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November 4, 2012

The Vicious Circle reads The Wives of Bath

It occured to us to read The Wives of Bath after we read Skippy Dies last winter, whose female characters were scarcely invested with heartbeats let alone souls. We wanted some women with more than two dimensions, and in The Wives of Bath, we got what we were looking for. We liked this book, everyone. This is remarkable. Some of us had read it years ago, others encountering for the first time. A few of us kept talking about the movie Heavenly Creatures in connection. We talked about boarding school books, and how delicious they are, especially when the reader is young, even though the schools themselves are always terrible. Why the attraction then? It’s another world, it’s Lord of the Flies. We talked about Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, and Jo Walton’s Among Others. And then we broke out the Cheetos.

Mouse is the portal to the book, our connection to the story, which means we’re distanced from the story and predisposed for sympathy for her. We wondered if Mouse’s sad sad story was a weakness, if we’d been too driven to sympathize. How sad can one story get? And yet it was her personality rather than her tragedy than won her to us. She does guide the story, but then we related this to Great Expectations, to Pip, laying everything out for the reader. Certainly there is literary value in this approach.

We talked about connections between fact and fiction, about a real life murder than inspired the novel’s climax and about autobiographical elements of the story. We talked about how this was not a perfect novel, if there seemed to be more at work behind the book than the story itself. How the novel contained so many elements– gothic, intrigue, humour, violence, ideas– and that it lacked a certain seamlessness. It’s a book that’s doing so many different things at once. And then we pause: “But it’s so good!” It’s that we can sit down and talk about it so intensely, coming to new questions instead of conclusions. That such a readable book can have so much depth.

We talked more about boarding school, about ideas of gender which were less in the public discourse when the book came out. We wondered if different elements of the book would be focussed on now? We talked about bodies in the book, how they were all misshapen somehow, exaggerated, too big or too small. The sadness of the Father/Daughter relationship, and how she never gives up on her father. How we forget that Mouse is younger than she seems, and (as with most teenagers) she is probably not as hideous as she imagines herself to be. We are happy she no longer talks to Alice in the end. We think she is going to be okay. We talked about the film version of the book and how different it was, with its emphasis on the lesbian storyline, which doesn’t exist here, or does so less titillatingly because the lesbians in the book are two old women rather than two beautiful young girls.

We talked about what happened to Paulie, what made her the way she was? Was she transgender? Was it the trauma of her childhood? Or was her adoption of maleness simply a logical reaction to the way she would be treated as a woman in her society, as a refusal to cede her power. How ironic than a person with such disdain for femaleness would end up the ward of a lesbian in a girls’ boarding school. And then we thought about how interesting it was that everyone (and us) wants to know what is wrong with Paulie, and no one ever says, “And what about every single thing that’s wrong with the world around her?”

One thought on “The Vicious Circle reads The Wives of Bath”

  1. patricia says:

    Oooo…excellent last point. Wish we had discussed that issue in detail.

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