Saturday, December 31, 2011

Petals on the Wind: Baseless Speculation on Andrews, Education, and the Rise of the Boarding School from Hell

We're getting up on Carrie's time in the Boarding School from Hell.  The following was originally appended to that review, but it ran a little long, so I'm putting it here.  It's mostly my thoughts upon V.C. Andrews and a recurrent motif.

Andrews herself suffered a crippling back injury while still in high school.*  She spent the rest of her teenage years--and indeed, the rest of her life--at home with her mother.  Andrews was academically gifted while in school, skipping a couple of grades and winning a scholarship.  After leaving school, she received an art degree via correspondence course, and later she became a very well-read, self-educated woman.  But she never had the full experience of public education, which at that time had only recently become a widespread, mandatory thing.  Mandatory public education through high school was a huge step in creating the modern concept of the teenager, of extended childhood, and of youth culture; prior to then, you only went to high school if you intended to go to college.  In a way, Andrews was a girl interrupted, cut off from that important source of social interaction, peer groups, and popular culture.     
Likewise, her heroines tend to hang around the house a lot.  They pass through school completely unscathed, with no friends, homework, extra-curricular activities, or diplomas to show for it.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but school just isn't as interesting as staying home and fucking your brother.  As if to compensate, all her heroines invariably have innate skills that make education redundant.  Cathy is naturally good at dancing, even without formal training.  Audrina's intuition allows her to successfully game the stock market.**  Heaven, the only one who seriously pursues education, happens to be so bright that she can cruise through school without much effort, leaving her time open for sexy plot-related pursuits.

It became something of an Andrews cliche--the What Amazing Talent Will This Heroine Have? game--but considering that the author herself became an extremely successful author and artist without the benefit of education and everything that comes with it, perhaps this was an aspect that Andrews took for granted. 

Cathy's entire high school experience (and her ballet training) is summed up with a few generic, easily-skimmed paragraphs.  She makes exactly one friend, who is never mentioned again.  Audrina, whose stated life-goals include attending school like a normal girl, spends one chapter establishing that school does, in fact, exist.  Later in the same chapter, she also makes a single friend, whose name we never learn.

Heaven, who latches onto education as the only way of ever improving her lot in life, has several scenes of the children at school and includes an almost pathetically heartrending description of her gratitude at receiving special permission to take schoolbooks home to study.  The book even devotes time to Heaven's teacher, who has taken a personal interest in Heaven's family situation.  It's significant as one of the few times in the novels where an adult female is portrayed as anything other than a threat to the heroine.  As soon as Heaven is removed from that situation, however, her education becomes so much wallpaper, to only emerge again when she herself experiences the Boarding School from Hell.

Finally, in almost every book, the Andrews heroine ends up completely marginalizing both her magical, special talent and her education simply because her family is always, always rich.  She never needs to work for a living.  The "magical talent" becomes a sideline, a hobby.  Cathy probably comes closest to actually using her talent for profit when she becomes a successful stage performer, and later teaches ballet to children, but by the time she is a full adult, her husband supports the family.  It's kind of a let-down, really.  One of the reasons we presumably root for these women is because they do have something special to give to the world.  To have their hard work undermined by something as crass as millions upon millions of dollars kind of gives an idea of the true value of their talent: rather than unlimited wealth freeing them to pursue their dreams, the heroines simply give up their dreams in exchange for a life amongst the leisure class.

One could argue that this is also the primary lesson of the entirety of Flowers in the Attic: that the children, as well as their mother, were willing to sacrifice something intangible and precious--their normal lives--in exchange for a shot at never having to work for a living, and the subsequent danger and emptiness of that decision.  It's hard to say if this lesson, coming as it does from a woman who did make a successful career of what could arguably be described as her art, is meant to be a warning to us all, or if it is uncomfortably cold, cynical, and unsettling.

*Andrews constantly gave out in interviews that she was twenty years younger than she was, a fiction that would have made her about sixteen in the early 1960s . . . thus making her precisely Cathy's age. If any of you ever wondered if Cathy was supposed to be an analogue for the author, consider that suspicion confirmed.

**More fun facts: V.C. Andrews herself was an avid player of the stock market.  She had a ticker machine installed in her mother's home and frequently relied on her own "intuition" to make successful investments.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Petal on the Wind, Part Three: Every Man in This Book is a Freakin' Rapist

I, um, kind of had a complete meltdown in this section?  I apologize in advance, and really, I tried to make it as relevant as possible to the subject at hand, since it touched on a theme that is going to carry on through the remainder of . . . well, all of the books.  Because when I say "every man in this book is a rapist," I'm not talking in the Andrea Dworkin all-sex-is-rape sense.  I mean that literally every man in this book is a freakin' rapist.  

Wait, I take it back.  There is one man who is not a freakin' rapist.  But he's very much a sideline character, he only appears for one chapter, and he vanishes without a trace immediately afterwards.  I say this like he's some big mystery character, but really, he's just so inconsequential that I can't be arsed.*

So, in a nutshell, we're going to be talking about rape, a conversation that was bound to happen considering that every man in this book is a freakin' rapist.  I don't know how we avoided it this long, honestly.