Regiment of Women - Clemence Dane(38 Posts)
Proposal scenes and the subversion of heternormative hegemony in 20th century girls' school story fiction
Ahem. This thread is to discuss any and all matters relating to Regiment of Women. I shan't include any spoilers in this opening post, but they will start to come thick and fast thereafter.
To anyone who is not a member of the Chalet School quiche, please come in and don't mind us - anyone who has read or fancies reading RoW is very welcome!
I'm just going to post this thread and then anyone currently reading or re-reading can pop in for serious discussion at their leisure.
Oooh, lovely new thread, thank you Cheddar.
<settles down with an omelette in anticipation of the fun>
I rather like this description of Clemence Dane.
She was described by her great friend Noel Coward as ‘a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac.’
I think, for me, the thing that matters hinge on is how simplistic or nuanced the tale is supposed to be.
I think I said previously that I struggle to be at all reasonable about it - I care too much. I very instinctively want to defend Clare, even though in many respects she's hard to defend. But I think she is more than caricature, and therefore the more damning critiques I've read of ROW don't completely compel me any more (as they did before I'd actually read it). I certainly don't think she's the baddie when Elspeth is crowing to her at the end (I forget the line, although it sort of sticks with me as the pinnacle of the ending - it's something like "you'll die alone in the end"). In fact, in that particular instance, Elspeth is very clearly the baddie: which raises the question - is she in fact the malevolent, meddling fool all along? Probably in fairness she, too, is more nuanced than that - certainly she appears to be motivated by Alwynne's interests, as she perceives them at any rate. Whereas Clare is certainly not at all concerned with Alwynne's interests. I am not much concerned with Alwynne, full stop, although I would wish for her a happier ending than I feel she's likely to get with drippy old drippy git. That is a romance straight out of the CS, as far as I recall - I am still re-reading, but from memory I think it's another of those curious ones where we don't actually hear anything from the woman's perspective about why this man might be attractive, much like Len and Reg, Hilary and Dr Graves, which always jars for me.
Separate from all that is the hobby-horse of co-education as better and healthier than single sex schooling. And perhaps that's the bit that mattered to Dane, and the story about Louise/Clare/Alwynne/Elspeth&Roger is only a little something contrived to illustrate the negative effects of the closed single-sex environment and the lengths one must go to to escape from it, and how important it is that we repeal this state of affairs at once before all our daughters become Louises (or, worse, Clares). But that also reeks of misogyny I think - even in its historical context - and from what I've read about Dane, I don't think that quite fits. You can be strongly in favour of co-ed as psychologically healthier, and strongly opposed to single-sex education on the same grounds, without the ghoulish vision of women inevitably destroying each other.
... Of course you could decide that authorial intent is irrelevant and you're going to claim a subverted reading regardless. Which is fine. But - given the historical context etc - I can't help feeling very exercised about the intent.
... I never was any good at delicately warming up the subject before jumping right in at the deep end.
Ooh, I like that too Emily. Incidentally, an actual games mistress - in which case, how many games mistress writers? I'm sure that was also true of Gladys Mitchell (who also taught history) and Josephine Tey.
I haven,t got very far, but I am certainly feeling very uncomfortable around the whole question of intent and motivation, hidden or otherwise. I think the Chalet School word would be "unhealthy".
Thanks Nell that will be helpful background as I read on....
I've only just started my umpteenth re-read so I'll save the detailed comments for later.
But I can't resist putting in my starter for 10...
My take on Regiment has always been that it's mostly a nuanced, layered and in places quite dark story about the development of an intense relationship between two women. The fact that the end consists of the most ridiculous two-dimensional 'romance' between our heroine and some callow youth has only ever served to hammer home (to me) the message that all the emotional action and interest is woman-woman. I've always read the ending as CD making fun of the convention of the time to show marriage as the happy ending, because the one she gives us is so clearly risible - as demonstrated by the proposal scene. So yes, the PhD when I get round to writing it will be about the pivotal moment of the offering of the ring, and what it really says to the reader about emotional investment.
I'm off to do some re-reading now
and find I've misremembered my plot and have changed my position on what it's all about.
That's very like what Rosemary Auchmuty argues in one of hers (probably World of Women? Could be World of Girls) - that the real emotional drama is between women. She uses mainly an example from EJO concerning the implications of someone's marriage (forget who as still not read any), which seem to all be about the effects on (female) friendships and who shares a bed, and then the husbands invariably drift into the background anyway. And there are also countless low-key examples in the CS - Jo's marriage in relation to Robin and Grizel; Juliet and Donal's sister, whose name I've forgotten (and the conversation between Juliet and Jo on this subject); Kathie's disappointment about Biddy's marriage; Grizel's feelings about Deira's marriage, which may be to do with having thought that Deira's husband (Tony?) might have been interested in her initially, but may also be to do with feeling squeezed out and abandoned by her friend.
Either that PhD I linked to the other day, or else something else I've read recently (all these things seem to overlap in the end), noted that apparently Radclyffe Hall asked Clemence Dane to adapt Well for the stage. Which didn't come to pass, but rather adds ballast to the idea that at the time, at least, ROW wasn't perceived as a negative view of lesbians per se.
And to an extent, that same risible ending is partly what I see in Elspeth's closing taunt of Clare (which I've now looked up - "One day you'll be old. What will you do when your glamour's gone? I tell you, Clare Hartill, you'll die of hunger in the end.") Because who the hell is Elspeth to say that? She's also alone, old, unglamorous, and surely unfulfilled?
Clare is obviously no heroine - but I'd take her life over Elspeth's, a million times over. I don't think that's a perverse conclusion to reach.
I missed Con Stewart's marriage off that list, which is definitely in my top 10 sad CS moments! Although it's a sad thing which seems to almost pass EBD by.
I was really interested in Elsbeth's intervention at the end when she says that marriage, Marriage with a capital M, is the be-all and end-all for women, and that no true friend would ever stand in the way of a woman getting a chance at Marriage. True Love doesn't come into it. It reads like a pastiche. I'm not quite sure at all whether Elsbeth means one word of it or whether she's merely saying it to infuriate Clare.
The whole proposal/conspiracy at the end between Roger and Elsbeth is irritating. But I did like the bit where Roger helps Alwynne talk herself out of her fear of Louise being in hell. I think Alwynne ponders then that she finds Roger very easy to talk to and that he understands her and doesn't judge. I could therefore see her falling in love with him, in theory, but I don't like the way it actually works out - too patronising.
Btw, my copy had 'Elsbeth' - does yours have 'Elspeth', which would be more usual?
Yes - Elsbeth's life is that good old Chalet standby of 'maiden aunt brings up child from birth and devotes life to her'. Her fulfillment is all in Alwynne, and yet it's Clare who is portrayed as too claustrophobic. Roger is busy promising Elsbeth her tower room and her role as child-raiser-in-chief of Alwynne's children, because her entire life is in Alwynne. I'm not quite sure what Alwynne the independent would have to say about that - I think the inference is that she'll go and teach at the co-ed school, but maybe not, given that it's 1914 and the marriage bar would still have been heavily in place. Perhaps at socialist free-thinking establishments that didn't matter so much! Anyway, is Elsbeth the 'good' foil of elderly spinster in one incarnation to Clare's 'bad'? Or is more subtle?
I am also fascinated by the advent of Young America, Cynthia whatshername, who appears mainly to point up how unnatural the atmosphere in the school is and establish Clare as an Intriguing Woman. Perhaps she is CD's attempt at pointing out that Clare is no danger to a more worldly type - someone with a healthy, sophisticated world view - and that it is partly the culture/environment Clare moves in that makes her so devastating to sheltered innocents.
I think it's more complicated on each side than good/bad spinsters. It's probably easy with modern eyes to judge Elsbeth (yes, you're quite right - clearly I substituted it with the more normal version in my head!) harshly, but even allowing for that - she's also v manipulative of Alwynne. All that passive-aggressive crap over Christmas - and I'm sure the weird conspiracy stuff isn't genuinely supposed to be appealing. (I agree that some of Dane's contemporaries could have thought it so.) Overall, I don't think she's presented as 'truly good' any more than Clare - who has her brief moments of humanity - is presented as 'truly bad'.
Otoh, there are a couple of occasions which appear to position Elsbeth as sort of omniscient (eg the bit where Clare gets Henrietta sacked - there's a bracketed remark that Elsbeth realises how much Clare cares for Alwynne, whereas neither Alwynne nor Clare herself actually realise this) so perhaps she really is the blameless generous-hearted spinster aunt.
Quite a bit of the book seems to deal with who has 'rights to' Alwynne - that's the ongoing point of tension between Clare and Elsbeth, isn't it, as arises over weekends, then Christmas, then the summer holiday, etc. Clare is generally very direct - in her speech or her thoughts - that she feels entitled to have Alwynne. Elsbeth tends to keep it to herself, but the thoughts Dane attributes to her are really very similar. And then Roger comes along and he quite automatically gains the right to Alwynne's time and attentions. There's an apparent lack of agency on Alwynne's part, in all this - which doesn't quite match up with her passion and vivacity. Obviously plenty of people/books would accept unquestioned the rights a husband has to his wife, which take precedence over the rights her family of origin have over her before this time. But by introducing someone else into the equation, all of the silently-accepted aspects of that become somehow conscious decisions worthy of consideration, I think. Or possibly I am waffling absolute nonsense.
About half way through now and have a few observations / questions.
Firstly, I am finding it interesting finally to read some Clemence Dane as she seems to be one of those people who pop up by about page 46 in a lot of biographies - a bit like Eddie Marsh in slightly different circles.
I find the writing a bit patchy, good in parts, overwritten in others and sometimes on the banal side. Same with the characters, Louise's parents seem stereotypical to the point of caricature.
What I haven't got yet is where CD stands in all this. On the face of it Clare is a villain, but how does she relate to CD's own experiences? Is it deeply personal or something she observed with horror as a bystander?
It is all an interesting footnote to EBD's horror of pashes, sentimental friendships and what happens when you don't get enough fresh air.
I am sure I've read somewhere (probably that PhD thesis I linked to in the CS thread, which I'll post again here later) some speculation re: what experiences Dane might have drawn on to write ROW. However, I've just checked Emily Hamer's Britannia's Glory (one of many of my history books in which CD popped up), which has a fairly lengthy treatment of her will because her personal papers seem to have all been successfully destroyed.
(The noteworthiness of her will is that she left everything to the woman with whom she lived, but with the caveat that another woman with whom she had previously lived and to whom ROW was dedicated, who later lived alone in CD's house while CD lived with the other woman, could continue to live in the house for as long as she wanted/until she died.)
I have finished re-reading, and the last few scenes have rather reminded me that Dane doesn't leave a lot of space for defending Clare, really. And yet... up to and including the final scene (which is all Clare's), her perspective and psychology is given a much more complex treatment than Elsbeth's.
Hamer contends that you can only make reasonable sense of what CD is saying in ROW by reading it alongside her other work. I think one of the parcels which arrived today and I've not yet opened might help me with that...
(Can you picture Louise as a CS girl, btw? I think EBD would find her emotional state too horrific to deal with at all. I could see her at Kingscote, though.)
Oh I don't know. OOAO as sheepdog, good food, fresh air, tea at Freudesheim and a minor crisis on a glacier should do it.
Mary-Lou would send up a quick prayer for help and then set about making Louise see the error of her ways, by suggesting she take her problems to God, but not in a "pi" way. And Joey would help her dad and stepmother see how much Louise had grown up and how she wasn't a little girl anymore and needed attention/guidance. And they would both say "I can't thank you enough, Mrs Maynard" instead of "who the fuck are you?"
Haha! Can you imagine Joey in ROW? She'd destroy the plot in any number of ways - fixing Louise by throwing some feathers around; interfering in the complicated Miss Marsham/Henrietta Vigers/Clare Hartill running of the school; having Alwynne round for tea. Actually, there's something in the bit where Elsbeth decides to interfere way too directly with the Roger business (and isn't there something so gloriously, weirdly date-like, when Roger comes for tea?!) which is v v Joey. Is totally how I picture her involvement in the Len/Reg fiasco.
Well I have finished it and oh dear the second half.
This was my favourite line,
"He felt as indignant as if he had discovered a tray of unthinned seedlings".
In the end I think the writing let it down and whatever it was she wanted to say was lost (for me at least).
The comparison with Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby was the one that sprang immediately to mind when I started and the writing is just nowhere near in the same league.
It is a shame because it was on the verge of saying something quite profound about the relationship between the women in the school, but I think she completely lost that in the second half.
Can you picture Louise as a CS girl, btw? I think EBD would find her emotional state too horrific to deal with at all.
Though arguably EBD does take up the theme of working too hard making girls emotional and overwrought, albeit without the complexity or extremes of Louise. Even OOAO herself has a dose of it!
I'm very cross with myself because my best reading time is on the journey to work, but I left my copy at home this evening so my re-read's on hold. But yesterday on the bus I was thinking about EJO and her dealings with introspection in the Abbey series. We get dire predictions that Mary (the character rescued from unhealthy dreaming by her own fireside while life passed her by) would have ended up in an insane asylum had she not been rescued in time (by folk dance, of course), though we certainly don't get the exploration of the depths of her mental state.
Hoping that I haven't done a Genghis Khan on the thread?
Just that I wasn't sure what she was trying to say in the first place and then the quality of the writing got in the way.
Not Ghengised! I've been away for the weekend on an expedition and a long pink worm got into the car engine and I was stranded in a mountain pass for the night in a flood. Am I allowed to make these allusions on this thread, or is this one for serious literary discussion?
Louise, then. I was shocked rigid when she actually jumped. I think I had nice Chalet solutions in my head too thoroughly and wasn't expecting something so terrible to happen. I thought she might have a complete breakdown and have to be invalided off to Switzerland, but not that she would actually commit suicide. And then Alwynne believing Louise was haunting her - it was really harrowing and I cried my eyes out at the bit when Alwynne buries the hyacinths.
One thing I thought was interesting was that Alwynne never found out about Clare's involvement in Louise's death - that she in fact was not the last person to see Louise before she died. I thought that was bound to come out and be the last straw for Alwynne, but it didn't. I wonder whether that was meant to signify that Roger had healed Alwynne and there was no need for anything more - CD didn't need to stoop to the device of having Clare let slip that piece of information.
I've been away for the weekend on an expedition and a long pink worm got into the car engine and I was stranded in a mountain pass for the night in a flood.
Really? <raises eyebrow sardonically and lazily> I think what you meant to say is that you wandered into a copse to gather hyacinths, got lost, were overcome by ghostly visitations and had to lie down for a week while elderly cousins-three-times-removed refused to allow you internet access for the good of your health.
I'm about two-thirds of the way through my re-read so I'm keeping an eye on the thread and hopefully in a couple of days I'll be able to contribute!
Just out of interest did anyone see "Virago: Changing the World One Page at a Time" on BBC4 last night. Brilliant programme that really captured the feel of seventies feminism.
I loved the story about how they published twelve books in the first year and some man asked what they would do next year.....
Just out of interest did anyone see "Virago: Changing the World One Page at a Time" on BBC4 last night.
No I didn't, but I'll definitely look for it this evening on iPlayer. I remember the days when you could only get Virago and Women's Press books in 'specialist' (ie leftie, women's and/or gay) bookshops, and then the excitement when more mainstream shops and libraries started to stock them. My copy of Regiment is Virago, from their Lesbian Landmarks series. I think it had been out of print for some time until they re-released it.
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