Well, Rose Tremain did not come to visit us yesterday, because she is ill: it will be rescheduled*. This was not as much of a disappointment as it might have been, as it gave us an opportunity to really dismember Music and Silence without having to consider the feelings of its author. Although I imagine she’d have been able to take it.
I’ve read Music and Silence a couple of times: once around the time it came out – I’d have been 13 or so – when I was scandalised by Kirsten’s raunchy carrying-on, and could not believe that this filth was available to a mainstream audience, let alone to my mother’s book group. I was extremely taken by the strand with the tragic Italian countess and her husband’s mania to pin down the music he heard in a dream, but even at that age I found the lovely blonde couple Peter Claire and Emilia Tilsen pretty toothless.
This time – hmm. It was quite weird to come to this book, which is more or less a straight-up historical novel, after weeks of reading metafiction. It felt very peculiarly unchallenging. I wanted more – I wanted to be made to think harder, and to make larger discoveries. Some bits were great: I enjoyed King Christian’s company very much, and little Marcus was very singular and haunting. Kirsten’s voice is definitely the best thing about this novel. I liked the tight focus, the otherworldly feel, the peculiar details: I also kind of appreciated the fact that although we are told that this is a grand and busy court, we barely see it for ourselves:very part of the book is characterised by isolation and/or intimacy.
However, there were decisions that I really did not like. For example, Kirsten Munk and and Magdalena Tilsen, the two women who are presented as specifically sexy and/or enjoying sex, are also the Baddies. Magdalena is so very Bad that her sexuality spills over into semi-incest with her adolescent stepsons, and at the end (spoiler! sorry!) she has to die. Kirsten, too, gets her come-uppance, but her situation is ameliorated by the erotic attentions of two hunky black slaves without a word of Danish between them. I suppose Countess O’Fingal also gets her rocks off with a man who isn’t her husband, but since she’s getting punished on every page I don’t think you can argue that she gets away with it. Anyway, it’s kind of a mcguffin for Peter Claire to turn up at the Danish court all lovelorn.
It’s not exactly that these issues in themselves are troublesome for me, only that when we discussed this in class, the general feeling was that Tremain did not intend them to be interrogated. I don’t mind an evil-stepmother narrative and I definitely would be rather interested in seeing a displaced King’s wife treating her (male) human chattels as sex-objects – but Music and Silence does not seem (to me) to open up any discourse on this. Things are exactly as they look. There’s so much richness to this novel that it seems a bit of a waste for the final pay-off to be only that the attractive young couple, Peter and Emilia, get chastely together.
We’re in a position of privilege in that we can look back at history with a far greater respect for and understanding of women’s motives in general, and in this case particularly their sexuality. It’s historically accurate that Kirsten had an affair, which is definitely not a strategic move when you’re married to a King, and I was pleased that Tremain chose to give her a fully-developed and enjoyable erotic life over which she has control. But to also characterise her as feckless, selfish, unintelligent and irresponsible feels unimaginative to me. That’s exactly how history has always portrayed women who enjoy sex: if you are going to follow suit, why not at least hold this choice up to scrutiny? There is a really interesting conversation to be had here, and Tremain is surely skilful enough to have it.
Perhaps I’m overthinking this. There’s something to be said for a romp, after all, and I don’t think that every writer necessarily has a responsibility to challenge the status quo. But it would have made this novel about a million times more interesting.
*Malcolm Gaskill came in and talked to us for a bit instead. He was very interesting but am going to save that for another time – he’s coming back in a few weeks to do a session on the History of Emotions, which is a REAL area of research and one that sounds particularly exciting to the anthropologist in me.