I first picked up Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women because I had adored her debut, The Gardens of Kyoto, a lyrical, delicately written novel about a woman grappling with her beloved cousin's death in World War II. As I was reading A Short History of Women, I also watched Heat and Dust, the first big success of the films produced by Merchant-Ivory. The film has two stories, both set in India. In the first, a young British bureaucrat's wife (Greta Scacchi) arrives in India and, suffocated by the sterility of British colonial society, seeks excitement and exoticism in the company of the maharajah (Shashi Kapoor). In the second, her niece Anne (Julie Christie) returns decades later to try to uncover what happened to her aunt, what was scandal and what really happened. I was struck by thematic and structural parallels between Walbert's book and the Merchant-Ivory film, parallels that it seemed to me would bear closer scrutiny and yield perhaps greater insight into both.
The reviews of Walbert's novel, published in 2009, were unusually positive, garnering comparisons to Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. The book's promotional materials sold it as a personalized history of feminism, a crystallization through specific characters of the Woman Question through the past century. Dipping into and out of the perspectives of six related women (and one of their husbands), Walbert constructs the history of a family shaped by the feminist movements and issues of recent history, starting with Dorothy, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause, her daughter Evelyn, a brilliant, budding scientist left bereft by World War I, her granddaughter, Dorothy, a discontented housewife married to a former POW, and the younger Dorothy's rather nondescript daughters and granddaughter.
Suffragette Dorothy is the most interesting of the characters, perhaps because she leads the most interesting life and has the most developed narrative voice. Evelyn too has an interesting narrative voice, verging on the acerbic, though Walbert never abandons her dreamy lyricism, and her life as a chemistry student and professor at Barnard is, if not eventful, appealingly drawn. The younger Dorothy, however, never coalesces into a recognizable character, not least of all because so much of her chapters are written from the perspective of her rather stuffy husband, Charles - a strange choice in a book that purports to tell a history of women, given that one couldn't imagine a more commonplace specimen of straight, white, male middle-class mediocrity (though he has an odd fixation on Robert Browning). Charles we come to know all too thoroughly. We learn nothing of young Dorothy's childhood or her relationship with her clubfooted pianist father (the clubfoot seems to be a somewhat clumsy means of conveying psychological damage) and she remains an inscrutable cipher. Her daughters, one a high-powered businesswoman mourning a bitter divorce and the other a bromidic mother who also enjoys pottery, are not as diffusely drawn as their mother, but, for all their introspection, they seem to lack personality. The granddaughter's section consists of her online dating profile, both an annoying and extraneous conceit and one that reveals her to be as vapid as she believes herself to be intellectual. One wishes that Walbert had chosen to write a novel purely about Suffragette Dorothy, or perhaps just Suffragette Dorothy and Evelyn, both of them intelligent, thinking women who made choices against the mainstream, which is not to say that the later characters, living decidedly in the mainstream, are not interesting because they live in the mainstream: rather, the thoughts and reflections they examine so minutely in reaction to that mainstream life lack depth and originality, fail to illuminate some deeper meaning in that mainstream life. The chronologically earlier characters have depth and dimensionality; the later ones devolve into types, and worse, not very intriguing types.
Heat and Dust, released in 1983, was adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her own 1975 novel. The movie is remarkable for the instability of its political perspective, both sympathetic and somewhat teasing towards all the characters, whether staunch supporters of the colonialist expansion of British India, the decadent royal Indian families drifting into impossible penury, or Ghandi's radically democratic protest movement. Scacchi is radiantly beautiful and convincingly fascinating as the naive British girl, entranced by the pageantry and music of her new home and sensually awakened to devastating effect, both in terms of her own personal life and in terms of the diplomatic relations of the British with the maharajah, while Merchant-Ivory favorite Kapoor turns in another elegant performance as a prince who plays at being the debonair cosmopolitan and the bloodthirsty tyrant, sometimes within the same sentence. The later story, following Julie Christie's character, is less absorbing, though exquisitely acted; its neat, squared-off conclusion is so beautifully filmed that it can be forgiven. Indeed, the cinematography, by Walter Lassally, is as gorgeous as one would anticipate for a period Merchant-Ivory production.
An interview provided on the DVD offers insight into the construction of the film, which leaps temporally between the two stories, one set in 1923 and the other in 1975, but also within the chronology of those two stories. Jhabvala explains that she originally wrote the two plots chronologically and then afterwards divided them up and pasted them together, so that each story would provide a "counterpoint" to the other. In general, this proves an effective cinematic strategy, especially since the narrative echoes are accompanied by striking visual echoes (i.e., scenes occurring in the same rooms, though in different years).
Walbert makes use of a similar temporal structure though to less successful effect. This is at least partly due to the number of perspectives she juggles, but more crucially, it seems to be a choice based more on current trends in fiction than in the exigencies of the story-telling. It is disorienting to jump from 1914 to 2003 and back again, only to suddenly arrive in 1898, but disorientation can be purposeful. Unfortunately, I can't work out what purpose Walbert had in mind. Non-linearity is very much in vogue, and certainly the cinematic quality of flashing back and forward can work miracles: just not in this case. There are echoes among the women's stories - more than one protagonist as a young woman writes that a teacher "is God" in a notebook, for example - and they do function adequately as echoes in recalling previous passages to mind. I wonder though, whether Walbert is positing some sort of quasi-magical genetic inheritance or if these echoes are meant to be universal, to apply generally to the Woman Question (another echo - one character attends a lecture on this Victorian subject heading, and the phrase recurs many times) across the board?
A similar problem is at the heart of Heat and Dust, but it's less salient. Whereas Walbert juggles six different women (and the husband), the film juggles only two, but again the echoes extend beyond visual cues. Both women become entranced, seduced one might almost say, by India, by its heat and its art, the religious rituals and different rules of etiquette beyond their understanding, by the gorgeous arid landscapes and exquisite birds. Both women are neglected by the British men they love, though, granted, under different circumstances, and both succumb to the advances of an Indian man, at least in part because he represents India itself, its sensuality. Both women become pregnant as a result, though their ultimate decisions regarding their inappropriate pregnancies diverge as completely as they can. The neatness of the parallels lends the film a certain surreal quality and I wondered if the story set in 1923 might not be interpreted less as a manifestation of the real history than the history Anne imagines, so that even as she believes herself to be living the echo of her aunt's life, perhaps she is creating a history that echoes her own path.
Thus, A Short History of Women and Heat and Dust share similarities both in their method of chronological construction and their themes - women and marriage, women and autonomy, pregnancy, desire, an interest in lineage and history, the disastrous effects of boredom in an unoccupied woman's life, the equally disastrous effects of rebellion and protest. Both indulge in a non-linear structure that contributes to a sometimes unnecessarily disorienting sense of confusion about who is who, who is related to whom and how, and where and when the characters find themselves, though both also include careful schematics for identifying the characters (a family tree in the book's case and a credits sequence with photographs appended to the character's names in the film's case). Both have a certain cold narrative tonality and both, even when depicting dramatic events, retain a matter-of-fact, almost objective gaze, despite making free use of first person narration interrupting the third person narration. Both play with the idea of women as the inheritors of private, painful familial histories, though those histories are thoroughly entangled with History, with a capital H, the history of empires, parliaments, wars, and civil protests. The women in these two stories are introspective, sorely conscious of the weight of their heritage, attractive to powerful men, fond of music and literature, marked as different (and fascinating) by a surrounding conformist society, and ultimately very alone. These women are haunted by their ancestresses and child-bearing becomes an act of almost mystical transference of that haunting.
Though A Short History of Women is deeply, disappointingly flawed, it is still exquisitely written, if not always interesting. It pales in comparison with The Gardens of Kyoto and it fails to live up to the promise of the blurbs on its cover, which describe an entire history of Anglo feminism through a multi-generational saga. The book is rather a grab-bag of women's histories, with a definitely small h, that hits many of the expected feminist marks, but in the end didn't need to. Too short and slight to live up to that promise, too bloated with prosaic material to work as a character study, the book is fascinating more for what it might have been than for what it is. That being said, Walbert showed herself capable of writing brilliantly in her debut; one flawed novel should hardly dim that accomplishment.
Heat and Dust fares better, though it is not a masterpiece on a par with Howards End, A Room with a View, or The Remains of the Day. The cinematography is lovely, the musical score by Richard Robbins in collaboration with the tabla player Zakir Hussain (who also has a significant role in the film as Inder Lal) is an absolute treat, and the film overall succeeds to a remarkable degree in evoking a genuine sense of the British imperial and Indian royal past. Its problems, its at times overtly confusing chronology, the occasional clunky line of dialogue or too broadly unsubtle parallel, don't prevent it from casting a temporary spell on the viewer. If Heat and Dust is a relatively minor work in the Merchant-Ivory filmography, then one can truly say that the collaborative team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced indubitable treasures.
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