- Today is Charlotte Brontë’s two-hundredth birthday, and no two-hundredth birthday is complete without a new biography. Claire Harman has furnished one for the occasion, the first new biography in twenty years: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. “The main thrust of Harman’s biography,” writes Daphne Merkin, “endeavors to show how this most self-doubting yet obdurate of young women turned her emotional vulnerability and anxieties about her place in society as a fiercely passionate but plain Jane into a new kind of literature, one that forged a candid and poignant female voice of unaccountable power, telling of childhood loneliness and adult longing … There is a wonderfully poignant scene in London when the appearance-conscious Charlotte goes to a fashionable painter for the first of a series of sittings to have her portrait done and is asked to remove ‘a wad of brown merino wool that had stayed on top of her head when she took her bonnet off’—which proves to be a hairpiece. The experience leaves her ‘mortified (to the point of tears).’ ”
- I wear underwear all the time, mainly because my peer group frowns upon diapers. But there are other, deeper reasons, and it’s these that Tom Rachman explores in a trip to a new London exhibition, “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear”: “The motives for covering up, it turns out, include avoiding chafing, keeping outerwear unsoiled (vital in the days when a person’s outfits were handmade and few), restricting the jiggles of less well-moored body parts, and advertising the sexual organs to better advantage … Women’s wear constitutes the bulk of the exhibition, probably because male undergarments have tended to be staid and uniform, concerned primarily with comfort, in sharp contrast to the female garments concocted to suppress or accentuate the body … The hypocrisy of sexual repression is blatant in historic underwear, which at once prudishly hid the female body while exaggerating its sexual traits: breasts hiked up, hips widened, butt enlarged. A few underwear fads have diminished the sex traits, notably the androgynous looks of the nineteen-twenties and the nineteen-seventies; intriguingly, both were times of comparative sexual liberation.”
- Meanwhile, a traveling show called Famous Deaths lets you experience, in rich multisensory detail, the last four minutes of a famous person’s life. Simply slide on in to a metal mortuary drawer and you, too, can know the smells and sounds of JFK at Dealey Plaza, Whitney Houston in that Beverly Hills tub, Princess Diana in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Allison Meier chose the JFK option: “The intense smell of grass and the sound of an approaching crowd filled the small space … I’ve seen the footage, even visited the grassy knoll in Dallas, and some mixture of the saturated 1960s video and the Texas streets merged in my mind with the scents and sounds. I picked out the strong smell of coffee, which [cocreator Marcel] van Brakel later explained was from the crowd, and something leathery that suggested a car interior … When the bullet came, it wasn’t the blaring noise I’d feared, but a whistling shot followed by a flowery fragrance.” (That’s Jackie’s perfume.)
- Emmanuel Carrère reports from Calais, where the Jungle, the largest shantytown in Europe, has attracted a wealth of journalists and documentarians, all eager “to bear witness to the migrants’ misfortune.” But what about the rest of the town? Carrère receives an anonymous eight-page letter: “We’re fed up with the glitterati—pardon the term—coming to feed off Calais’ misfortunes and treating the people stuck within its walls like lab rats … I wonder: which traps will you fall into? What story are you looking for? One thing I know for sure: your venture will be a failure.” So he looks, literally, in other direction, talking not to the migrants but to the locals. “I met people, lots of people, not just the bourgeois in their bubble, as you put it—even if I found it reassuring that they still exist in Calais … ”
- Did you know? Queen Elizabeth II is ninety. It’s a terrifying time to be in Britain. “As with Diana’s death, and the traipsing pageant of sprogs, weddings, and jubilees, the birthday’s another of those moments when the country morphs into a twee version of North Korea. The Beeb goes into auto-drool; ITV is even worse. Mugshots of the supreme leader stare glassily out as bands blare and brass hats prink. She’s taking on the holographic aura of her mother, whose last decades plied the pale between chiffon and outright inexistence. One of the better portraits of the queen, Chris Levine’s Equanimity, actually is a hologram … The queen adheres to the throne as stubbornly as a seagull-splat baked to a sunshine roof. Commentators trot out the palace line that she sticks at it from a pitiless sense of duty. But everyone knows she knows that every extra day her reign grinds on is one less for that of Charles III. No one, maybe not even the dauphin himself, is clamoring to see the crown teeter atop those jug ears. Perhaps a corgi could be made regent till death or dementia claims him.”
In honor of James Joyce, I’ve spent Bloomsday carrying around a pair of doll’s underpants. I encourage all Joyce enthusiasts to do the same.
Doll underpants figure in Ulysses as a signifier in Leopold and Molly’s courtship—they’re what the critic David Cotter terms “a fetish charged with a tension between extremes.” As Molly Bloom recollects, she gave Leopold just such a talisman after one of their first dates:
so now there you are like it or lump it he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadnt an idea about my mother till we were engaged otherwise hed never have got me so cheap as he did he was lo times worse himself anyhow begging me to give him a tiny bit cut off my drawers that was the evening coming along Kenilworth square he kissed me in the eye of my glove and I had to take it off asking me questions is it permitted to enquire the shape of my bedroom so I let him keep it as if I forgot it to think of me when I saw him slip it into his pocket of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete that one in the cream muslin standing right against the sun so he could see every atom she had on when he saw me from behind following in the rain I saw him before he saw me however standing at the corner of the Harolds cross road with a new raincoat on him with the muffler in the Zingari colours to show off his complexion and the brown hat looking slyboots as usual what was he doing there where hed no business they can go and get whatever they like from anything at all with a skirt on it and were not to ask any questions but they want to know where were you where are you going I could feel him coming along skulking after me his eyes on my neck he had been keeping away from the house he felt it was getting too warm for him so I halfturned and stopped then he pestered me to say yes till I took off my glove slowly watching him he said my openwork sleeves were too cold for the rain anything for an excuse to put his hand anear me drawers drawers the whole blessed time till I promised to give him the pair off my doll to carry about in his waistcoat pocket
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
When I was in high school, the few friends I had all lived in other states—the far-flung gains of various summer camps—which meant that I took a lot of long train trips on weekends. On these rides, I developed the habit of sitting next to a very specific kind of stranger: a middle-aged man who looked lonely. The goal was to find someone who’d talk nonstop. That was how I met Tom Malone: on the train from New York to Raleigh. Over the course of the eight-hour journey, he talked about everything from his government job to his pit bull’s separation anxiety. He told me he used to braid his ex-wife’s hair every night, back when they were married. He explained in detail the reasons Amtrak’s business model was bound to fail. He said my name a lot, and with formality: “Here’s the thing, Jean,” and so on.
I’d never felt safer in my life, sitting next to Tom—his belly like a life raft, and me nodding like a therapist. At one point though, he ruined the spell. He said, “You look exactly like that girl Lennon dated. What’s her name.”
“Yoko Ono?” I said.
“No, no, not Yoko Ono. Oh, darn it. May. May Pang? You know her? Lost weekend?” I didn’t know her. And I wanted us to go back to talking about him.
About five years ago, when I first saw the work of artist Laurel Nakadate, I could have sworn that she had cast Tom in one of her videos, which feature middle-aged, sometimes overweight, mostly white men who had approached her in the street or hit on her in parking lots. In return, she’d invited them to go home with her and act out strange one-on-one scenarios in front of video cameras. We see them shaking her inert body and yelling, “Wake up! Wake up!” or performing an exorcism, or sharing a birthday cake. In a scene from I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2006), her hirsute costar strips down to his loose-fitting underpants, while she takes off everything but her bra and panties. Then, with her index finger, she traces a clockwise circle in the air over his head. It’s a signal for him to spin around, which he does, while she watches, unblinking and tender. Read More