Friday 19 July 2013

'Can you mention Clara's name, and that woman's name, in the same breath?'

‘Nice name. Clara. You should definitely keep it.’, The Doctor, Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012).

Matt Smith as The Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald

I recently reviewed Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) for this blog and mentioned the character of Clara – the virtuous sexless sister whose pure love serves as a redemptive antidote to the dangerous and destructive sexuality of Margaret Sherwin. So far, so standard. Clara, from the Latin, meaning ‘famous’, ‘clear’, ‘bright’, seems an obviously symbolic choice of name for the fair and angelic woman who tries to save Basil in his dreams and in reality, and who is spoken of throughout in the language of praise (‘My sister!—well may I linger over your beloved name in such a record as this!’).

But on reflection, I noticed that Basil’s Clara isn't the only fictional Victorian sister named Clara to have these qualities. Sticking to the world of sensation, there are two more – this time in the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. First up, Clara Talboys, in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), who is another woman defined by her relationship with her brother. She says:

I have been allowed neither friends nor lovers. My mother died when I was very young. My father has always been to me what you saw him today. I have had no one but my brother. All the love that my heart can hold has been centred upon him.’

And, like Basil’s Clara, her beauty and worth is located firmly in her capacity for self-sacrificing suffering:

‘His cousin was pretty, his uncle's wife was lovely, but Clara Talboys was beautiful. Niobe's face, sublimated by sorrow, could scarcely have been more purely classical than hers.’

Using the classical figure of Niobe, the archetypal suffering mother, highlights the sexlessness of Clara’ passion here – and it is this purity, conversely, which Robert Audley finds so attractive. Throughout the novel, the other figure Clara is compared with is her brother George (it is the first thing Robert notices about her: ‘the whole length of the room divided this lady from Robert, but he could see that she was young, and that she was like George Talboys’), so much so that Robert’s eventual union with her has been read as a surrogate for his homosexual longing for his friend. The marriage between these two – whose passions have been more focussed on Clara’s brother than each other – is similar to the conclusion of Basil, where the hero’s life alone with his sister, both unmarried, has incestuous undertones, and also to Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), where Marian’s presence in Walter’s household sets up a strange three-way union where the boundaries between sibling and sexual love are not clearly determined.

Second, Braddon’s Black Band; or the Mysteries of Midnight (1861-2) deals with the trials of ballet-girl Clara Melville, whose purity in the face of attempted rapes, seductions and kidnaps serves as a foil to the immorality of the sexually loose and murderous Lady Edith, just as Collins’s Clara is contrasted with Margaret, and Clara Talboys is compared with Lady Audley. Clara is also a sister, who works long hours to support her family, but, with a sleight of hand which gestures towards a more controversial viewpoint, Braddon actually goes so far as to suggest that women who fail to live up the ideal of sexual purity could have similarly familial motivations. The narrator says of the ballet-girls who succumb to prostitution:

‘Weep for them; pity; but do not harshly blame them! Poorly paid at the best, with perhaps a drunken father or an invalid mother to support- perhaps the only provider for a band of helpless little sisters – sorely tempted by base and cruel men who hold the ballet-girl only as a toy made to minister to their amusement , and to be cast aside for some newer fancy.

‘Weep for them, poor erring sisters! and remember that frail though many of them may have been, yet in the ranks of the ballet are still every day to be found devoted daughters, self-sacrificing sisters, and true and affectionate wives.’

Braddon professes to maintain a distinction between girls who ‘fall’ and those who do not - her conclusion that ‘in the ranks of the ballet are still every day to be found’ examples of female virtue, can be read as suggesting the continuance of some of the performers’ chastity. But the whole force of the passage works against this distinction.

The repetition of the word ‘sisters’, along with pathetic adjectives, for the fallen women (‘poor erring sisters’), the chaste women (‘self-sacrificing sisters’),  and the households both groups support (‘helpless little sisters’) suggests that there is no difference between the ballet-girls. Domestic feeling can lead to prostitution as these women struggle to help their families, and, even more directly, the qualities attributed to those who are ‘true’ - being affectionate, devoted and self-sacrificing - can be the very qualities which lead to becoming a man’s mistress.

As we see Braddon and Collins playing with the figure of the pure and selfless sister to different effect, the question remains about why they choose the name Clara to do this, beyond its obvious symbolism. The increasing popularity of the name in the nineteenth century could prove a clue – how fashionable it was across Europe is suggested by the use of the name in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker (1892) for the heroine, who in Hoffman’s source story (1816) had been called 'Marie'. But if you come across any more self-sacrificing nineteenth-century Claras, let me know – this pattern makes the choice of the name Clara for the Doctor Who companion who has been a Victorian governess and was ‘born to save the doctor’ particularly apt. 

Clara in The Nutcracker

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent essay. I love Greek literature, Dante, the virtuous heroine of classic literature, Keats, and I love ballet (and I have the same birthday as Tchaikovsky [and Brahms], if it matters). My former piano teacher was educated at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg in the 1980s and all of her friends were Kirov ballerinas. When I discovered a signed photo of the great Ulyana Lopatkina on her wall, I asked about her Kirov connections and declared, "Halida, why have you never told me that you knew all the Kirov ballerinas?!" To mention, I was somewhat recently divorced at this time. I've never forgotten her response as she waved her little index finger at me: "Ah, ah, ah, John. They're not all like you think!" Your above essay has made me question why I'm so drawn to virtue, now that I'm sure it's virtue that's forever drawn me to ballet. I think of the scarce display of virtue in our modern world and believe that ballet may be one remaining bastion of hope. I wonder if any ballerinas feel the pressure.