It was a very poor pink pony, who had saved up all its ponymoney the previous year and got the finest blue glittery star it could. It had reveled in how fashionable it was, and been overjoyed when all the other ponies gave it envious looks and sidelong glances.
But fashion moved on inexorably in pony world and after a year the blue star it was so proud of went out of fashion. All the hip cool ponies were wearing silver stars. Our pony had spent all its ponymoney on a blue star, and was going to have to start saving up for a silver star, but it did not yet have enough.
And somewhere the fashion-star-designing ponies were laughing, because they knew that by the time the pony could afford a silver star, they would already have moved on to mauve.
They don’t love you like I love you
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the femalest book from a male author I have read in a long time. The unnamed protagonist is stuck in the middle of a conflict between insanely powerful supernatural women: the evil Ursula Monkton / flea, and the good Hempstocks. Our hero is vulnerable and quite passive, although this is not surprising, as he’s only seven. The other characters are much less relevant – and the only two male characters are his father, whose plot-relevant actions are all controlled by the supernatural women, and the opal miner, whose failure and death is the catalysis for the plot. (Note – no named male characters.) Even the media the protagonist uses for escapism are heavily coded female. He reads his mother’s book collection, all of them with female protagonists named in the title, all of them doubtless intended for girls. In his darkest hour, when he is crouching in the fairy circle, he keeps despair at bay by quoting from two texts: Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Both texts have male writers and female protagonists.
Women are clearly more relevant than men to the plot, and to the protagonist’s world. The Hempstocks continuously save him, comfort him, save him, help him. This story could turn into the standard narrative of “women support man, man does heroic thing.” I expected it to. I thought the hero will somehow end up saving the day, or Lettie’s life, and having become a man, will gain the respect of old Mrs Hempstock. But he doesn’t. It’s not for lack of trying – he is brave and good, and willing to sacrifice himself for the world – but he simply can’t do the manly heroic thing in this narrative. Women are waging war around him on levels he cannot compete with, or even comprehend. These women will continue to save and nurture him, but not because he is a hero who is deserving of it, but out of pity and kindness. When a woman is kind to a man, that doesn’t mean he is good – it just means she is.
The Hempstock family closely mirrors the maiden-mother-crone trinity. I always found that categorisation inherently sexist, because it defines women by their reproductive and sexual capacities. (The maiden is before procreation, and additionally at the height of her sexual attractiveness. The mother is at the height of her reproductive capacities. The crone has lost both sexual attractiveness and reproductive capacities, in exchange she is wise.) But Gaiman’s women are different. They don’t need men, and if they keep men are around, that is irrelevant who they themselves are. The maiden here is prepubescent, and not attractive – merely neat in her red raincoat. The mother isn’t anyone’s wife, and her motherliness rests in her strength and comfort, not her actual reproductive abilities. And the crone isn’t merely wise, she is as close to being God as it is possible to be without outright stating it.
These three powerful women are described with love and awe, and incidentally, in an utterly asexual manner. They are clearly idealised versions of woman, or considering their different life stages, one Idea of Woman. And this Ideal Woman is strong , self-sufficient, and whether or not the writer or the reader wants to fuck her is irrelevant. Even when abandoning a seven-year-old’s innocent point-of-view, when the narrator expresses an awareness that Young Mrs Hempstock is attractive, it is done in an off-hand, cursory manner.
In this book, Neil Gaiman shows us that he loves women. This does not mean he never made a sexist statement, or he never will. It just means that he wrote a novel in which women are powerful and, for the most part, good. I am not one to clumsily grasp for autobiographical detail, even if it was Gaiman’s decision to leave the narrator nameless and include a childhood photo of himself. The truth is in the novel: the artist is doing his best, despite the hole in his heart, but time and time again, he needs the help of Woman, not to accomplish his grand purpose, just to stay alive.
I’ll take that (and I have no doubts that you could find sexism in my life, my work or the world, but I do my best).
I didn’t think anyone would notice that both Iolanthe and Alice (and the imaginary books) all had women’s names as titles, and am impressed that someone noticed.
Yes yes yes. This is what I’m saying. Have you read this book yet?
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: ‘House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.
I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such,
Although I liked a few folk pretty well.
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch,
For brave men died and empires rose and fell
For love: girls followed boys to foreign lands
And men have followed women into Hell.
In plays and poems someone understands
There’s something makes us more than blood and bone
And more than biological demands…
For me, love’s like the wind, unseen, unknown.
I see the trees are bending where it’s been,
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown.
I really don’t know what ‘I love you’ means.
I think it means ‘Don’t leave me here alone.’
I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to move on when the one you love walks away from you. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything truly worth knowing.