feminist legacy created by Gilbert and Gubar when it came to the visual interpretation of Emily Brontë’s work. One of the films I analysed reverses Brontë’s critique of the idealised Victorian domestic sphere. The ‘homes’ in Wuthering Heights are an indictment against Victorian domestic ideology, where women and the domestic are comfortably and harmoniously aligned. Instead, Brontë’s Victorian homes are riddled with abuse, rape, neglect and power struggles, highlighting women’s lack of personal, economic and legal independence and control over their own lives and bodies. But I’ve been noticing that as adaptations of Wuthering Heights have moved into our own modern age, we are often re-idealising women in the home, not allowing for a more complex and more updated idea of what the domestic sphere actually means in our contemporary world, and how women can form a better, more self-determined relationship with it.

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

All these ideas were swimming in my head as I was looking at Callon’s work. It’s obviously a very beautiful and expertly crafted artistic project. But beyond its beautiful aesthetics, there is something else going on here. Callon cleverly reminds a knowing viewer of the way the domestic sphere and the private home were often too intimately linked with the female body and the female self in the nineteenth century. There is a reason why women’s fiction of that time is riddled with domestic Gothic doubles, ghosts and hauntings, madness and hysteria; these were the natural fictional manifestations of women reacting to the strict boundaries placed upon their lives and their identity at the time. I always remember Charlotte Brontë’s words in Jane Eyre when I think about this subject:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; ... and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing.

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

And of course, there is Catherine Earnshaw’s mad, but also lucid ranting in Wuthering Heights as she picks apart the feathers in her pillow, destroying the order of her domestic bedroom, within which she is enclosed, pregnant and dying:

I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there.

I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free.

I’ve always thought Catherine wanted to retreat into childhood, because it represented freedom from marriage and from having to choose between one identity, or one conception of herself, over the other.

Houses of Fiction

Houses of Fiction

I see all these meanings in Callon’s work. She mentioned to me that she’s interested in people who respond to her work as not simply a visual aesthetic but also a plethora of meanings that come from the original texts she is adapting. I can’t help but link these meanings with this article on lifestyle bloggers I read just this morning. It is not a perfect article (but what article is, really?), and I don’t necessarily agree with all the points. It is after all difficult to generalise and summarise what all lifestyle blogs do, as people don’t fit neatly in categories. But there are a few lines of thought that are worth exploring.

The line in the article that struck me the most was this one: “The advice they offer is merely how to make ourselves, as women, ever more decorative.” I find it hard to argue with this statement when I visit lifestyle blogs sometimes. Are we buying into a modernised consumer version of nineteenth-century domestic entrapment? For anyone who has spent some time studying nineteenth-century literature, it would be hard not to see alarming similarities between the venerated asexual and angelic domestic goddess of the Victorian era (often called ‘the angel of the house’), and our own asexual and aspirational domesticity lifestyle blogs. But I always wonder if there’s more going on in these blogs that I’m not giving them credit for. I also wonder if modern women in developed Western societies are really freely choosing an idealised domestic sphere as a definition of themselves because they want to, or because they are being spoon-fed this ideal in similar ways to nineteenth-century women. I’d hate for us to once again buy into unrealistic myths of “maddening” “confinement”, to use Callon’s own words. Surely the domestic sphere needs to be re-conceptualised for both women and men in a ‘saner’ way in contemporary societies? This is why I find Callon’s project so timely.

It’s impossible to unpack all these questions in one post, and I don’t claim to have any easy answers myself. But I do think it’s important to talk about this and to think about this. The truly striking thing about Callon’s project for me is how it sits so well in the current debates I’m following about how we use the ideals, the literature, the aesthetics and the beliefs of the past in the present.

All images are by Julia Callon and are used here with permission. Please do not re-blog without proper credit. Thank you Julia, and thank you Sally!


Rambling Tart said...

This is one of the more satisfying and intriguing art projects I've seen in ages. I love the reflection in the rooms of what is taking place in the story, in the hearts of the characters. It is both unsettling and liberating to me. I've been thinking about home and domesticity lately, so I'm interested by your comments. I came from a world where a woman was defined by her domestic skills and presentation. That was where her worth was and what she was praised (or condemned) for. So when I got out I wanted to escape domesticity. I wanted to be liberated and freed from all such constraints. But the trust is, part of my soul is wrapped up in my home. I love creating a place of safety, nurture, beauty and rest. So now I'm back being ridiculously domestic and having a marvelous time but for totally different reasons. I love the creativity and individuality of it. It is not the source of my worth, it's simply my canvas now. And at the moment, what a messy canvas!! :-)

Hila said...

Hi Krista! I completely understand what you're saying. The instinct to want to create a beautiful domestic space is something that many people have and enjoy. In my family, I see my dad as being more 'domestic' than my mum. He likes to decorate their home, to collect things and arrange them, he does a lot of the cleaning and house maintenance, he aligns himself strongly with the private domestic sphere. And yet, he would be reluctant to call himself 'domestic' because that's seen a as a 'feminine' thing. That's what bothers me - the strict gender roles, not the actual enjoyment of the domestic sphere. To me, being domestic is a human characteristic, not a strictly 'feminine' one.

I'm still undecided whether I think the current craze of idealistically domestic lifestyle blogs are an expression of an individual domestic inclination, or a wider cultural one that determines what is and isn't 'natural' for women and men. I like my private domestic space too - it's actually a space of freedom for me. But what I don't like is having it used as a defining characteristic of my identity and abilities, and of other women's identities and abilities. In that sense, I also don't like the prevailing notion that men's identity is still defined by their work alone - as if they can't be nurturing and domestic. It's just a very limiting idea of humanity for both women and men that sets us up as gender caricatures.

I love projects like this, because they make me stop and think about all this - and thinking is always good!

rooth said...

This is such a cool project - and thanks for sharing everything that the artist hopes it stands for. I will agree that the domestic sphere need to be re-conceptualized to include men as well. With the pervasiveness of lifestyle blogs out there, it'd be really great to see more by men. Is it just not as widely accepted? I think it'd present a really interesting viewpoint

tara-lynn (good night, day) said...

this is just blowing my mind, i should be working, but couldn't be more thrilled to stumble on your blog (as always)!
thank you always for this blog, tara-lynn

Amelia said...

Such a thought provoking project. I think I need to re-read this one more time to let it all sink in.

Personally I am a bit put off by the idealized home in lifestyle blogs. I don't know why though but I don't see the appeal. Food blogs on the other hand are a bit of an obsession for me. I prefer food blogs.

Hila said...

Rooth: That's a good point - I honestly haven't seen a single domestic lifestyle blog run by a man. It's all women. It just seems odd and old-fashioned to me. And not just that - it's like we're over-idealising the domestic space as some consumer, perfectly decorated 'dream'. Something within me rebels against that.

Tara-Lynn: Thank you for visiting and for leaving a note of encouragement!

Amelia: I'm put off by home and lifestyle blogs too. But on the other hand, I'm careful to examine myself as well and not become judgemental - critical, but not judgemental. Just because I can't relate, doesn't mean others don't; but at the same time, that doesn't make lifestyle blogs immune to constructive criticism. I also don't get food blogs, I'm afraid :)

Sally said...

My pleasure Hila! And of course the beauty of sharing things is when I subsequently get to read your thoughts on the pieces, which only adds to the discussion / experience. :)

The whole issue of modern domesticity is fascinating to me, particularly when I mull it over in relation to baking. What does it mean that though I am passionate about this hobby, the fact that it's stereotypically feminine almost makes me want to eschew it in rebellion? I recognize that's ridiculous. And yet...when Facebook friends post "Baking up a storm tonight - I love being domestic!" or whatever, it makes me cringe; it seems to me that they're reinforcing a tie between something I love - creating nourishing food with my hands - with those painful gender-restrictive expectations, whether they mean to or not.

Hila said...

Sally: I'm so glad you send me a link to her site, so thanks again!

Oh I know what you mean. I cringe about the 'domestic' stuff when it's aligned with us as if that's our 'natural' lot in life. It would be great to live in a world where doing something like baking wasn't associated with a specific sex, but until that day comes, I'm afraid I will just have to cringe along with you, even if I like baking myself. I mean, I have guy friends who like baking too, does that make them 'feminine'? All this gender stereotyping and conditioning is bullshit.

Hila said...

Sorry, meant to type: 'you *sent* me'.