Friday, June 28, 2013

Drawing the Tides

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop in "Parade's End"

Back in the early spring, I was reading and blogging about Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the social upheavals that preceded and were prompted by World War I. The novels had recently been dramatized by the BBC and HBO in a version brilliantly adapted by Tom Stoppard.
One of the three leading characters is Valentine Wannop, the young pacifist suffragette who is in love with Christopher Tietjens, the complicated hero who is out of step with the age. Valentine is a strong, confident young woman who is utterly sure of her feelings for Tietjens but utterly unaware of what happens behind the bed curtains.

“Of the physical side of love she had neither image nor conception. In the old days when she had been with him, if he had come into the room in which she was, or if he had merely been known to be coming down to the village, she had hummed all day under her breath and had felt warmer, little currents passing along her skin. She had read somewhere that to take alcohol was to send the blood into the surface vessels of the body, thus engendering a feeling of warmth. She had never taken alcohol, or not enough to produce recognisably that effect; but she imagined that it was thus love worked upon the body ‒ and that it would stop for ever at that!
But, in these later days, much greater convulsions had overwhelmed her. It sufficed for Tietjens to approach her to make her feel as if her whole body was drawn towards him as, being near a terrible height, you are drawn towards it. Great waves of blood rushed across her being as if physical forces as yet undiscovered or invented attracted the very fluid itself. The moon so draws the tides.”
It was this ignorance about the mechanics of sex on the part of young women in the early 20th century, which leads my character Celia into profound and heartbreaking trouble in Albion’s Millennium. Brought up by fond but physically distant parents, deprived of any closeness with men, the only person with whom she was likely to experience any semblance of natural physical relations was her boisterously affectionate older brother. And of course it made her particularly unprepared for this kind of encounter:

" the midst of the din and clamour of voices and the clink of knives and forks, Celia remembered being in the lane from the Mummersford estate farm late one hot afternoon, angry with Makepeace for some quarrel they’d had. There was the smell of new-mown grass from somewhere, but the lane was very dry. She raised little explosions of dust with every step. Every leaf in the hedgerow that grew high above the lane had its sheen of dust. She ran her finger over one, exposing the dark, earthy green underneath. The leaf was like the tongue of an animal with a groove down the middle. She’d been carrying a stick, a stout oak branch, satisfyingly gnarled yet with bark smooth to the touch. Perhaps the quarrel with Makepeace had been over the stick, she couldn’t remember. She had used the stick to whack the hedgerow, making the dust fly in billowing sheets of white. It was satisfying to hit out at the hedgerow till the sweat curled under her arms, hearing the vegetation crack and bend under her blows. It made her feel powerful to make the dust fly and the hedge crack, as Makepeace in their quarrel had made her feel thwarted, small, and completely insignificant.
So she was not afraid at first when the man stepped through the scrim of dust she’d raised as if onto a stage. He was dressed in a shabby coat with frayed cuffs, that much she saw immediately, and his boots were very worn. A tinker, a beggar man on the road to the big house, poaching maybe. Celia glanced down at his hands, expecting to see a rabbit trap, its brutal teeth slick with blood. But what he held reverently in grimy open palms protruded from the opened buttons below his leather belt, something long and hard, mottled and wrinkled like a root pulled from the earth. It twitched and writhed and seemed to reach towards Celia with a life of its own, and the more she stepped back, the more it seemed to grow towards her like a monstrous plant."

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