by Isabel Allende
by Audrey Thomas
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|Old Strands Respun into New Tales
by Nancy Wigston
Audrey Thomas and Isabel Allende, two different but equally accomplished writers, pluck fictional characters from obscurity and present them centre stage in their latest novels. Perhaps this trend began with the dazzling disinterment of an intriguing minor character in Jean Rhys's 1966 novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. The Caribbean-born Rhys made a whole generation take a second look at the woman she called Antoinette Cosway, the "mad woman in the attic" from Charlotte Brontd's Jane Eyre. Rhys's portrait was not only dangerous and exciting; it also engendered a re-examination of the colonialism that had shaped Mr. Rochester's Creole wife, the creature he locked away in England like a dirty secret.
West coast writer Audrey Thomas similarly refashions a character called Tattycoram, who first appeared as a temperamental foundling, ultimately redeemed by her kind employers, in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit. A delight from start to finish, Thomas's novel-seemingly without effort-reinvents the Victorian genre, stripping away excess verbiage, removing the omniscient narrator, and giving us instead the voice of young Harriet Coram, an honest outsider in search of her identity. Having spent halcyon childhood years in the bosom of her wet nurse's family in the village of Shere, Harriet, a "child of shame", is forcibly removed to a foundling home in London. While she is still happy in the village, her foster grandfather, a blind woodcarver, makes a remark that rings with Freudian prescience: "What a child sees in the first six years of his life, he never forgets. . . It's in there, somewhere, and all he has to do is draw it out."
Harriet's memories are of village life, its changing seasons, its magical skies, the adventures she shared with big brother Sam and little brother Jonnie. These, and the kind ministrations of her foster mother and father, prove enough to sustain her when, as the law requires, she is returned to London. Not yet six, the child is seized and put on a cart with dozens of others. On arrival in the foundling home, she is issued a name, Harriet Coram, a number (19,176), and a uniform "made from heavy brown material that scratched [her] neck raw." Here she spends the next several years behind institutional walls. Receiving a basic education, she shows a talent for needlework, including crocheting and "tatting". Ladies and gentlemen visit for Sunday services, and the foundlings, including Harriet, sing hymns and are put on display for the gentry.
When a youthful Charles Dickens, a regular at the services, offers to hire her as a servant, innocent Hattie asks if he's her father. Dickens seems eager to help children who have been dealt a rotten hand by life; he takes the girl home to Doughty Street and his ever-pregnant wife, Catherine. Sensing a rival in the servant girl, Georgina, Mrs. Dickens's younger sister, invents the derogatory moniker "Tattycoram". In another scene Georgina taunts Harriet by waving a foundling's uniform under her nose, and saying that she intends to wear it as a fancy dress. The provoked servant dashes a china cup against the wall, a firing offence. But kind Mr. Dickens intervenes, telling her to count to "two-and-twenty" before losing her temper again. Still, he stores these tics and rivalries in his fertile brain for future use.
Harriet proves to be no mere servant; she goes on to teach in the village school, and to work at Urania Cottage, an institution established by Dickens and a wealthy benefactress to train young women who have strayed from the straight and narrow. Adhering to the old dictum that "character is fate", good things come Harriet's way. She's able to care for her mother in her last days, and she is reunited-however improbably-with her long-lost foster brothers Jonnie and Sam. Such happy episodes mirror the best of Dickens, and Thomas generously allows us to bask in her character's deserved good fortune.
At first it seems that the energetic Dickens owes no debt to the people who inspire his fiction. As he remarks of a fat cockney boy who guards the street entrance, "I conjure them up, and then, by God, they appear in real life! I must be more careful." It comes somewhat as a surprise, therefore, that late in Hattie's life, a second Little Dorrit character, an embittered grudge-holder named Elisabeth Avis-whom Harriet remembers from Urania Cottage-knocks on her door. Accompanied by a dwarfish male, Avis explains that she's planning a lawsuit against the author who has portrayed them unflatteringly. Before the novel can turn into Several Characters in Search of an Author, Harriet declines. But she does visit Mr. Dickens, with disastrous results. This witty and wise tale seems to suggest that a modest role-whether real or invented-if well and truly played, offers greater satisfaction than the more coveted, yet far more exhausting role of genius.
A similar message emerges in Zorro, a work that shares little else in common with Tattycoram. Thomas's Dickensian world of ordered interiors, human love and pettiness exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from this adventure tale, based on the 1919 pulp fiction classic about an American Robin Hood figure. Allende portrays the wide world of the Spanish empire in California, the open and dangerous seas, the grand houses and grander canvas of Spanish, American and European history. Yet irony is in the very air we breathe, and this novel about the altruistic swordsman called Zorro is at once a joyful rendering of a Boy's Own Adventure and an ironic commentary on soul-stirring romance. As Allende's anonymous narrator dryly comments, "Heroism is a badly remunerated occupation and often it leads to an early end." This witty narrator would doubtless agree that without irony this bildungsroman about a sword-toting acrobatic idealist would soon become unbearable.
Who is that "mysterious masked man astride his magnificent steed"? That description of the adult Zorro doesn't appear until page 381, Part Five. The novel unfolds in episodes that trace the growth of this captivating do-gooder. Diego de la Vega, the dashing offspring (except for his large ears-a typical Allende touch) of a Spanish administrator and his rebellious American-Indian wife, was born in late 18th century Alta, California. Allende seems to be having much scholarly fun writing her post-colonial variation on machismo heroics; her Zorro takes his name-Spanish for "fox"-from the animal that appears as his spirit guide during an Indian initiation ceremony, when .
Allende presents her tale as a series of high-spirited adventures starring Diego and Bernardo, his "milk brother" (they shared the same breast as infants), a full-blooded Indian. Starting in the San Gabriel Mission and the town of Pueblo de los Angeles, Allende eventually takes us to Barcelona, where the French under Napoleon are running the show; then back by ship to the Americas, stopping in Cuba and New Orleans; and finally home again to California. Along the way there are encounters with admirable priests, nasty bullies who grow into villains, wild bears, beautiful girls, smart but not-so-beautiful girls, gypsies, pilgrims, bandits, pirates, a voodoo priestess, and African slaves. Allende's challenge is to balance her portrait of a romantic avenging hero with what we now know of the cruel realities of the time. She partially addresses this problem by making her Zorro an idealistic boy well into middle age, one who is "obsessed with dispensing justice, in part because he has a good heart but more than anything because he so enjoys dressing up as Zorro and stirring up his cloak-and-dagger adventures." Meanwhile, his Indian milk-brother manages the estate and improves both of their fortunes.
Allende never fails to emphasize the suffering of colonized indigenous peoples during this period, while offering some heroic native figures-grandmother White Owl and her daughter (Diego's mother) are both shamans-as figures of hope. The sacred caves where the boys find refuge more than once, the magical healing and sleeping potions, all stem from Indian tradition. Similarly, in Europe, where the boys spend several years, help comes from the oppressed Roma people whom Diego and Bernardo befriend in Barcelona. This friendship later saves their lives. Although Zorro's early years tend to follow the arc of most adventure tales, Allende leavens the story's predictability with her gentle wit. Bernardo's Indian love, Light-in-the-Night, is described thus: "She was small for her age and she wore the pleasant expression of a squirrel." In a sterner judgment, Diego's mother tries, but fails to adjust to her husband's "language of harsh consonants, to his chiselled-in-stone ideas, to his dark religion, to the thick walls of his house." The oppressive walls of houses form an ongoing motif in the novel; Allende paints many a scene with Zorro making his way along pitch-dark corridors and through dank secret rooms to free the prisoners within.
When the adventures start, inevitably, to pall, the narrator slips us slyness and humour that match the power of White Owl's potions. More secret even than Zorro's, the narrator's identity is eventually unmasked-though as Allende writes, "unless you are very inattentive readers, you have undoubtedly divined" this chronicler's name. Just as Zorro and his friends rescue the suffering and the unfairly imprisoned, the narrator rescues the narrative whenever it seems at risk of sinking under the weight of heroic predictability. For instance, the introduction to Zorro's adolescence contains these observations: "Childhood is a miserable period filled with unfounded fears...from the literary point of view it has no suspense, since children tend to be a little dull." Of course Diego's childhood has been anything but dull-among other things, he and Bernardo capture a bear and survive a brutal attack by pirates-but the postmodern irony is more than welcome to readers jaded with the pure-heartedness of it all. "I am encouraged to continue. I do so with a light heart since you have read this far." Allende knows just when to give us a wink, as it were, across the centuries, ensuring our continuing commitment to her revisionist version of an old, but never tired, tale of heroism and the pursuit of justice.