Morgan le Fay

Morgan le Fay first steps into Arthur’s mythos in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, written in 1150. Here, she is the eldest of the nine sisters who rule the ethereal isle of Avalon and is a powerful healer. This Morgan could shape shift into animals, manifest as a crone or a maiden and fly. She’s also clever – a skilled mathematician and astronomer. Arthur’s men trust Morgan and take their mortally injured king to her to be healed. Geoffrey’s portrayal of her is sympathetic and he creates a strong, rounded female character.

In Chrétien de Troyes’ French romantic interpretation of the myth, she is presented as Arthur’s sister and described as ‘Morgan the Wise’. She is no longer the ruler of the island, but is in a relationship with its ruler, Lord Guigomar. And so her power starts to be subsumed, manipulated by medieval writers, reluctant to believe a woman could be knowledgeable, powerful or clever.

She remains a relatively benign character until Arthur’s tale is dramatically rewritten in the French Vulgate Cycle (c. 1210–30), thought to be composed by fundamentalist Cistercian monks. Cistercians were crusaders, dedicated to eradicating heretics. They despised women – some even argued against the existence of a female soul – and used the Arthurian tales as propaganda for the Christian religion. Morgan embodied everything that terrified them about the old forms of worship – a knowledgeable, gifted woman, unashamed of her flesh and desires, existing in a society that acknowledged a female presence. They twisted the benevolent character of Morgan Le Fay into a more sinister seductress and obsessive witch.

Using her looks and sexuality, she persuades Merlin to teach her the dark arts. She exposes Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot and later tries to seduce the knight. In the order’s later works, Morgan’s character becomes more overtly evil: she uses her powers to steal the magical sword Excalibur and its scabbard to use against Arthur and plots his downfall, only to be thwarted by the new witch Ninianne, the Lady of the Lake. However, at the end of Vulgate Cycle, Morgan is one of the ladies who escort Arthur on his final trip to Avalon.

By 1485, when the definitive Arthur book, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, appears, the Cistercian template is set. Malory’s Morgan is even more reductive. There is no affair that initiates her conflict with Guinevere; instead she’s just a fundamentally wicked person, malevolent, Arthur’s nemesis, a mistress of the dark arts, manifesting the medieval world’s fear of the knowledge and power of women.

In Germany, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was about to be published near-simultaneously and these books helped to whip up anti-magic fervour and presaged a spike in UK witch trials. One last vestige of Morgan’s earlier incarnation remains – she is permitted to transport Arthur’s body to Avalon.

Morgan has remained a powerful figure in literature – she appears in Italian Renaissance poems, French literature and English writer Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen. She has smouldered on the big screen, memorably portrayed by Helen Mirren in Excalibur (1981).

Her character is strong enough to bear endless reworking. The image of a sexually confident woman, clever, and gifted with magical healing abilities has been reimagined from benevolent to evil, yet still retains its power. Medieval authors turned Morgan into an evil, vengeful caricature – the only way they could deal with her independence, her power, her sexuality.

Sources: Warriors, Witches, Women

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Published – 1852

In 1852, the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. It is most likely the novel that had the greatest historic impact on American society. The novel depicted the plight of a slave family. It was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a mother of six. In the first year hundreds of thousands of copies were printed and ultimately millions of copies were sold. This helped solidify the opposition to slavery in the North. Its success in France and England served as a break in the inclination of the aristocracy in those countries to support the South during the war.

When Mrs. Stowe was introduced to President Lincoln, in 1862, he was heard to have said: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Virginia Woolf “On Writing“

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

~ Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929)

Notable Books of the Twenties: Passing – Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life ‘passing’ as a white woman. It’s also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being ‘found out’. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.

The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife’s background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family’s happiness. They soon become consumed by the other’s chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.

Notable Books of the Twenties: All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

All Quiet on the Western Front was a ground-breaking book that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found in it: war is hell, no matter what side you’re on. And Remarque’s remarkably humane account of life in the German trenches during the early days of the Western Front showed the English-speaking world, for the first time, what it was like for the soldiers who lived in the same mud but spilled different blood from the other side of the barbed wire.

Remarque became one of the most articulate spokesmen for his generation, one that, in his words, was ‘destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.’ It is widely thought to be one of the greatest books about the experiences of war ever written.

Notable Books of the Twenties: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence (1928)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn’t always happen after dark, here).

It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a ‘sacred text’ for British democracy and freedom of expression.

Notable Books of the Twenties: The Weary Blues – Langston Hughes (1926)

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes (1926)

The Weary Blues was the most important book by the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous author. Hughes rose to fame fast and furiously amid a cultural movement that marked the first time in US history that white America began to pay attention to African American literature. And with this collection of poems, he – alongside a handful of others – gave voice to a generation.

With his masterful use of language, tone and rhythms of jazz and blues music of the time, he spoke personally and powerfully to the experiences of Black Americans. While the titular The Weary Blues (included in poetry anthology Blues Poems) is his most famous poem, it is Our Land that contains one of the most memorable lines in 20th-century literature: “I, too, am America.”

Notable Books of the Twenties: The Trial – Franz Kafka (1925)

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

Kafka wrote the trial between 1914 and 1915, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after he died (mainly because his chronic self-esteem issues led him to make his best friend promise to burn his manuscripts after his death. Fortunately for the world, the friend ignored his dying wish). The Trial is a dark, melancholy story of confusion and existential dread, about a man suddenly arrested for a crime that’s never revealed to him.

The novel was one among a small oeuvre that compelled the poet WH Auden to call Kafka “the Dante of the 20th century.” The book, in short, encapsulated the growing fears of the time surrounding totalitarian oppression, alienation and bureaucracy in the modern world. And it’s influence on contemporary thinking was profound. We’re all conflicted, torn between worlds, trapped in situations from which we can’t escape. The Trial embodies that modern malaise, and even spawned a word for it (we all know it): Kafkaesque.

Lois Long “Lipstick” and Tables for Two at the New Yorker

On January 17th, 1920, when Prohibition became the law of the land, a new kind of woman was born; a woman who drank, smoked, and (gasp!) danced with members of the opposite sex in illegal watering holes known forever as “speakeasies.” No one, man or woman, described these dens in such delicious detail as The New Yorker magazine’s cabaret-reviewer and resident dancer til dawn, “Lipstick.” “Lipstick,” nom de plume of Connecticut-born Lois Long, was one of the original New Yorker contributors, along with such famous writers as Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, and Alexander Wollcott, and outlasted nearly all of them – her career at The New Yorker spanned nearly 45 years.

At age 23, Long began writing her column, “Tables for Two”,” reviewing nightclubs across the city (most of them situated between 42nd and 60th Streets), with the magazine footing the bill. The Tenement Museum does not cover such expenses for its employees, in case you were wondering. Long, taking over the column from a fellow who called himself “Top Hat,” chose to be known as “Lipstick.” Since her identity was hidden behind the page, she often had a bit of fun with her readers, describing herself as a plump middle-aged woman, or a distinguished gentleman. Long was a broad with a great sense of humor and adventure – perfect for 1920’s Manhattan.

Her nights were filled with jazz, gin, and jitterbugging, and all of it made it into her column, which became extremely popular. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, author of Flapper: Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Long’s exploits often found their way to the office: “She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ [the founder of the New Yorker] liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper.”

Source: tenement.org

Notable Books of the Twenties: Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

“We are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature,” Virginia Woolf told an audience a year before she published Mrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, to rapturous critical reception in 1925. She may not have been talking about her own work, but for the nearly one=hundred years since its publication, it has been near universally credited with changing the game of writing about the philosophy of life, high society, and most of all, the psychology of feminism.

Written in the same stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses, it follows Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society hostess in post-war England as she prepares to throw a lavish party, across a single day. “Mrs. Dalloway was the first novel to split the atom,” The Hours author Michael Cunningham famously wrote. “It is one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the twentieth century.”