Guest Post on Cyrano

Carmina and I saw Cyrano de Bergerac (a few posts down) together, and afterwards we talked about it a bit, and then later she sent me this email. Seemed worth sharing with the world. 🙂

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I was thinking about Cyrano de Bergerac tonight, and about Roxane, and
about how I called her a ditz during the movie. The book I was reading
today, Embroiderer’s Story, traced the history of the British
embroidery tradition from the time of Elizabeth I through the 20th
century, and related the relationship of the craft to the state of
women’s lives in all those periods. (There -IS- a point to this, I
swear. It’s just going to take me a bit of work to explain to you how
it’s all related!)

What fascinates me most about history and historical dramas is the
window they give into the daily lives of people in different times. One
of my own perpetual questions is: can people can find happiness no
matter how base or trivial their lives might be? Do our current-day
attitudes prevent us from understanding how others could find pleasure
in lives that now seem barren? Were all Medieval peasants miserable?
Were all slaves in the South suffering tortured lives? Poor farmers in
19th-century Ireland? Can people be doomed to perpetual misery, or did
they find pleasures and happiness in things that we can’t see from our
perspective? If so, are there other options open to us poor miserable
slobs in the 21st-century that we just don’t see?

Looking at the lives of women is especially interesting for me because
women are often less advantaged then the men of the society and had
fewer choices. Even wealthy women had little choice but to grow up
attractive, marry an adventageous husband (little possibility of love
matches, though they did occur), and spend their lives doing domestic
duties. If you happened to -like- domestic duties, then you obviously
had the chance for a nice, contented life. But what of women who didn’t
quite fit in that way? Would they live completely unfufilled lives and
die empty shells? Could a whole culture be filled with half-dead souls,
people who’d given up hope? And could a culture like that flourish?

To get back to Roxanne, her character is kind of Victorian rather than
French Baroque, which is when the play was set. That whole “ravished by
a phrase of love” attitude really was the vogue in the first half of
the 19th-century, when Romanticism first brewed up in Europe. And I’m
beginning to wonder if it wasn’t fueled in some way by the need of
women to find something meaningful in their days. As the industrial
revolution increased in speed, more and more women found themselves “at
leisure” instead of having to work to run the household. “Filling up
the day” was actually kind of a problem for young women, young wives.
because there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot for them to do. Many took up
stitchery because it looked pretty when suitors called and was
considered the mark of a true gentlewoman. And this was the time when
novels really came into their own, too. Novels were very often read
aloud as women spend their time doing needlework every day. If women
hadn’t needed reading material to keep themselves from getting bored
silly while doing their stitchery (as I still need the TV!) would there
have been such a strong market for florid novels and overembellished
prose that made heroines like Roxanne swoon? Would there have been such
a huge swing into Romanticism?

I tend to despise “Romantic” art and literature, because so much of it
is just overblown, self-centered, melodramatic dreck. Like those
ridiculous orators at Roxane’s “Lecture on the Tender” scene in Cyrano,
it’s all puffery with little underlying depth. But what else would a
woman have to rock her world, so to speak? How could she know better?
Perhaps I was a bit too harsh on Roxanne after all. For a 19th-century
woman, to think she had value enough to inspire the creation of a “True
Poem” by a gifted suitor could have been the greatest validation she
could imagine. Even though Roxanne seems like a superficial twit to our
eyes, 19th-century women must have really identified with her. She was
important not because she created art (which wasn’t often an option for
women outside their needlework) but because she -inspired- art. And for
a person with very limited life opportunities, that sure must have felt
wonderful.

Gosh, I hope this didn’t bore you too much. I hadn’t realized how many
words it would take me to describe a very simple connection that
happened in my brain today while I was reading the embroidery book!

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