September 16, 2013
A woman fascinated by vintage clothing who decides to start wearing a corset on a daily basis is a book subject that would naturally interest me. Rachel, my first-person narrator, travels to 1815 and starts wearing a corset (along the rest of the period-appropriate outfit), and I am curious about how that must have felt to her. (Though not enough to actually dress up like that. Yet.) Even if the author’s corset — the waist-squeezing, hourglass-figure-imposing kind adopted in the 1830s and worn for the better part of the next century — is different from the c. 1815 model, which left the waist largely as it was, there still must have been a sense of confinement and required uprightness alien to our elasticized age. What would that be like? What practical problems would the author encounter? So when I found a review copy lying around the office, it vaulted to the top of my to be read pile.
“Victorian Secrets” by Sarah A. Chrisman was fascinating, although not in the way I expected and probably not in the way its author intended. It is chiefly fascinating, alas, as a psychological study, and an admonition about the risks of memoir. Not that the stuff about corsets isn’t interesting — it is. And yet. And yet.
One thing that goes without saying, or ought to at least, is that when deciding to don a corset, and eventually full vintage or vintage-inspired outfits to match: it’s important to have a sense of humor about it, of irony maybe, some insight into the faint whiff of the absurd that lingers about the decision. Every time and every place has its own dogmas, whether in ways of dressing or ways of thinking, styles of music, fashions in food, approaches to religion, child-rearing and other things too numerous to mention. To step outside the customs of your own little space-time continuum is to recognize in a sharper way the arbitrariness of all these, which will ideally bring a certain sense of cultural relativism to the project. This is the promise of “Victorian Secrets,” or, as its subtitle puts it: “What a Corset Taught Me About the Past, the Present, and Myself.”
Instead I was left with the impression as I read this book that for its author, other people do not really exist, not with the same reality and forcefulness that she, herself, does. Everyone else, even her husband (who shares her penchant for vintage clothing and gives her as a birthday present the corset that sets this adventure in motion) matter only to the extent that they impinge upon her. People who admire her outfits, compliment her posture or want to talk about the Victorian era suffuse the author with a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Those who accidentally step on her petticoats, scold her for endorsing female oppression, wear less-than-authentic Victorian garb or want to use a public bathroom that she has pressed into service as changing room during a vintage fashion show groan under the lash of her scornful prose. There is no in between, and seemingly no awareness that people who, for example, urgently need to use a bathroom or choose to wear Victorian-style clothes made of synthetic fibers might have problems of their own, might not have come into the world solely to vex and oppress Sarah A. Chrisman. Though frequently shocked by the self-righteous attitudes of those offended by her choice of foundation garment, who stare, point, or lecture her about dangers of tight-lacing, the author seems unaware of her own self-righteousness, to sometimes comic effect.
But, it’s a memoir. Isn’t the whole point of a memoir — that is about oneself? The form is inherently egotistical. So what’s wrong?
A semester with The Writers Studio has given me this: I recognize the critical problem here as one of narrative voice. Autobiography, memoir and confession (as well as novels that are written in a similar style, and indeed really all first-person narrated novels) live or die by the voice. There is a complicity going on between reader and narrator, which can work in various ways, but the premise always the same: something that enlists the reader, compels him or her to keep reading. To choose an extreme example, the narrator of Nabokov’s autobiography “Speak, Memory” is unapologetically superior to and far smarter than nearly all of his readers. Reading this book as an 18-year-old student, I felt the vast gulf between my own ordinary life with its slight accomplishments and that of this handsome, brilliant, aristocratic and doubly exiled Russian. Yet he had me on his side from the first sentence: (“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”) How did he do that? The shortest explanation, I suppose, can be gleaned from that very sentence: our existence. Nabokov tells us the story of his first two decades in this book, but he starts with a comment about the wider human condition, the reality we all share: that we will die. It doesn’t get much simpler, or more universal, than that. Nabokov makes no attempt to conceal or play down his unusual abilities or his privileged childhood, but his language wins us over all the same.
Here’s a provocative notion, though scarcely an original one. Writers, whether of novels, memoirs, or 750-word accounts of local city council meetings, are by their very nature crazy egotists: They think their thoughts or insights are more interesting than the common run, and need to be shared with the world. Yet many of the ones people enjoy reading manage through some rhetorical tricks to hide this, to adopt a pose of something else that keeps the reader feeling connected, as if we are on the same side of a divide.
I was about to offer “Julie & Julia” as a better comparison than “Speak, Memory” to “Victorian Secrets”: in both books, a young woman takes on a stunt and writes a book about it. I read “J&J” shortly after it came out and found it hilarious in its profane, food-geeky way. The voice of Julie Powell in this book won me over. But when I went to Amazon to check whether it was really “Julie & Julia” or actually “Julia & Julie,” I was struck by how many reviewers really hated it (though many, like me, also liked it), giving it one-star reviews with reactions similar to the one I’ve had reading “Victorian Secrets”: that the author, based on how she wrote, just seemed to them someone they would not like.
So there you go. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. I did glean a lot of corset lore from “Victorian Secrets” (which is due out in November from Skyhorse), and no doubt others will find the narrative voice more pleasing than I did. I wish them the pleasure of it, and the best to its author.